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Richard Erdman: Set in Stone

For sculptor Richard Erdman, marble is a living thing.

Richard Erdman, Continuum IV

Richard Erdman, Continuum IV, Italian travertine, 24 x 25 x 24 in.

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Richard Erdman can make marble float. In his sculptures, ribbons of stone curl like smoke through the air, or like plumes of paint diffusing through water. His abstract forms evoke thoughts of wings, waves, snakes, or human bodies. And beyond the initial impact of the geometry, the color and texture of Erdman’s materials commands attention. To many people, marble may connote whiteness, coldness, and even death, as in the marble of a tomb effigy. But Erdman’s marbles are colorful—buttery yellow, pink, red, and dark grey as well as white—and they seem alive, as if the veins in the stone were actually vessels for some vital essence.

Love for marble is certainly in Erdman’s blood. He was born, raised, and still works in southern Vermont, an area so rich in marble quarries that during the 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the marble used in public buildings and monuments in the U.S. came from there. As a boy, Erdman used to play and explore amid the raw marble deposits. “I would spend time on weekends sneaking into this quarry; you could pry the wooden doors open in those days,” he recalls. “You entered another world, this enormous underground cavern, tons of of compressed calcium all around you, over your head, supported by natural columns. You’re standing in the stone, not on it.” Erdman points out that the marble was formed over geological eras from plankton and other tiny forms of life from the sea. “With the sculpture I make from this stone,” he says, “I think of myself as re-forming older life into a new life that should last a millennium or two. Marble is the most life-affirming material available, in my view.” His sculptures give prominence to the inherent, individual qualities of each piece of stone. For example, in a piece titled Tondo Rosa, Erdman intentionally kept the strata of the Persian travertine oriented horizontally with respect to the base—“like the layers of the Grand Canyon,” he says. “The veins of the stone pulsate with time.”

An early work, Torso in Motion, is very revealing about Erdman’s relationship with stone. It’s a little bit rough, looking almost as if it were a found object like a Chinese scholar’s rock, or perhaps a Neolithic fertility figure. The fact that the stone is flesh-colored makes it seem even more human. Back in the ’70s, when he was starting out, Erdman was looser and more experimental in his technique than he is now, partly because he didn’t have a staff of assistants to help him polish marble, and partly because he couldn’t afford to throw away any odd scraps of stone. While Torso in Motion is not a representational piece, its strong allusion to well-muscled human anatomy illustrates something else about Erdman—his profound debt to Michelangelo.

“Michelangelo was so influential for me in what I want to do with stone,” says the artist. “Jean Arp and Noguchi were, as well, of course, but Michelangelo understood the internal life in stone. When I was young I read a quote from an art critic, saying that since Michelangelo, nothing significant has been done with stone. And that drove me!” Not that he tries to imitate the Italian Renaissance artist in any overt or literal way. For one thing, Erdman is not a figurative sculptor. “As soon as you try to work figuratively, you are constrained by trying not to imitate,” he says. “I admire artists like Picasso, who never painted abstractly in his life, but there’s always something in his work that references what we know. I’m interested in going where we don’t know.”

A lot of Erdman’s work now is large-scale commissions for outdoor spaces. Presently he is working on two in Taiwan, one of which is for a Richard Meier building. “Because stone is a classic material,” he says, “and Meier is known for pure white, modernism, and a linear approach, they want to offset this building with an organic piece that has an architectural feeling but is also vibrant and moving.” Both of the sculptures are examples of a new style that Erdman has developed, in which the sculpture is installed over a pool of water on which it appears to float. The fact that the sculptures taper from more volume at the top to less below enhances the illusion of anti-gravity.

Currently, through January 31, six new outdoor sculptures made from white Carrara marble are on view at Melissa Morgan Fine Art in Palm Desert, Calif. In these pieces, Erdman pushes the stone to its limits with ultra-fine carving, conveying a sense of balance between safe solidity and risk. This element of risk, of making marble perform extreme feats, is key to Erdman’s mission. While he is clearly in the tradition of modernist abstraction, he describes his work as having a conceptual aspect. “The values that I’m pushing are things that really shouldn’t be happening in stone, that defy what our innate sensibilities think should be happening,” he says. “It’s abstraction, but that gives it a contemporary push.”

If the scale of a sculpture is monumental enough, marble is just not feasible from an engineering standpoint, so in those cases Erdman uses bronze. By welding together a number of components, a gigantic bronze piece can be assembled without compromising structural soundness. Bronze can also go thinner than stone without breaking under its weight. Another reason Erdman uses bronze is to make multiples. “I cast one from the original marble, take a mold, and at the appropriate time make a cast if I think it works. That way I can extend the one-of-a-kind marble into a small edition of six or seven,” he explains.

Still, though, for Erdman it has always been about one medium only. “I don’t want to discourage the bronze pieces,” he says, “but I am a stone guy. That’s how I started and that’s where my heart is. Stone has never been, is not, and never will be old.”

Works by Richard Erdman are available from:

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: November 2016

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