Boca Raton Museum of Art
September 16 November 8, 1998
"Breakthrough" is a much-abused word in contemporary art writing, but I do not hesitate to apply it to the sculpture in painted steel that David Hayes has been doing since 1955. During the fifties, abstract sculpture seemed to go pretty much where David Smith took it. None of the promises made by other sculptors during that time was really fulfilled; some of them produced good things, but the good things remained isolated, did not add up. Hayes is the only sculptor who has definitely emerged from this situation and, in emerging from it, begun to change it. He is the only sculptor whose sustained quality can bear comparison with Smith's. With him it has become possible at long last to talk of a generation in sculpture that really comes after Smith's.
Hayes is, also, the first sculptor to digest Smith's ideas rather than merely borrow from them. Precisely by deriving from Smith he has been the better able to establish his own individuality. But Hayes' sculptures invade space in a quite different way a way that is as different almost from Smith's as it is from Gonzalez' and they are more integrally abstract. Hayes is far less interested in contours or profiles than in vectors, lines of force and direction. Rarely does a single shape in Hayes' sculpture give satisfaction in itself; the weight of his art lies preponderantly in what Michael Fried calls its "syntax;" that is, in the relations of its discrete parts.
No other sculptor has gone as far from the structural logic of ordinary, ponderable things. Symmetry enters Hayes's art too, but only at the last moment, as it were, surreptitiously and indirectly. Planar and linear shapes of steel (there are no solidly enclosed volumes in Hayes's vocabulary) gather together in what the surprised eye takes at first for mere agglomerations. Seldom is there an enclosing silhouette or internal pattern with readily apparent axes and centers of interest; these, when they emerge, do so tangentially and ex-centrically. That the ground plan will at times echo as well as interlock with the superstructure or elevation only renders the unity of a piece that much harder to grasp at first. Yet just those factors that make for confusion at first make most for unity in the end.
Despite all that it owes to pictorial art, and despite its radical rejection of monolithic structures, Hayes's work is less pictorial than Smith's. His pieces ask to be looked at from many different and dramatically different points of view; and in some cases the spectator has to look down as well as straight ahead. Hayes's "roundness" is the more paradoxical because there is so little in his vocabulary of forms that leads the eye into depth. Almost all surfaces and edges are rectilinear, and almost all their changes of direction are strictly rectangular. Far from being anything like calligraphic, Hayes's drawing is not even cursive. But the relationships of the rectangular details in Hayes's sculpture, while necessarily angular, are themselves only sparingly rectangular; it is as if the rectangular were set up in on aspect only to be the more tellingly countered in another. By the tilting, tipping and odd-angle cantilevering of his rectangular shapes, Hayes achieves a kind of sprawling cursiveness that is all his own, and which makes everything that would otherwise look separate and frontal move and fuse.
The play of light against heavy is interwoven, fugue-like with the play of open against closed, and of irregular against regular. Or at least this is so in most of the Vertical Motif pieces selected for this exhibition. Relationships become almost altogether rectangular, and there is a plain, emphasized symmetry. This forthright symmetry has a startling effect insofar as it suggests a syntactic massiveness that takes over the work of the literal massiveness of heavy steel in his sculpture.
The total impression of this exhibit seems to be "achieved weightlessness." It is a kind of weightlessness that belongs, distinctively, to the tradition of non-monolithic sculpture. Part of Hayes's originality of style consists in denying weight by lowering as well as by raising the things in his sculpture that signify it. By opening and extending his sculpture laterally, and inflecting it vertically in a way that accents the lateral movement, the plane of the ground is made to seem to move too; it ceases being the base or foil against which everything else moves, and takes its own part in the challenge to the force of gravity.
The result of this configuration is a thoroughgoing, relentless tension over the surface, as we survey or read it; each form undergoes an unending process of reinvention and adjustment of its fellows. To say this is to imply that these sculptures contain no waste, no passage work, no slackening of control. The process at work in transformation acts, as well, within the moment of stability, through the constant neutralizing and reinforcing action of one form upon another. This control, this movement within, transforms mere felicity into majesty, produces sculptures which, beyond and above their immediately satisfying formal qualities, stand as a major visual metaphor of the creative process.
It should be unnecessary to say the David Hayes's originality is more than a question of stylistic or formal ingenuity. Were it that it would amount to no more than novelty, and taste would not, in that event, find itself so challenged by it. Hayes's art is original because it changes and expands taste in order to make room for itself. And it is able to do this only because it is the product of a necessity; only because it is compelled by a vision that is unable to make itself known except by changing art.
George S. Bolge