Cologne Construct 16, 1995. Steel, 19 x 17 x 12 in.

Fletcher Benton: Indifference to the Absolute

Fletcher Benton was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2008. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

For more than three decades, Fletcher Benton has been refining and redefining geometric sculpture. The result is one of the major oeuvres of our era. In art, geometry is nearly always on appeal to timeless absolutes. Benton’s brilliance shoes in his indifference to the absolute – or, to put it positively, in his tireless responsiveness to the contingencies of experience. For him, geometric form is not so much abstract as immediate, resourceful, alive. From blunt simplicity, he generates vital complexity. From weightiness, he generates buoyancy. From disparity, unity.

Benton calls himself “a builder.” His material is steel. His forms are geometric: planar, angular, circular. This material and these forms imply modernity. Steel, after all, did not become a common industrial material until the middle of the 19th century. Geometric forms, on the other hand, provide the structural premises of just about every building ever built, including the simplest hut. Over the millennia, however, layers of ornamentation have obscured the builder’s geometry of plane and rectangle and occasional circle. Not until the Industrial Revolution, with its demand for strictly utilitarian interiors, did builders allow geometric form to stand forth in all its stark clarity. A warehouse from the early 1800s can have the look of a square building block topped by a triangular one.

Cologne Construct Relief: Ode to Kandinsky 7, 1997. Steel, 21 x 21 x 6 in.

These developments did not affect the art of sculpture until the early decades of the 20th century. Prompted by the quasi-abstractions of the Cubist painters, certain European sculptors dismissed the ancient understanding of sculpture as the representation of familiar forms, chiefly the organic articulations of the human body. Their sculpture would acknowledge – it would be built of – the blunt, geometric forms that modern technology and building practices had made increasingly visible during the previous century. Still a place of cathedrals and marble statues, the landscape of Western culture now included vast, unadorned factories and mills, as well as bridges with the look of Euclidean theorems demonstrated in beams of steel.

Liberated from old forms and materials, these new sculptors – often called Constructivists – felt free to redefine art and its purposes. They would produce no easily recognized images. Yet they did not completely eradicate representation. Perhaps that was not their aim. In any case, Naum Gabo and a few other Constructivist sculptors set the elements of their works in motion with small motors. The resemblance to industrial machinery was unmistakable. In retrospect, it looks entirely intentional. There was something compelling about the idea of a sculpture as a non-utilitarian machine: an engine for generating aesthetic experience. As the decades went by, a few geometric sculptors kept this option quietly alive. Then, in the 1960s, it exploded into an international movement: kinetic sculpture.

Half Pipe 3, 1999. Steel with patina, 43 x 13 x 4.5 in.

As fresh as Op or Pop or Minimalism, kinetic sculpture quickly found an enthusiastic audience. Among the movement’s most prominent members was Fletcher Benton, then in the early 30s. For more than a decade, he produced geometries that move. His inventiveness increased from year to year and then, in 1973, came to a sudden halt. As a kinetic sculptor, he had brought one implication of Constructivism into sharp, brilliant focus. Stepping back and taking up the tools of a builder in steel, brilliant focus. Stepping back and taking up the tools of a builder in steel, he reinvented the full implications of Constructivism – of constructed metal sculpture – on his own terms. As I’ve suggested, this new beginning led to one of our era’s major bodies of work.

Benton’s sculptures tend to be large, even monumental. But large or small, their meanings are boundless. Each work begins with a series of practical decisions. The initial premise might be a single sheet of steel. Or it might be impossible to say which of several forms we are to consider as the first – a circle, a ball, or one of several long, elegantly curving strips. I am thinking of Botanical Rose, a tall, slim sculpture from 1993. You could say that the ball is primary, the circle provides it with its immediate support, and the strips are like limbs and spine – a body supporting a head. A less figurative reading might rearrange these priorities. Wherever interpretation might lead, one arrives at a sense of a configuration having emerged over time, as disparities were induced to complement one another. Benton persuades geometric elements to operate in unison, having worked through their differences – and few differences are more salient than the ones that distinguish flatness from volume, straight line from curve.

Cologne Construct 17, 1995. Steel, 20 x 16 x 12 in.

Of course, we can never know the steps that brought a sculpture to its final form. Still, Benton makes it possible to imagine the conflicts that animated the struggle. From a sense of the whole, we intuit what was at stake in the placement of each part. Seeing the finished work as a unity at the quiet center of the present we share with it, we sense the history of its coming into being. This history gives it an aura – a light and an atmosphere – distinctively its own.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, Benton’s Constructivist predecessors tries to give their works the look of rarefied machinery, industrial forms freed from the exigencies of industry. At its most highly conceptualized, a Constructivist sculpture might allude to a physicist’s model of the atomic structure of matter. Guided less by concept than by feeling, Benton is more in tune with music than with science and industry. Treating his basic forms as notes, he composes “with timing, with repetition, with beat, with all the things that go into music.”

Folded Circle Broken Line, 1993. Cor-ten steel, 114 x 108 x 108 in.

This comment of Benton’s helps us see a work like Steel Watercolor: 2 Cubes with Ring (1996) as an intricate riff, its circular curves modulating into a zigzag that turns into a curve of a different, less enclosed kind. Yet there is a danger in concentrating too exclusively on the musical complexities of Benton’s art. Music verges on immateriality. Benton works with the obdurate materiality of steel. He is an engineer, as he must be if his sculptures are to stand rather than collapse. Yet his engineering is as improvisational as jazz musician’s treatment – reinvention – of a standard melody. Even his monumental works ask for an immediate response. Not a quick response, but one that is immediate by virtue of staying in the present, alive to the object of contemplation. Ideally, our response would extend the present as long as necessary for a sculpture in all its complexity to become as familiar as the simple geometries from which the sculptor built it. The grand intricacies of Benton’s art are not intended to overawe us. They are intended to make sense – sculptural, gestural, musical sense – and to encourage us to be aware of what it is to find meaning in our experience.

Within a single sculpture, there can be great differences in scale. For example, small wedges, cylinders, or blocks sometimes mark the intersection of major forms. Though these elements sometimes look like structural necessities, Benton could get by without them – but only if he were a designer, not a sculptor. The necessities that matter to him are visual, not utilitarian, and he can never know in advance what they are. For sculptural imperatives cannot be stated as axioms. The sculptor must discover them experimentally, as he works. Once he has settled on a few large forms – a sculpture’s basic premises – Benton looks for the overall structure that will bring them into harmony. Smaller forms can have the function of exclamation points, emphasizing some subtlety of organization. Slowing vision, so that the sense of resolution doesn’t arrive too quickly, these elements work like commas or even semi-colons.

One-Legged Table: S and X, 1990. Steel, 127 x 110 x 48 in.

Staking out extremes of scale and form, Benton implies every gradation in between. Thus he presents a concise invocation of all the disparity, all the difference, there is. Having invoked the world, he finds equally concise ways to suggest that reconciliation of its differences. Concision is a form of wit, and Benton’s is endlessly resourceful. His placements of small elements often have the tone of elegant, insightful one-liners. When medium-sized forms assemble, one thinks of fast-moving repartee. And when he ascends to monumentality, he becomes a logician finding new and surprising solutions to longstanding problems.

From physical contingencies, Benton builds aesthetic necessities. What keeps his sculptures alive is his refusal to let necessity look ponderous, or smugly resolved. Because he allows hints of chaos and disintegration to infiltrate his configurations, we see balance teased with the possibility of unbalance. We see large forms at the mercy of much smaller forms. He plays sober, weighty block off thin, soaring – even flighty – curves and zigzags. Thus he shows us that there is nothing inevitable about sculptural necessity. It much be won from the force of mundane disorder, and once the victory is achieved in on sculpture, it must be achieved anew in the next one. Each of Benton’s sculptures finds its own balance, at once solidly resolved and alive with a sense of precariousness just barely overcome. Thus he suspends his forms between two states: levitation and collapse, defiance of gravity and submission to it.

Block on Blocks: Two on Two, Two Balls, 1997. Steel with patina, 136 x 98 x 57 in.

Weightless and weighty, monumental and intimate, abstract and obliquely figurative, his sculptures reconcile opposites – or, it might be better to say, seeming opposites, for our immediate experience is of an intricate unity. To look further is to see conflict, to see it resolved, and to sense a work’s power to engage its surroundings. Despite the complexity of their internal relations, these sculptures are not self-involved – or not entirely, though a Modernist ideal of autonomy, of absolute purity, hovers in their background. Constructivism understood abstraction as a means of severing art’s connection with ordinary life, of giving form the power to transcend familiar meanings and concerns. Place a Benton sculpture against that historical backdrop, and it will look as autonomous, as disengaged, as a work by Gabo or Antoine Pevsner or any other proponent of Constructivist purity. If, however, we take a larger view, we will see Benton’s art finding its way into the world, into the space of down-to-earth experience. There, its abstract purity takes on a new and richer meaning. Its autonomy gives up its narrowly aesthetic significance and becomes an invocation of an abiding ideal: the self-sufficiency of the individual. Benton celebrates individuality itself, the self-reliance that makes it possible for him to be an artist and for all of us to realize, in some degree, our best hopes for ourselves.

At the beginning of his career, Benton was swept up in the excitement of the 1960s. As kinetic sculptor, he contributed to that excitement. Then he rediscovered the traditional – the perennial – the stasis of sculpture. He taught himself, through experiment, that the movement of the sculptural object is more powerful when it is not actual but virtual. Not literal but imagined. For that is the power of Benton’s works, to activate the imagination and to keep it in motion, in ever-widening patterns. From an appreciation of his formal wit, his command of structural possibility, we advance, sooner or later, to larger meanings. In an interview with Paul Karlstrom, of the Archives of American Art, Benton said, “I think artists becomes artists – those who stick it out – because they want to be… 100 percent responsible for their actions… responsible from beginning to end for every single decision.” Thus, as I suggested, his sculptures become emblems of the independent, fully realized individual. Benton’s ideal of the completely responsible self may be utopian but it is not irrelevant. It is by such ideals that we measure and thus come to know ourselves.

Steel Watercolor 64, 1996. Steel, 28 x 13 x 10 in.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and critic. He recently curated the exhibition “Marisol Works 1960-2007” for the Neuhoff Edelman Gallery in New York, and his most recent book is Arrivederci, Modernismo (Libellum Press, 2007).