Two new exhibits have opened in Fort Worth, and they serve as lovely bookends to a century of sculptural pursuits. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art brought in a large group of early 20th century American pieces from artists Gaston Lachaise, Robert Laurent, Elie Nadelman and William Zorach. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth reprised its most popular exhibit of the past decade and brought in a show of works by Ron Mueck.
At the Modern, Mueck has provided a scant six pieces, but the small number fills three galleries. His figures, almost always human, are either extremely large or quite small. The disparity of size and the hyperrealism is astounding, and that is their first lure.
What keeps the viewers riveted though is the internal world that each piece exudes. Mueck is able to capture the quiet contemplations of internal dialogue, with facial expressions that look almost melancholy, but the face in repose is the reality of the unmasked person who is simply focused inward. No guile or pretense is needed when conversing with oneself. This inward reflection is non-confrontational so it allows the viewer a long, hard stare.
His “Woman With Shopping,” which stands less than 4 feet tall, depicts a mother who, although small, is stretched to her physical limits, carrying a baby wrapped to her chest and laden shopping bags in each hand. Her gaze is numb, her unsmiling mouth and tired eyes speak the language of every mother who has ever wanted an extra hand or another hour in the day.
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It is this universal accord that is the hook, not the replication of body matter.
If it were only technique, the plucked and butchered chicken “Still Life” would be more fascinating. As it is, it is only remarkable for its pale, clammy skin — there is no emotive connection.
Sharing the same gallery is “Drift,” depicting a man in swim trunks, floating on a plastic air mattress, across a Caribbean blue wall. His arms are outstretched and the bright spotlight warms his skin tones. In the chill of a winter day, it takes little imagination to hear the surf, the squawk of sea gulls, feel the warmth, and want to be there, desperately.
There is art precedence for his cruciform figure, but as he has floated slightly off true, the result is a bird’s-eye view of a body floating on water, not a frontal confrontation with a crucifixion. The chicken does not engender such thinking.
In the same neighborhood at the Amon Carter Museum, sculptors from an earlier generation attempted to break the mold of representational figuration as adamantly as Mueck tries to replicate it.
While the progression seems circular, it is more like a spiral, always coming back to earlier references but moving beyond. In the case of the four artists at the Carter, their departure point was Auguste Rodin, the great French sculptor who was so dominant that the young strivers had to find their own expression or always be in Rodin’s shadow.
The four, who had done the obligatory young artist stint in Paris, needed distance, and they found their way to the United States in the early 1900s. With the outbreak of the First World War, they had to stay — some more willingly than others. By the war’s end, they committed to their new country.
What had originally startled them — the roughhewn energy and gaudy and bawdy street scenes — were soon realized in their artworks. On exhibit are 55 sculptures and 20 drawings that show their familial influences and media.
Acrobats seen at the vaudeville theaters in New York City and the latest dance crazes became popular subject matter. So did voluptuous women, and no one did zaftig better than Gaston Lachaise. His muse, and eventual wife, Isabel, was his constant model. His loving depictions of her are lusciously round and radiant.
The work of Elie Nadelman, Robert Laurent and William Zorach does not have as indelible a signature as that of Lachaise. They experimented as much with form as they did with media, and the results are quite varied. They would paint the surfaces of wood, gild and nickel plate bronze, and try new methods of casting that would result in pieces more affordable than bronze.
Nadelman wildly vacillated between styles and his best owe a great deal to American folk art, a genre that he and his heiress wife collected in bulk. His carved wood figures — painted and then rubbed to give a patina of age — are some of his best. He managed to combine his trained classicism with folk art’s naiveté and the result was a sophisticated modernism.
Laurent carved luminous, sensual bodies in alabaster, while Zorach spent his time carving blockier figures in less forgiving wood.
The Carter teamed with the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, for this exhibit, as all the artists spent time in Maine during their summers, sharing lodgings and spurring each other on.
Mounted in small vitrines are examples from multiple artists and they work beautifully together. The acrobats of Lachaise are grouped with the acrobats of Nadelman. The pillowy body of one of Laurent’s white alabasters is paired with the undulating black sandstone of a Lachaise work. They go together like salt and pepper.
Both exhibits are lovely and relatable, as the human figure is the centerpiece (excluding Mueck’s chicken). It’s a gentle emotional wash to see them as a double feature.
Gaile Robinson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Times.
“New Works by Ron Mueck”
- Through May 6
- Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
- 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth
- Admission: $4 - $10
“A New American Sculpture, 1914-1945: Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman and Zorach”
- Through May 13
- Amon Carter Museum of American Art
- 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
- Admission: Free