July 16, 2004
Bringing out the elegance of steel

By Holly Myers, Special to The Times

Among the two-dozen sculptures in Noho Modern's current exhibition of work by the late James Prestini (1908-93), there are only a few basic shapes — an H, an I, a circle, a square and a rectangle — all retained from the standardized steel structural elements that were the artist's primary materials.

A consummate Bauhaus-era Modernist, Prestini sought to bring out the best in these industrial forms, not by celebrating their brawn, as Richard Serra and other later-generation sculptors might have, but by slimming them down, sharpening their lines and dressing them up in a slick nickel plating.

The result is an exceptionally elegant, if ultimately rather simplistic, body of work. Whether standing alone or stacked in slender towers, the forms achieve a degree of balance that makes them appear much lighter than they are, as if they were made from tin rather than steel. Their thin walls and many hollows carve up the negative space with striking delicacy, while their polished surfaces reflect and gently distort the dimensions of the gallery.

Prestini is best known for the turned-wood vessels he made in the 1930s and '40s. The new works are neither as accessible nor perhaps as elegant as those — there is a warmth to wood that steel simply doesn't have — but they reflect a similar concern for the integrity of the medium, and an equal degree of refinement.