New York

Henry Moore

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Henry Moore’s career in effect began with two drawings, Woman Reading, ca. 1926, and The Artist’s Mother, 1927. Both figures have the same fullness of being, yet there is nothing complacent about them; the intentness of the one, the tough stare of the other, are signs of power. Abstracted, they become Moore’s archetypal maternal female, a dream goddess elaborated through a variety of elegant materials and formal innovations yet intact in her primordiality and inevitability. The domesticity of the drawings is worth noting; a kind of benign insularity is conveyed, not without its inner tensions, but still an island in the troubled world represented by Moore’s World War II bomb-shelter drawings. My island allusion is more than metaphoric—Moore is a decidedly British sculptor. In many ways his art is about the problems of Modernity in Britain. In that island’s isolation his style did not fare well, becoming prematurely conventionalized, yet it remains an instrument for the intensification of a humanistic theme. Moore is not particularly innovative in his use of abstraction, but his domestication of it does not necessarily diminish it; his is the dilemma of those artists who forgo purity, seeking to make human sense without forfeiting their art’s autonomy.

From the start Moore respects the beauty and preciousness of his material. Whether wood, stone, or bronze, for Moore a medium can embody spiritual radiance, externalizing his figures’ innerrichness. And abstraction is a way of making material meaningful, of enabling it to bear the burden of human meaning put on it, or, rather, discoverable within its density. Moore uses abstraction to preserve mythical subject matter rather than to dissolve it in pure form. Despite his string and gestalt sculpture of the ’30s—never more than studies, exercises—his art remains fundamentally illustrative. Indeed, Moore’s formalist forays are designed to expand the possibilities of the illustrative rather than to establish new modes of presentational immediacy. It is as if he realized he had to get a Modern, advanced look—Picasso seemed the easiest, most officially authentic route to one—to be taken seriously; but there is finally less seriousness in the look than in the subject matter.

Moore’s abstraction streamlines and simplifies rather than structures. Figures are reduced to outline, their features minimized, their bulk brought out. But the structure of the figure is not disputed, disintegrated, as in Picasso’s work; Moore simply apotheosizes the figure rather than offering a fresh revelation of it. He cannot conceive of it as other than grand, in any adversity—that of a cramped space in the shelter drawings, which convey claustrophobia but do not bend or daunt the figure. Despite occasional twisted, Francis Baconish moments, in which an untoward energy which could be labeled “instinctive” seems to erupt, Moore’s figures are bound to architecture in a Michelangelesque way; explicitly or implicitly, the springboard for their power is the wall. They depart from its plane not to be dissipated in or diminished by empty space, but to achieve for themselves the wall’s muscular feeling of inevitability.

Emptiness is no obstacle for Moore but a positive presence, which is surely one of the points of his famous holes. That these holes paradoxically desexual ize the female figure—scoop out her womb, as it were, as well as show her openness—only confirms the point. The holes in Moore’s sculptures have a positive presence; they do not indicate true absence. His streamlining neutralizes the body’s fleshiness, and his publicizing and displacement of its least public space undermines it totally. Moore has reduced the feminine to a static absolute rather than a heroic force. At their best, the holes signify the eternal return of surface—the inescapability of extension even in the compact mass. But usually Moore’s holes forbid intimacy. Rather than initiating the viewer into the concentration of mass, they convert inside to outside. Space is not a mystery to Moore, which is why his figures achieve sublimity too easily—they have nothing to resist.

Moore is not a Modernist; he does not believe in the ideology of form, but in the form ideology must take to be credible. “Modern form” has no independent authority for him, but is a way of making an eternal ideology accessible and contemporary. Thus his significance as a formal innovator is modest. He does, however, have major significance as a neo-traditionalist, if tradition is understood to preserve eternal verities. He suggests that formal innovation exists to disclose subject matter rather than as an end in itself; this makes him relevant again, for the status of formal experiment is again a matter of debate.

Donald Kuspit