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Sculpting History

An exhibition in Fort Worth, Tex., explores four European-born artists who made their careers in America.

Gaston Lachaise, Woman Seated

Gaston Lachaise, Woman Seated, modeled 1918, cast 1925, bronze, 12 in. (h).

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A current exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, “A New American Sculpture, 1914–1945: Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach,” showcases four pivotal sculptors working in America during the first few decades of the 20th century. The show, which runs through May 13, features some 55 sculptures and 20 drawings by Gaston Lachaise, Robert Laurent, Elie Nadelman, and William Zorach. Each of these artists came to the United States as immigrants—Lachaise and Laurent from France, Nadelman from Poland, and Zorach from Lithuania—but helped define American art’s unique identity during the interwar period. Their innovative approaches to sculpture, in both concept and construction, helped shape modernism, while their widespread influences and pioneering collecting habits have had an indelible influence on fellow artists and collectors for decades.

The exhibition, which ran last year at the Portland Museum of Art (its co-organizer), is uniquely suited to the Fort Worth, Tex.-based institution. “Part of the Amon Carter’s identity is a strong sense of early modernism,” says Shirley Reece-Houghes, curator of painting and sculpture at the museum. “It was something Louise Carter Stevenson wanted to nurture at the museum.” The Amon Carter’s collection includes works by Lachaise, Nadelman, and Laurent. “We wanted to be able to contextualize some of our collection,” says Reece-Houghes.

One of the pieces in the museum’s collection, and a standout of the show, is Lachaise’s Woman Seated (modeled 1918, cast 1925). The sculpture portrays the artist’s wife and muse, Isabel Dutaud Nagle, whom he fell in love with in Europe and followed to America (Nagle was married when she first met Lachaise but eventually divorced and married the artist). The subject’s pose, with its legs crossed and arms folded, exudes regal confidence, yet there is a casual cool that seems oddly more American than European. The subject’s dress, shoes, and hairpiece are nickel-plated, which gives them a radiant sheen. Lachaise had training as a jeweler and typically worked in bronze casting. After he came to America, he became interested in electroplating, which was one of the ways in which he pushed sculpture forward. As in Woman Seated, Lachaise’s electroplating techniques allowed for a variety of patina, sheen, and color—a variation from most bronze cast sculpture, which is all of one color.

Another innovative piece in the exhibition—and in the Amon Carter’s collection—is Head (Abstraction), a 1916 sculpture by Laurent made of carved mahogany. Laurent’s talents were recognized by art connoisseur Hamilton Easter Field when Laurent was just 12 years old, and Field brought him to New York in the 1910s. This piece was made within years of Laurent’s arrival in America and was one of his first direct carvings in the round. “There was no plan, no sketch, “ says Reece-Houghes. “He took a block of mahogany and started carving away.” Of the process of direct carving Laurent said, “What I enjoy the most is cutting direct in the materials, starting generally without any preconceived idea, preferably into a block of stone, alabaster or wood having an odd shape…It keeps you awake, looking for something to show up.”

Zorach also experimented with carving directly and responding to materials spontaneously. Young Boy, a 1921 sculpture in the exhibition, is an early example of his use of the technique. The artist, who moved with his family from Lithuania to Ohio as a child, left America to train as a painter in Paris in 1910. In New York in 1912, he married Marguerite Thompson, an American artist he met in Paris, and both artists were represented the following year in the famous 1913 Armory Show. Zorach was highly aware of the trends in Paris but forged ahead to create something new in America. “Gauguin had started hand-carving directly onto a block of wood, so the technique was part of a modernist momentum that started in Europe,” says Reece-Houghes. “But through the idea of truth to materials, Laurent and Zorach revitalized sculpture in America.”

It wasn’t just technique that shaped these artists’ unique brand of modernism; it was also their influences, particularly those that were considered “primitive” at the time. Zorach attended a show of African art at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in 1911—Young Boy seems particularly indebted to African and Oceanic art—and examined Aztec, Mayan, and Inuit carvings at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. His admiration of Cycladic and Egyptian figures can be seen in The Artist’s Daughter, a 1930 piece directly carved from marble. Laurent was also impressed by African sculpture, which he observed as a youth during a visit to Picasso’s studio. The characteristics of African masks and the markings of Japanese woodblock ukiyo-e prints, which were also a leading influence on Laurent, appear quite clearly in Head (or Mask) (circa 1915, walnut on marble base). Nile Maiden and Princess, both circa-1914 carved wood panels, reference Egyptian and African art rather directly in both subject and style.

However, one influence in particular set these artists apart from their peers in Europe and America—American folk art. At the turn of the 20th century, most American artists and collectors were completely uninterested in folk art, but these artists saw the tradition with new eyes. Laurent, who established a summer art colony with Field in Ogunquit, Maine, began collecting American folk art from local sales as a means to furnish the fishing shacks the artists were living and working in. Zorach, who also had a house in Maine, looked to carvings in the American folk art tradition for inspiration. “These immigrant artists were some of the first to delve into folk art,” says Reece-Houghes. “They were trying to assimilate to American culture, but it was also part of the modernist sensibility to look at a lot of sources.”

Nadelman became deeply entrenched in American folk Art as both an inspiration for his own work and as a lifelong collecting passion. The Polish artist amassed a collection of thousands of pieces with his wife, the heiress Viola Flannery, and erected the Museum of Folk Arts in Riverdale, N.Y., in 1925. Nadelman is best known for his cherry wood sculptures, which he created models for and had craftsman execute. As with Chef d’Orchestre (circa 1919, cherry wood, stained and gessoed), a sculpture in the show and the Amon Carter’s collection, Nadelman would create a weathered look by applying a gesso made of plaster of Paris, glue, and color. “He was inspired by his collection of cigar-store Indians and painted wood sculptures,” says Reece-Houghes. “He was meshing ideas of modernist tech with historical appearance.”

Dancer (1918), a cherry and mahogany sculpture by Nadelman, referenced the trade and shop figures in the artist’s collection. The piece is actually modeled after Eva Tanguay, a vaudeville dancer renowned for her high kicks. Dance is a major subject for these artists, either in the modernist vein à la Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis or popular American entertainment like Minsky’s burlesque or the circus. Many works in the show directly address dance and acrobatics: Nadelman’s sprightly Acrobat (1916, bronze) and playful Tango (circa 1920–24, painted and gessoed cherry wood)—based on the partner dance that had made its way to America from Argentina in the 1920s and become an absolute craze; Lachaise’s gravity-defying Acrobat (1927, bronze) and Two Floating Nude Acrobats (1922, bronze); and Zorach’s dramatic Spirit of the Dance (1932, bronze). But even when not so literal, the notion of portraying bodies in motion captivated these artists, which is palpable in the show’s selection of drawings. Some works in their own right, others studies for sculptures, the drawings beam with exuberant examples of life captured in graceful lines.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: February 2018

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