Joel Perlman, Square Tilt

Joel Perlman, Square Tilt, 1983. Steel, 120 × 96 × 36 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. L. William Teweles, 1986 (1986.442a-d). Photo by Dror Balinger.

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Audio Transcript

Valerie Fletcher: Joel Perlman like Anthony Caro, Robert Murray, and many other sculptors of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s believe in geometric abstraction as the style, the form most appropriate to our modern era. Abstraction was considered by many artists to be comparable to many of the accomplishments of the modern era. For example, Morse code, computer code, other means of communication that is not literal. Abstraction is considered the visual equivalent of such other languages, which are not at first glance understandable.


Joel Perlman, however, liked to create works that focused on the idea of a window or gateway or a portal. Square Tilt is typical of his works of the 1980s, in which he set up a frame, in this case almost a perfect square, set it on an angle, a tilt and then applied other linear and rectangular elements, flat ones, to this flat square frame. These compositions read beautifully from the front and from the back; from either side they almost disappear into a line or two. When you look at them from the front or back, however, you see them possibly as the equivalent for a window onto a vista, but you can also see them as abstract compositions in which the geometric forms play well with each other.


In this way, he was inspired by the early masters of abstraction, especially the Russians Suprematists and Constructivists who believed that using such forms would help to inspire and educate people to think on a higher plane, a higher level of awareness. Square Tilt, although it’s made of heavy sheet steel, does have a lightness, a perkiness, and it does question whether abstract art is viable in its own right as a pleasing composition or does it gain because it is contrast to its environment. When placed in front of a modern building for example, its forms are in harmony with the geometric style of most modern buildings. When placed in an open space or even a country space you then see people and landscape through it and it integrates the natural with the artificial.

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Joel Perlman, Square Tilt, 1983.

American, born 1943


Using industrial-grade steel plate to fabricate geometric abstract sculptures, Joel Perlman espoused the purely visual aesthetics championed by the critic Clement Greenberg (1909–1994), in which form takes precedence over subject.


Perlman’s works of the 1980s are pictorial; that is, they are essentially flat arrangements best seen from a frontal viewpoint, like a painting. He drew inspiration from the abstract compositions of the vanguard Russian artists Kasimir Malevich (1879–1935) and El Lissitzky (1890–1941). Although created in the 1910s and ’20s, their work—in which the purity of geometric forms is enlivened by being tilted on a diagonal axis—was rediscovered in the 1960s and ‘70s.


The composition of Square Tilt may owe a debt to the urban architecture of Manhattan, which Perlman could see through his studio windows. Though not meant to directly reference the soaring cityscape, Square Tilt and other works created at this time capture the characteristics of the city: powerful, broad, and monumental. Perlman allows the inherent strength and durability of the industrial steel to play a large role in the overall aesthetics.


Square Tilt typifies Perlman’s best-known compositions, which suggest portals or gateways: a square or rectangular frame surrounding a large opening. The sculpture functions as a window in any setting, offering viewers the opportunity to see through a physical and metaphoric portal. Seen indoors against a blank wall, the work 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. Smaller, rectangles of steel plate are attached to the frame, introducing a harmonic interplay of forms. Despite its considerable size, Square Tilt conveys an impression of airy weightlessness. 

Joel Perlman, Square Tilt, 1983. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Joel Perlman, Square Tilt, 1983. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

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