New York

Barbara Hepworth

Pace Wildenstein

BARBARA HEPWORTH WAS A MASTER OF SUBTLE FORM. Though her abstract works often contain figurative allusions, the sculptures are better understood on a purely formal level: In Two Faces, 1969, for instance, it is the different placement of the holes letting space and light into the dense stones (Hepworth's longtime friend Henry Moore seems an influence) and the polished awkwardness of the asymmetrical pieces, as well as their at-odds position next to each other, that lend the piece its aesthetic credibility.

My favorite work in this miniretrospective of mostly late sculpture was a relatively early piece, Convolute, 1944. This small, carefully cut chunk of cumberland stone attests to Hepworth's fascination with gently eccentric yet incisive curves, the interplay of the raw and the refined, and the durability and nobility of stone (her favored material was marble, which she liked for its “response to the sun”). Many of these sculptures consist of more than one element. Two stones contrast in New Penwith, 1974: One is squarish with a concave face and large opening, while the other is more rounded, with a smaller hole in its convex surface. In the flawless forms of Two Spheres in Orbit and Cone and Sphere, both 1973, Hepworth plays with geometric clarity, and in the marvelous Small One, Two, Three (Vertical), 1975, she explores irregular but no less precise shaves. Her works are invariablv more than the sum of their often very disparate parts, as the intricate Three Part Vertical, 1971, makes clear. The ridged, comparatively raw lower section. the polished torso with its grand hole, and the large oval on top with its smooth “face” synthesize into a Brancusi-esque totemic figure even as they maintain their radical difference. In other works, color plays a central role. The pink hue of Spring Form in Marble, 1970, adds a note of whimsy, while Two Forms (Black and White), also 1970, contrasts heavily veined black and snowy white marble. Pierced Monolith with Colour, 1965, includes a blue painted element.

It may seem strange to say so, but Hepworth, while clearly a formalist, indeed, a textbook modernist, is taking on classical sculpture. For instance, the small but monumental-feeling Sheltered Form, 1972, with bold black slate forming a kind of geometric throne for the eccentric, weirdly organic, luminous white marble shape, displays the perfectionism, insularity, and balance of classical figures, even as it conveys the peculiar estrangement of the modern mentality. And as in classical sculpture, each part carries in itself the tension of the whole. Hepworth has said that her work is “primitive, religious, passionate, and magical,” but it is also poised, meticulously detailed, and carefully crafted. Her sculptures may be expressions of the collective unconscious, as she implies, but they are also self-consciously unique. Thus the mystery of Hepworth's sculptures lies not only in their smooth surfaces and shapes-she wanted them to look as though they had been “eroded by sea and rain or polished by the wind”—but in the sense of total control that informs them. When she is through with a stone, it looks as if it has never been anything but civilized.

Donald Kuspit