New York

Henri Laurens

New York Cultural Center

It was a very fine idea of the New York Cultural Center to hold a retrospective of the work of Henri Laurens, but to tell the truth, it wasn’t an especially good representation ofhis output. I know this is an oddity, since what the show consisted of was the donation of the Laurens estate to the French government, but there it is. At any rate the show afforded an entirely adequate chance to review what Laurens did—for the first time, I believe, in this country—and that made it very welcome. Laurens was not by any means a great sculptor, but he was intelligent, sensitive, and serious; and since, in addition, he was content to explore problems he inherited from others, without devising new approaches of his own, his work epitomizes the traditions, methods and aspirations of French sculpture during three exceptionally busy and important decades. And its interest, which remains constant through all changes in the preponderance of problems in relation to solutions, is in the extent to which it epitomizes.

The earliest pieces in the show are of course the construction collages, or vice versa, that represent early Synthetic Cubism in 3-D; Laurens’ drawings during this period are, notwithstanding, much closer to Gris than to Picasso, and among sculptors he resembles Lipchitz more closely than anyone else. Why Lipchitz and not Zadkine? The question is important, and the answer has to do with the kinds of sculpture that existed before Picasso devised his constructions. Basically, there were two. One, represented by Rodin, could be called late baroque: the statement is in the interplay of solids and voids, light and shadow as the block is broken and space is funneled into and through it; ultimately, the ideas of this kind of sculpture lead to “open form.” The other kind of sculpture Laurens found about him in the days before Picasso is best represented by Maillol. Instead of consisting of the interaction of mass and of space, this sculpture is monolithic: the block is intact and stable, if not assertive, with the result that, even where light is important, the areas of it are broad and placid. Zadkine’s work represents the Cubist counterpart of Rodin—in it, everything depends on the interplay, to the point of equivalence, of solid and void. Laurens at the outset is the Cubist counterpart of Maillol.

So it is not surprising that in the ’20s and early ’30s when, to mymind, he did his best work, Laurens practiced the French idiom of Art Déco. And it is important to note that it was very French, since elsewhere one often finds a kind of drawing in space which is not to be seen in Laurens: with him, even when surfaces are not used to build volumes, lines are always used to define planes. These pieces are perhaps unusual in their quality, but the type was a frequent one, only in paintings it tended to be disguised and so has gone largely unnoticed. But aside from the fact, which is obvious, that the still lifes of Laurens are extremely close to Braque, Gris remains a very important influence, and Laurens’ work is full of reflections of, or parallels with, Ozenfant, early Herbin, Leger, and so on. I think the still lifes are poor—mechanical repetitions of ideas that are not appropriate to their medium—but the figures are often among the most beautiful triumphs of sculpture between the two wars, massive reveries in which the speeds of curves, and the curves of edges and the curves of volumes, are played against one another in stunning fashion: I forgot, in my list of parallels in contemporary painting, to mention Gleizes! La Banderole, Femme à l’Oiseau, Myrmidia are so many masterpieces, and among the last expressions of classical art.

What happened after that is difficult to discern, although its effects are clear enough. Presumably Laurens felt that he could not forever go on sculpting monoliths; and no artist with Laurens’ seriousness who was working in France would have cared to continue in a kind of Art Déco style much after the mid-thirties. But already in the ’20s there had been those very linear still-life bas-reliefs in the manner of Braque, and now Picasso again becomes a strong influence, which at this time means linear arabesques or baroque volumes, and perhaps, even for Laurens, a touch of Surrealism as well. Parenthetically, I will say that my visits to the show were the first time I had ever found anything to interest me in the work of Henry Moore, since in fact Laurens’ problems at this point are the same as Moore’s.

So by 1937 Laurens is doing pieces like Le Ruban (The Ribbon): looping, cavorting curves designing circles, protuberances engaged with hollows—drawing in space! The resonance of the forms, which are classical, usually serves to give the work a measure of sedateness and composure, but truly this is often not much more than whistling in the dark. In sum, Laurens was trying to combine the two traditions that had been prevalent when he first began to sculpt, but he lacked the strength and independence of sensibility he would have needed to bring it off; nor was there anyone about him whom he might follow, since as usual he was more lucid in seeing what had to be done than others. From that point on, the only really interesting pieces are very compact but very bulbous things, not so very unlike Lipchitz at this time or a bit later. On balance, I think that Laurens’ work in this vein is more intelligent than Lipchitz’s, or at least more refined one can respect them without difficulty. But their probity is not a substitute for coherence.

Jerrold Lanes