Essay by Valerie Fletcher

New York native Joel Perlman received his BFA from Cornell University in 1965 and then attended the Central School of Art in London. He obtained his MA from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968.

Like Anthony Caro, Robert Murray, and Beverly Pepper, Perlman espoused the purely visual aesthetics championed by the critic Clement Greenberg. Using industrial-grade steel plate, he made geometric abstract sculptures, usually for outdoor display.

After his work was included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial in 1973, Perlman was represented by the André Emmerich Gallery in New York, a bastion of formalist art. From 1973 through 1982, Perlman had six solo shows there. In 1973 he also taught sculpture at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Square Tilt, 1983

Perlman’s works of the 1980s, unlike the intricate, three-dimensionality of Peter Reginato’s sculptures, are pictorial, that is, essentially flat arrangements best seen from a frontal viewpoint, like a painting. To some extent, he was inspired by the abstract compositions of the vanguard Russians Kasimir Malevich and El Lissitzky; although created in the 1910s and 1920s, those works were just being rediscovered in the 1960s and 1970s. Their purity of geometric forms was often enlivened by being tilted on a diagonal axis.

Square Tilt typifies Perlman’s best-known compositions, which suggest portals or gateways: a square or rectangular frame surrounds a large opening. Smaller, rectangles of steel plate are attached to the frame at seemingly random angles, yet they are impeccably harmonious. Despite its considerable weight, Square Tilt conveys an impression of airy weightlessness.

The composition of Square Tilt may owe a debt to the urban architecture of Manhattan, which Perlman could see through his studio windows. The sculpture continues to function as a window in any setting. Square Tilt offers us the opportunity to see through a physical and metaphoric portal. Seen indoors against a blank wall, it invites appreciation of its abstract vivacity. In other settings (especially outdoors), the large central opening incorporates its environment. Square Tilt consequently carries connotations of openness, far horizons, and passage into other domains of perception and thought.

Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.