Due to his untimely death in 1975, at the age of only 35, Carl Sydow’s sculptural output was relatively limited. Very few extant pieces remain, as many works were recycled or discarded after being shown. However, drawings such as those presented in this exhibition provide a fascinating snapshot of Sydow’s sculptural methodology, demonstrating his meticulous attention to detail and the way he structured his thinking around form, symmetry and line. They are also substantial works in their own right; Sydow’s confident technical drawing and masterful sense of design, composition and colour lend these works a satisfying solidity, their crystalline matrices hinting at intriguing, latent sculptural potentialities.
Many of these works relate to other sculptural works or series that Sydow worked on during the 1970s. The drawings of coloured forms hanging from poles are related to the Suspensions, a similarly constructed series of works begun in 1972. Overlapping and intersecting, these drawings pass beyond the realm of planning or preliminary sketching, instead envisioning the sculptural object as a diffuse cloud of possibilities, a fractal mass replicating itself through a space that seems to have itself splintered or been destabilised. Sydow’s black linework and bright, clean colour show the influence of the British scene that the artist immersed himself in during the 1960s, a legacy that can be traced back to the elegant formalism of Anthony Caro—and ultimately, to De Stijl and Malevitch’s Constructivism.
In another untitled work, Sydow has ingeniously created a relief print by inking perforated metal plates in two different colours, with an offset that creates an Op-Art moiré pattern. This elegant print is thematically connected to a series of Construction works that Sydow undertook after the Suspensions series, in which perforated metal sheets were hung vertically on springs and layered to create similar optical effects. In the print, this layering effect produces a vibrant, energetic field of colour that seems barely contained by the paper’s surface.
However, not all of these drawings relate to sculptures, or at least not to sculptures that Sydow was able to produce during his lifetime. Perhaps the most mysterious and intriguing of these is an untitled drawing of an asymmetrical geometric construction, executed in black ink and with each vertex bearing a label, as though it were a diagram to accompany a diabolically complex problem from some nightmare mathematics exam. The form depicted is crystalline, dwelling in an uneasy space between the manmade and the natural. It does not appear to diagram a three-dimensional object, but neither does it seem completely flat; it, like many of Sydow’s works, plays on the viewer’s preconceptions about the perception and navigation of three-dimensional space.
Enigmatic, evocative and thought-provoking, Sydow’s abstract works on paper are a precious reminder of a time when making contact with international trends and ideas was by no means a simple matter for New Zealand artists. Sydow was a practitioner who thought deeply about his chosen field, absorbed the best of what the international art scene had to offer, and brought these ideas back to New Zealand, and for that he should be remembered as a true innovator.