I FIRST SAW Robyn Horn’s work at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, where her big sculpture, Already Set in Motion, is the very first work of art that you see as you take the elevator down from the hillside parking area and descend to the main entrance of the museum. You see it from quite a distance, and when I first caught sight of it I was powerfully impressed by its majesty and force.

At the time, however, I misunderstood almost everything about how it was made and what it is all about. It reminded me a bit of the famous Cubi series by the sculptor David Smith, the master of welded steel, in which cubes of steel float in precarious equilibrium. I assumed that it was fabricated in a similar fashion. From a distance Robyn Horn’s piece also had the gray look of cast or welded bits of metal and only when I got closer did I realize that it was made of wood. Even then, I didn’t appreciate its technique, since I thought that the various blocks were separate pieces of wood somehow joined together with screws or fasteners of some sort—the equivalent of the welds in David Smith’s sculpture.

Photo by Rett Peek

But this isn’t how it’s done at all. In fact, Already Set in Motion is a single piece of wood that has been shaped to look like separate blocks—blocks that seem precariously balanced in their pile-up, at risk from the forces of gravity, as if they might topple with a little push. In other words, what looks at first like separate pieces of wood are actually a solid mass. The voids were cut into the original block with various saws and drills—mostly with a chainsaw. And where there aren’t voids there are often deep incisions that ask us to imagine that the wood is not a unit but consists of separate pieces. What’s interesting, once you figure out how the piece is done, is that you’re asked to switch back and forth between two quite different readings, which run more or less as follows:

On the one hand Already Set in Motion is a massive block of wood (it’s over 10 feet tall and 5 feet in width at its greatest expanse). You can see the grain of the wood running through the individual pieces and imagine how it would have run in the empty spaces—the voids where the wood was cut away. On the other hand, you can imagine it as a series of blocks or boxes, held in place by the forces of gravity. It appears as though, if you cut the blocks apart, they surely would stay in balance—though just barely so, since a forceful kick would probably make the whole apparatus tumble.

What looks at first like a simple modernist sculpture, working with largely decorative principles of formal arrangement, has deeper levels of meaning when we look at it more carefully. It asks us to imagine the invisible forces that run through things—in this case, the vertical growth force of the tree, expressed by the lines of the wood grain; and the forces of gravity, which hold the parts of the design in balance. And then, finally, in opposition to both of these natural forces, those of gravity and those of upward growth, we can feel the force of the sculptor’s will, both working with the wood and fighting against it, creating a balance of all the different variables; in short, a collision between human will and the implacable facts of physics, physical substance, and the forces of nature. Like wrestlers gripping each other, all these principles seem frozen in deadlock, in a sort of stalemate—or should we say, artistic harmony?

Henry Adams is the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Feature photo credit: Robyn Horn, Already Set In Motion, 2011, Redwood and black dye, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, Photography by Edward C. Robison III.