"The Figure in American Sculpture: A Question of Modernity" is the most engagingly peculiar exhibition to have been mounted in Los Angeles in quite some time.
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the approximately 100 assembled works in marble, bronze, wood, brass, plaster, wire and other materials do not stand as just another curatorial recapitulation or revision of the tried and true. Instead, what makes the show unusually appealing is its sense of discovery and surprise.
An archeological element marks this ambitious enterprise. Unearthed is a relatively recent period of sculptural activity--roughly 1900 to 1945--that had been almost entirely bulldozed under in postwar histories of American art. Traversing the handsomely installed galleries is rather like coming upon the remains of a long-lost but oddly familiar civilization.
What's peculiar about the show? Well, the sense of curious engagement never flags, even though very little of the sculpture is more than mediocre--and some of it is flatly awful. Go figure.
Part of the sustained interest comes from encountering early work by artists who blossomed later, such as Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi. (Noguchi's 1934 "Death," which features a grotesquely stylized, nearly life-size figure seemingly lynched by a rope from a steel and wood armature, is almost comical as a kitschy example of self-consciously modern style applied to old-fashioned illustration.) And part of the allure comes from the surprising abundance of work by names long-since forgotten, many of them women and African Americans.
Most of it, however, comes from the attempt to puzzle-out how this early Modern sculpture could be regarded as a bridge, which links conservative traditions of 19th-Century American statuary to progressive or avant-garde sculpture produced after World War II. The period between 1900 and 1945 is often addressed in studies of American painting, but rarely is its sculpture fully considered.
LACMA curator Ilene Susan Fort has now done it. If the argument the exhibition makes is finally unconvincing, the questions raised and the wide net cast in reconstructing the era are apposite.
Abstract art was privileged in the United States in the years following World War II. In art made during the first half of the century, the emphasis on sculptural representations of the human figure has always been seen as having held sculpture back. "The Figure in American Sculpture" means to turn this established story on its head.
The LACMA show wants to insist that, on the contrary, figurative sculpture was just as Modern as abstract sculpture. To that end, the sculptures have been installed thematically, not chronologically.
This isn't a show that intends to suggest Modern sculpture as a progressive movement toward formal abstraction, as decades pass. Instead, modernity is considered to be a spirit or sensibility, a Zeitgeist manifested in an unprecedented sense of openness.
This new openness is sculpturally represented in several ways: by subject matter far more expansive than the narrow emphasis on moral uplift and commemoration that typified 19th-Century American sculpture (all those horsy bronze statues and nude marble Goddesses of Democracy); by a willingness to use untraditional materials, such as plastic and wire; by a frequent embrace of stylistic tropes borrowed from European Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism and Surrealism, and so forth.
This new openness is also manifested socially, in the changing profile of the American artist. The numerous African American sculptors and the plethora of women--fully one-quarter of the show--are compelling evidence of substantial shifts away from tradition.
Still, despite these noteworthy transformations, an air of conservatism permeates the LACMA galleries--a conservatism that would not characterize a similarly scaled show of Modern European sculpture from the same period. An energetic, exploratory openness to new styles, techniques, materials and artistic themes can indeed be seen. What's missing is a receptivity to--and a hunger for--a new conception of sculpture itself.
The basic idea of "sculpture" is instead largely inherited. Sculpture is conceived to be a self-contained volume of interpenetrating mass and space, which creates a three-dimensional pictorial image. (Pictorialism doesn't require figurative subject matter, either; abstract art can also be pictorial.) A traditional European conception of sculpture, which had formed the basis of 19th-Century American work, still obtains in the first half of the 20th Century.
For example, Noguchi's "Death" is a sculptural protest against racist lynchings in the American South. But its difference from standard 19th-Century American sculpture is chiefly one of political viewpoint, not sculptural substance.
The hanging figure conserves the old-fashioned idea of sculpture as commemorative, as an allegory of patriotism or justice, as instructive archetype--all the tenets that earlier guided Hiram Powers and Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the prior century. Idealization of form has simply given way to expressive criticism.
The tenacity of the academic European tradition in American art may partly be explained by the unprecedented level of European immigration early in this century. Yes, many women and African Americans are represented here, but immigrants are by far the largest sub-category: Almost 40% of the show's artists were born outside the United States, all but one in Europe. For this reason, a different aspect of "The Figure in American Sculpture" is likely to stand as its most potent scholarly contribution.
Fort daringly pushes back the origins of early American Modernism nearly 20 years. Most histories of the subject trace the birth of Modern sculpture in America to the impact of New York's famous 1913 Armory Show, which introduced the European avant-garde to the United States in a big way.
This show opens instead with a gallery devoted to the significance of Rodin for American sculpture by the 1890s, as in Lorado Taft's small, 1901 column of serpentine bronze figures, "The Solitude of the Soul." The gallery convincingly demonstrates how Rodin's personal, sensual and expressive precedent first created a receptive field.
* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through April 30, as part of the museum's American Festival. Closed Mondays.