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Zabriskie Gallery | Reuben Nakian (1897-1986) Terra cottas, 1955-1983

Reuben Nakian: Terra cottas


Peter Frank
March 01, 2005
For various reasons, sculpture has fit uneasily into the abstract expressionist canon. Work in three dimensions poses challenges to the aesthetic, even the ethos, of action painting. How can a spontaneous gesture be frozen in space? To consider sculpture as abstract expressionist is, finally, to reconsider abstract expressionism itself. But if we put aside the myths of creation that have adhered to the abstract expressionist sensibility and concentrate on what was created, we find that gesturality can inhere to sculpture no less than to painting. If the cast bronzes, welded steel steles, and carpentered woodworks produced in and around New York in and around the 1950s do not convey the same sense of moment as their canvas counterparts, they manifest every bit as much of their momentousness.

Few sculptors working in postwar America were more able to harness their own gestural tendencies, and subject them to a grander monumentality, than Reuben Nakian. In the work he produced between the end of World War II and the end of his life four decades later, Nakian did away with the tidy politesse of realism and even cubism every bit as thoroughly as did his painter friends and counterparts. His expansive freestanding bronze works are as beautiful as they are imposing; but they strive not for balance or elegance, but for drama and presence. They can as readily consume a courtyard as grace one.

If Nakian earned his place at the Cedar Bar, in Art News, and ultimately the Museum of Modern Art with such tumultuous (and yet carefully poised) machines, he kept that place with his work on smaller scales, and in what was then referred to as “lesser” media. Nakian himself did not regard clay as a secondary substance to bronze, any more than he regarded the drawn line as subservient to the painted. Indeed, he worked as large as he could in forged and sun-dried mud – and also worked as small.

The terracotta pieces comprising the bulk of this exhibition, produced throughout Nakian’s career as an abstract expressionist, embody his vision just as immediately and as thoroughly as do his large works. Like the monumental bronzes, the terracottas rhapsodize on archetypal stories, mostly Graeco-Roman myths, but veer readily off into pure non-objective form. Unlike those bronzes, the clayworks offered Nakian a means of addressing these stories with rapidly, even urgently realized forms, quickly modeled limbs and torsi, lines etched quickly onto surfaces. Nakian could use terracotta to belie the classicism of such classic myths, to make accounts of amorous encounters seem appropriately eruptive and passionate, to bring alive whirlwind courtships between gods and humans, animals and spirits. The stories were timeless, but Nakian found ways of making them timely.

He also found ways of returning them to timelessness. Terracotta provided Nakian a way of baking his cake and casting it, too. Many of these effulgent statuettes and ribald plaques have generated molds that in turn have allowed the artist and his estate to produce them in bronze. Unlike his plaster originals, however, Nakian considered his terracottas every bit as substantive as the bronzes they have engendered. The physical delicacy of clay vis-à-vis bronze can’t be ignored, but, if anything, the more delicate material lends even more vigor to its subject matter, its earthen hues and textures imparting a delicious robustness. As well, of course, the terracotta conjures the Attican calyxes and Pompeiian frescoes in which so many of the legends he recapitulates were originally depicted; the vitality of Nakian’s work springs from millennia-old methods as well as tales.

Nearly two decades after his death, and almost ten years since his centenary, Reuben Nakian is due reconsideration – as is sculpture generally as a vehicle for abstract expressionist practice. In their informality and sensuality, Nakian’s smaller-scale works in particular rewards this line of exploration. He has already entered the history books with his large bronzes; but these more intimately sized objects, too, merit attention above the footnote level, most especially for their direct alignment with the practices of his painter contemporaries.

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