Lessness Labored Over: Frances Trombly’s Small Sculptures

By Jenni Sorkin
Published for the exhibition Frances Trombly: Paintings
Girls’ Club, Fort Lauderdale, FL, United States

Frances Trombly’s sculptures engage a range of perceptually-based practices that are less sleight-of-hand than an all-out sensory mash-up, resulting in a nearly imperceptible intervention, something so slight as to be entirely off—in which the burden of proof, so to speak, lies with the viewer. This is a conceptual strategy that twists the Duchampian model so common in contemporary art practice. Through the “readymade,” Duchamp redistributed artistic labor, bestowing the burden of artmaking upon the viewer, rather than the artist himself. I say himself, because Trombly herself is an artist who embraces the burden of artmaking—even relishes it—through her labor-intensive handmade surfaces.

Take for instance, Trash Can (2008), a work in which the artist fabricates a black garbage bag liner, right down to the bright-red drawstring handles, and then uses it to line a found aluminum trash can. As a form of domestic staging, Trash Can plays upon the horror of the “abject,” a fear or loathing of the class of sensory experiences that remind us of our own mortality and have an undeniable power to disgust or revolt: for instance, the smell of rotting food, or the sight of human waste or raw sewage. Yet in remaking the easily discarded and the liminal, Trombly makes “more” of what is actually less: her sculptures become object-experiences, based upon transitory things that are often portable, malleable, and most evocative only when fully engaged and in use: caution tape, for instance, only means something when placed around an area of concern. Installed in Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Caution (2008) replicates the bold, all caps graphic black and yellow signage, cordoning off an innocent area of trees and grass, and leaves the warning up to visitors to decide if the hazard is real or imagined.

Woven on a 36-inch loom, Trombly’s fabrications are very much crafted in the assemblage tradition: a composite materiality that wickedly revises looking, and invites instead, the desire to verify: to experience, firsthand, the inauthenticity of the handmade, mass-produced object. When women artists labor over their surfaces they are usually labeled, somewhat critically, as “obsessive,” or the resultant object is often classified as “precious.” In many contemporary art circles, preciousness is the kiss of death—the work is fetishistic: overthought, overworked, all-consuming. But such attitudes are not only latently sexist, they are also somewhat absurd: they exude disappointment in the achievement of quietly compelling works that are purposefully defiant of the masculine stature of Big Sculpture: found in the meticulousness of Donald Judd, for instance, or in the cyclonic storm of crushed car parts in John Chamberlain.

But neither do Trombly’s sculptures descend from Claes Oldenburg soft sculptures: the drippy cheeseburgers, floppy erasers, and binoculars that the artist’s then-wife, Pat Oldenburg, fabricated for her husband during the 1960s. Eventually, the sculptures grew in stature and size, becoming emblematic and easily identifiable public icons in American cities, such as Philadelphia’s famous clothespin, or Cleveland’s oversized rubber stamp. While Oldenburg’s works are all kinds of Pop: they are Pop Art, they are popular, and they literally “pop” as instantly identifiable oddities in the urban landscape, Trombly, on the other hand, embraces popular objects that lack any kind of fanfare. She does not trade in baseball caps, or buttons, or any sort of objects that have nostalgic potential. Her work, rather, exploits the anonymity and utter functionalism of the re-make: All Purpose Tarp (2008), a hand-woven polypropylene blue tarp, complete with metal grommets, utilized to protect, or cover something presumably more precious. Such a sculpture speaks to the problem of inattention. If you aren’t looking closely, you’ve missed the beauty of this new version. This nonchalance takes its cue from another strain of artistic strategy.

In 1976, the same year that Frances Trombly was born, the artist Richard Tuttle had his first museum retrospective, organized by Marcia Tucker, a relentlessly experimental curator who, as the founder of the New Museum, was one of the pioneers of the alternative space movement in New York City. Tuttle’s purposely anti-monumental show consisted of small-scale works on paper, twisted pieces of wire, and cloth octagonal gestures hung purposefully too-high or too-low on the gallery wall. While 1960s minimalist sculpture traded in spare, industrially-produced cubes, stacks and boxes, a decade later, Tuttle’s gestures were even more underwhelming, because they seemed to revel unapologetically in the handmade—small moments of mark-making that undermined the glib, industrial finishes endemic to the large-scale sculptural works of artists like Carl Andre, John Chamberlain and Donald Judd.

Art critics of the era took the opportunity to comment on the peculiar public reception that Tuttle’s art itself received. According to Los Angeles Times’ critic William Wilson, myriad visitors

…snorted disdainfully and walked out. Either they saw just another vanguard put-on or they were aware that the small-object-in-a-big-void installation is…a device known to every second-year graphic design student. 1

The notoriously contentious critic Hilton Kramer seized Tuttle’s show as an opportunity to actually sneer openly in The New York Times, writing:

…in Mr. Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less. It establishes new standards of lessness, and fairly basks in the void of lessness. One is tempted to say that, so far as art is concerned, less has never been as less as this. 2

Fast-forward to 2008, when “lessness” is the new more. Frances Trombly, a contemporary artist who also makes diminutive, small-scale works, co-organized, along with Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, a group of friends into an homage show titled—what else?—Tuttle. Held at David Castillo Gallery in Miami, the show consisted of a community of emerging artists: Jenny Brillhart, Nicolas Lobo, Rodriguez-Casanova, Tom Scicluna, Molly Springfield, and Trombly, working in very spare and sometimes irreverent ways. Having made a distinct impression upon a younger generation of practitioners, Tuttle’s legacy was the basis for eschewing the grand gesture.

Trombly’s sculptural objects embrace “lessness” as both an aesthetic and an ambition. Using woven cloth, collage, and cross-stitch, Trombly re-makes everyday domestic objects: the ubiquitous green garden hose hanging in a neat coil alongside someone’s carefully maintained backyard garden; a cache of grocery store receipts that upon closer inspection, betray carefully cross-stitched text; and a re-fabricated mop head, hand spun, then attached to a found mop handle, and casually left against the gallery wall, an homage to the utilitarian variety. So much so, that an after-hours janitor once removed Trombly’s sly fabrication from the gallery, and placed it in the museum broom closet, where it seemed to belong, out of sight. Rather than being horrified, the artist was pleased with the interference, an after-effect of her own quiet intervention.

While the critics of Tuttle’s generation saw his work as an art-hoax of sorts, trading in subtlety as a form of chicanery, thirty-odd years later, the art world is a changed place. During the 1980s, artists like Anne Hamilton and Rosemary Trockel pioneered material practices within their installation work, introducing the issue of gender and labor in relation to hierarchy. In the 1990s, artists like Polly Apfelbaum, Jim Hodges, Tom Friedman and Jessica Stockholder have intervened in sculpture, using everyday materials like toothpicks or bubble gum (Friedman), and very often fabrics and malleable “soft” materials like pre-made shirt collars (Hodges) and beaded curtains (Stockholder). More recently, Polly Apfelbaum has made a series of Fallen Paintings (2010) from squares of bright, synthetic sequined fabric arranged upon the floor. Likewise, in her most recent exhibition at Girl’s Club, in Fort Lauderdale, Trombly’s content has also veered toward an exploration of the parody of painting, deliberately creating sculptural versions of blank canvases, albeit with woven canvas faces. The gallery space is filled with wayward and leaning canvases, staged very much as an installation-in-progress, rather than a finished exhibition. Such an intervention disrupts the assumption of expectation that exists between viewer and artist: that is, a reciprocity based upon visuality. Instead, Trombly offers her non-painterly canvases as a meditation on both what it means to repress, or dispense with, the image in favor of a surface which becomes a super-structure—an extreme embellishment of the weave found in commercial canvas, emphasizing the labor associated with the surface, while highlighting its blankness, or in effect, its “lessness,” the void inherent in painting’s illusionism, its trompe l’oeil effects, its artificiality that is without reciprocity in the world: the lack of heft, or weight, as a thing. Trombly’s dependency on tactile surfaces demotes, rather than elevates her objects as pleasurable deceptions. In this way, Trombly returns to Duchamp, asking the viewer to look the inattentions endemic to daily life, and scrutinize, with ferocious curiosity, the indelible blankness that looms, persisting beyond the borders of the hand-woven canvases, and bleeds beyond the borders of caution tape.


1. William Wilson, “Adrift in the Wide Open Spaces,” Los Angeles Times. (Monday, February 9, 1976), Part IV, page 5.

2. Hilton Kramer, “Tuttle’s Art On Display At Whitney,” The New York Times (Friday, September 12, 1975).