Circle Dance: The Art of John T. Scott

by Richard J. Powell


Among the adjectives that art historians and critics have used to describe the art of the 1980s, playful is one that, while often deployed to describe postmodern architecture, rarely gets used with any level of earnestness in connection with sculpture. Many sculptors whose works achieved notoriety in the 1980s -- Robert Arneson, Jonathan Borofsky, Barry Flanagan, Jeff Koons, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Judy Pfaff, Martin Puryear, Kiki Smith, among others -- could be portrayed as having approached their respective media and subjects with significant degrees of freedom and conscious abandon -- creative modes that have come to epitomize the art and culture that was produced in the United States during these years. John T. Scott, another sculptor of that era, also experimented in his work with playful, exuberant forms.

The sense of play that John T. Scott began to employ in sculptures in the 1980s emphasized qualities of movement and theatricality. For example, Weighted Baton (1982) gave stylistic overtures towards surrealism, Pop art, and the various schools of pattern art that were then receiving special attention in the art world. Like Scott's Ritual of Oppression Series, this new work was small-to-medium in size and capable of sitting on a tabletop or being wall-mounted. Unlike any of Scott's previous work, these new sculptures were carved and assembled from wood, metal, and rubber, and then painted in bright, electric colors.

In 1984 Scott participated in the design and construction of I've Known Rivers, an art installation on black history and culture that formed the thematic core of the 10,000-square-foot Afro-American Pavilion for the Louisiana World Exposition, held in New Orleans during the spring and summer of that year. Fusing architectural forms from ancient Africa (obelisks and pyramids) with a modern geometric schema, Scott's design for the I've Known Rivers installation -- symbolic, hybrid, and postmodern- -- was a logical outgrowth of his playful, tabletop-size sculptures of just one year earlier.

Overlapping with the planning and implementation of the I've Known Rivers project (and, consequently, part of its artistic genesis) was Scott's six-week residency during the summer of 1983 at the East Chatham, New York, studio of the renowned sculptor George Rickey (1907-2002). The forty-three-year-old Scott had immediate simpatico with the seventy-six-year-old sculpture legend. Because Rickey had set the standard for gravitational dynamism and applied tension in American sculpture, Scott initially felt reticent about pursuing a similar path. But Rickey, sensing Scott's genuine enthusiasm for movement in sculpture and his potential for taking visual kinetics into a new direction, encouraged him to explore this area of interest.

This conceptual collusion of artistic traditions -- Rickey's postwar American modernism, African spirituality, and African-American folk aurality -- launched a series of kinetic works by Scott, circa 1983 to 1984, which became further creolized and embellished by virtue of his involvement in the Afro-American Pavilion project. These brass and wooden sculptures from Scott's Diddlie Bow Series resembled brightly painted, miniature scaffolding, whose metronome-like arms seemed to sway and bend to rhythms far removed from the conventional music lessons. Indeed, one of the core visual motifs for this series -- the bow form -- transmogrified itself from diddley bow to hunter's bow, from bow to boat, and from boat to a linear drawing of a bow (or a boat), thus underscoring Scott's improvisatory, playful, and constructivist approach.

Scott's affiliation with Boston's Harris Brown Gallery -- his first significant professional representation outside of New Orleans -- during this period proved to be an important, career turning alliance. It was because of his exhibitions at the Harris Brown Gallery that, in 1986, Scott was widely recognized in Boston and was soon awarded a commission there to create a public sculpture for the recently revamped commuter train station at Ruggles Street. Scott's design for the concourse (which was selected from more than 450 other proposals by artists in a national competition) featured three stainless steel cable lines that were suspended from vertical beams in the station's barrel-vaulted roof and decorated with thirty oar-like aluminum tubes. The tubing, brightly painted, edged with simple geometric embellishments, and carefully positioned along the steel cables so as to not collide with one another when in motion, affected the appearance of a distant, magical patchwork of poles, paddles, and scythes, rising and falling on the cues of the concourse's wind. Entitled Stoney Brook Dance, this first major public sculpture by Scott fused his diddley bow forms with wave physics, and conceptually packaged these divergent sources in his by now well-acquainted notion of an abstracted, urban choreography.

Constantly negotiating spatial dynamics, cumbersome materials, and assorted viewpoints in his sculpture, Scott sought a kind of mental oasis and physical latitude in creating works on paper. As evidenced in dozens of sketchbooks, Scott relished the art of drawing, composing over the years literally thousands of pencil and ink sketches. Starting out as spontaneous, reflexive doodles, these sketches frequently evolved into intricately detailed pictures, with constitutive lines and cross-hatchings that formed fantastic, two-dimensional beings, vining calligraphy, and ambitious, architectonic designs. Although consummate works of art in their own right, many of these sketches would eventually lodge themselves in Scott's imagination, providing the conceptual nucleus and visual springboard for larger, more substantial sculptures, prints, and other works of art.


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