Monthly Archives: July 2012

Louise Bourgeois

It has been two years since the death of Louise Bourgeois, and her substantial sculptural legacy has yet to be brought into focus. Her images of the body–grotesque, sexual, poignant, witty–had a profound effect on a generation of artists who learned much from Bourgeois’s explorations of the psychic ramifications of human anatomy.

Ms. Bourgeois’s sculptures covered a virtuosic range of styles in stone, wood, steel, fabric, and installations of found objects. Her repeated themes centered on the frailty of the body and its need for shelter in an unpredictable and threatening world.

A 1982 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York solidified her reputation and brought the artist, then in her early 70s, the critical and popular acclaim that had eluded her. The catalogue photo for this exhibit, taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, shows Bourgeois holding her unsettling “Filette,” a large latex phallus. In the catalog itself, however, the picture was cropped to show only the artist’s face, a telling alteration of her image even as she was being honored. In an art world where women had been ignored or marginalized, Bourgeois became a totemic figure: a powerful woman artist, possessed of daunting technical skill, who was not afraid to approach taboo themes.

Much has been written by the artist about her childhood in France, and her father’s long term affair with her governess. Bourgeois mined childhood terrors and uncertainties in her long lifetime of making art. Her reputation grew stronger in the ’90s, with its artistic culture of sexuality, vulnerability and mortality. She has come to represent an entire era of late-twentieth century art which deals realistically with a symbolic body–art which is “about” rather than “of” the human figure.

Information courtesy New York Times

Marisol in Manchester

Manchester, New Hampshire’s Currier Museum is home to Marisol Escobar’s masterpiece, “Family” (1963). This iconic pop sculpture was featured (apparently un-ironically) on the cover of Time Magazine in December, 1970 as part of a feature on the crisis of the American family. Like much of Marisol’s best-known work, this group of life size figures is assembled from carved wood, cast plaster, cloth, and painted and collaged decoration with an enormous baby carriage-as-found-object. But the babies themselves are adults—or pieces of them—and the two girl children who walk gravely on either side of their grinning mother are suspiciously grown up. The parents are preposterous concoctions of self-absorption and alienation, dressed expensively in the latest fashions.

The family appears benign and colorful at first glance, but eventually the agglomeration of mismatched parts that makes up each figure becomes unsettling.  The two babies are composed of segments of adult faces and bony adult feet, cast from life and applied to the enormous hulk of the black carriage. One of the girl children has three legs, and carries a cloth doll whose face is a sketched self-portrait of the sculptor. The mother’s eyes are covered by a large hat, her life-cast mouth a rictus of delight, or hysteria. The father, immaculate in a brocade jacket, is entombed in a wooden frame, detached from the family parade. Marisol’s sophisticated color palette enhances her skillful vocabulary of drawn, painted, and lightly carved surface pattern, which in turn masterfully accentuates various aspects of the group.

Marisol has been called a surrealist, perhaps for lack of a better word to describe her witty assemblages of carved wood, drawing, painting, casts, and found objects. Her satire, always acute, attained a razor’s edge in this parody of American life in the plastic-fantastic decade.

Isabel Case Borgatta: persistence of the figure

Isabel Case Borgatta is, at this writing, the oldest resident of New York’s Westbeth Artist’s Housing, a live/work development exclusively for artists that has been home to many, including Merce Cunningham and Diane Arbus. Borgatta works every day, in a demanding medium, despite the vagaries of age.

A 1943 graduate of Smith College, Borgatta’s devotion to carving began as a girl when she won $100 in an Ivory Soap contest. “A lot of money in the middle of the Depression,” Borgatta remembers. “From there I started carving most any material I could.”*

Borgatta’s many honors include a first exhibit in 1951 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, in 1995, she was the first woman to receive the Alex J. Ettl Grant from the National Sculpture Society for her lifetime achievement. “One for the girls,” she quips.

Borgatta has always worked figuratively, often combining animal and human subjects in sculpture that ranges from a few inches to life size. A new piece, carved in her customary marble, shows a man carrying two cats. “I have a strong feeling about communication between the species and their symbiosis, which is a natural part of this world,” Borgatta says.

For contemporary women artists struggling to find balance, she advises: “Don’t give up. It’s hard, but if it’s important to you as a full human being to realize what you can do, just do it.”

*quotes courtesy Smith College Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2012: “The Shape of Things” by Jane Falla.
image courtesy “Out of Sync”!caracters

Tea and Sculpture in Rome

Did Harriet Hosmer have tea at Babington’s? Did Edmonia Lewis? It’s so tempting to speculate. Before Babington’s Tea Shop opened, tea could be bought only in Italian pharmacies, as a sort of prescription remedy, presumably. In 1893, Isabel Cargill and Anne Marie Babington opened the eponymous shop, catering to English-speaking people in Rome from their 18th-century rooms at the foot of the Spanish Steps.

Sculptor and Matter collective design director Karen Meninno recently visited Rome and returns with tales of Babington’s and the beautiful Cafe Canova Tadolini. Several 19th century American sculptors, like Lewis and Hosmer, acquired studio space in the building that had been Antonio Canova’s spacious, light-filled workshop. Today the workshop is the Cafe Canova Tadolini, literally chockablock with marble sculpture by Canova and his students, the most famous of whom was Giulio Tadolini.

A virtual tour shows the dizzying array of work, hinted at in Karen’s photographs of the chic cafe-museum:

Breaking the Wave

The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, has a small and perfect collection of American sculpture, painting, and decorative arts. The beautiful courtyard on the main floor gives discreet prominence to Harriet Whitney Frishmuth‘s “The Crest of the Wave,” a bronze fountain composed of a half-lifesize woman balanced on a wave, from which bronze fish spout small streams of water. Frishmuth, one of the most successful women sculptors of the American beaux-arts era, created this lively and sensuous work circa 1929. It is typical of her subject matter; realistic and exuberant in tone, celebrating a young woman who embodies grace and sensual freedom.

Frishmuth (September 17, 1880–January 1980) lived in Europe with her mother and sisters after her parents divorced. She studied for a short time with Redon at the École des Beaux Arts, eventually returning to New York to work as a studio assistant for the sculptor Karl Bitter. She modeled small figures (including bookends and ashtrays) for the Gorham Manufacturing Company before establishing a studio of her own. Many of Frishmuth’s representations of a sublime figure resulted from her choice of model Desha Delteil, a ballet, motion picture and nightclub dancer who reportedly was able to hold difficult poses for long periods of time. It is not known if Delteil posed for “The Wave,” but she posed for one of Frishmuth’s other signature pieces, “The Vine,” now in the sculpture courtyard of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.