New York

Julio González

Julio González is, in David Smith’s words, “the father of all iron sculpture of this century.” He is conventionally connected with yet differentiated from Picasso, as in Margit Rowell’s catalogue words: “we react initially to Picasso’s sculpture as a subject, a legible image, and only later does our focus shift to his material and formal invention. By contrast, González’s sculpture always solicits us first as an abstract structure . . . which only with time can be read as an anthropomorphic figure.” This makes him more “advanced” than Picasso, because of the absent referent, and because of González’s consequent realization of the integrity of an abstraction that insists that, in Smith’s words again, “finality” is realized “when each part in unity works up to the whole.” The “distant whole” is perhaps envisioned but never guaranteed, making the work more risky an undertaking than any pictorial image, for the “relationship between the image and materials, technique and space” becomes an end in itself, not simply a filler for a preconceived concept. Pictorial predetermination, then, does not force the work into being; it is freely given through its freely conceived relationships and freely chosen material(s).

Or so the theory goes. Yet I don’t think González was ever really comfortable with abstraction. The Montserrat, 1936–37, signals that, along with Head of the Screaming Montserrat, ca. 1942, and the drawing Head Called Despair, 1939. It’s not just that under the pressure of the Spanish political situation—the civil war—González went back to representation, or back to allegory, but that he realized he had never lost subject matter, that foothold in the world represented by the figure (symbolic of the foothold that each of us is). González’s abstract transformations of the figure, and of the figure within it—the head, the face—are always in the name of some revelation or concept of existence, which he phrases in perceptible, sensuous terms, as if it could be denoted, (The marvelous mask works of 1929–32—compare them with Alexei von Jawlensky’s “spiritual faces” from the same decade—succinctly represent the breakthrough, though the economy of means shows mastery from the very beginning.)

González’s abstractions are like the poetry of Stephane Mallarmé: the empty space they are increasingly constituted by becomes a silence punctuating words of metal, converting them into precise nuances of an evasive yet determinate experience. In the 20th century the artist’s choice of material or theme—material as theme—is often governed by the desire to be demonstratively “modern”; if González was to show he was a modern sculptor, he was wise to choose iron, a material connoting a modern experience and mode of being—firm yet flexible, at least in the high heat of modernity. The heat the welder-artist must bring to bear on the iron to shape it becomes emblematic of the heat of his or her experience, both in general and as an artist. Welding is in this sense a modern realization of the traditional myth of the “romantic” artist, a Hephaestus shaping raw matter into spiritual form, releasing its dynamic.

Rowell attempts to turn González into an abstract formalist, in the best sense of the term—responsive to the medium, to the “metaphysical” givenness of space and time, and to the tradition. But while not exactly falsifying him, this attempt unexpectedly sells him short (as does any attempt to regard abstraction as descriptive of its own material relationships). González was struggling hard to show he was modern, to figure out what it meant to be modern, even to articulate the modern—as a phenomenon unto itself yet one radically transformative in the novelty of its appearances. He was shaking himself free from a whole variety of assumed ideas, above all the idea that a work of art had to be lovely and made of the finest materials. In making raw, “ugly” art, and especially in incorporating powerful, violent asymmetries—seemingly absurd contrasts of shapes and textures—into his work, he was trying to shake off his earlier belief in harmony and prettiness, a belief so ingrained it had almost seemed a predisposition. His mature oeuvre is a triumphant questioning of all that he stood for in his early drawings and jewelry, a negation and destruction out of which he finally affirms autonomous forms which seem to make of “discrepancy” a principle, if never a fetish. Yet González can never forget that these forms are still figures, connoting the human body’s experience of its own being in the modern world. And that experience, as with Picasso but even more radically—less ingratiatingly—is of a body each of whose parts singlemindedly pursues a radical independence from every other part. This apparent autonomy amounts to a demonstration of anomie on an intimate physical level: González’s mature sculpture demonstrates not only the Yeatsian “things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” but also that there is no center, and that once everything separates from every other thing in the body, all reduces to an aggressive, primitive simplicity. All the parts of the work share the rawness of the metal, giving the sculpture a certain uniformity, and they do relate to establish unity by opposition; but neither the material nor the formal unity of any one piece interferes with the sense of independent operation of its parts, and thus of the temporary, transitive character of their relations.

From this point of view The Montserrat and associated works—including the isolated body part of the Raised Right Hand (in two versions, ca. 1942)—are a desperate attempt to recover the wholeness of the human body under the double threat of its destruction in war and of its loss of all recognition as organic. The latter threat is triggered by the former one, as well as by the fact that González had come to a certain limit: he was faced with the prospect of dismembering the body. He refused that option—one inherent in 20th-century experience not only of total war but of the conception of the body as a machine (ultimately with replaceable parts)—and thus, at a crucial moment, showed his conservativism, a failure to follow through in his struggle to experience the modern body and the effect of modernity on it. This doesn’t mean that he reverted to the old ideal of an attractive harmony, an ideal not necessary to a basic realization of the organic; it may only mean he became frightened of his own rawness, and of the rawness that he saw coming into the modern world—an explicit rawness and ugliness which made that of his own art seem merely implicit.

I don’t know whether The Montserrat is a success or failure in terms of González’s mature art, but I find it instructive that the figure “declared” is female and peasant—a mother of the earth with infant and sickle, that is, with the future and with an instrument of hand labor. (It is worth noting that the work’s iconography ties it to González’s lifelong interest in Catholic themes, particularly that of the Madonna’s maternity, of which there are numerous drawings. The formalist Rowell has almost completely repressed this interest, and González’s “traditionalism” in general.) It is as if González were asking what the future of his own abstract figures was, and of his own technology, as well as of the human race. The Montserrat signals to me a painful, conflict-ridden recognition that González had but didn’t know what to do with: an awareness that he, like the modern world represented by his technology and material, had taken a fork at a crossroads, and had traveled too great a distance on this “modern” road to find his way back. The Montserrat shows that he felt that he perhaps ought to try to go back to the other road, which perhaps led to some vision of the wholeness of humanity and the body, for all its suffering. This was not only because he had articulated the immanent suffering of the modern human body, but because he recognized that it was not the whole story. He was close enough to tradition to recognize that abstract modernity was not the entire truth about human identity. He wanted—not out of nostalgia, but out of unhappiness with what his art showed him of modern being—to go back to some other kind of beginning, some uncertain, organic point of origin, but he could not. The Montserrat is the statement of his inability, of his possession by the abstract state of being modern.

Donald Kuspit