Tom Doyle in Germany 1964–65
New YorkZürcher Gallery
September 16 – November 10, 2021
While on a residency in Kettwig Germany, Tom Doyle spent a year experimenting with adding color to his work. It was a risky proposition, and as Kirsten Swenson writes in her introduction to the exhibition catalog, Doyle “did not expect [the] work to leave Germany.” The New York art scene was in the throes of transition between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, and a gesture as radical as adding color to one’s sculpture could be viewed as a career altering move—or possibly even a career-ending one. For Doyle it was only temporary. The artist returned to wood and stone as his base materials when he returned to New York, leaving behind the colorful, found-object work he fashioned in Kettwig, though his piece Over Owl’s Creek (1966, not in the exhibition) which was Doyle’s contribution to the legendary Primary Structures show at The Jewish Museum, grows out of the Kettwig series.
Doyle’s German sculptures are bright and gangly objects that play with metal’s ability to function best in suspension. Narrow and delicate bands or rods of steel support abstract forms and shells of masonite. The works are alive with literal tension, and the color is used to great effect on the sail or wing-like masonite extensions. Were the sculptures simply the colors of the metal and wood they would loom, but in bright and glistening reds, yellows, and greens, they float. Swallows Swoop Shiloh (1964–65) is an intimidating vertical piece that stands on yellow metal footing, rises into a bulkier white wooden abdomen, and is then capped with a shiny and reflective folded steel visor. It plays with numerous visual puns—the thin steel base focuses the massing of the sculpture on the more prominent white body and steel, leaving the impression of a floating reflective object. But Doyle has sabotaged this sensation by painting the base bright yellow, forcing the eye to acknowledge the presence of this appendage. The color choices—yellow, white, and silver—seem to demand that the mind search for an analog in the natural world: a bird perhaps, the title nudges us in that direction? Shanandoah (1964–65) is similarly a bundle of opposing impressions: a winsome green metal armature supports three firehouse red forms, which seem to flail like wings or arms. The top form, an irregular red trapezoid, is crowned by a matte reflective found aluminum circle. Viewed from one angle, Shanandoah is clearly a saint with a milled aluminum halo, but Doyle cheekily asks us to imagine what a halo looks like from the side, which renders his red saint more of a flapping rooster.
Of all the works in the exhibition, Rally Al Round (1964-65) situates this brief interlude in Doyle’s practice in its most fitting historical context: the wonderland of geometry and collage of Constructivism. A central green column supports a hybrid object seemingly consisting of a yellow megaphone and complementary black triangular form. This horizontally focused composition is diffused by a green “head” perched on a narrow “neck” emerging straight up from the joint where megaphone intersects column. The form has the spontaneity and enthusiasm of a Rodchenko or Lissitzky construction, and Doyle has given it the added radicality of movement. The yellow horn revolves around the green column, giving it a multi-directionality referred to in the title.
In the end, the pieces were too figurative and playful to be acceptable in Abstract Expressionist circles, and not referential enough for Pop Art. Doyle opted for more monumental and primal works which grew out of his materials’ natural proclivities to organically grow, lean, and splinter. In the context of his career, these works are a wonderful and uplifting momentary aberration, like someone bursting out in laughter in the middle of mass.