PRINT March 1971

Unconventional Realists, Part II: Sculpture

“THUS IN PLACE OF A SELF-RESPECTING art worthy of its ancient lineage, the Paris of yesterday—that is, the Paris of immediately before the war (W.W. 1)—offered her visitors the puerile effronteries of these harlequins, delighting through their very ineptitude a public avid of new sensations. Unbridled realism and cleverness had run their course, and the jaded critics found refreshment in pretense of naiveté and willful bungling.

“One protests that these things are merely the front of the annual exhibitions, that there is always a great body of good work, less obtrusive because decent. The serious masters toil on unmoved, and the epidemic would speedily have run its course. This is doubtless true, but the fact remains that there has been for some time a weakness in French sculpture (n.b., we would say French academic sculpture) far more real and more deplorable than any sporadic attack of ‘cubism’ or ‘vorticism.’ This is the unmonumental character of French monuments . . . One must realize that the weakness is inherent in the ideals of the time. Simplicity, serenity, dignity—all these qualities of a truly monumental art have disappeared to make way for violence and vociferation. That precious ‘hint of eternity’ which is sculpture’s greatest asset has been completely eliminated.” (Lorado Taft writing in 1917 in Modern Tendencies in Sculpture. These fragments appear after a pro-and-con discussion of Rodin and an attack on Matisse, Archipenko and Gaudier-Brzeska.)

It has been a long time since anyone anywhere has taken any figurative monument seriously as important sculpture. It has been a long time since all of the sculptors attacked by Taft, except for Gaudier-Brzeska, were unquestionable modernist masters. The last work of Lorado Taft’s I saw was a diorama of the interior of the studio of some Florentine sculptor (was it Michelangelo working on his David?) in the basement of a provincial museum. Taft attacked, without understanding, all the modernist sculpture of his time. Sculpture which simplified and distorted the figure in a search for modernist metaphors was outside his understanding; it was also quite clearly, as far as he was concerned, outside the tradition of figure sculpture which flowed from Greece, Rome and the Italian Renaissance. But French monumental sculpture, the public commissions produced by the most talented academic sculptors of his time, should have been within his understanding. Why did he reject it? Because its complicated outline, involved gesture and purposeful mixture of the ideal, the real and the symbolic seemed to him tasteless, unsculptural and too realistic.

Taft is interesting because he represents intelligent conservative taste at the very moment that modern sculpture was being born. The contradictory positions of Rodin and Adolph Hildebrand are both partially accepted. Sculpture is perceived in the round in volumes, not in terms of relief building out from a plane, but simplicity of arrangement of figure forms and their relationship to architectural elements is desirable, as is a classic simplicity and generalization of details to prevent distasteful realism. But Hildebrand’s greatest stricture on realistic composition came in his discussion of Canova’s Figures Entering a Tomb which he castigated for presenting a series of figures realistically related to the architectural element. They are not constructed so that they are related volumetrically and developed from the front plane of the pyramidal tomb shape. So many of the conservative sculptures accepted by Taft lose the discrete separateness of sculpture from reality. A bust, herm or portrait figure is related to one of several sculptured figures meant to mediate between ideal distant art and the spectator; these instead confuse the discreteness of the sculpture.

These sculptures make sense neither in Hildebrand’s terms by implying imaginary frontal planes at each level in space, nor in Rodin’s terms by integrating all of their masses into large, easily perceived volumes. Sections can be seen as related volumes, sections as implying planar frontality, all meant to be unified by subject, symbol and sometimes art-nouveau linearity. Such sculptures can be produced only when the formal and ideational procedures have been ignored in the wide public acceptance of an unquestioned series of dicta and when conventional formal and ideational problems of art have displaced serious search. No matter how skillful technically, the work thus produced must inevitably be thoughtless, facile and correspondingly weak. There was no traditional alternative to modernism, rather art nouveau and art moderne alternatives in the work of Bouchard, Metzner, Gill, Lee Laurie, Mestrovic and others of their ilk.

Since World War I all of the figurative sculpture we still take seriously has been work produced by lapsed avant-gardists, conservative moderns or academic sculptors whose most modernist statement is that very figurative sculpture which we admire. This is as true for Nadelman as Marcks, Lachaise as Martini, Matisse and Picasso. Despiau and Maillol must be seen in the context of conservative School of Paris modernism. The list of serious figure sculptors active since World War I is a short one by comparison with that of abstract sculptors. Even when figurative, all of these recent sculptors work within a rather narrow range of conventions. These include distortion and simplification for formal and expressive reasons (as in Maillol, Despiau and Matisse), reductive simplification of forms and their gesture (Brancusi), free invention based on an understanding of the form in its space envelope (Gonzalez, Gargallo, Boccioni, early Giacometti), exaggeration based on emotive rather than purely plastic reasons (Lehmbruck, Barlach). Elaboration, starting from a figurative germ, obfuscates the image of the figure in the Cubist sculptures of Picasso, Gonzalez, Gargallo and Boccioni and emphasizes the irrational plastic inventions of the artist.

Modernist sculpture rebounding from the opaque wall of 19th-century conventions did not have the problems that conservative sculpture had. Invention, reduction and exaggeration were unconventional. They had to be justified in every case in the individual work, but there was no commonly held set of conventions in ideation or representation which blinded the mind’s eye. The discretion of modernist sculpture was aided as well by a level of abstraction removed from objective reality in the eyes of its producers and public. The lack of confusion by the artist of his conventions with reality resulted in concentration on problems of sculptural construction and plastic realization. Although to our eyes Gerhard Marck’s best work (before 1952) and the work of the Italians Martini, Marini and Greco look more traditional than other modernist sculpture, this is because their work, rather than being reductive, combines elements of exaggerated gesture and simplified planar reading of the form, and limits distortion to the believable. Their best work is very little different in its level of abstraction from the Montserrat of Gonzalez which, though openwork, is essentially monolithic and a conservative Cubist statement.

Many of the conservative modernists did not teach. Those who did were not essentially different in their doctrine of formal expression or their characterization of the artistic process from modernist sculptors of a gaudier stripe. As a result, most of their students are indistinguishable from the mass of indoctrinated modernists who fill the art world.

When new figurative sculpture began appearing in the sixties, it had little sculptural tradition behind it. Thyra Davidson was an ex-painter, as is Howard Kalish. Walter Erlebacher was trained as an industrial designer and had no contact with American figure sculptors during his student years. Only Richard Miller, who was educated in the thirties and forties, was educated as a figure sculptor. His recent work, though, has a very tenuous connection with his education, a much larger one with his self-education since his school days. He too admits the influence of new figurative painters on his work. The new sculptors who are seriously interested in the figure thus began with a lack of involvement either pro or con with conventional values in figure sculpture. Their primary task has been the development of schema for the representation of figures and objects in space in the round. Especially in the case of figure sculpture, this posed a greater problem on a purely mechanical level than did the first steps into figuration in painting. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are relatively few figurative sculptors now active compared with hundreds of figurative painters. Many of these have not yet shown their work, including Alvin Sher, David Klass, Lloyd Glasson, Natalie Chankow and Harvey Citron.

Howard Kalish began as a painter and turned to sculpture originally in search of a means for making volumes and spatial relationships clear. He did not wish to sacrifice the clarity of the image to the clarity of space and volume. Except for a short stay at the New York Studio School he has been largely self-taught. In his portraits, he aims not only for clear volumes but also for weight and likeness. Despite the fact that he paints his forms naturalistically, they are simplified and tend toward frontality, growing from an easy-to-imagine plane; even when three-dimensional, they seem to conform to a concept of bas-relief. Their stillness and simplification also separate them from the real world. His new composition of a guitar player in an environment is the clearest example of these tendencies. The wall behind the guitar player is not merely realistically related to the figure, who sits in front of it, but acts as the basic plane from which the, as it were, high relief (although here we are dealing with sculpture in the round) develops. The source in Giacometti is evident, but the importance of the gesture of the figure, big-headed in all his bourgeois glory, the ambition of a realistic environment separated from the world by formal sculptural convention is original. It seems to me that the big-headed figure here is as important in establishing the anti-aristocratic bias of the artist and model as it was in Corot’s portrait of Alexandre Clerambault and has some of the personal weirdness of Balthus’ illustrations for Wuthering Heights. Unlike earlier 20th-century figure sculptors, we sense in Kalish’s work a drive towards increased believability and complexity of the image and its representation as the formal means grow subtler and more controlled. Thus planarity and exaggerated proportion are part of the desire to express the subject as clearly as possible. Conventional planar sophistication and exaggeration of gesture are avoided in favor of perceptual believability, but the forms are always kept discrete in their relationship to the real world.

Thyra Davidson, in her wooden still fifes, maintains a similar awareness of bas-relief. The forms grow out of the block of wood and in the simple planar relationships between the fruit, cloth and large mass of the wood continue the bas-relief tradition. The forms of the objects are seen essentially in planar form. The characteristic of the spaces and volumes evoked retains a distinct and measurable distance from objects seen in the real world. The intention, however, is to present formal complexity in terms of easily recognizable object groupings, to disguise formal elaboration within unquestionable imagery. The need to deny a life separate to the plastic means, from the objects represented, places Miss Davidson’s sculpture outside conventional figuration.

Frank Smullin, in his reliefs of the last three years, has been using any means at hand to pursue a story-telling ideal. His largest series, which could be titled “A Day in the Life of the Artist,” is intensely romantic in its shifts in the level of abstraction from reality to fantasy and mixtures of both. These were almost drawn rather than sculpted in relief. In his recent self-portrait the forms begin to develop clear volumes as they move out of a surface which is presented as both a plane and a window. Smullin seems to be wavering between Rodin’s conception of the figure as developing of necessity in volume rather than as a series of relief-like silhouettes, and the concept of relief, in which a series of silhouettes adds up to volume. His work, however, is propelled by the need to tell stories. In his case, development of formal and structural security seems to be pulled out from him by the desire to express literary ideas.

Walter Erlebacher is interested in the human form, its proportion, placement in space and the interaction between figures as a carrier of symbolic meaning. In order to arrive at a point where he had sufficient control over the figure to involve himself primarily in its symbolic significance he had to study the structure of the human body and its proportions in the greatest detail. He works with a one-eighth scale figure built on an armature of his own invention which consists of a simplified skull, rib cage and pelvic groups connected with wires which express the movement of the figure. To build the figure into three dimensions he attaches muscle groups until he reaches the outer contours of the form. Thus far he has not put fat and skin on his figures because he feels that this would make them too naturalistic and keep them from having the ideal distance from reality which he wants them to possess. The proportions of the figures are very carefully thought out and may change from work to work. In the Death of Apollo all of the proportions of the architectural environment and trees as well as the figure are based on a Fibonacci series. In this series (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.) the first two numbers added produce the next, ad infinitum. This series aims at as its “ideal” golden mean proportions but never attains them. Thus Apollo as the god of reason dies as the ideal of reason is confronted by the disorder of nature. An earlier work, also an Apollo, shows the figure making a gesture with one hand which implies the spatial coordinates of Descartes, holding a sphere in his other hand. The figure stands on a cube which is placed next to a sphere. The figure in its actions encompasses the two basic ways of expressing volume. In the sculpture entitled Night and Day Teaching Their Son to Walk, flying figures as well as the standing one are located in space by means of three-dimensional projections of a golden section. Horizontal and vertical lines, as well as diagonals, which express major directions of movement as well as important divisions in the space, are all based on the golden section. Every spatial element, every line, every proportion and each volume of every figure has been located systemically. This systemic approach one might call structure. Form in sculpture would depend on being able to read continuity so that a spatial and volumetric logic is apparent which lends sensuous believability to the forms depicted. The complex symbolic and structural development in Walter Erlebacher’s work has at this point slighted such formal development. However, we should not undervalue the importance of an art which sees the gesture and proportion of the human figure as embodying philosophic and symbolic meanings on a level of ideation much more easily found in 20th-century abstract sculpture.

It is also valuable to note that Erlebacher’s sculpture is so idealized and separated from natural events that it cannot under any circumstances be taken for realistic representation. The dignity and timelessness of sculpture is asserted with a vengeance. Unlike the other sculptors whom I have mentioned so far, his whole procedure is volumetric. The development of the figure proceeds by wrapping the forms with the muscles. Although he arrives at volumes understood in relation to the planar simplifications of the human body, the process is spherical. The placement of figures in space is always clearly with an awareness of three-dimensional spatial development rather than relief. His manipulation of proportion systems such as golden section and Fibonacci series to determine three-dimensional coordinates for spatial development is an original and intriguing idea. His environments are conceived of sculpturally and architecturally. They are miniature monuments but are not conceived of as models for larger works. The desire to have a systemic means of constructing and locating everything in space, every element of the figure and its surroundings, is an antithetical development away from sensibility as the major determinant of form, structure and image in sculpture. It thus can be seen as a reaction against this portion of the modernist heritage. The works produced, despite their structural logic, can, however, be experienced as a part of the tradition of metaphysical art beginning with de Chirico. Erlebacher’s conception of classic form seems as personal and idiosyncratic at this moment in time as that of Fuseli, Flaxman and Barry 150 years ago. He is aiming at a personal symbolism through poetic implications in the relationships of classical figures in a classic setting. His models are not wholly different from those chosen by Flaxman and Fuseli: Michelangelo and the classical Greeks. They, however, were interested as well in such artists as Pellegrino Tibaldi and the Alexandrian sculptors, and he finds more in the archaic Greeks and the earlier Italian Renaissance. There is as well at this point in his development a self-made and willed character W his forms which seems in some ways even more eccentric than those of the English Neoclassicists.

Richard Miller first became known for sculptures of figures engaged in some simple action (Mary: Walking Sequence, Sandy Sitting). In some of these the figure was repeated three times to give a sense of the gesture. In each case the model was recognizable, her pose and gesture believable. Miller’s understanding of anatomy and gesture, even ten years ago, was secure enough so that the major problems have been those of form and ideation. Miller, like Erlebacher, develops his volumes in the round, in the tradition best expressed by Rodin: “Sculpture in the round alone produces the qualities of life. For instance, to make a bust does not consist in executing the different surfaces and their details . . . On the contrary, from the first sitting the whole mass must be conceived and constructed in its varying circumferences.” More recently, Miller has been working with single figures in a simple environment. His recent unfinished, large two-figure sculpture is an extension of this development. Working from wax sketches made directly from the model and photographs made from a series of views of the model in this pose, he models over an armature composed of a series of cross-sectional contours of the figure, an armature which is much like the work of Synthetic Cubist sculptors and painters, work which is best understood as a criticism and explication of traditional pictorial and sculptural practice. The figure, in a position of disequilibrium, maintains a transitory gesture. Working from the sketch and the photographs, keeping his knowledge of anatomical structure in the back of his mind, he works freely and improvisatorily toward realization of the figures’ volumes in action and the gestures of the two figures in relation to one another. There is much less conceptualization and planning than in Erlebacher’s work. The formal security of hand and eye and intuitive sympathy for the model as a person as well as plastically are the bases for the final work. The position is in no way modernist. The development of form is through a sensibility which reveres the human figure in all its complexity and the sculpture of the 19th century in all its diversity, from Canova and Palmer through Rodin and Dalou.

In his recent work Miller has staked out a position midway between that of the unconventional realists and that of the concentric expressionists. His sensibility has been profoundly affected by his study and sympathy for earlier sculptors and their work. His experience of the act of modeling directly and improvisatorily flows not only from this but also from a thorough understanding of the structure and formal implications of the figure. He does not choose to express his understanding of the figure in terms of that conventional shorthand notation which conventional 20th-century figure sculptors have developed, nor does he allow us to read the forms he models through a welter of Impressionist marks. We must accept his forms as figure forms which stand or fall in their believability as figures with their gesture, not as sculptures which telegraph the gesture of their maker.

For these sculptors each masterpiece in the tradition of Western art is experienced as a separate combination of its maker’s involvement with nature, with the past, and with his own development. The whole of the art work is experienced directly. Tradition is not closed to the artist in action. It has become instead the breathable atmosphere in which these works must be located to be experienced and understood. These artists’ evolutions reveal a fruitful mixture of backward glance, individual idiosyncrasy and representation of nature.

For some of these artists the rejection of the ideals as well as specific formulae of conventional figure sculpture has meant a loss of grace, ease and even, on occasion, of sculptural form. Regaining a position inside the pre-modernist figure tradition in which proportion, gesture and placement of the figure, its weight and balance have expressive and symbolic meaning is worth the hazard. A new vantage point which allows unexpected personal development is a constant and continuing necessity if art is to remain alive.

Gabriel Laderman