New York

John Storrs, Stone Panel with Black Marble Inlay, 1920–21, cast stone and black marble on wooden base, 60 1/2 x 15 1/4 x 1 3/4".

John Storrs, Stone Panel with Black Marble Inlay, 1920–21, cast stone and black marble on wooden base, 60 1/2 x 15 1/4 x 1 3/4".

John Storrs

Grey Art Gallery

John Storrs, Stone Panel with Black Marble Inlay, 1920–21, cast stone and black marble on wooden base, 60 1/2 x 15 1/4 x 1 3/4".

In 1913, John Storrs studied with Rodin in Paris—and the human form would always influence his work. But over the next decade or so, his figures became less and less natural-looking and more and more abstract. Finally, in the early 1920s, Storrs began producing vertical constructions explicitly modeled on the early American skyscraper. One of these, Architectural Form No. 3, ca. 1923, seems like a model for a skyscraper—it’s a vertical, rectangular column, reaching upward, a euphoric celebration of those soaring industrial constructions, and very timely in an upwardly mobile America. But even as it soars, it is planted firmly in the earth. So, too, are other works from that decade, such as Study in Form (Forms in Space), 1924, Design for Fabrication of Abstract Metal Sculpture, ca. 1924–25, and Study in Architectural Forms, 1927. Curated by Debra Bricker Balken, “John Storrs: Machine Age Modernist” (which originated at the Boston Athenaeum in 2010) takes Storr’s works from the 1920s as its focus.

Over the years, Storrs encountered various strains of the European avant-garde, such as Futurism, Vorticism, Dada, and Cubism; these were surely an influence on his work. Of considerably greater import, however, was Storrs’s interest in the spare, decorative structures of architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, both of whom worked in Chicago, where Storrs was born in 1885. As Bricker Balken argues in her catalogue essay, Storrs’s interest in these architects lent his sculpture its clarity, and its basis in the block. By adopting their formal vocabulary, Bricker Balken also points out, Storrs could set himself apart from colleagues in France, where he lived between 1923 and 1927, and thus “insert a truly American sensibility” into the reigning artistic conversation of the time. Storrs’s debt to American art can further be identified in the zigzag running along the sides of some works, as well as other decorative details. These derive specifically from his interest in Navajo crafts, which he began to collect around 1915. (An early work in this vein, Abstract Forms No. 1, is a quasi-totemic “figure.”) This put Storrs ahead of his time, as few American artists were then employing Native American motifs.

Storrs may be a “Machine-Age Modernist,” as the Grey Art Gallery describes him, and his vertical forms may seem impersonal and pure, but sometimes he personalizes them with irksomely intimate details, as in the later Monologue, 1932, and Composition Around Two Voids, ca. 1934. These two bizarre figures suggest that near the end of his career, with the onset of the Great Depression and the subsequent dwindling of commissions, he began adopting a kind of Surrealist formalism.

Donald Kuspit