Glenn Harper

Glenn Harper

                          photo John Max

EMBODIED SPACE: THE SCULPTURE OF MORTON ROSENGARTEN

par Glenn Harper, ancien éditeur d'Art Papers, à Atlanta, et éditeur de Sculpture Magazine, à Washington, DC.

by Glenn Harper, formerly Editor of Art Papers, in Atlanta and Editor of Sculpture Magazine, in Washington, DC.

Morton Rosengarten has continued to focus on figural sculpture in an era for which the figure has no shared meaning. Figural sculpture is if not impossible, then certainly difficult in the second half of the 20th century, when sculpture moved away from the figure toward industrial geometries and toward the body, the latter conceived as a brute fact of existence rather than a symbolic or meaningful subject. The artists with whom Rosengarten studied at St. Martin’s College in London, Anthony Caro, Elizabeth Frink, and Eduardo Paolozzi, each began with the figure and each worked through its rejection by the art world in a distinctive way. Caro turned first to gestural abstraction, under the influence of David Smith, and then to architectural constructions. Paolozzi turned to the imagistic and literal detritus of industrial civilization. Frink persisted in modelling the figure (both human and animal), following in the Modernist tradition of the first half of the century, from Gaudier-Brzeska to Giacometti, incarnating European existential angst.

Rosengarten, whose subject has remained the figure throughout his career, reacted to its rejection in the art world by returning to Canada to work in relative isolation, and by seeking in the origins of figural sculpture a grounding for his work—in the basic formative gestures of ritual (and it is in ritual that myth becomes formal, sculptural) and in the most basic gesture of sculpture, the activation of space. His return to origins, however, was not a retreat from the modern world; his work is not nostalgic or primitivistic. It is instead engaged intimately with the contemporary world, even heroically. Hans Blumenberg, in his Work on Myth, says that all myth (and hence all religion and ritual) is apotropaic. We seek to simultaneously embody our fears outside ourselves and to create a shelter against all that threatens us. Myth and ritual embody our vision of our tenuous position in the world and at the same time create an enclave of human meaning in which we can feel comforted and protected. But the patriarchal gods that have dominated culture in historical times enforce a separation between divine and human spheres, whereas the early, openly apotropaic gods pervaded human space, interacted with people in a space shared by all. And the modern condition, stripped of the overarching certainties of a common, shared culture and religion, is just as naked to a threatening universe as the primitive condition from which myth arose.

Several series of Rosengarten’s sculptures, across his career, take up the ritual position with respect to the enveloping universe in different ways but with a similar spirit. The roughly modeled bronze sculptural heads of the 1960s include bolts and nails protruding from some of the heads, suggesting at first glance the multiple nails sprouting from African ritual figures. But in the African ritual objects, the nails signify individual interventions by the ritual practitioner into the realm of magic, attempts to assert human needs and interests in the face of aggressive forces. Rosengarten’s powerful heads, particularly Mary II and Elaine, instead demonstrate the interpenetration of the aggressive forces of the modern world and the interiority of his subjects (these are in fact portraits).

ELAINE

Mary II is the most complex of these works; while some of the other heads are primarily roughly modeled portraits, Mary II is a nightmare head, though in the end affecting rather than frightening. Her left shoulder seems to have broken off, leaving two pins behind as if these had attached her skeleton together. There are other pins in her neck, and the steel support structure seems to be part of this exposed, metallic skeletal structure. Her head is broken open at the upper right, as if her brain had exploded outward in that direction. Her eyes are patched over with solid squares, and her hair seems chopped off as it spreads outward into space. Mary II has come alive, like Pygmalion’s statue, in the midst of creation, and it is at the same time it seems to be dissolving or even breaking open into space, and is the embodiment of both the act of sculpting and the difficulty of the figure in contemporary art.

These heads as well as bronze busts and a pair of life-size full length plaster figures (one standing and one supine) are eroded, as if scarred by contact with an acidic environment, but they are nevertheless palpably alive. The supine plaster work is missing her arms, her right leg is splayed to the side, it’s calf muscle and foot gone, leaving a simple metal bone-structure behind. Her left leg is arched, part of its thigh and almost all of its calf muscle eaten away. Her posture and her rebar-like, exposed bones distantly evoke Giaometti’s Woman with Her Throat Cut, but instead of that work’s aggression and misogyny, Rosengarten’s work projects the fragility of human existence and the primal, perpetually incomplete sculptural gesture. One of the heads, Denyse, is barely there, seeming almost to be a fossil or an archaeological artifact, but the presence of the sitter is immediately apparent, as well as the inclusivity of the work: it activates not only the space around it but the space through it and inside it.

Some of the plaster figures have eroded to the point that substantial segments of the metal armature are visible or even extend like bare bone from a shattered leg. These female figures are not victims of violence, though. Rather, they exist in a Heisenbergian space of uncertainty, of the interpenetration of the twin spaces of contemporary human life—the fragile organic body and its rusting-away, postindustrial social framework.

Small bronze, almost gestural figures created just after Rosengarten’s return to Montreal include mechanical implements, as if they are interpenetrated with the industrial world itself. As a group, they describe a historical progression of figure modelling, the intervention of objects into the integral figure, and finally an assemblage of figural gestures in mechanical parts. Other larger torsos in welded steel, wood, or bronze have the same partially complete or incompletely embodied quality as the portrait heads, as if segments of the bodily material have evaporated. Each of these torsos expresses not only a bodily materiality but also a sensitivity to the materials of the work: each has eroded in its own way, wood seeming to descibe the body through shattered and pierced fragments of a log, pieces of steel construction that seem to be fragmented robotic bodies, and bronzes that display not only the rough action of the original modelling but also segments of leg or body that seem to have crumbled away like brittle rusted metal. One particularly effective wooden figure is roughly cut from a single log, yet seems to have been assembled from mismatched parts, the cracks and hewn-off limbs almost like segments of a decripit machine. One bronze torso is hollowed out, the shoulders, collar-bones, and head torn away and a remaining segment of its back ascending architecturally above and behind its heavy breasts. The torso is a body’s central, exterior shell, reduced to a cast-off exoskeleton left behind by the departing, even evaporating, human inhabitant.

The Asherah or “Ladies of the Skies” figures that Rosengarten created in more recent years, origininating in the artist’s discovery of a forgotten female deity worshipped by the early Jews, are more hieratic and formal. They seem at first glance to be linear but are in fact fully three-dimensional. They seem to be in the process of emerging from space itself: the tall lacquered wood Aprhodite is, frontally, a stylized stele, revealing as you move around it a partial but nonetheless voluptuous, curved outer body. The simplified frontality becomes its interior, its Kantian, categorical necessity. The more complex Ixchell, also in lacquered wood, has the same simple frontality, but its side view reveals within the blocky abstraction of its bodily exterior a jagged interior of violent Aztec geometry. Rather than being eroded, like the earlier heads and figures, the Asherah figures seem caught halfway between the human world and a realm inaccessible to the senses.

These works share a spirit with many early theologies, not the least of which the cycladic and geometric figures of early Greece, but also with funeral monuments (which are, after all, sites of mediation between worlds). Silver Goddess in its stands atop a three-stepped ziggurat of a base, its legs and head cut off at the front in wedge-forms, its upper back and buttocks arched in elegant curves. These figures, such as the 1980 Kouros goddess, are icons of an unspoken ritual, emblematic of the crossings back and forth between the sensible world and the imaginative constructions through which the mind reaches out toward the world, in Kantian fashion. The dual nature of some of these abstracted figures is further emphasized by their materials: wood covered with industrial paint, organic matter masquerading as cold, timeless metal. Even the ones that demonstrate their wooden or stone materials openly have a simultaneous hieratic and bodily nature that emphasizes their Kantian, phenomenological nature: they reach out into the world without being able to account for either the world or themselves completely.

These figures capture perfectly the aspirations, fears, and realities of human life: their abstraction is that of ritual rather than function; their incompletion suggests becoming rather than being. They are rather Brancusi-like in their simple suggestive form, and also something like Max Ernst’s abstracted sculpural deities, but at the same time they partake of a more existential, rather than symbolic, character more reminiscent of Giacometti’s works. Rosengarten’s goddesses are also distinguished from these early modernist works by their tool-like forms, a quality emphasized by the “logo” of the artist stamped into them as if with a tool-makers die. Kouros goddess appears from the front as a wedge, from the side as the profile of an early Greek statue, and from the back (with its upper and lower curves and long central, angular back stamped with the maker's mark) seems to be awaiting a giant hand to reach down and grab it, to use this implement in a gesture of prying open contemporary space, allowing us a glimpse of something within or beyond it. These goddesses are engaged intimately with the world, and in that sense they are indeed tools. In Rosengarten's own words, "Their function is to act as an intermediary between man and his space," a modern space that, as the artist recognizes, threatens to be dehumanizing.

Rosengarten’s recent comb drawings suggest a comparison with another body of early 20th century figural work, Wyndham Lewis’s aggressive vorticist figure drawings. Rosengarten shares with Lewis a determination to reclaim the figure within the contemporary world, rather than simply adopting the “pure” geometries of modernism or proclaiming the regressive, sentimental rejection of modernism characteristic of a number of determinedly figurative contemporary artists. In his early Vorticist journal Blast, Lewis described a modern “civilized savage,” trapped in a “vagueness of space” who “reduces his Great Art down to the simple black human bullet.” For Lewis, “The human form still runs, like a wave, through the texture or body of existence, and therefore of art. But just as the old form of egotism is no longer fit for such conditions as now prevail, so the isolated human figure of most ancient art is an anachronism. The actual human body becomes of less importance every day. It now, literally, exists much less.” Lewis proclaimed that with the modern anachronism of the isolated, heroic human figure, “Sculpture of the single sententious or sentimental figure…is breaking up and caving in.” Rosengarten’s work demonstrates an alternative sculpture, a reduced human figure (first in an eroded form that is plainly broken up or caved in, and then in abstracted, divine form) that in itself embodies the human figure in the face of modernist pessimism about the individual . Unlike Lewis’s mechanistic, satirical figure drawings, Rosengarten’s drawings and sculptures sublimate the figure directly into contemporary space. The Asherah figures in particular abstract the figure in the spirit of epistemology (in the tool-like quality of the “Ladies”) and eschatology (in their ritual and divine character). Rosengarten’s works, whether sculptural or graphic, do not project Lewis’s satirical refusal of the organic world in favor of a futurist machine His beautiful drawings and elegant sculptures instead demonstrate the interpenetration of the body and the world, figure and ground.

The comparisons with Lewis, Brancusi, and Giacometti, artists of the period between world wars, suggest several important aspects of Rosengarten’s work. He shares with the early modernists a serious engagement with the difficulty or even impossibility of the figure in contemporary art, and engagement that has a Beckett-like quality of persistence. He is a modernist: his work has none of the blatant narrativity of installation art nor the smart irony of postmodernism (and narrative and irony are the two most frequent modes of figural sculpture in contemporary art, from George Segal to Jeff Koons). But he is not a formalist. These works are saturated with metaphor and content, though they have no explicit narrative. It is in fact the lack of meaning in the world that the works are about, in particular the lack of a shared language of the figure, the lack of a shared symbol structure through which to understand the incarnation of the human subject. There are few contemporary artists with whom Rosengarten shares much ground; among those few are Stephen De Staebler and Manuel Neri (both, like Rosengarten, working at a distance from the center of the art world).

Though Rosengarten’s recent works (not just the goddesses but also maquettes for stone fountains that are like both temple structures and human figures hardened into architectural forms) are reductive and abstracted, they have none of the industrial character of Minimalism—the industrial world is the Other of these works, the external world in which Rosengarten’s figures exist and in the face of which they seek meaning. The Asherah sculptures refer to the mechanical realm formally, in their smooth finish and abstract line. The earlier heads and small bronzes incorporate the industrial more literally. But in both cases, the inorganic, exterior realm intrudes upon the figures, not giving them meaning but provoking them to construct space and to construct meaning. And they provoke us to partake in that dual construction.

 

—Glenn Harper