Reuben Nakian: Terra Cottas, 1955-1983
The New York Times
May 27, 2005
The long career of the sculptor Reuben Nakian (1897-1986) reached from early American Modernism through Social Realism to Abstract Expressionism and, thanks partly to Minimalism, sank from the art-world view well before his death. To be more specific, Nakian, a handsome man who was a friend of Arshile Gorky's and showed at the fabled Egan Gallery, started out under the influence of figurative artists like Gaston Lachaise, Paul Manship and John Flannagan in the 1920's. By the early 1930's, he was making portrait busts of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cabinet. By the mid-1950's, he was heading for hulking, semi-abstract sculptures made of crusty slabs of bronze held aloft by armatures. These dour works may be as close as American sculpture gets to Abstract Expressionism, but aren't close enough.
This well-selected show resurrects the small terra cottas -- fraught with Classical themes, sexual energy and fast-working bravura -- for which Nakian best deserves to be remembered. With titles like ''Leda and the Swan,'' ''Europa and the Bull'' and ''Nymph and Goat,'' their curving, often statuesque forms suggest a debt to Elie Nadelman's roving eye for ancient sculpture. Their obsession with sex, gesture and Greece brings to mind Cy Twombly. Their combination of abandon and caricaturelike humor has something in common with de Kooning's sculpture and the early work of the young sculptors of the 1950's, like Red Grooms, William King and Claes Oldenburg.
Also included are drawings deftly sliced into slabs of clay; some may be the most purely abstract works Nakian made. With all the interest in ceramics, the figure and small scale evident among today's young sculptors, this show radiates pertinence.