New York

Julio Gonzalez

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

The present installation of four sculptures and a multitude of drawings by Julio Gonzalez alters only slightly the prevailing sense of this metal forger’s sculptural contribution except in that it widens our awareness of his lifelong attachment to homiletic sentimentalizations ultimately derived from Barbizon painting. Rather, the broad array of drawings and pastels reaffirm that Gonzalez is most easily viewed as a craftsman of genial inspiration rather than a sculptor of genius.

Among the earlier work of note––done after his arrival in Paris in 1900 and his meeting with Picasso––one finds several charming period studies of belle-époque themes marked, as were Picasso’s, along very similar lines, with a heavy dollop of the morose. This blue note is of course indelibly Picasso’s but it may also infer on Gonzalez’s part an admiration for the paintings of Isidor Nonell. The massive, sculptural tendencies of this painter of Spanish gypsies have already been noted as one of the sources of Picasso’s early work. They also might provide a clue for Gonzalez’s ultimate rejection of his own version of Surrealist Constructivism of the 1930s in favor of the restrained social polemics inherent in his final monument, the Montserrat of 1941–42.

I am hard put to endorse the Montserrat which I consider to be a backward glance echoing such minor late Barbizon painters as Jules Breton, if not of François Millet himself. The important technical achievement it deals in, the fusion of hollow massive forms, stake out, however, structural considerations taken note of by an army of minor post-World War II American sculptors (and, in the case of David Smith, at least one great one), who adopted with alacrity Gonzalez’s direct vernacular in the forging of iron and steel. However, the structural innovations of Montserrat are overshadowed in my view of it by its implicating Social Realism. Incidentally the work in question is not in the exhibition although a solid cast study for the head is.

I am much more intrigued by Gonzalez’s patently Picassoid works of the 1930’s, marked as they are by two-dimensional pattern making, late Surrealist anthropomorphizing and Lipchitz-like openness. Certain historians have suggested that the influences may have run the other way though I cannot seriously credit this view. While they are certainly Gonzalez’s most consciously advanced achievement, his artisanal and decorative sense of ironwork appears to be the intelligence which dominates these pieces.

It is a pleasure to see the well known Cactus-Man I (1939–40) and the Woman With A Mirror of 1936, particularly beside so many working drawings––but the Museum of Modern Art renders itself laughable in its laziness. To have brought down from the third floor its own Woman Combing Her Hair (1936), would have enormously assisted in such comparisons, not only between drawing and sculpture but between sculpture and sculpture. Their similarity to Picasso’s open Surrealist pieces of the early thirties are nonetheless clearly evident. Likewise the Museum must be chided for neglecting to transfer its famous Head of 1935, considering the number of drawings being exhibited for the piece.

One unfamiliar sculpture was shown, the Seated Woman of 1935. An arresting work, its simple contrapuntal fusions of rigid automatic shapes, some forming hollow three-dimensional units, identify it as one of Gonzalez’s most perspicacious pieces. That the base for the work should so much usurp the figure––it is mounted on a large cube which distracts from the work’s highly arrogant shifts of plane—is an error perhaps not of the Museum’s making but that of the Galerie de France, from which the lion’s share of drawings also have come.

Robert Pincus-Witten