New York

Turku Trajan

Zabriskie Gallery

Turku Trajan’s art is not the kind of thing I expect to like, but I was pleasantly surprised. Trajan’s (1887–1959) idiosyncratic sculpture was contemporary with Abstract Expressionist painting in New York. As with Ryder in earlier painting, one deduces a reclusive turn of mind and an impatient ignorance of the properties of materials. The sculptures here, some of them quite large—Pietà measures over five feet—are made of Keen’s Cement, an all too crumbly substance that takes on added overtones of melancholy from the coexistence of ephemerality with massiveness—like Ryder’s thick and heavy, but fractured paint. The analogy is all the more pressing because of the importance of Trajan’s polychrome painting, applied in its own pasty, bakerylike way to the figures.

That Trajan was so interested in sculptural figuration is not in itself problematic. For one thing, in most if not all of sculptural history the posing of the human form has been a pressingly abstract matter. Also, it is highly questionable whether any other sculptor of Abstract Expressionist times ever achieved anything more genuinely abstract than this: so much of the more apparently abstract sculpture of that period is quite dependently representational in its relation to painting devices of the time. Furthermore, the painting part seems to have had a high priority for Trajan, not just in the covering of shapes—which is remarkably intertwined with the sculpting process for him anyway—but also in his natural gravitation toward relief. In Icarus, for instance, the figure is embraced by a plaquelike frame that serves both pictorial and sculptural functions. Trajan, one feels, would never just draw with a stylus and call it sculpture, the way Nakian did in his terra cottas; the bulginess of Trajan’s forms is if anything closer to Nakian’s solid sculptures of the ’40s.

Skyscraper, 1932–40—and the design on paper for it as well—is a tall standing female nude with her arms bent in reciprocal right angles over her head. In a sense this is altogether traditional, for the figure can be read even more easily as a classicizing “personification” of the skyscraper idea than as a plastic abstraction deduced from it. That too, however—as in the general problem of the posing of the nude in sculpture—has abstract propensities. Many traditional personifications are, in fact, quasi-abstract configurations connected by submerged semantic relations with the things they conceptualize. Nevertheless, Trajan does come to expressive grips with the skyscraper and not just as an idea. More than a simple sign for a concept (“Miss Skyscraper”), his figure evidences as much empathic thinking, in a sculptural way, as some Actors’ Studio exercise in which a 1950s actor would actually play the role of such a building.

In another case, Lusty Jeanette and the Strong-Necked Steed of Adonis, c. 1950, it is also satisfying to see both the finished sculpture and a design for it. It is true that there is a certain redundancy in seeing a drawing in which a three-dimensional modern work is planned and virtually embodied, but Trajan’s work manages to handle even more incongruous attitudes with aplomb—painting and sculpting, representation and form—so we look at the drawings with real curiosity. Besides, there is an energy in them that seems to come from the excited potential resolution of some cluster of sculptural ideas.

There is some irony in the fact that primitivistic or self-taught artists are likely to be more closely bound to tradition than trained members of an organized avant-garde. Recourse to the figure is the case in point. Yet in the end where something comes from doesn’t matter as much as where it goes, and Trajan’s bulgy, doughy, polychromed figures manage to achieve an entirely self-sufficient articulateness.

Joseph Masheck