Mark Webber: Rectangles at His Roots

An eclectic body of work ranging from delicate wire-and-plaster constructions to ellipses, drawings, collages, totems, and a variety of other objects
Mark Webber’s work in progress, seen here in his woodworking studio in Wainscott, is the largest of his signature “portals.” Mark Segal

Mark Webber is partial to rectangles. For his senior exhibition at SUNY Purchase, “I did all rectangles,” he recalled during a recent visit to his woodworking shop in Wainscott. 

After graduation, in 1980, he moved to a loft in SoHo to pursue a career as a sculptor. 

“I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, so I had to find another way to make a living. Somebody said, ‘Can you make me a cabinet?’ and I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ”

Thus began a 30-year hiatus from sculpture, but not from rectangles. “I’ve been building cabinets for many, many years, so the rectangle is something I’m very familiar with. And when I got back to making art, it just seemed natural to go back to my roots — the rectangle.”

As he spoke, he was standing next to a work in progress, the largest of what he calls his “portals,” which are rectangular monoliths with smaller rectangular sections cut out from their centers. Larger than life-size, the piece feels massive, but the opening invites the eye to see through it and beyond. The surface, which looks like smooth stone, is made from hydrocal, a multipurpose gypsum cement, that is built up over foam core.

While portals are a recurrent theme, a tour of his studio, in the woods of Sag Harbor, reveals an eclectic body of work ranging from delicate wire-and-plaster constructions to ellipses, drawings, collages, totems, and a variety of other objects. What links these seemingly disparate works is the artist’s preoccupation with balance and sensitivity to a range of materials — plaster, glass, copper, steel, papier-mâché — and how to combine them.

Mr. Webber grew up in Connecticut in a house with art on the walls. For a time, his mother purchased art in Europe for the Museum of Modern Art. “As I child, I drew a lot, but I never really got too involved with art. It wasn’t until I went to Windham College and met Peter Forakis and Chuck Ginnever, two really remarkable sculptors.”

He majored in mathematics at Windham, in Putney, Vt. “The art department was very experimental. I think for the first project Forakis told us to go to the town dump and find materials and make something. The contrast between doing that and doing math homework in a highly competitive environment was like night and day.”

He began writing letters to his parents expressing his desire to be an artist. His mother, who had received a scholarship to attend the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts but was never able to pursue art as a career, tried to discourage him.

Despite her warning, he transferred to SUNY and focused on art. While he had a few shows in New York after college, “I don’t think I had the same kind of drive I do now. The confidence wasn’t there. I’ve learned a lot working with my hands my whole life, and I’ve had life experiences.”

Mr. Webber moved to Sag Harbor in 1999 with his wife, the photographer Francine Fleischer. A year later they bought a house and studio in Sag Harbor. He opened the woodworking shop in 2002 and now, with a partner, Karl Avallone, runs Custom Woodworking Design of the Hamptons.

The East End provided two things important to Mr. Webber: a rich creative community, and access to water. He keeps his Laser sailboat at the Breakwater Yacht Club, and kayaks too, four or five miles, just to exercise. “I do some of my best thinking on the water,” he said.

Four years ago his daughter, Madeleine, told him, “Dad, if you took the energy you spend racing kayaks and sailboats and put it to art, it would all just happen.” It made him think about his mother, who, with four children, had been sidelined from the career she’d hoped to have.

Over the past four years he has produced a substantial body of sculpture, drawings, and collages. “I’m not afraid to experiment with my drawings,” he said. “They represent the kind of energy that might surround a piece that you can’t see.” The drawings are built up in layers, with lines, sometimes straight, sometimes squiggly, and shapes floating on top of solid forms.

Another series of works consists of found pieces of crumbled concrete fused with geometric shapes, all covered with hydrocal. One, a horizontal portal that appears to be a crumbling wall, was made after the presidential election. “It’s about as political as I get,” he said.

Two other recurring elements in his work are ellipses and lines. The former take many forms, from small plaster pieces inscribed with lines and other abstract forms to a nearly life-size elliptical piece that is smooth on one side, boat-like on the other.

The lines, sometimes graphite, some­times thread, are applied to freestanding works, wall pieces, and collages, usually in parallel groupings of four or more. He cited the painter Agnes Martin as one of his most important influences. 

“I don’t have a shortage of ideas to pursue,” Mr. Webber said, looking around the diverse body of work in his studio. He pointed to a vertical wooden totem whose rectangular cutout is packed with thin sheets of glass. Viewed from an angle, the glass looks like metal, but seen straight on it filters light through the otherwise solid piece. “I look at the glass and keep wanting to get back to it,” he said with a look that suggested the wheels were already turning.

Mark Webber’s drawings are built up in layers, with parallel lines often floating above solid forms.
This 2015 sculpture of copper wire, papier-mâché, and black paint reflects a departure from the solidity of his portals and ellipses.