by David M. Roth
In the early 1960s, before Feminism redefined it and Conceptualism deflated it, sculpture in the popular imagination consisted mainly of immense steel objects manufactured by men in industrial settings. In the Bay Area, Fletcher Benton (1931-2019) ranked among the era’s stars. Known initially for kinetic pieces that earned him a spot in a 1966 show organized by Peter Selz for the Berkeley Art Museum, Benton, a one-time sign painter, later found lasting success with monumental disc-based forms, some of which he festooned with antenna-like appendages that made his works look like futurist objects outfitted to intercept extraterrestrial communications.
Unlike his peers, Benton exercised a sly sense of humor, crafting visual puns from a recursive library of geometric shapes that, when sliced up and recombined, rewarded sustained viewing with cascades of small epiphanies. So, too, does ABC-123: Fletcher Benton’s Sculptural Alphabet, a compact, brilliantly installed exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum. Comprised of steel shapes based on the 23 letters of the alphabet and the numbers one through 9, it shows the ingenuity Benton brought to object-making and the engineering feats he devised to realize his creations.
Step off the elevator onto the museum’s second floor, and a summary of his methods unfolds, starting with a vitrine stuffed with paper maquettes made of glued-together bits of card stock that served as models for the 33 sculptures on view and for larger constructions he fabricated from the same designs. Those 8-foot-tall behemoths, pictured outdoors in a photographic backdrop spread across two walls, mark the opening of the exhibition, the remainder of which appears nearby in a domed “rotunda” whose shapes echo those of the works on view.
Each began as a quarter-inch-thick slab of steel measuring about 16 inches square, which the artist cut up, reassembled and coated with various matte finishes. They’re mounted here on pedestals of different shapes and sizes – in solo, duo, trio and quartet configurations. Ovals, triangles, ziggurats, circles, folded squares and rectangles and various irregular shapes combine in each to form letters and numbers in positive and negative space. They’re not always easy to detect; minus the attached labels, some might elude identification entirely. The result is a parlor game-cum perceptual puzzle of an exhibition.
9, for example, features two interlocking circle-shaped negative spaces; the positive counterpart, cut from the original slab, spills out from the central shape, “hinged” at the bottom like an open trap door to support the structure on one side. U, a bright orange shape set against a blue-painted wall, “spells out” the letter in negative space outlined by two sharp points: places where the artist bent the outline at the center at 45-degree angles. The material removed to create that space Benton fashioned into three positives: one inverted to support the piece, another forming an elongated “tongue,” and a third aimed backward. 6 unspools in a seductive, slinky orange swirl, while J sports what looks like a freestanding circle, a clever distraction from the thin sliver of light peeking through the outline of the letter’s shaft, the defining shape that lets viewers in on the trick. And so it goes throughout the show, each object performing a unique set of acrobatic poses.
While Benton’s vocabulary in this series was finite, the effects he wrung from it seemed infinite. In the end, as the artist was fond of pointing out, they all resolve back to a flat piece of metal. The fun resides in imagining how he extracted so many shapes from that single source. The other thought that struck me is the strong relationship these shapes bear to Benton’s original occupation, sign painting. Had he pursued graphic design or typography, his star would have shined just as brightly.
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“ABC-123: Fletcher Benton’s Sculptural Alphabet” @ Crocker Art Museum through March 24, 2024.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.