The Bennington Legacy: Sculpture by Willard Boepple, Isaac Witkin, and James Wolfe

  • NEW YORK, New York
  • /
  • April 14, 2015

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Bennington College Photography by Cynthia Lockin, courtesy of the Bennington College archives

Tower 49 Gallery will present The Bennington Legacy: Sculpture by Willard Boepple, Isaac Witkin, and James Wolfe, co-curated by Tower 49 Gallery Director, Ai Kato and critic and curator, Karen Wilkin. The Bennington Legacy traces the lineage of a group of influential artists and teachers who were associated with the abstract modernist movement at the eponymous college, located in Bennington, VT, from the early 60s through the 80s. This exhibition will present a selection of mostly newer sculptures and monoprints by three artists from the younger Bennington generation who embodied and subsequently expanded the legacy of their predecessors. An opening reception will be held on April 29th from 5:30 to 8:30pm in Tower 49 Gallery’s lobbies and two public plazas, located at 12 E. 49th St. NY, NY.

By the 1960s, the picturesque New England town of Bennington, VT had become a hub for prominent artists, with Bennington College hosting exhibitions for Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. The school was also alma mater for Helen Frankenthaler, and employed Paul Feeley, Anthony Caro, and Jules Olitski, who taught in the art department. Artists David Smith, Kenneth Noland and critic Clement Greenberg visited Bennington frequently and were considered part of the local art community.

The proximity and proliferation of these artists working together during such an important time in the history of modernism provided a fertile environment for younger artists to reconsider earlier definitions of painting and sculpture and further the school’s legacy. Co-curator and author of the Bennington Legacy catalogue essay, Karen Wilkin, describes that legacy by explaining that the artists “were generally committed to abstraction and to the fundamental belief that any painting or sculpture had to be alive. That is to say, it didn't have to look like anything that already existed in our world, but it had to have the presence of something real and demand our attention in the same way.”

Isaac Witkin, who was known for his formalist abstractions, was invigorated by the forms and structures working in steel allowed him to experiment with, as well as the medium’s seeming contradictions—delicacy and volume, fragility and strength. His piece, Shogun (1968), which will be displayed in Tower 49’s outdoor public plaza, elegantly captures the gravity-defying, delicately balanced volumetric forms that typify Witkin’s work at the time.

Witkin’s sculpture assistant in the late 60’s, and the individual credited with teaching him the technical aspects of welding, was the young artist James Wolfe. Having developed these skills as a Technical Director and theater set builder, it wasn’t until his position as Witkin’s assistant that Wolfe began to explore sculpture as open, abstract construction. Originally volumetric, Wolfe’s sculptures developed over time through a method the artist refers to as “drawing in steel”. Pieces such as “Could Be” and “Just Right” appear weightless and in motion; sinuous and flowing ribbons of brightly colored, powder coated steel twist and turn as though floating on air.

Following Wolfe as Witkin’s assistant in 1969, Willard Boepple was a young painter who immediately took to welding under Witkin’s tutelage. Planar and openly constructed, Boepple’s sculptures, such as this exhibition’s “Heath” and “Ever”, reference objects of utility—ladders, shelves, scaffolds—as the artist puts it, “things the body uses”. Most recently, Boepple returned to his roots as a painter to create a series of monoprints constructed of planar layers of color. Tower 49 Gallery will present a selection of 18 monoprints from 2014 alongside Boepple’s sculptures.

With similar practices yet distinctly divergent approaches, The Bennington Legacy presents the work of three artists whose intertwined histories and shared commitment to abstraction furthered a tradition of redefining what painting and sculpture could be.


Tags: ceramics

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