PRINT November 1974

John Storrs, Early Sculptor of the Machine Age

IT IS SURPRISING THAT JOHN STORRS, whose achievements were considerable, still remains unknown to all but the most careful historians of early twentieth-century art;1 and, perhaps, to the city of his origin, Chicago, where unfortunately he is remembered only for his gargantuan commissioned projects, such as the 33-foot-high aluminum statue of Ceres placed atop the Board of Trade Building and the many reliefs made for the Hall of Science and other buildings of Chicago’s Century of Progress Exhibition of 1933.

Storrs began working with metals in the early 1920s, a few years after some of the Constructivists, but before Julio Gonzalez, who did not begin until 1927. He was the first American-born sculptor to do so; his work predated even Calder’s wire circus sculpture. Whether working in metal or not, he fabricated machinelike forms: the bronze Gendarme Seated of 1920 seems like a modernized armored man constructed out of rather than sheathed within metal plating. The symbols of a machine technocracy inspired Storrs, and frequently he juxtaposed vertically long bars of steel and other metals to evoke images of skyscraper clusters, static as one takes the piece in as a whole, majestically soaring as one concentrates upon the upper area. Some of these sculptures may have been based in the beginning on specific buildings: an ink sketch of 1923 made for the Forms in Space of 1926 reveals at the bottom shaded and crosshatched areas which resemble a building’s cross section. In some pieces, the shapes of actual tools are incorporated, such as the obvious wrenchlike and anvil-like forms in the stainless steel Composition Around Two Voids of 1932. Unlike the Constructivists who made tensile, open sculptures of metals, plastics, and more conservative materials, Storrs’ sculptures are densely solid and manifestly earthbound, conveying industry’s potential for permanence, powerful durability, and totemic strength. Metal, for him, was something clean and shining, given to sectionings and partitions which fit into one another crisply and apparently inevitably. He would have found unpalatable David Smith’s assertion that “steel . . . is also brutal: the rapist, the murderer and death-dealing giants are also its offspring.” Four decades before the 1960s Storrs blurred the boundaries between fine and industrial art. In 1925, one year before Brancusi underwent a similar problem with his Bird in Space, an American customs official refused, at first, to admit Storrs’ House at the End of the Street, an arrangement of rods and cylinders of steel, brass, and bronze mounted on a vulcanite base, as a duty-free work of art because it looked too much like scientific instruments.2

John Storrs was born in Chicago in 1885. His father, D.W. Storrs, an architect who was so successful in real estate that he donated two square blocks to the city for educational purposes,3 promised his son a year in Europe in 1907–08 if he would study at the University of Michigan and go into business. The younger Storrs took the year, which he spent for a while in Berlin, where he studied voice and was considered so promising that he had offers to sing with the Berlin opera. Then he traveled to Spain, Constantinople, Greece, Italy, and Egypt. But, upon his return to America, he was determined to become a sculptor. From 1908–12 he studied under a variety of academicians, first under Lorado Taft at the Art Institute of Chicago, then under Charles Grafly at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and finally in Boston. But equally important to his development as a sculptor must have been his immersion in Chicago’s technological ethos, his memories of its skyscraper clusters, and the effect of many high school courses he took in shop and mechanical drafting.

Settling in Paris in 1912, Storrs studied for a short time at the Academie Julian, then became Rodin’s favorite pupil. In 1915 he came to America to arrange for Rodin’s exhibition at San Francisco’s World’s Fair, and had his own sculpture placed beside that of the master. As Rodin lay dying in 1917, his friend Monsieur Benedict (later to become director of the Rodin Museum) turned to Storrs, singling him out, and asked him to make a last drawing. Requesting to be alone with Rodin, in about 15 minutes Storrs produced an etching, which was later converted to a lithograph and hung in the Rodin Museum. In the middle of the second decade, Storrs turned out bronzes of languorously drooping nudes, betraying Rodin’s influence. At its end, his pieces became heavier, more four-ply, suggesting Secession influences; and they were modishly Art Deco in flavor (a few years before the style became generally prevalent), and bore vague classical or exotic reminiscences. Eleven sculptures and twenty wood engravings were shown Deeember 9–24, 1920 at New York’s Folsom Galleries at 104 West 57th Street. Storrs’ French wife, a novelist who had published frequently in the Paris Temps, wrote of her husband in the appreciative catalogue essay:

Mon mari est artiste. Il échappe donc à toute définition. Il est sculpteur, il est dessinateur, il est graveur, il est architecte, il est poëte, il est rêveur, il est caméléon. Il change d’humeur avec la lumière et est sous l’inspiration comme une goutte d’eau dans le soleil. . . . Son âme prend toutes les nouances de l'air . . . . (My husband is an artist. He thus escapes every definition. He is a sculptor, he is a draftsman, he is an engraver, he is an architect, he is a poet, he is a dreamer, he is a chameleon. He changes mood with the light and is under its inspiration like a drop of water in the sunlight . . . . His soul takes on the little differences of the air . . . . )

Storrs elected to remain in France, for the most part until 1929 when he returned to Chicago. This was done at a sacrifice. He stood to come into a considerable fortune, were he to agree to abide by the provisions of his father’s will and spend the major part of each year in America. But he felt at home in France: his friends and contacts in art were there. Even after 1929, in spite of the considerable work he did for Chicago’s Century of Progress Exhibition of 1933, Storrs kept criss-crossing the Atlantic. He spent so much time in France that he cannot safely be considered among the early American modernists. His closest friend among them was Marsden Hartley, who traveled constantly himself, and who painted at least two portraits of him. Shortly after America declared war against Germany in 1941, Storrs, then in France, was taken off to a concentration camp. His daughter recalls that it was just before Christmas; the tree was up, but the decorations were not yet in place. Storrs was weakened in health by his six-month confinement, and much disheartened: in his last years, according to his daughter, his wonderful sense of humor turned, and he did caricatures that were very unpleasant and satiric in intent.4 He died in Mer, France, in 1956.

1920 marked a watershed in Storrs’ career, for in that year he turned from his quaint classical pieces, like the Winged Horse and Rider of 1919, to a Cubist exploration of form (Storrs apparently called the work The Spirit of Walt Whitman). Storrs had been in Paris while Cubism was being developed in the second decade, and his coming to terms with the style finally in 1920 in the Gendarme Seated would seem surprisingly late, were it not for Rodin’s strong hold on him. In this work he dislocated forms more thoroughly than any other American sculptor of the time in or out of the United States. But he did not push the style as far as, say, Lipchitz, Archipenko, Laurens, Duchamp-Villon, and a few other Europeans, who reassembled masses with greater abandon, sometimes opening up the sculpture entirely. What Storrs lost in this regard he gained in the extraordinary mechanical sort of expressiveness with which he imbued the figure. Less successful, however, is the polychrome plaster Dancer of c. 1922. The semblance of the figure is less clearly related to the appearance of the actual dancer (than was the Gendarme to the figure it was meant to represent), but the stylization as it is is unsatisfying. The connections with the world of machines, seen in the blocklike simplifications of some of the forms, are now hesitant and uncertain. The sculpture is unhappily top-heavy, and conveys the opposite of the gracefulness, which would be the requisite of a dancer. The active surface, deeply indented, incorporates many diverse directions, which rather than expressing the energized movement of a dancer, makes for confusion and irresolution. But in other pieces, a few years later, Storrs would be able to successfully infuse a piece with contradictory meanings.

The Cubist experiments were over by the middle of the decade. The later nonobjective vertically oriented sculptures can be related on an apparent morphological level to the rectangular forms in the contemporary paintings of Mondrian, Malevich, and others within the orbit of De Stijl and the Bauhaus circles. But the shafts, rooted as they are in a machine technology, which is of a crystalline gleaming purity, bring to mind as well the factoryscapes of the American Precisionists Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, George Ault, Niles Spencer, and others. The most sensible analogies to make, though, are with the kind of reductive, geometrically pure architecture (now grouped under the heading of the International Style), which was gaining vogue in Europe and America during the 1920s and 1930s. Storrs’ American, especially Chicago, heritage is strongest with the Study in Architectural Forms of c. 1927 and the Forms in Space #1 of 1926, which can easily be seen as mock-ups of skyscrapers. There is a short distance between them and, say, Hood and Howells’ Daily News Building built in New York in 1930 or Howe and Lescaze’s Philadelphia Savings Fund Building of 1932 (to be imagined without the windows).

The architectural associations are recurrent. Other sculptures, of granite or some other stone, squarish, ponderous, are like the building blocks of a massive structure, except that they have been enlivened with a pattern produced through a vigorous undercutting (as in the granite Abstract Forms #2 of c. 1919) or with a variety of applied materials, which create interesting textural contrasts with the blank smoothness of the stone (as in the polychromed stone Panel with Mirror Insets of 1921). In keeping with the architectural analogies, these sculptured blocks look ahead to the so-called brutalist architecture, which developed in reaction to the coolness and anonymity of the International Style and was most successfully advanced by Le Corbusier in the ’40s and ’50s. Still, the connections with the industrial world are maintained. The regular ridged patterns carved into the Abstract Forms #2 remind one of surfaces on parts of machinery and on certain objects in the industrial world, such as the tread patterns on tires, the teeth of gears, and so on. The possible connections with contemporary painting are tantalizing, as with the Panel with Mirror Insets. The mirror, a reflective surface, confounds the viewer as to the depth and the degree of opaqueness and transparency of the stone. Such a use of the mirror is an extension or variant of a fundamental concept of Synthetic Cubism, the manipulation and rearrangement of materials to create states of ambiguity. But, at best, Storrs used Synthetic Cubism not as a direct point of departure or as a style to be frankly emulated, as much as a stimulus to experimentation with a variety of materials.

In some of Storr’s sculptures strange anomalies exist, and the viewer is made to react ambivalently, or is pulled at once in contrary directions. In their curious expressiveness these pieces are remarkably different from the cool spareness of the vertically oriented buildinglike rectangles. For example, in the polychromed terracotta Abstraction #1 of 1925, there is an almost threatening rigidly frontal stance and obvious formal metaphors with the world of machines (there is a ridged pattern lining the sculpture similar to that in Abstract Forms #2 and the entire sculpture is shaped like a wrench). On the other hand, there is a kind of Baroquely gay impact. A bronze Abstraction appears, at first glance, like an armadillo, or like some fantastic shelled animal. But the linear patterns on the surface, reminiscent of ducts or ventilator valves, and the handling of the bronze in the manner of metal plates which have been fitted together (as in the Gendarme Seated of 1920), evoke the world of machines. To simply see Storrs as a pioneer metal worker or as one of the first in the twentieth century to make wholly nonobjective sculptures is to render him an injustice; beyond the more minimal pieces there is an element of unique fantasy, a bizarre expressiveness which must be appreciated on its own level.

From the late 1920s, Storrs’ industrially derived forms became less spare and streamlined, more curvilinear and nearly decorative. From the polychromed terracotta Abstraction #2 (Industrial Forms) of 1935 two contradictory signals are emitted––the attractive gaiety of the material, and the hardness of the mechanical world suggested through the meaning of the form and its poised isolation. A series of paintings from the late 1920s shows vaguely anthropomorphic, buglike objects but still maintains machinelike characteristics. The objects, colored with a smooth enamel-like surface resembling a spray coating, remotely suggest gears, screws, bolts, and rivets, and occupy all of the painting surface. These paintings seem to have been intended as studies for sculpture. Storrs liked to play on multiple responses. Upon further acquaintance with his work, his wife’s 1920 catalogue statement (previously quoted) becomes, rather than poetic hyperbole, an apt characterization of an artistic temperament. The Duck of 1934––a triple image of a key, a duck, and a duck-man––leaves the viewer uncertain whether to respond to the playfulness or to be struck by the starkness of the metalliclike figure striding to a mechanical rhythm. There is a playful side to Storrs’ art that can easily be overlooked when one considers the spare coolness of much of the sculpture. In the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery there is a metal sculpture of a skyscraper, about two feet high, which can be read as well as a fire engine; on its top are wheels, lights, and fenders. So cleverly were the two images fused that two years went by, Schoelkopf reports, before he noticed that the vertical building, placed horizontally, became something entirely different.

Storrs was a chameleon, his wife wrote. Indeed, one searches in vain for a master key, that single point around which all or even most of the creations revolve. There are dozens of exquisite line drawings, mostly of nudes, spare, lean, harmoniously flowing, reminiscent of Matisse and worthy of him at his best. A pencil drawing of a soldier, probably dating from the First World War, reveals an unerring sense of proportion, a remarkable indication of the volume of the figure through outline alone (there is some modeling of the coat slung over the shoulders), and a sensitive placement of the figure in relation to the total white ground of the paper. On the other hand, there are strongly moody nonobjective paintings, e.g., the Room 13, which are darkly ominous, which have yet to be interpreted and seem to indicate something deeply personal within the artist’s past.

All his life Storrs was strangely reticent. He issued no pronouncements, gave no indications of what he felt of his own art. He let others speak for him––and they seldom did. He does not fall within a neat category, he exhibited with no camp within modernism. His work, rather than following some sort of linear development, is marked by sudden fits and starts and unexpected turns. He was a confirmed experimentalist, close to the temper of the times––at one moment prognosticating future directions through his machine-derived forms, at another reflecting the latest avant-garde trends, and just as often betraying a willful individualism and a curious playfulness.



1. The only article on Storrs in an American periodical is E. Bryant’s “ Rediscovery: John Storrs,” Art in America, May, 1969, occasioned by Storrs’ first and only retrospective at the Corcoran. Wayne Craven’s Sculpture in America, New York, 1968, and Hilton Kramer’s The Age of the Avant-Garde, New York, 1973, provide more material.

2. The incident is reported by R.A. Lennon in Art World Magazine, March 3, 1925, p. 8.

3. Storrs came from an illustrious New England family, which included Richard
Storrs, a prominent American preacher of the 1880s, and Augustus Storrs of
Connecticut who gave his state an agricultural college.

4. Interviews with Mrs. Monique Storrs-Booz of Winnetka, Illinois.