New York

Otto Freundlich

It’s hard to find stranger, more uncanny sculptures in early avant-garde art than Otto Freundlich’s. That may be why he is omitted from such major compendiums of modem art as those by H. Harvard Amason and Sam Hunter, and even from the purportedly comprehensive German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture, 1905–1985, published by London’s Royal Academy in 1985. Yet it was Freundlich’s 1912 sculpture The New Man that graced the cover of the guide to the notorious “Degenerate ‘Art’” exhibition in 1937. What an honor!

The New Man, destroyed by the Nazis (Freundlich himself died in a Polish concentration camp), was one of the most innovative sculptures of the period, certainly surpassing in its bulky abstractness and formal complexity Umberto Boccioni’s Development of a Bottle in Space, 1912, and Raymond Duchamp Villon’s Horse, 1914. While these two sculptures tested the limits of representation from within its own terms, Freundlich’s work functions more like a battering ram. He unequivocally crashes through the limits of representation without losing the raw power of The New Man—in the three sculptures here: Ascension, 1929, Composition, 1933, and Sculpture Architecturale, 1935.

At first glance, what’s most striking about these three bronze pieces is their heavily worked surfaces. They are overrun with what look like crude, careless, even random marks, but on closer examination and one doesn’t have to get too close, for the texture really jumps out—they form a kind of system. Many overlap as though they were growing out of one another. And they are applied with a more sensitive touch than one might initially think. They resemble freshly formed scars, polished to painful perfection. Or are the marks still-suppurating wounds, as though the Promethean figures (the gigantic Ascension and Composition extend the mythical theme of the New Man) were being pecked to death for some crime against the gods?

In any case, the surface is clearly in exciting process—unlike the rocklike yet peculiarly organic fragments of which the work is composed. Ascension is a heap of these fragments, some coming together as a kind of totemic head while others form a pedestal on which the head precariously rests. Composition comprises fewer parts but retains an epic feel. Sculpture Architecturale suggests a shrine in the inner sanctum of a primitive temple: An obelisk-like column rises behind a quirky, figural construction, its fragments clumsily geometric. I think the major reason Freundlich hasn’t made it into the textbooks is that what might be called his Cubo-Expressionism is so much less slick than the Cubo-Futurist style of Boccioni and Duchamp-Villon. Their works are informed by a naive belief in the new that was far more fashionable than Freundlich’s intimidating primitivism and oddly anguished abstraction, which convey his sense of the bizarre nature, not to say absurdity, of the New Man.

Donald Kuspit