Abstract work in America, American sculptors, art, artist Marguerite Zorach, Carnegie, Carnegie Corporation, culture, education, New York City, outdoor sculpture exhibition, Panama Pacific Exhibition (1915), sculptor David Smith, sculptor William Zorach, Sculptors Guild, Sculpture, sculpture in the USA, Structure of Arches catalog title, Warren Wheelock, Whitney Museum of American Art in New York
Much of the sculpture in the USA at the early part of the century was fairly conventional. When we go through exhibition catalogs of the period it is hard to get really excited if you do not appreciate figurative sculpture. International fairs like the Panama Pacific Exhibition (1915) or earlier the St. Louis Expo were still very much about figures. There had always been a trend to make masks or busts and torsos of famous men and women, from Greek and Roman times on.
Fast forward, the story slowly changes with the establishment of the Sculptors Guild, a professional society of American sculptors that organized the first public membership exhibition in New York City promoting outdoor sculpture in 1938 on the North East (NE) corner of Park Avenue and 39th Street.
The exhibition cover (above right) and the poster (not shown) were designed by the artist Marguerite Zorach, wife of the sculptor William Zorach. The Guild had more patrons than the 57 listed sculptor members in the catalog. The first catalog had 80 black and white photos of members’ works and only one titled “coq d’or” by Warren Wheelock remotely resembles an abstract work. The start of World War II brought us another outdoor sculpture exhibition (1941 catalog shown above left) as well as a traveling exhibition (below) to publicize the Guild’s work.By now the Guild had 65 members. The 1941 exhibition catalog this time with 56 black and white photos had again only one entree that truly deserves the word abstract. The title is “Structure of Arches” by sculptor David Smith. He is the only one who is shown with an abstract sculpture in the traveling exhibition catalog (above). This time the catalog appears better organized, the pages contain an artist bio and black and white photo, usually the artist working, as well as a representative work of that artist side by side.
The traveling exhibit was indebted to the Carnegie Corporation as a sponsor, most of the Guild members had come from the New York area and it was time to take the show on the road. Abstract work in America, however, remains a stepchild even though it was practiced on an individual basis it was rarely seen in public! One had to wait well into the 1950’s to see some abstract work in public usually done by European artists exhibiting in New York. By the late forties sculpture was more widely shown in museum exhibits rounding out the general impression that sculpture was an established part of an artist’s work even though that artist might not be known primarily as a sculptor.
A 1949 retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York of Max Weber’s work had shown 14 sculptures of which one abstract out of a total of 146 works was shown in other media. Interestingly enough, of all the works shown in the catalog there is one black and white sculpture photo, guess what! Yes of that 1915 abstract work (5 1/4″ H) in plaster called “Spiral Rhythm“.
When we look at an auction sale of the mid sixties, we find a lot of famous artists names who produced either sculpture or were sculptors and we see a marvelous head titled “Head with Chignon” by Weber that was not shown in the 1949 Retro Exhibition. The head made around 1915 and 9 inches tall made 2,000 dollars. The sale realized $471,800.00 and out of 80 lots barely 12 could be classified as abstract, none of them by an American artist!