By the Book: A Ring of Truth to Carter’s Work

Untitled Stainless steel sculpture (2003) by Arthur Carter at Brown University
Untitled Stainless steel sculpture (2003) by Arthur Carter. Photo Mike Cohea, Brown University

Charles A. Riley’s Arthur Carter: Studies for Construction (Abrams) proves challenging because it’s about two- dimensional drawings for larger, three-dimensional sculptures—both illustrated in plates within the book. The minimalist sculptures include both reliefs (raised projections) and freestanding forms. Riley, a specialist in art, architecture and pubic policy, seems to be as much of a polymath as his subject. Some of the text here, while never sliding into jargon, does assume that readers will recognize certain arcane terms, such as “haptic,” and appreciate Carter’s subtle appropriation of mathematics (from Pythagoras to Fibonacci). A 2009 series of drawings is called Orthogonal. Geometry particularly informs Carter’s visual art and music—he trained as a classical pianist, and Riley often invokes musical analogies.

Subject and author are well matched, and Riley makes a persuasive case that Carter’s elemental abstract acrylics on stainless steel and bronze evidence a meticulous regard for the form and style of the preparatory analytical drawings (the relationship among angles seems especially critical). The sketches clearly translate pencil and pen into three-dimensional surfaces that reflect their two-dimensional origins, but also show modification—a drawing of nine squares, an acrylic on paper titled “32,” turns into a 16-grid relief; parallel sketch lines become nuanced with thickness and alter the look of white space. “Only squares and circles, lines and ellipses can elegantly explain and simplify the complex meaning of life,” Carter tells Riley. Such is Riley’s skill in calling attention to identities, similarities and differences that readers are likely to grow more perceptive and appreciative when they compare the crisp-edged drawings with the reliefs. As Riley points out, the drawings “engage with” and don’t just sit on the paper.

Carter—whose Long Island connections include growing up in Woodmere—lives in Remsenburg and New York City, and from 1994 to 2002, was an investor in The East Hampton Star newspaper. His biography reveals extraordinary diversity at high levels. He has a BA from Brown in French literature and an MBA in finance from Dartmouth. He was an investment banker for more than 25 years, during which time he also published The Nation and founded newspapers (including The New York Observer). He once owned more than 100 industrial companies related to the field of printing, with factories all over the world. He also taught philosophy and journalism at New York University and is chairman of the Board of Overseers of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the university.

Riley, who has a house in Cutchogue, begins his essay introduction to Carter with a personal anecdote. He’s visiting Carter’s studio on the East End and finds the artist fretting over an apparently miniscule distance between two parallel lines in a pencil sketch. He’s wondering how far apart they really should be—a half-inch or…? The determination is “momentous,” he tells Riley. Knowing that kind of attention to detail, a reader then watches the process of progress—rubbed out lines, changed charcoal crosshatching, corrections, incomplete curves that stop at a certain point—“tissues of erasure and alteration,” Riley calls them. He compares the sketches to the manuscript of a literary scholar but adds that in Carter’s case “time” is important—how long it takes to execute a gestural motion, and with what amount of hand pressure.

Arthur Carter’s work is collected and exhibited around the country and in Paris, though it is not widely know on the East End. Neither representational nor Abstract Expressionist, he pursues a minimalist direction that suggests, among others, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Calder, Picasso, Brancusi and Rothko. It should be noted that Riley’s book is one of the more courteous of art publications, with fig. references on the same page where works are discussed. This is a handsome and informative volume.

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Cover of Arthur Carter – Studies for Construction by Charles A. Riley
Arthur Carter – Studies for Construction by Charles A. Riley

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