Over the past 10 years, the Slovenian artist Tobias Putrih has maintained an ongoing dialogue with the utopian moments of modern engineering and design. Focusing more on models and proposals than on realized structures and buildings, he has mined the visionary works of polymath architects such as Buckminster Fuller and Frederick Kiesler for formal and technical motifs. The resulting works—often poised between sculpture and architecture—look to instances when fantasy prevailed over practicality, and recall a time when modernist design still promised the transformation of life.
In a recent exhibition at Ludlow 38, Putrih expanded on projects by German architect Frei Otto (b. 1925), who became known during the 1960s for proposing lightweight buildings with organic-looking forms based on materials such as egg yolks, cobwebs and soap. For some of his most famous projects, Otto photographed soap films as they stretched over custom-built frames and used the resulting images to develop an architectural design. Soap films, he noted, naturally assume the smallest possible surface area, and the architecture he derived from them is notable for its dynamic forms and its radical economy of means. In many of his works, he attempted not only to conserve materials but also to make spaces for unrestricted activity and a more open sense of public life. Like others of his generation, he aspired to create novel structures that would foster conditions for a more harmonious and sustainable society.
Putrih built on these experiments with a series of four abstract wire sculptures—called “Soap Film Models” (2010)—that hung from the gallery ceiling. In complex meandering lines in three dimensions, these sculptures elaborate on Otto’s simple armatures. The elegant, calligraphic contours suggest the energetic lines of automatic drawing, but the process behind them was hardly spontaneous. Putrih shaped their kinks and bends specifically to support soap films, and visitors to the show could plunge each of the sculptures, using a rope-and-pulley system, into a large basin of soapy water that occupied the center of the floor. When the pieces emerged, their open spaces shimmered with iridescent colors as sudsy water ran down the wires and dripped into the tank below. Putrih had transformed Otto’s exercises in applied science into occasions for formal experiment and open-ended play.
In the back room, curators Tobi Maier and Axel Wieder included a large selection of publications from Otto’s Institute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart and two lengthy documentaries on his work (one of which had been subtitled in English for the exhibition). While these inclusions strained the conventions of a one-person show, they provided a deeper historical context for Putrih’s wire sculptures and for his ongoing preoccupation with the social aspirations of modern engineering and architectural design.
Photo: View of Tobias Putrih’s “Soap Film Models,” 2010, wire and soap; at Ludlow 38.