Out of the woodwork

Langlais's legacy is more than just animals
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  June 11, 2008
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INTERNAL SYNTAX: "Aged in the Wood," by Bernard Langlais, 85 x 74, 1962

"Abstractions" works by Bernard Langlais | through June 22 | at Aucocisco Gallery, 613 Congress St, Portland | 207.775.2222
Here in Maine the late Bernard Langlais is known chiefly for his exuberant sculptures and wall reliefs depicting animals. Most museums have at least one, and they are lively, witty, accessible, and popular. His work has spawned a cottage industry of imitators who mostly serve just to prove how much better he was at it.

Before the animals Langlais had been a serious painter, studying with Max Beckmann in Brooklyn in the early 1950s and traveling to Europe to study as well. In the late ’50s and early ’60s he started making abstract wooden wall pieces that he showed in New York at the Martha Jackson and Leo Castelli galleries. The current Aucocisco show of these abstract works provides an opportunity to see a quite a number of these pieces.

I confess to never being quite comfortable with Langlais’s animal works. For all their verve and humorous sparkle they seemed to me to lack what the critic Sidney Tillim called a commitment to seriousness. This show reveals Langlais’s serious side, and they are very good works indeed. Langlais died in 1977 at the age of 56. We can’t know how his work would have gone if he’d had more time, but it’s interesting to speculate how he might have gathered together the various threads running through his work.

Many of these pieces have a commanding presence that is missing from the more playful animal depictions. In "Aged in the Wood," from 1962, the central activity is framed by a wide rectangle of dark wood with an irregular surface. Inside this border there are nine similar thin shapes, each a little different, that alternate rising from the bottom or descending from the top. The shapes, also of dark textured wood, are set in field of white made up of tiny little white wood shapes stuck together. The whole assembly is about seven feet high by six wide.

Langlais has created a syntax within the piece, the terms of which are established by the shapes, the relative difference of the sizes of the pieces of wood, the surfaces, and their color. The coherence of the interrelationships make this a remarkable, moving piece, and reveal that he was really onto something special.

"Southern Comfort," from 1959, is about the height of a person, and the central section has a very slight resemblance to a figure. The section is an assembly of bits and pieces of brown wood, some quite small and others perhaps a few inches square. They have been darkened by some process and cohere together within their color range from light reddish brown to black. The outer parts of the piece are made from similar bits of wood, but these have been rendered lighter, apparently by painting them white and then removing most of the paint.

The collective effect of the edges of the many blocks of wood evokes analytical cubism, but this is just a passing reference, of no more real importance than the "figure to ground" relationship. The core of this piece is the interlocking rhythms across the surface. The major shapes establish the harmonic structure and the details make up the content.

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