Unreal Nature

June 25, 2012

What We Do

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:24 am

… Abstract they are only to those who seek their prototypes among forms of external knowledge. But the kingdom of González is within you, and his types are the internal aspirations of your body and mine.

This is from the collection Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg (2007; 1972). The following is from the essay ‘Gonzalez‘ first published in 1956:

… Watching them [the sculpture of González at MoMA] over these past years I sometimes wondered at the old saw which declares beauty to be only skin-deep — and which thinks itself profound, whereas it is in fact particularly shallow. For the proverb acknowledges only the beauty of closed, compact forms as they reveal themselves in patent surfaces. It hails from a baby-stage of thought which relates to things by dabbling and paddling, and which cannot conceive without grasping.

There exists another order of bodily beauty which has nothing to do with the surfaced physique; it is the beauty which our body borrows from the bend of a baroque staircase as it molds the path of our climb; in which a driver participates as he rounds a well-banked curve in the road. It is the beauty of a gesture which even a misshapen limb might describe, or which a skater unfolds in the duration of motion. It is the beauty of the diagonal you make striding into the wind; of the lean upright you draw when you stretch your full height; of all those lines of force which traverse the felt interiors of the body. And it is a beauty which flows more intimately from the sources of freedom and life, depending little on accidents of superficial structuration, and so much more on what we do.

This beauty is the theme of Julio González — one of the great sculptors of our time. His figures of sheet metal, iron rods, and strips are insistently human, and as representational as empathy makes them. Abstract they are only to those who seek their prototypes among forms of external knowledge. But the kingdom of González is within you, and his types are the internal aspirations of your body and mine.

Torso, 1936 [image from MoMA]

… In Degas, as in Rodin, the human form as a stable system seems doomed beyond hope of endurance.

What happened after that we know. Our body became not the hero but the victim of life. If it survived in our art, it was by submitting to an inhuman rigidity, a demonic possession, or as the accident of impersonal physical forces. We got the dissections of the Cubist sculptors, the primitivist fetishes of one school, and the glassy constructs of another. We admired the foetal biomorphs of Arp (to whom “Art that upholds the vanity of man is sickening”) and the pebbled, ocean-worn anatomies of Henry Moore. In the hushed forms of Brancusi we watched the unexperienced purity of Platonic ideas; and in the figures of Lachaise a ballooning buoyancy which never appertained to man. Deprived of its own pride, the human body borrowed virtues from all alien things — much as primitive man, conscious only of his physical inadequacy, must appropriate the swiftness, potency, or antlered radiance of his totem animals.

Those sculptors who continued to present the figure in traditional classic array paid for indulging their nostalgia by losing significance. Why this should be we don’t precisely know, but have seen it happen even to Maillol and Despiau — there is a drowsiness about their forms which fails to tax our sensibility where we are most awake.

… the kind of kinesis [González] imputes to man tends to be proud, free, energetic, eliciting no pity or recoil but admiration.

His irons sway with the déhanchement of a gothic madonna or lift themselves with an alerted swagger like Donatello’s St. George. His life-size Angel (1933), for all its delicate allusion to the praying mantis and the dragonfly, is but the active principle sucked from the stone-carved angel who mounts guard by the New Tower of Chartres. The lithe metallic undulations of his Woman Combing Her Hair scaffold and imply the flesh of Aphrodite.

Woman Combing Her Hair, 1936 [image from MoMA]

… It is this that is new in González — to have seen the human body in its strength, while employing a contemporary, subcutaneous vision. He has, as it were, earned the right to use that theme again, because he has discovered it from a new vantage point. Like all modern artists, he knew that the world as it shows itself to sight and touch is a comparatively narrow sector of experience, that there are areas of awareness open, for instance, to our kinesthetic nerves. Tuned to their signals, González‘ shapes seem determined by an inward apperception of dynamic functions, never by the look of forms externalized and thingified.

… In the lovely Woman with a Mirror, the leg-and-pelvic space is swept by a fertile shape which is both seedpod and thigh, but more than either — the trajectory of a caress.

Woman with a Mirror, 1936

… so often when the subject of the human form in contemporary art comes up, the alternatives are posed in terms of a return, or a refusal to return, to the figure. González shows a modern art that does not go back to the figure, but goes forward to encounter it at the next station.

… In view of his unsurpassed craftsmanship and his gift and ultimate genius as a sculptor, it is a strange fact that González did not recognize his vocation till well past his fiftieth year. His early life was misdirected into painting, and most of his sculptures before 1934 are of essentially biographic interest.

… In its stylistic indecision a bronze like the Spanish Mask of 1930 is painful to see. Roberta González, the sculptor’s daughter, has given us some hints of the self-doubt which racked her father during those long years. But in the works of the early thirties, the new technique is explored and begins to point at expressive purpose — though they retain a gawky, virginal naiveté (like the Woman with a Basket of 1931 and the Standing Figures of the following year).

There comes a breath of confidence — and crudity — with the stick-figured Prayer and the Dancer with Disheveled Hair; and the first sign of an intense personal vision breaking through in the Maternity of 1933, the Angel, and the series of small heads. The greatness of González rests finally on some dozen works produced during a four- or five-year spurt, works into which the man of sixty hammered his long-abeyant youth.

Head, 1935 [image from MoMA]

My most recent previous post from Steinberg’s book is here.



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