Review: Richard Beckman's work at USF Contemporary Art Museum celebrates what was

You can see the detail in Richard Beckman’s Song of Kabir (ca. 2000), foreground, made from thin, bent pieces of wood. Zim Zum, a metal sculpture (1997-98), Under the Pink (2000), made of epoxy resin, and Chantella (2000), another wood sculpture, are in the background.
You can see the detail in Richard Beckman’s Song of Kabir (ca. 2000), foreground, made from thin, bent pieces of wood. Zim Zum, a metal sculpture (1997-98), Under the Pink (2000), made of epoxy resin, and Chantella (2000), another wood sculpture, are in the background.
Published July 23, 2014


We see only a few pages from one of sculptor Richard Beckman's journals, opened in a Plexiglas case for "Outside the Curve of Reason," an exhibition at University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum. Yet they tell us much about Beckman's restless, relentless and obsessive creativity.

He sketches an idea, then, in a hurried handwriting, breaks down the issues and challenges in making it real. He explores different iterations of the visual idea. As a nearby TV monitor scrolls through photographs of his sculptures in galleries, and of him working in his studio (these are still photos, not video), we see that, yes, he did resolve the problems in the sketch as we look at the actual work.

Beckman's great gift extended beyond his original ideas to an obsessive perfectionism in crafting. He manipulated hard materials such as wood and metal as if they were pliant paper or fiber.

Study his large plywood sculptures, in which individual slats are bound together in rippling curves, and try to find a flaw in their symmetry. One of them, Song of Kabir, is even constructed as a cross-section so you can look at the internal structure to find the tricks behind the magic. I didn't see any. Pod Yod, painted a color hovering between blue and green, feels kinetic when you walk around it, peering through the interior, and see light flashing through the small spaces between the wood.

His work seems to be exploring forms and surfaces, but it has mystery, too, suggesting a hidden, private life in the interiors of some of them. Zim Zum, for example, is a large steel work with a slight resemblance to the shape of a mussel shell. It's formed with identical plates, each attached with precisely matched screws. It seems hollow but we can't be sure. I wanted to tap on it but, of course, did not.

As refined and cerebral as these are, they still exert a strong visceral pull to be touched. Kisser is a coil of red-enameled wood in which the circles are compressed into each other, like a spring ready to boing out. In this work, we do see the seams of the shaped wood, but they are purposeful, at precise, measured increments. And you have to look for them, so smooth is the surface.

Half the Truth seems anomalous to this group because it isn't as polished. But, typical of Beckman's work, the initial reading is superficial. Yes, the steel mesh looks weathered. But it's woven with such delicacy, as if it were strands of silk. It's just gorgeous, combining the angles and curves we see in the other works, with the mesh formed into a cradle for mesh rectangles arranged like stair steps. It's propped against a gallery wall but, because Beckman was said to be open about how his sculptures were installed, I could see this one in the center of a room, allowed to rock or to entertain that possibility.

Included in the exhibition are small models Beckman created in working out the finished pieces as well as studies, sketches and the journals.

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

We’ll deliver ideas every Thursday for going out, staying home or spending time outdoors.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The sculptures span only 10 years, from 1990 to 2000, so this is not a retrospective. Beckman killed himself in 2004 when he was 47. I'm tempted to add "with so much more ahead of him." That's a spurious comment. What he did, not what he might have done, is what matters. I would say that he did great.

Frames as art

Also at the museum is "A Different Frame of Mind," a whimsical concept in which artists were invited to choose and use frames from a surplus in the storage area for new art. The seven artists are most creative. I was impressed with all of them but especially by Ariel Baron-Robbins' three-piece installation. She, dressed in a white sundress, interacts with a large frame in two black-and-white photographs. They "frame" a video of her emerging from Tampa Bay carrying the frame, then posing with it on a beach before walking back into the water and disappearing. The lighting is terrific. The camera points into the sun, creating shadows in the foreground and a blinding sheen on the water in the distance, which makes Baron-Robbins appear to dematerialize as she walks toward it.

Contact Lennie Bennett at