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Harmonious Disparity: Watercolors and Sculptures in Buffalo Spree

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Harmonious disparity: Watercolors and sculptures by Ellen Steinfeld

The title of Ellen Steinfeld’s pleasingly installed Burchfield Penney exhibition is Suspended Motion. Steinfeld is as adept at meeting the unyielding demands of welded steel as she is at handling the delicate fluidity of watercolor. As polar-opposite as these media seem, there is a pleasantly surprising continuity between the sculptures and paintings. Both effectively merge biomorphic and geometric forms with lively abstract gesture.

Steinfeld’s work is firmly rooted in modernist traditions. Her watercolors, with their vibrant hues and frenetic movement, are reminiscent of Orphism, a brief early twentieth-century art movement led by such artists as František Kupka and Robert and Sonia Delaunay. They also recall the abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky, who explored the emotional and perceptual dynamics of color, and the later lyrical work of Arshile Gorky.

In works like Spring—an exhibition highlight—the artist displays some of the animated energy and aural symbolism of the museum’s namesake, watercolorist Charles Burchfield. These paintings explode with chromatic energy, despite—or perhaps because of—the generous use of black and other muted tones, which serve to heighten the brilliant hues.

Steinfeld’s vertically oriented sculptures employ curvilinear movement and simple geometric form to express the motion of dance or the rhythm of music, and other more intangible concepts. Sculptures such as Pirouette are presumably intended to suggest specific movements through space. The arcs, spirals, disks, and other forms that make up this work might suggest the circular twirling of a dancer, in the same sense that Brancusi’s Bird in Space looks nothing like a bird, and is clearly not in space, but you get the idea.

You can trace the lineage of these works back to artists like David Smith and Anthony Caro, not to suggest that Steinfeld is not original, or as original as anyone can be working with the visual vocabulary of modern abstraction. Steinfeld puts her own stamp on these modernist tropes, particularly with her distinctive use of color.

In the 1950s, David Smith argued in favor of adding color to steel sculpture. At the time, this notion was seen as a violation of the purity of the medium, and the art -ist didn’t live to see painted steel become standard practice among sculptors. For Steinfeld, surface color plays an integral role, ranging as it does from pleasingly subtle monotone to polychromatic exuberance.

The trick to working within established modernist traditions is doing it well. When you walk in the footprints of giants, it’s easy to trip. Steinfeld’s sure-footed command of her media and adroit sense of design deliver. These are not pretentious works; they break no new ground, but they succeed as solidity crafted creations of a sure and capable artist.

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Buffalo Spree.