Auguste Rodin, Head of Balzac (Tête de Balzac), 1897
This modest study for a large-scale monument to the writer Honoré de Balzac is easily overlooked by distracted museum-goers. Commissioned by the Société des gens de lettres in 1891, this portrait is the near-final result of Auguste Rodin’s struggle to capture the genius of a writer who was sometimes lampooned for his portly physique and disheveled appearance. Rodin pushed through many concepts in an attempt to portray the man he described as “a creator who brings life to all that he sees,”1 (including a fully nude version with an exceedingly wide stance) before ultimately settling on the dramatic figure of Balzac draped in a long robe, as if rising in the night to walk “feverishly in his apartment in pursuit of his private visions.”2 The heavy brow, prominent nose, and exaggerated recesses of Balzac’s face seen in this study reflect Rodin’s intention to create a visage that, rather than photographically reproducing the author’s face, would read from a distance on an outdoor monument and, like the beautifully ambiguous gesture in his first major sculpture, The Age of Bronze, offer a changeable expression as light played over its features, evoking the larger-than-life personality of a spirited and multifaceted man.
James Magee, Mine Shaft, 1995-98
James Magee’s hefty, wall-mounted relief Mine Shaft is physically one half of a complete artwork made up of the object and its full title, an extended poem that adds layers of meaning to the experience of viewing the work. Mine Shaft recalls a pivotal place and time in Magee’s life: the abandoned Piers on the Hudson River in 1970s New York and a club called The Mineshaft, both of which were sites of radical sexual and cultural experimentation. Among Magee’s experiences at the Piers was that of reading aloud his own poetic texts, marking the place as one where mind and body both found means of expression. The heavy, metal form of Mine Shaft coupled with the spiraling narrative of its long title echo that marriage of physical and emotional experience. I find the portion of the title excerpted here especially moving:
Sometimes when I’m out here like this near the drain hole,
and I’m drawn to holes no matter
the day or night,
or year, for that matter, especially if they’re whole
sucking soul holes,
I begin to see light exploding from
trunks of trees,
spark like stones struck together brighter
than a sun uplifted,
because you see I’ve been slithering
around on this wet ground on all fours
for so long now that the trees and me,
we kind of understand one
another in the gradualness of our less and less
Elliott Hundley, Alas!, 2011
Elliot Hundley’s 2011 body of work The Bacchae responds to Euripides’ play of the same name, combining images, text, and sculpture into an environment that immerses viewers in the narrative. In Alas!, Hundley interprets the emotional climax of The Bacchae, during which Agave, mother of the King of Thebes, is tricked by Dionysus into believing that her son is a mountain lion before tearing him limb from limb in a frenzied bacchanal. She presents her son’s severed head to her father, Cadmus, before realizing with horror what she has done.
CADMUS: Now does it look at all like a lion’s head?
AGAVE: No. It is Pentheus’s head—Alas!—I hold.
Most striking to me is the scale of Alas!, which takes an intimate moment of grief and renders it massive, looming, and by turns indecipherable, reifying the overwhelming experience of loss.
Christopher Wilmarth, My Divider, 1972–73
Artist and songwriter Christopher Wilmarth was powerfully affected by the experience of walking through New York City and encountering the play of light on the surfaces of the city’s skyscrapers and bridges. He saw his sculptures as places to generate experiences with light that could echo those moments in his own life when light became entwined with memory, hoping to “return them to the world as a physical poem” through his art. The glass in My Divider, etched with painterly strokes, captures the light that passes through it, softly glowing against the dark steel plates that make up the rest of its form. Wilmarth explored this quality of light in his lyrics: “I keep the shades down in the day/ The sun is just a square upon the wall/Every day that square moves down/ Across the bed and out into the hall/ Just outside a dream will call my name/And tomorrow’s in my room again today.”
Isamu Noguchi, Gregory (Effigy), 1945 (cast 1969)
The abstract, biomorphic form of Gregory, called Effigy when it was first exhibited, coalesces into the recognizable outline of an insect when paired with its title (likely a reference to Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as indicated by Noguchi himself). In the opening sentence of Kafka’s story, Samsa awakens to find himself transformed into an “ungeheures Ungeziefer,” a monstrous vermin, whose physical incarnation acquires more and more grotesque detail as he negotiates encounters with the outside world. Noguchi’s sculpture, originally carved in purple slate, is composed of discrete, interlocking forms that fit together and balance without welded or cast joints. To my eye, its smooth, undulating lines and unconnected parts suggest a body in flux, with antennae, eye, and legs fully formed, but murky, biological turmoil in between.
Written by Anna Smith, Curator of Education
1 “Chez Auguste Rodin.” La presse, July 11, 1891.
2 Gsell, Paul. “Chez Rodin.” L’art et les artistes, February 1907, 393-415.