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From the Modern to the Contemporary: Sculpture at the Chazen Museum of Art: Part I

Posted June 04, 2020 by Brian King

What is the story of modern sculpture? Art doesn’t always respond the way we expect it to. It is not always thematic. There are outliers. First, it's a kind of realization of sculpture as a medium that isn’t dependent on another medium. 
Sculpture has a long tradition. There are religious sculptures from the earliest times. Its peak tradition was in the Baroque period; after that there is a dormant period where sculpture occupied a primarily architectural niche as part of a building. 
 
The first signifier of modern sculpture is liberation from the niche. Sculpture is placed freestanding in the center of the room. It's put on a pedestal and starts to occupy place—it's not dependent on architecture anymore. 
 
And how do we distinguish modern sculpture from painting? Painting is almost always flat and nearly two-dimensional. A painting flashes before us like a vision. It is a flat image that doesn't look like a dimensional figure in the world and it can be separated from the concrete world. 
 
That is not sculpture's project, however. Sculpture will always have figurative residue or an echo in its work, because once something is dimensional it tends to look like something in the real world. A pile of clay would look like something you have to clean up in your yard, for example. It always will retain a vestige of the figural. 
 
Sculpture also starts to essentialize its form. It seeks to find the most resonant line of a body or find the most gorgeous curve of a bird in space and emphasize it. It’s constantly essentializing shape, reducing. Here are few examples of modern sculpture from the Chazen collection.
 
 
Look at this Archipenko sculpture, Woman Combing Her Hair, which features the bare, most essential lines of what can still be seen as a woman. It’s a kind of seductive curve in place of a mimetic copy of a woman, figurative gesture combined with essentialized form. As a sculpture, it offers a 360-degree view of the subject. Note here how sculpture will change as we walk around it. Sculpture is a conversation between its form and the matter from which it is made. Sometimes the form and material say the same thing and other times they say different things. How can sculpture work within its context? Does it ignore where it is or is it dependent on where it is located for its meaning? For the most part, modern sculpture is oblivious to its actual physical place. 
 
 
Theodore Roszak was inspired by the Bauhaus belief in the power of art to create a better world. Like many artists in the 1930s, he supported progressive movements concerned with social justice. The Bauhaus constructivist ideal of pure form stripped bare of excess and reflecting a more perfect world was his focus. Red Monument to Lost Dirigible is an example of the aerodynamic form that characterized the streamlined era of 1930–1950. It exemplifies pure form, with non-essential details stripped. This piece is a statement about a vertical red line and the lost dirigible of 1939—the Hindenburg. Notice the fine metal pieces that form the top of the work. Some of them are turned on a lathe to get a perfect cylindrical form—the artist was indeed a skilled machinist. This piece looks like a totem, a monument or an obelisk. It is somewhere between modern and tribal in intent.  
 
It looks functional but it really isn’t. It looks like it could be a thing used for war, but it can’t be. The sculpture invites us to look at the material—does the material match the form? It is made of painted wood, stainless steel, brass, and plastic. Stainless steel is all about extreme functionality and the plastics achieved the clarity of glass without its fragility. They were essential for modern aircraft, functioning as a canopy to protect the pilot from the elements. In sharp contrast, wood and paint have been around for generations. So, Red Monument to Lost Dirigible is an almost industrial piece where the wood softens the stance. It gives the work a more organic feel.
 
 
In the early 1940s, Roszak continued to make sculptures and drawings in his machine-shop equipped studio. He learned new metal fabrication techniques, such as brazing, to realize his concepts. He started using photographic studies to explore ideas for his sculptures. In 1945 he learned how to weld with an oxy-acetylene torch. This allowed him to deposit puddles of molten metal onto solid metal pieces, an accretive technique much like clay modeling.
 
By the end of World War II, the artist was horrified by the wanton killing of millions. He felt quite guilty for having worked as a designer in an airplane factory and remorse for the death and maiming airplanes had wrought in dropping the A-Bomb in Hiroshima. To him, airplanes were as terrifying as pterodactyls. This guilt influenced him to drastically change his approach. 
 
Compare the raggedness of this piece, Flying Fish, to the sleek, aerodynamic shape of Red Monument. Stylistically they are polar opposites. Flying Fish looks as if it's a twisted remnant of a building that’s been firebombed. The mottled metal is corroded and singed. A smooth, arching rod defines the dorsal fin, suggesting orderliness. The irregular, convoluted shape of the fish head suggests chaos. 
 
This period of Roszak’s work was based on natural forms derived from plants and animals. He used sand casting to create sections of Flying Fish, a crude process of metal sculpting compared to lost-wax casting. This created a grainy texture and limited his ability to achieve fine detail. 
 
 
Compare Flying Fish to Barbara Hepworth’s piece, Stringed Figure (Curlew III), a sleek modern form made out of wood and string. There is an almost prehistoric feeling to the material. So, the competition and conversation in Roszak's form is about the material itself. Is that the case here? This is about the way our experience with sculpture changes over time.  
 
 
A sculpture can be considered modern in three different ways: first, a centralized and reduced-to-essentials form; second, the use of a modern material, often with technological advances; and third, a non-representational location, sometimes expressed in its form. 
 
In José De Rivera's piece, Construction #46, we are looking at a stainless-steel sculpture that was originally motorized, literally becoming a moving picture. As it turns, we see different things—like an abstract drawing that changes as you move around it. The stainless steel is rendered into a dynamic line that looks like it's moving or weightless. It is a modern material made into a very modern form.
 
The original motor was removed, however, likely because the sculpture would have had to be encased in glass to keep people from touching it. When De Rivera started making this stainless-steel sculpture it was around the time that the product first came on the market. The viewer is invited to look at the positive space, the stainless steel. But also, and importantly, they are invited to look at the negative space between the interlaced steel and the shadows that the object casts on the walls or surface that it may be mounted on. Especially when you consider that it would have been rotating, these shadows would be moving constantly. 
 
Ultimately, the sculpture invites you to get inside of it. This was also reflective of major societal changes as the sculpture was completed about the time when psychology was being developed and used to help people to get inside of themselves. 
 
 
Finally, this piece by Naum Gabo, Linear Construction in Space Number Two, is made out of Perspex (plexiglass and acrylic) and monofilament line—fishing line. These were brand-new products when Gabo started using them. So, in place of marble, we have plexiglass: a new material, which therefore becomes a statement on form. 
 
The intense activity of wrapping the monofilament line around and around the pieces of acrylic also makes a “process” statement. This highly reduced, sleek, almost-functional form also seems to move when you walk around it because of how the light plays off the translucent line. It rises from the ground like a flame. 
 
The sleek design of the work echoes the sleek design of the early- to mid-20th century. It's a great moment, and exemplifies the feeling that the materials of our time can be used to make art. We no longer have to look to traditional sculpture with its material and form traditions. Artists can make bold and abstract shapes that suggest movement, and make modern material relevant as subjects for art.  
 
This is a new world of opportunity for sculpture that didn't exist before—to make matter out of the matter that is happening now. Using commonplace industrial materials and transforming them aesthetically is known as ‘constructivism.’ So, plexiglass and monofilament fishing line is transformed into resonant kinds of forms—modern sculpture.
 

The Art of Easter

Posted April 13, 2020 by Maria Saffiotti Dale

Art to Accompany the Journey towards Easter

As I write it is Good Friday in the Christian calendar, the day of Christ’s arrest and death on the cross. It is a day of mourning and deep sorrow in the religious tradition of Christianity. In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, as we are following physical distancing orders by staying home and not congregating, my thoughts turn to how art has been used for millennia to accompany religious worship and how the emotional power of art can help channel our own feelings of grief during this difficult time. The Chazen Museum of Art, like many museums around the world, is a treasure trove of such objects. I’d like to share with you some of the works of art that are currently shuttered in the galleries of the museum that relate to this particular moment. Since we cannot visit the museum and see them in person, let’s go on a virtual tour to look at these works together as we call to mind or read along the story of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.

The beginning of Holy Week is Palm Sunday (April 5th in 2020) and the museum’s Palmesel, above, is a rare late-medieval object that would have played an active role in the celebration of this feast day. It is a sculpture of Christ riding the donkey made in Austria in the late fifteenth century that would have been mounted on a cart and pulled through the streets of a town during the procession that re-enacted the Palm Sunday story of Christ’ entry into Jerusalem. There are only four such sculptures in American museums:  one at the Chazen Museum, one at the Detroit Institute of Art, one at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one at the Walters Art Museum. “Palmesel” is the German word that refers to a nearly life-size sculptural group of Christ dressed in a red robe and wearing a gold crown with his right hand raised in a blessing gestures astride a donkey (Esel). This tradition of church congregations following the village priest in procession behind a Palmesel sculpture continues today in some parts of the world. Here is a short video featuring a similar sculpture at the Victoria & Albert  Museum in London and how a village in Austria keeps this tradition alive.

Holy Thursday is the day that Christ celebrated the Last Supper with his apostles. Above is a interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic version of the Last Supper by UW-Madison Art Department faculty member Faisal Abdu’Allah. The artist populates this familiar composition with members of the Afro-British and Muslim community in his native city of London. This image can help us reflect on the interconnectedness of all faith traditions during this time of forced isolation and the creative ways global communities are forging new traditions in the celebration of seasonal rituals



On Good Friday we recall the story of Christ’s betrayal by one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, that leads to Christ’s arrest and trial before the High Priest of the synagogue. The museum’s seventeenth-century Flemish painting of The Denial of Christ by St. Peter (above) illustrates the moment in which the crowd of onlookers, including soldiers and prostitutes, are gathered around a fire warming themselves as they await the trial and they recognize the apostle Simon Peter (the bearded man seen on the right). When asked if he is one of Christ’s followers, Peter denies their assertions three times before a rooster crows, which had been prophesied by Christ at the Last Supper.



As the Good Friday story continues, Christ is brought to Pontius Pilate for questioning in the Roman praetorium where he is mocked and scourged for claiming to be the king of the Jews. This English fifteenth-century alabaster relief on loan to the Chazen Museum from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (above) depicts the Flagellation of Christ. The central figure of Christ is shown with his hands tied with rope to the column behind him, as he is being mocked, whipped, and crowned with thorns by Roman soldiers. The four soldiers are dressed in contemporary medieval costume and they display grimacing facial expressions that heighten the violence of their actions and the suffering that Christ himself is experiencing. The importance of the viewer’s emotional response to religious images intensifies in the fifteenth century, especially in Northern Europe. At this time there is a proliferation of texts that guide the worshipper in his or her devotions--“how to” manuals for the laity with instructions for prayer and for structuring daily life based on the models of piety provided by the life of Christ, especially the events of Holy Week.  

   (detail)

Small ivory diptychs like this fourteenth-century French example (above) on loan from The Metropolitan Museum of Art were intended for use in personal prayer and meditation on the major episodes of Christ’s life. In the upper register of the right panel is the scene of Christ’s Crucifixion. The figures of the mourning Virgin, at left, and St. John, at right, are shown swaying as they grieve the dead body of their son and teacher hanging on the cross. The expression of intense emotions in sculptures such as these served as supports for daily meditation and devotional practice for people in the Middle Ages, who would have turned their attention to this particular scene with more intense emotion on Good Friday.

   (detail)

Following the Crucifixion, the body of the dead Christ in taken down from the Cross. The fifteenth-century English alabaster relief above depicts the Virgin Mary lamenting over the body of Christ displayed across her knees, flanked by adoring angels on clouds above and by worshiping donors below. The male donor at left and his wife on the right (head missing) shown in contemporary fifteenth-century costume kneel to recite prayers that are carved in elegant Gothic letters on the speech scrolls rising from their joined hands. The inclusion of secular donors suggests that this alabaster relief probably functioned as an independ­ent object used in private devotion, rather than as part of a larger altarpiece made for a church.



The Good Friday recitation of Christ’s Passion concludes with a recounting of how the dead body is prepared for burial in the tomb. This fifteenth-century Flemish triptych of The Lamentation at the Chazen presents the cast of characters present after Christ’s Crucifixion at the Place of the Skulls, or Golgotha in Hebrew, between two thieves. At left, we see Joseph of Arimathea, who took Christ’s body down from the Cross holding the crown of thorns and a burial cloth and Nicodemus behind him, waiting to assist in the preparation of the body for burial. The central panel is dominated by the pierced body of the dead Christ as it is lowered into the stone tomb, supported by St. John at left, the mourning Virgin who holds Christ’s head in her right hand in the center, and the Virgin’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, whose hands are clasped and raised to her face in sorrow. The other two Marys occupy the panel at right, with Mary Magdalene in the foreground holding a jar of oil for the anointing of the body. The grieving expressions of the figures in the central panel and the prominent display of Christ’s body are intended to provide a visual focus for the viewer’s prayers and meditation on the death of Christ, as well as serving as a reminder of their own mortality. 



Holy Saturday is a day of mourning and of vigil as Christians await the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. This seventeeth-century painting on copper by Frans Francken II (above) shows the Marys arriving at the tomb where they witness the opening of the tomb accompanied by an earthquake and the arrival of an angel dressed in white who reassures them with these words, according to the Gospel of Matthew (28:5-7): “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.”



Belief in the promise of salvation through Christ’s rising from the dead is celebrated on Easter Sunday. In Albrecht Dürer’s print of The Resurrection, a radiant and blessing Christ emerges from the tomb holding a cruciform staff and banner, symbols of his victory over death and the salvific power of faith. 

I hope that this journey through the Chazen Museum’s collection has provided you with some support in your personal observances of the religious festivities during this time of isolation or has offered you some moments of diversion and appreciation of how art can simultaneously teach us about the past and accompany us in our experiences of the present moment. 

Keep safe and Happy Easter!

Imagining the Post-COVID19 World

Posted April 07, 2020 by Marcia Standiford

 

Amy Gilman, director of the Chazen Museum of Art, recently asked all museum staff to think about what it will mean to be a museum in a post-COVID19 world. 

Hold on. There it is. The phrase "post-COVID-19 world." Just as we learned back in October 2001 what it means to live in a post-9/11 world, we will eventually understand what a post-COVID-19 world feels like. 

Of course, I haven’t thought that far ahead. With only a few weeks into staying safe at home under government order, my telecommuting groove is still in development. Having only recently taken on the role of executive assistant to the Chazen museum’s chief of staff Lindsay Grinstead and director Amy Gilman, I am the newest member of the staff and thrilled to be working at this most fabulous art museum. I don’t know about bathroom breaks at your job, but for me the simple experience of walking out of our administrative offices and across the gallery to the restroom has been exhilarating. My trek to staff meetings from my office in the Elvehjem Building side of the museum to the new(er) Chazen half of the museum is a sparkling new experience every time. I see works of art that are new to me and I notice familiar works in novel ways. This is unlikely to change as time goes on.

Unlike most of the Chazen staff, my educational background is not in art or art history. My knowledge of the art world in general is that of a layperson. But I know I am stirred by images. I am inspired by the visual. Whether created by nature or the human hand, accidental or intentional, visual expressions of life, death, thoughts, dreams, and emotions capture my attention and imagination.

So, will Covid-19 forever change the way I see? How might our experiences during this prolonged time of quarantines, social distancing, illness, and loss color our perception of the world? Will it be like having cataracts, a yellowish shroud covering one’s eyes? 

Being immersed in two new environments at once, the art world, and the Covid-19 world, has helped me to understand—no, it has helped me to feel—the impact of the arts on the soul of a civilization. Like public parks and libraries, art museums afford us the time and space to reflect and breathe. 

I hope my post-Covid19 view of the world will be one of a rosy newfound reverence for reflection. Taking our director’s advice, I will strive to recognize these endless hours we are spending confined to one place as a time of luxury. Our hectic, chaotic lives have been halted. For a moment, we have the time to stop and think. I don’t want to wallow in fear of what might be lurking ahead, but to imagine what could be better, to conceive of solutions and find creative ways to contribute.   

It will be a while before I can, once again, stand in one of our beautiful galleries staring at the work of Petah Coyne or physically experience the aural and visual provocation of professor John Hitchcock’s Bury the Hatchet. But for the time being, I can call up nearly any of the works in the Chazen’s collection online and transport my brain to a new place. I can interact in new ways with social media from the Chazen, other art museums and artists, and join the creative types from around the world who have seemingly taken over the internet to capture our collective imagination.  

In a post-COVID-19 world we will need to make a concerted effort to look beyond what is directly in front of our faces. This is what art does best. In a post-COVID-19 world, purveyors of art will be the new first-responders, rescuing the soul of our wounded civilization.

—M. Standiford 4/1/2020

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