New York

Duane Hanson

Duane Hanson could be considered a victim of his own virtuosity. The deceased American sculptor’s uncannily naturalistic figures are so lifelike that their verisimilitude often subsumes their content. A Hanson sculpture is like a mirage; it’s hard not to marvel at how a simulation can be so like the real thing. In part because of this effect, Hanson provokes art-historical confusion: Is he a Pop artist or a Photorealist? While the American-ness and sheer realism of Hanson’s sculptures make both potential designations reasonable, to experience them in the “flesh” exposes the labels’ insufficiency. Hanson’s early sculptures
from the middle and late 1960s are raw and bracing—a sooty derelict woman amid a tableau of street squalor, American soldiers’ bloody corpses, a sallow junkie slumped against a wall. In 1970, Hanson purged his sculptures of sensationalism; his subjects became ordinary, modest people, often frozen in moments of contemplation or ennui.

Van de Weghe Fine Art’s mini-retrospective was a spare installation of seven figurative sculptures made between 1973 and 1990. Each figure is either at work (and usually in uniform) or languidly filling time with solitaire or tabloid magazines; often, they gaze expressionlessly at nothing in particular. Hanson’s are sculptures that do not pose. Cast almost exclusively from life, they betray no consciousness of their status as targets of our gaze. His command of posture, skin coloration, and flourishes like the sunburn-red patch on the calf of Flea Market Lady, 1990, whose skin is otherwise milky white, convincingly deceive the eye, but it is his knack for capturing facial expressions that infuses his characters with quiet gravity. The unself-conscious gaze that is the trademark of a Hanson sculpture is the key to understanding the works as critical objects as opposed to solely virtuosic ones.

Pathos abounds in Hanson’s work, and the question of his attitude (ironic? sympathetic?) toward his figures remains an underexamined aspect of his practice. The figures’ work uniforms are those of a deliveryman, security guard, janitor, and diner waitress—working-class positions, many of which American companies now fill with immigrant laborers. Queenie II, 1988, catches an obese janitor in a moment of passive inactivity, accompanied by the requisite paraphernalia of her trade. Rita the Waitress, 1975, rubs a rag against the surface of a tray, her glazed eyes betraying gloomy tedium. Those shown during moments of leisure are equally drenched in sadness and humility. Old Man Playing Solitaire, 1973, is a seated, ashen, knobby-kneed type whose table supports nothing but a coffee-stained mug and a game for one. In Self-Portrait with Model, 1979, a likeness of the blue-eyed artist sits across from Woman Eating, 1971, a representation of an older woman in a nightgown and flip-flops immersed in tabloids, her empty ice cream dish forgotten on the tabletop. Hanson grips a Coke and stares blankly at a crumpled napkin in an ashtray.

An air of defeatism is pervasive among Hanson’s subjects, and his published comments reveal that this preference was born of political sympathy; Hanson casts his figures as victims of a capitalist structure where work is alienating and repetitive, where life is decidedly anti-social. Their resigned and melancholic expressions communicate that Hanson is in sympathy with the struggles of working-class America. His imagery is rooted in the liberal American social realism of the Depression era. Shared concern for Pop’s polish aside, Hanson’s work is undoubtedly more an extension of Walker Evans’s lineage than of Andy Warhol’s.

Nick Stillman