As Angelenos know better than most, proximity to celebrity can muddle an individual’s status as friends, associates and partners of the famous are pulled into the limelight -- and eclipsed at the same time.
This is true of the Catalan sculptor Julio Gonzalez, whose affiliation with Pablo Picasso brought him recognition but also virtually guaranteed him a second-fiddle position in history. This was perhaps reinforced by Gonzalez’s own modesty, his tendency toward small-scale works and the fact that he dropped out of the Paris art scene at the high point of his development. He was a bridge figure, between Picasso’s generation and that of emerging post-World War II sculptors, including American David Smith, Anthony Caro of Britain and the Basque Eduardo Chillida. Smith, Caro and Chillida became known for explorations in ironworking, the area Gonzalez opened to fine art.
A traveling exhibition aspires to properly introduce Gonzalez to U.S. audiences. On view at USC Fisher Gallery through Oct. 29, “Julio Gonzalez: Sculpture and Drawings From the IVAM Collection” is co-curated by Fisher Director Selma Holo and Angel Kalenberg, director of the National Museum of Visual Arts in Montevideo, Uruguay. The show, which opened in New York, travels to Chicago and Miami after leaving L.A., where the last major Gonzalez exhibition was in 1965. Drawn entirely from the collections of the IVAM, the Valencia Institute of Modern Art, the repository of the artist’s estate, the exhibition includes 43 works: mostly sculptures, but also reliefs and drawings as well as dazzling jewelry and decorative wrought-iron pieces.
Gonzalez was born in 1876 into a family of Barcelona metal smiths and apprenticed in the family business. He became versed in the fashionable architectural style of Modernisme, a Spanish variant of Art Nouveau, and as a teenager mixed with members of the Catalan avant-garde, including the young Picasso. When business declined after Spain’s 1898 defeat in the Spanish-American War, the family moved to Paris, where Gonzalez focused on drawing and painting and associated with the likes of Cubist painter Juan Gris and Modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
The long involvement with drawing and painting proved essential to Gonzalez’s development as he moved from two dimensions into relief and finally sculptures in the round that emphasized line and plays on positive and negative space. Work during World War I in a Renault car factory, where he learned to weld, and later as an assistant to Brancusi, also proved formative. Perhaps no contact was more important, however, than his reacquaintance in the late ‘20s with Picasso, who needed a fabricator and teacher to help him realize ideas in metal.
With Picasso, Gonzalez saw how his techniques could facilitate production of new kinds of sculptural form, as if the lines and planes of a Cubist painting could free themselves of the picture plane and stand in actual space. After asking permission to use the same techniques he had taught Picasso, Gonzalez devoted himself principally to sculpture.
Earlier reliefs and drawings in the exhibition often are lovely, and Gonzalez’s later cast-bronze figurative fragments, such as “Head of Peasant Woman,” (ca. 1934-36) and “Raised Left Hand” (1942), have an undeniable pathos, but much of the work is indebted to other artists, if not derivative. As the exhibition makes clear, it was in a specific strain of his work, assembled from cut and welded iron, that Gonzalez became an innovator. The understanding of line and plane developed there shows itself in a number of his drawings and bronzes, some of which are cast from assemblages. The most innovative works in the exhibition show the influence of Brancusi and Picasso, as well as Jacques Lipchitz and Alberto Giacometti. But more than pointing to precedents, they lay ground in material, technique and form for such sculptors as Smith and Caro. Assembled mostly out of sheet and bar stock, as well as odd scraps and bits of hardware, these pieces flaunt their tacked-together, cantilevered and off-kilter arrangements.
With the exception of Giacometti, Gonzalez maintains a poignant humanism, more so than his predecessors or heirs, and without the continued heavy reference to the figure that was the stock and trade of midcentury Humanist and Expressionist sculptors.
“Raised Hand” from 1937 seems bold and triumphant but also mangled, more skin or glove than flesh. “The Hair” from 1934, a free-standing crescent topped with a few wiry sprouts, is a fusion of grace and awkwardness, confidence and geekiness. Its cousin, “Head in Front of the Mirror,” from the same year, appears slightly startled by the vision to which it is drawn by its vanity.
“The Lovers” is a pair of dynamic angular shapes in interlocking positive and negative space cut into the end of a hollow shell balanced on a precipice. “Cactus Man I” from 1939, playful though he seems, is a jumbled, quill-studded suit of armor, in places overdone and under-equipped.
At times, Gonzalez’s iron sculptures maintain only vague fidelity to the human form, but they remain intensely in touch with the human condition, their literal forms metaphors for vulnerability, anxiety and despair. They hold together while seeming to break apart; they appear solid from one view, are revealed empty or torn open from another. They struggle to keep balance; they are prickly. And often they are human precisely to the extent that they embody contradiction. The exhibition satisfyingly asserts Gonzalez’s significant place in Modernism’s history, not just in the technical and formal possibilities he revealed to other artists, but in what he reveals to viewers about themselves.
‘Julio Gonzalez: Sculpture and Drawings From the IVAM Collection’
Where: USC Fisher Gallery, 823 Exposition Blvd., Harris Hall 126, Los Angeles
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays
Ends: Oct. 29
Contact: (213) 740-4561; www.usc.edu/org/fishergallery