PRINT October 1966

Nakian at the Modern

WHEN GASTON LACHAISE DIED in 1935 he left American sculpture bereft of a major talent. There were, however, two young men who showed great promise. One was David Smith, and the other was Lachaise’s apprentice, Reuben Nakian. Now, in the sixties, large, quasi-retrospective showings of each force an evaluation of how they used that promise as mature artists. Nakian’s recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art makes it clearer than ever that although the two represent opposite poles of American sculpture, Nakian is perhaps the only sculptor of his generation whose work bears comparison with Smith’s. Saying this is already saying a lot.

In contrast to Smith, whose mature style was based on Cubist precedent, Nakian appears a far more conservative, even retrograde artist who remains faithful to an older tradition of modeling and casting. That this classical technique is of waning importance should be obvious from the fact that no first-rate young sculptors are working with it. Thus Nakian, along with Giacometti, Moore and Lipchitz, stands at the end, rather than at the beginning of a great tradition. Smith, on the other hand, marks the transition between Cubist sculpture and the new sculpture of Bladen, Morris, Murray, Judd, et. al., and thus represents a new beginning.

Nakian’s dilemma is essentially that of the later Lipchitz: how to achieve a modernist style with traditional means and a rhetorical content. My position is that it can’t be done, and that the recent works of Lipchitz and Nakian provide illustrations of why it can’t be done. They prove that either the style or the content must be compromised by such efforts. Nakian avoids the vulgarity of Lipchitz’s later works, and hence maintains the integrity of his content, which is always sensuous and often moving. But he fails, in the large pieces at any rate, to develop a consistently modernist approach to the problems of sculpture.

In the 20th century sculptors have addressed themselves with increasing urgency to the problems of creating sculpture in-the-round and to the problem of the pedestal or base. Brancusi arrived at partial solutions, and before his death David Smith had resolved both in his stainless steel “gate” pieces. Nakian deals successfully with neither. Even his monumental works, such as the recent Judgment of Paris and the Goddess with the Golden Thighs are designed, if not to be seen from one vantage point, then to have one vantage point that is superior to all others. One is conscious at all times that the pieces have a front, back, and side view and that only the frontal view is entirely satisfactory. The Judgment of Paris, which, with its fragments of anatomy, calls to mind the figures from the Parthenon pediment, requires that one view it like a pediment, as a kind of high relief. There is nothing wrong with this per se, except that the work purports to be free-standing, and free-standing sculpture demands a more adequate treatment in the round.

Nakian’s solution to the problem of balancing his fulsome baroque forms is equally equivocal. His attempt, in the mid-fifties, to arrive at a sculptural style that was both abstract and expressionistic led him to construct an armature of thin rods to support the irregular broken and bent flat steel sheets which made up the body of the sculpture. But both his own romantic sensibility and his own gifts, which lie in handling mass rather than in enclosing space with open forms, worked against him.

If the classical style, ill-used, ends in sterility, then a misplaced expressionism ends in chaos. Nakian’s welded steel works, though not chaotic, are inarticulate. The jumble of criss-crossed rods and angled planes, although possessed of that same energy and vitality which are the mark of Nakian’s work, does not yield any clear structural statement. Such works as the Rape of Lucrece and the Duchess of Alba represent Nakian’s single attempt to express his vision in a modernist idiom. To my eye, they are the most ambitious and least successful works in the show. They reveal that when Nakian attempts to deal with the purely formal relationships of open, welded sculpture, these relationships lack clarity and are insufficiently articulated.

Conversely, the richness and excellence of the small terra-cottas and bronzes in the show––which are gems––make it evident that Nakian’s sensibility is in the range of the tactile-sensuous-expressionistic. His love of the elaborated surface which bears the mark of the sculptor’s fingerprints is obvious in the most recent works, in which he forsakes the collage-like leaves of steel in order to work again in bronze, a medium he finds far more sympathetic. (The plaster Judgment of Paris, yet to be cast, was unfortunately painted in order to simulate bronze, producing a particularly unpleasant, sticky surface.)

Nakian’s preference for the tactile is directly tied to his preference for pictorial effects—especially chiaroscuro contrasts. It is these surface effects rather than structural considerations which bear the burden of expression in his work. When there is no direct reference to the human figure, as there is none in the steel pieces, the work seems to lose a degree of expressiveness. Perhaps this is so because expressionist sculpture, even more than expressionist painting, depends in its claim for empathy on the distortion of the human figure.

In a sense, Nakian is an artist born out of his time, whereas Smith is, par excellence, the artist born in his time. In the 17th century, before the figural had begun to lose meaning, Nakian might have been a towering personality. In the second half of the 20th century, he is an artist of great gifts who aspires, but does not necessarily succeed, in giving substance to the heroic vision. Toward this end he garbs classical myths in expressionist guise. But sculpture that is equally abstract and expressionistic represents a contradiction in terms. Abstract sculpture by definition has Cubism as its root, not the undulating tactile surfaces of Medardo Rosso and Rodin. On the smaller scale of Nakian’s terracotta figures, the fingerprints still mean something. But on the grand scale of the heroic bronzes, the all-over mottling lacks significance and the textural manipulations lack variety.

Both Nakian and Smith identified socially with the Abstract Expressionist painters. But Smith did not emulate their painterly expressionism in his work. Instead he went back directly to Cubist sources as a point of departure. Nakian’s sensibility was much closer to that of the “action painters.” Like them he attempted to capture and make permanent fugitive qualities such as energy and movement. That such effects are more difficult to preserve in the solid, stable form of sculpture than in painting, which permits a greater illusionism, is manifest. In the lively drawings and slashed terracottas, however, such momentary effects are more easily apprehended. Consequently, it is in such works that one sees Nakian at his best––playful, robust and genuinely pagan. The large works, however, which strive to express a more profound and often tragic statement are less often unqualified successes.

The seriousness of Nakian’s effort raises the question of which is preferable, the noble failure or the paltry success. I would choose the noble failure.

––Barbara Rose