Henry Moore

University of Chicago

In December the University of Chicago dedicated the large Henry Moore sculpture, Nuclear Energy. Erected on the site of the first nuclear chain reaction the setting has yet to be completed and the interaction between the piece and its surroundings has yet to be determined. Although not overlarge in size (its 12-foot height being about one quarter that of the Picasso Head at the Civic Center) it is monumental in scale like so many of Moore’s works and appears to be a major sculpture in the artist’s oeuvre.

Erecting sculptural monuments which are intended to commemorate historic events has become an infrequent occurrence in the 20th century. Among other factors which brought about the lack of interest in this genre was the complete lack of quality in so many of the 19th-century monuments. Overdone, bombastic and valueless in every way, the bronze sculptures which clutter the parks of this city and others, made hollow and pointless the act of commemoration. Moore, one of the century’s great sculptors, has from the beginning expressed a humanism which is almost traditional in value. For purposes of commemoration the choice of his work seems especially fitting.

This sculpture typifies the largeness of spirit that we have come to associate with Moore, a spirit tested and mature. Both its largeness of scale and the formal concept contribute to its authority, but this is a piece which does not fit neatly into our ideas of Moore’s work thus far. The carvings of the late ’40s, after the war enforced delay, displayed a mastery of means and a fusion of concept and technical control, not to say a virtuosity which makes the works from that period a standard against which much of Moore’s later work will be judged. Throughout most of the ’50s his sense of form (something which Herbert Read has compared with “absolute pitch”) seemed to falter. His awakened interest in Classical sculpture resulted in forms that were never resolved or at least never resolved with the assurance and authority that we had come to expect. If his feeling for form was submerged, it came into full play again in the ’60s and there is in his work today a resonance which it has not had before.

If on the one hand we speak of Moore’s humanism we might also speak with equal emphasis and more precisely of his “humanity.” His work has never been conceived as reflecting some ideal which tends to allay our response, to deflect our approach, by its own self-contained identity. Sculpture such as his cannot close off all avenues of feeling nor smooth out all imperfections without losing its all-important vitality. Its accessibility as a human document is one of its singular qualities, his unique statement.

The subject matter for Nuclear Energy, i.e. the mushroom cloud, was conceded if at all, with great reluctance by Moore and he stated clearly that the idea for the sculpture had been germinating and taking shape in his mind before his consideration of the commission. Although he places no restraint on allusions to such an image he does not encourage them and the sculpture itself does little to underscore the subject. The pictorial qualities of such a subject lack all reference to the tactile qualities which have always served as a guide for Moore’s finest work, the result of the intimate feeling between hand and object. (His conviction about working completely in the round with a small maquette, hand held, gives particular meaning to these ideas.) Irrespective of size this way of working results in obvious advantages (e.g. the flow of the contour beneath the piece and its relation to the central void). It also ties in with his interest in forms such as those that show a record of natural processes, such as eroded stones, growth lines in wood, etc. The Helmet series (1939–40, and again 1950–52) has the same dome contour as this piece and the same portent, a dualism both protective and ominous. His Upright Internal and External Form of 1951 and 1953–54 has a more protective feeling to it with its undulating enclosure and it, too, is clearly antecedent to this piece. There are echoes from earlier abstractions as well, those which were oriented toward Constructivism and also from the Time Life Screen of 1952–53.

In the heads of his King and Queen, 1952–53, the effect was more withdrawn, less full, and it was frankly based on bone Forms, vertebrae in particular. In the ’60s, Knife-Edge: Two Piece, 1962, and Locking Piece, 1963–64, both bone-like in contour, foreshadow the direction found in the present work.

The topmost surface of Nuclear Energy is both helmet-like and, in its polished smoothness, like some knuckle bone. The smooth, spherical volume seems to create the void, its opposite, underneath. The strength of the piece is inherent in the relatively simple silhouette and also in the tensions created by the “cradling” of the upper form in the bladelike flanges. Some convex surfaces complete themselves as cavities, others are subjugated to a transitional role. As typical of much of Moore’s work this sculpture expresses a powerful, self-contained energy.

Whitney Halstead