“Inside/Outside/On the Wall”

Riverdale, New York

Hebrew Home for the Aged

Joel Perlman, High Circle, 1997. Steel, 120 x 60 x 48 in.

The Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale occupies a beautiful site in the northwest corner of the Bronx, where it sits overlooking the Hudson River. For several decades the Home has housed a collection of 20th-century art, which now includes such artists as Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Picasso, and Marc Chagall. Susan Putterman, who is curator of the Home’s collection, has written that because it would be difficult, and in many cases, virtually impossible, for its residents to visit museums, the Home created a museum accessible to everyone. Art lines the walls of the buildings, and outside there is, among the trees and winding paths, a sculpture garden, where a number of works in the show “Inside/Outside/On the Wall” were found. The exhibition, organized and curated by Putterman, included the work of 12 contemporary sculptors: Louise Bourgeois, Lawrence Fane, Harry Gordon, Nancy Graves, Richard Heinrich, Mel Kendrick, Louise Nevelson, John Newman, Tom Otterness, Joel Perlman, Joel Shapiro, and George Sugarman. As the title of the show explains, the work was exhibited inside and outside the Home’s buildings, in some cases hung as relief sculptures on the walls of the buildings.

Putterman has done a very good job of showing off the talents of more than a few working artists, in an environment which posed some challenges to the display of art: while sometimes the nursing home atmosphere slightly distracted this viewer from focusing on the works on view, the large-scale sculptures shown on the Home’s lawn were nothing short of spectacular; their monumentality took on an even greater grandeur when compared with the marvelous backdrop of the Hudson River and cliffs of New Jersey’s Palisades across the water. The idea of bringing art into the lives of the elderly is powerfully creative, seeing as the appreciation of art is very much the concern of everyone, no matter their age or condition of health. The aged, who must in some ways be emotionally vulnerable given their late-life circumstances in an institution, surely found the works in Putterman’s intelligent show an inspiration; it is not too much to say that, in such a setting as the Home, art necessarily possesses a therapeutic and healing quality. This is not the same set of qualities one usually attributes, as an art professional, to an exhibition, but to the credit of “Inside/Outside/On the Wall” the show also came together as a well-mused review of the state of contemporary sculpture.

Inside the Home were a number of striking works, including efforts by Nancy Graves and Mel Kendrick. Graves’s piece, a typically exuberant amalgam of different patterns of open-faced metal, including staves and musical notes rendered in steel, underscored her creativity and light-hearted intelligence. And Kendrick’s towers of cut wood, rising above six feet, had the quality of blocks put together by a child; the individual pieces carried each other upward, in a statement whose expressiveness seems aligned to the possibility that the whole ensemble of forms is capable of falling apart in a moment. Larry Fane’s three wooden works, idiosyncratic pieces based on historical researches into engineering designs done during the Renaissance, may be considered personal and enigmatic. Fane, who makes good use of idiosyncrasy, charms the viewer into speculation about whether these eccentrically shaped forms have a practical application. And John Newman’s strange hybrid forms are organic, Surrealist interpretations of sculpture; they are oddly satisfying in their eclecticism, even though they make little literary or figurative sense.

Outside, the larger sculptures held up despite the competing, spectacular views of the Hudson. George Sugarman’s Ariel (1994), eight feet long, high, and wide, consists of flat ribbons of white steel, which undulate and soar off in different directions. A sculpture of interesting complexity, Ariel communicates movement and formal verve in an environment in which high energy is needed to stand up to the attractions of nature. Joel Perlman’s High Circle (1997), a Cubist-oriented steel sculpture of interlocking circles and planes, echoed in its verticality the trees that are part of the Home’s setting. Perlman has been able to create the sense of just-stopped motion, the individual parts of the sculpture only just saved from flying off into entropic oblivion. An untitled work from 1991 by Joel Shapiro reprises his penchant for sculpture that may be read as either figurative or abstract; this piece looks very much like a person extending his legs while following some sort of exercise movement. Tom Otterness, a favorite of this writer, offered The Tree of Knowledge (1997), with a figure at the top of the tree being addressed by a snake; a sloth hanging by its tail from a branch reads a book, and a cat sits near the base of the trunk. Otterness, always an allegorical and symbolic artist, addresses a biblical story essential to our culture with elegance and wit.

Louise Bourgeois contributed an enigmatic work titled The Blind Leading the Blind (1947–49), which consists of a double row of thin columns linked by three long bronze beams; some of the columns and beams have a red patina, some have a black patina. The work has a slight air of figurative menace, like many of Bourgeois’s sculptures.

In general, “Inside/Outside/On the Wall” was a compelling show of contemporary sculpture, giving the viewer the chance to contemplate accomplished work in a variety of settings. As a venue, the Home is an intriguing place, providing its elderly with the chance to experience good art; as I walked through the institution’s halls and campus, the relations between its inhabitants and new artwork seemed mutually supportive. Putterman’s mission—to bring art to people who otherwise would not be able to travel to see it—is to be commended, as should be the individual pieces and ensemble effect of her successful show.