The Return of Tom Doyle
Cultivating movement from ligneous substances
September 18 – November 1, 2019
“But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.” — John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
The Return of Tom Doyle signals an attempt to resurrect the career of a sculptor who in reality never really “disappeared,” but who remained blasé through most of his life to the vagaries of the art world. The exhibition opens with Shiloh (c. 1959) an early, medium-sized sculpture that sits on the floor and stands about waist high. Doyle, who died in 2016, made Shiloh a year or so after Stillman (1958), the work he considered his breakthrough sculpture. Like Stillman, Shiloh is constructed from a variety of found wood pieces jointed together. But where Stillman retains a heaviness that is the bulk mass of its wooden composition, Shiloh is undulant, rippling like a ribbon cast to the wind.
Doyle’s ability to cultivate movement from ligneous substances remained a hallmark of his work, and is well evidenced by the exhibited sculptures, which span the range of the artist’s 60-year career. An auspicious beginning in New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s seems as if it would have locked in eventual “star” status for the artist. Doyle hung out at Cedar Tavern, spent time with The Club, and was close friends with the likes of Mark Di Suvero, Franz Kline, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Ryman. The venerable dealer Allan Stone gave him his first solo show, and in the early 1960s he was invited to a 15-month residency in Germany. But despite all this, knowledge of his work seems to have faded from the art world’s consciousness as the decades progressed. One theory, as Mark von Schlegell posits in the exhibition’s catalogue, is that Doyle’s reputation was eclipsed by the work and legend of Eva Hesse, the artist’s one-time wife. But another, perhaps even more plausible reason is that Doyle himself was indifferent to it all. He felt best working among nature and in 1992, after years of teaching in New York City and spending summers in Pennsylvania, Doyle decamped permanently to rural Roxbury, Connecticut—85 miles northwest of New York, and a much greater distance psychologically—where he would remain for the rest of his life.
At Zürcher, works from all these periods are presented, allowing the viewer to reconsider Doyle’s oeuvre as a whole. A series of untitled “drawings” on Marlite (a type of fiberglass wall paneling) from 1961 are instructive as to what was to come. Doyle affixed the Marlite to small, rectangular wooden slabs and then used a tool to chisel away to the wood below. Like Shiloh, the forms on Marlite are sinewy and balletic, shot through with a forward lunge of energetic movement. Though they are not representative of extant sculptures, they are indicative of the ideas that Doyle would soon articulate in three-dimensional form. In the early 2000s, he seems to have revisited the idea for playing with potential sculptural forms, this time making a number of shadowboxes to be hung on the wall. Each small box contains an abstracted shape made up of glued-together shards of wood, probably salvaged from the floor of his studio (Doyle was a master recycler, retaining even the bits that dropped to the ground for possible use in the future). At the gallery, these works hang across from an arrangement of tabletop-sized pieces. A work like Untitled #6 (undated, c. 2000s) is representative. Two pieces of wood forming an upside-down Y-shape support a third piece, cantilevered at such a steep angle it also makes a third support as it touches the table with its toe. The germination of the configuration is also visible in the shadowbox Opus LXXII (2003) which, though it does not share an identical structure, certainly informs the makeup of the freestanding work.
A wonder of Doyle’s sculpture is the way it continually changes as the viewer moves around it. The vantage point of one side often provides an entirely different perspective than a point on the other side, almost as if one were looking at a completely different sculpture. In this way, Doyle’s work shares a quality with Alexander Calder’s stabiles, which seems especially fitting since Doyle made these works in Roxbury from wood scavenged from the trees around his property, not far from where the older sculptor also once lived and worked. Though his shapes are distinctly Doyle’s own, their sense of implied movement is in sympathy with Calder’s sheet metal structures. And also like Calder, Doyle preferred the solitude of nature as the ideal circumstances in which to simply get on with his work.
His sublime piece, Dowth (2010), attests to this. Hung from the wall, the sculpture is composed of spears of cherry and sassafras that Doyle jointed together in such a way that it resembles a bird taking flight. He allows the natural grains and small imperfections of his materials to shine through in keen reverence of the wood. The upward thrust inherent to the sculpture is so convincing that one might almost believe it’s about to take flight, perhaps in song.