Delight the eye/Stir the Spirit: Installations and Objects by Margo Sawyer
By Dana Friis-Hansen
Across the three decades of her career, Margo Sawyer has become recognized for creating powerful aesthetic experiences that transform material, shape space, and create compositions that delight the eye and stir the spirit, connecting to something deeper within us. On the occasion of acclaimed commissions in the U.S. and abroad, a recent Guggenheim fellowship, and this exhibition, this is an important moment to take stock of her strategies and strengths. This exhibition deftly juxtaposes Ten + One Illuminations, (2000) a floor installation of metal and gold leaf objects created nearly two decades ago with works in glass completed especially for this show. Sawyer has extended the bowl motif in Luminous (2019), four layered stacks of clear glass and gold. Finally, Synchronicity of Color-Kosovo Muse (2019) is an installation of eight suspended 4 x 2-foot glass panels. This essay will explore three key foundations of her practice: materials and their physical properties; architectural strategies that shape experience; and compositional approaches that harness the tension between structure and improvisation.
Materials matter in Sawyer’s work. Whether working with found or fabricated objects, Sawyer chooses her materials intentionally. She explains, “I’m always exploring unexpected places looking to provide new sculptural strategies and new ways to understand color and form. Whether it is sacred and secular spaces in Asia or industrial factories in Texas, my eyes are always open…” For example, after travel in India in the 1980s, she started exploring floor works incorporating colored powders in ornamental shapes, adopted from the tradition of Rangoli, an ephemeral festival art from India in which patterns are created on the ground for good luck or auspicious rites of passage. When working in Japan on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1995-96, she incorporated shiny metallic pachinko balls from pinball parlors, traditional tatami mats, and wooden frames which quoted traditional “Asanoha” kimono fabric design, juxtaposing objects with unique material properties and markedly different symbolic resonances.
Across her art practice, Sawyer employs a geometric rigor which she plays off of dynamic design tensions, seen especially clearly through an extended body of work using colored metal box units. At the Austin Convention Center, Index for Contemplation, (2002) presents boxes in carefully arranged patterns, hung individually or in clusters, one color touching the next. In contrast, Synchronicity of Color: Red & Blue, (2008) at Houston’s Discovery Green, walls of color are formed by packing the elements together like a puzzle, with only a ½-inch gap between. Years later, the artist would apply the lessons learned from her arrangements of colored solids to her work in architectural glass.
In this exhibition, the graceful bowl shapes for Ten + One Illuminations, (2000/2019) were inspired and produced while Sawyer was in residence at Artpace in San Antonio. Driving on the highway one day, her attention was drawn to similar large metal objects stacked on the back of a truck. After researching fabricators within the oil and gas industry, she sourced these different profiles through an industrial factory that makes spherical cap heads for tanks. Once delivered, the artist carefully prepared the surface and applied hundreds of small sheets of 23-karat gold leaf to create the unique glow. She explained, “The use of gold as a material was important not only for its light effect, but also its metaphorical connection to the sun, to light, to power, to the spiritual, and how it has been used throughout history in the art and ritual objects of so many cultures.”
In contrast, over the years the material properties of glass have offered the artist very different qualities with which to work: transparency and reflectivity, color, texture, patterns, and more. The new glass works presented here result from a ten-year conversation and three year working relationship with the renowned glass studio, Franz Mayer of Munich. In a short span of time, Sawyer has developed an impressive series of architectural glass installations, including Synchronicity of Color: Victoria, (2018) at the University of Houston-Victoria and Synchronicity Spiral for Kosovo, (2019) for the new United States Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo.
As with those major projects, the floating glass panels here in the gallery are both to be looked at—as objects themselves—and looked through—as transparent portals which transform the view of what is beyond. “Architectural glass still feels like a new area of exploration for me, and with each project I am always learning more” she explained. “As we test layering and juxtapositions, I’m excited by the wide variety of phenomena possible—yet only revealed after the firings. As with glazes in ceramics, color and other visual qualities are not evident when the mineral and pigment mix is applied, so each combination starts as a chemistry experiment with a calculated result.”
Sawyer sculpts space. Whether working in a gallery, convention center, chapel, garden, pool, playhouse, or public plaza (to cite some recent examples), Sawyer shapes experiences from the outside in. From her travels, training, and artmaking experience, the artist has developed a keen sense of how to work with (or, for effect, against) the architectural parameters provided. She reflected, “Usually the space is a given. I visit several times to get to know it. In the end, the installation becomes a conversation with the architecture.”
Sawyer’s sculptures might be resting on the floor, hanging alone on a single wall, or engaging a combination of various structural framing devices, but in all cases, she carefully calibrates the work to the space within which it is contained. Each time she starts a new installation, she considers how the viewer will enter the area, how its scale affects their body, and how doors, windows, and other structural elements impact the experience. Sawyer calls this “body knowledge.” She often uses the presence and absence of light and the illumination from within or on surfaces to imbue a sense of awe and wonder. For example, in the Reflect series of site-specific floor installations, the viewer would encounter a field of objects (metal and wood boxes, mirrors, glass plates and vessels, wooden frames, pachinko balls and more) from across the room at a low angle, before approaching to look closer. These low floor reliefs are always contained by walls or windows which would provide illumination, and/or a surface upon which the reflections and shadows bounce off the walls and, at certain times of day, even up onto the ceiling.
The crisp, well-lit, unadorned spaces of the Littlejohn Gallery continue the “white cube” architectural mode that has served modern art well for over a century. Here, one first encounters Sawyer’s floor sculpture, Ten + One Illuminations, at a distance, from the door. Gathered at the center of the gallery’s largest room, we read it in two parts, first, a single “family,” or intense field of ten units, and then the largest vessel, a bit separated, further into the deep space. “The configuration changes every time it is shown,” she notes. “Each arrangement is site specific.” Only when we come closer, walking around the perimeter of the cluster, can we perceive each component individually, and have the chance to carefully explore and compare the differences in width, depth, curvature, and gold leaf patterns that affect the illumination and reflected light. Here the play of light phenomena is held and seen within the object, while in prior installations with the same objects within darkened rooms with dramatic spotlights, the viewer is blasted by the focused power of gold light.
Beyond the dazzle of the floor sculpture is a quieter work on a pedestal at the far corner of the gallery. Luminous consists of four stacks of clear glass panes that do not reveal their mystery until one is directly upon them. Onto each square sheet she has fused a gold circle; from top to bottom the diameter drops, so that the layers subtly shape the illusion of a vessel. Extending experiments with layering glass from earlier in her career, Sawyer’s glass stacks function as transparent volumes within which she can build form, while they are lit to bounce light up on to the adjacent wall, two other ways she pushes the boundaries of sculpting space.
At the far end of the gallery, hidden behind a floor-to-ceiling wall, Sawyer has secluded the eight hanging panels of glass, Synchronicity of Color-Kosovo Muse. Turning the corner, the visitor invariably stops at the threshold of the narrow room, first to process the scene from the front and then let our eyes adjust and absorb to the chromatic chorus. Standing outside, our eyes scan from side to side, from top to bottom, from up close to the full depth of the room, penetrating to the back windows through a staccato rhythm of colorful rectangles.
More magic happens after we enter the room. Sawyer deploys the panels as both walls and windows, staggering their arrangement and subdividing the space. Walking towards the windows, weaving among the eight suspended sheets of glass, we register the shifts of available area either as tight passages or zones of comfort. Moving within the space expands and animates the show of light and color. Each step forward—or even a turn of the head—alters the visual and sensory effect as daylight and gallery lighting casts colored patterns onto the wall, the floor, and onto the visitors ourselves. After the static experience outside this installation, time and space comes alive within a combustion of chromatic complexity.
Sawyer composes through structure and spontaneity. After materials are selected and space is configured, Sawyer composes her components in a process that balances intent and discovery. Despite the breadth of her sculptural oeuvre, she focuses her vocabulary of circles, squares, rectangles, and patterned polygons. She explains, “The modernist tradition was the foundation of my education, and is still my passion today…de Stijl, Bauhaus, Constructivism, and Minimalism gave me the discipline of strict geometries.” Knowledge of these foundational structures give her a springboard from which to depart. She confides slyly, “I push relationships between shape and color to create tension. . . the edge of one color touches another, they embrace, they kiss, and give birth to a third shape of a new hue.”
With her different bodies of work, Sawyer has developed conceptual schema that shape her preparation, but it is not until she starts to install does she finalize its form. She builds internal relationships such as symmetry and asymmetry, pattern and disorder, figure and ground. “In some ways, when I am installing I am like a musician who knows the score so well, I will quote a familiar passage in one part, then turn a corner and improvise something new in another.” Often she embeds a loose, underlying system through the arrangement, such as an alternating grid that is so lightly dispersed it remains seductively subtle.
Exhibitions and public art projects require carefully planned installation schedules and strategies, so Sawyer depends upon extensive models and sketches to prepare. For example, the first step in planning this exhibition were 3D computer models of the gallery in which the works were manipulated to show the many options available. A few months before the opening, the artist brought paper maquettes of the floor sculptures to the space to rehearse, and better understand the visual and physical relationships between the works within the architecture. “What it looks like on a computer and what it feels like in person can be very different,” she explained. “When I am installing, the gallery becomes an extension of my studio, a place for experimentation, improvisation, awareness. It’s a gift for an installation artist to have the time and access to finish the work in the space.”
The coloration and compositional code for each panel in Synchronicity of Color-Kosovo Muse draws its inspiration from the immersive glass spiral she recently installed in Kosovo. Each panel explodes the scale of the original geometric patterns while separating the textured layers of color, so that the viewer is bathed with colored light, as if they are standing between the layers of a stained glass window as it is being assembled.
Designed to be shown individually or together in groups, for this exhibition she was drawn to install them in the narrow, contained space illuminated by a large window wall. While the computer models helped her see some options, Sawyer devoted several days to arrange the panels, considering the views from outside, behind, and within the maze of hanging panels, while observing how changing daylight and the gallery’s track lighting creates intersecting patterns.
Weeks after installation was complete, Sawyer reflected upon the journey of her new architectural glass works. “After four decades of working with glass, it is so exciting to be back in the uncomfortable space of wide-open discovery, learning to use materials that feel so new, so fresh to me.” She shared, “I’m reminded of Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.’ “As an artist, it is so important to be open to being a beginner and embrace the power and opportunity of the moment.”
Dana Friis-Hansen is Director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, appointed 2011. Prior to joining GRAM, he served as Executive Director of the Austin Museum of Art, Senior Curator at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, Associate Curator at Nanjo and Associates, Tokyo and Curator at the MIT List Visual Art Center. Friis-Hansen is an accomplished curator, writer, and editor with over 75 exhibitions, catalogues, books, articles, and published papers to his credit.
 Margo Sawyer, in conversation with the author. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are taken from conversation and email correspondence in April, May, and June 2019.
 In large public projects like these, to achieve her vision Sawyer seeks out specialists. In this case, she partnered with a precision metal fabricator to build the complex system of plates and mounted box forms that provide stability and balance she sought.
 Inspired by the artwork of Christopher Wilmarth and Mario Mertz, Sawyer has worked in glass since a student at Chelsea School of Art in the late 70’s and later at Yale University. In that early work, she configured and manipulated glass sheets; more recently worked with blown glass, through artist residencies at Pilchuck Glass School and the Pittsburgh Glass Center. Blown glass elements were first shown in her 2003 exhibition at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, and subsequently incorporated into her Reflect series.
 She works there with a glass artisan to test color arrangements through by fusing single and multiple layers of glass glazes, variously applied by hand brushing and airbrushing.
 “Margo Sawyer Unveils New Installation at University of Houston-Victoria,” in Glasstire, September 21, 2018, https://glasstire.com/2018/09/21/margo-sawyer-unveils-new-installation-at-university-of-houston-victoria/ Accessed May 13, 2019.
 Works in the Reflect series have been created at The Museum of South Texas, Umlauf Garden and Museum, San Antonio Playhouse, and Holly Johnson Gallery. For images see margosawyer.com/work. Accessed May 13, 2018.
 This presentation is a very different experience from when it was first shown, spread without hierarchy throughout a darkened bay of ArtPace, San Antonio, the walls and ceiling painted dark gray, and each gilded bowl spot lit from above.