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Posts tagged SCULPTURE
There’s a moment in fourteenth century painting, in Giotto, when human emotions suddenly surface. Figures are no longer just standing in groups, they’re looking to one other. And they no longer possess a blissful indifference; they’re frightened and despairing, elated and surprised. They reach out to one another, so desperately and so tentatively, with outstretched limbs and contorted faces that the artist seems to be rendering for the first time ever. Is what we’re witnessing an art historical advance or a psychological one? That is, is this the first representation of emotions in western art, or the invention of emotion itself?
I felt a similar shift, although on a much smaller scale, at an exhibit of work by the early twentieth century sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck. The statues, all female busts and nudes, are starting to stir. These are conventional figural works, finely-proportioned and well-observed . (You sense that the artist was looking at a real, live, flesh-and-blood woman while he modeled the clay.) And yet each one is also slightly perturbed, averting the eyes. That slight movement disturbs, perhaps more so than the outright emotionalism of Kathe Kollwitz’s sculpture and the inward, abstracted rage of Alberto Giacometti’s. The works on display were completed by Lehmbruck between 1911 and 1918, during World War I, when the artist was living in Germany. Yet they’re suspended in a pre-modern innocence. While each woman the artist has sculpted know it’s impossible, she tries to maintain a classical repose.
When I was in younger I looked to Eva Hesse, just as I looked to Virgina Woolf, as a symbol more than as an artist. The facts of this artist’s life and death made more of an impression on my fevered college-girl mind than her actual work. A German-born painter and sculptor who emigrated with her family to New York City as a child, Hesse lived and worked in the city through the 1960’s, during the heyday of conceptual art. She made sculptures from malleable, sometimes translucent, materials like latex, fiberglass, and mesh. Her pieces have a biological, tissue-like character, and were embraced by my young self (and a lot of feminist scholars, too) as a powerful, mythologically “female” response to the hard-nosed, heroic sculptures of Richard Serra, Donald Judd and other contemporaries who were working in metal and wood. Hesse died in 1970 at the age of 34 from a brain tumor. She’d had only one solo show of her sculpture, but left behind a powerful body of work that’s still discussed today.
The recent show of Hesse’s student paintings at the Brooklyn Museum, Spectres 60, complicates the Tragic Lady Sculptress myth. These canvases, turbulent and not-so-pretty, are the work of a young painter who’s wrestling with form and materials to pin down a subject. The canvases are all figural and many, like the bride and groom above, are referential, so they can’t be linked in any facile way to her dreamily abstract sculpture. And the paintings are dark, rendered in a palette of muddled green-greys. They’re dense and earthbound in a way that her sculpture is not. If I’d seen these canvases in another context I wouldn’t have believed that they were Hesse’s; they’re different in spirit to her sculpture. I’m disappointed that there was none of Hesse’s sculpture in the exhibit. Taken along with these paintings, they fashion a rich, multi-dimensional identity for the artist.
If I had my own girl band I would call it The Glass Flowers, after the famous ones at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Two Dresden glass blowers, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, crafted about 4,400 of these teaching models, for nearly 800 different species, between 1886 and 1936. The figures are uncanny in their fineness and faithfulness. All of the tiniest parts — filaments, pollen, petioles, stipules — are there, translated into glass. The effort that went into fabricating these models is mind-boggling. The Blaschkas must have gone mad, or at least blind.
The models are accurate in fact but not in spirit. There’s no doubt that all the parts of each plant are present and rendered with perfect accuracy. In fact, the glass flowers seem more complicated and biological than real flowers. But there’s something funereal about them. They’re lying on their sides in low, dimly-lit glass vitrines, coated with a fine layer of dust. And they’ve been painted with soft, matte colors, so that they don’t have the lush sheen of real plant parts, or even of glass. Their lifelessness is especially noticeable with familiar varieties. The daisy and the banana are at once real-looking and patently false. If Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs but the sex back in flowers, the Glass Flowers sucks the sex right out of them. They’re fascinating and inert.
In 1996 Damien Hirst displayed two sliced-up cows at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. It was an act of art world bravado I believed would remain unmatched. I was wrong. Sculptor Maurizio Catellan, who’s career-ending installation All is on view at the Guggenheim now, tops it. Catellan, who also publishes magazines, says he’s done making art. So in lieu of a mid-career retrospective he’s suspended “140 or so” of his existing sculptures from the rotunda of the museum. It’s both audacious and enchanting. In taking over the rotunda he’s bludgeoned the iconic architecture and, at the same time, made perfect use of it. If he’s attempting, metaphorically, to hang his artistic self, he’s failed. Dangling in the air like this, his work looks terrific.
Catellan’s pieces, like that of the pope being hit by a meteor, have an appealing impishness. They’re not just political, they’re also weirdly personal. So statues of an elephant in a Klu Klux Klan robe, a kneeling Adolf Hitler, and a topless Stephanie Seymour, are funnier than you’d expect. Some of his works, like figures of horses, and boys in nooses, were meant to be hung. Some of them, when hung, take on an elegaic air, like JFK lying in an open coffin, and corpses draped with white sheets. You need to walk up (or down) the spiraling ramp to get a look at each piece and with every few steps the view shifts dramatically, pulling you along. The outer walls of the museum are left empty and visitors focus inwards, which makes absolute sense. There’s always been something odd about mounting artwork against the rounded, sloping walls of the Guggenheim, while the enormous space in the center remains empty. I think Catellan’s installation might have begun as an attack on Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. It’s really a magnificent salute.
The oversized postcard announcing the new Robert Graham show at David Zwirner shows a woman sleeping on a mattress in a big, cloudy white box. Receiving it was like getting a dream in the mail. The sculpture on the card is one of seventeen of Graham’s early works from 1963-1973 on display. I know Graham only through the brass entrance doors and angel he crafted for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Those pieces are gravely and self-consciously classical. The sculptures at the gallery, tabletop plexiglass dioramas with naked and barely-clothed female figures inside, are stranger and more intimate. The women walk, crawl, lounge around, play with one another, and just stand still. It’s easy to say that the sculptures objectify women, but Graham’s handling of each figure is so fine and naturalistic, that one comes away feeling he cares for them dearly.
The vitrines he’s fashioned for these women — lined with felt, pierced with wires, patched with tape and paint, partitioned with bits of mirror and clear plastic — are spectacularly suggestive architecturally. Almost all are square in plan and lifted on low plinths. They reminded me a little of Mies van der Rohe’s houses, and a lot of Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion, with its life-size female figure (a neoclassical bronze statue called Morning by George Kolbe) presiding inside. Architectural historian Vincent Scully has described this woman as a goddess figure, pushing and pulling the planes of the lucid structure back and forth. The women in Graham’s sculptures are more inward-looking, and less robust. The surfaces around them, that enclose them, seem like extensions of their own fragile inner lives. Although these women are set out on display, each seems to be holding a great deal in reserve.