A New American Sculpture, 1914-1945: Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach

A New American Sculpture, 1914-1945: Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach

A New American Sculpture, 1914-1945: Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach tells the story of Gaston Lachaise, Robert Laurent, Elie Nadelman, and William Zorach, four European-born artists who settled in the United States and found new homes and inspirations in their adopted country. With examples ranging from monumental artworks such as Zorach’s 1932 Spirit of the Dance to more intimate examples of the artists’ sculpture like Laurent’s 1921 Acrobat, the show investigates how the four artists applied the new visual languages of modernism and popular culture to representing the human form. This exhibition is the first to showcase the vibrant formal and thematic intersections of their art, which reshaped American sculpture between the World Wars.

Before developing their new American styles, all four men had crucial experiences in Paris between 1900 and 1914. In these years, the city was a cauldron of sculptural experimentation. Artists continually probed new styles of form and fresh approaches to technique. In the pursuit of new inspiration, sculptors including Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach mined a wide range of historic art as well as non-Western visual cultures. These lessons had lasting impacts, as seen, for instance, in the influence of an Egyptian sculpture of the god Amun on Lachaise’s portrait of Lincoln Kirstein in 1931. This was typical for the artists, as they continually found formal inspiration in Archaic, Cycladic, African, and Indian art, among other sources.

Once settled definitively in America, the four sculptors made their new surroundings their own, assimilating into their environments while always keeping in mind the lessons of their European backgrounds and experiences. They became key players in the modernist circles of New York City, exhibiting at new art venues and participating in the popular culture of the time. The prevalence of acrobats and dancers throughout their bodies of work, for instance, highlights the types of New York City popular entertainment that inspired them. At the same time, they also developed their creativity in the nation’s rural hamlets, including art colonies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Ogunquit, Maine. Indeed, Lachaise, Laurent, and Zorach all settled in Maine for parts of the year, attracted to the local landscape as well as the folk traditions of New England that they found there. Nadelman, for his part, stayed in New York, purchasing a home up the Hudson River. Like the others, he was fascinated by folk art, appropriating aspects of its style in works such as Chef d’Orchestre (circa 1919) and becoming one of the nation’s preeminent collectors.

As all four sculptors developed their styles, they experimented frequently with new approaches to sculpting in wood, stone, and metal. Laurent and Zorach were two of America’s leading direct-carving sculptors, often cutting into their material without pre-conceived ideas of the forms the resulting artworks would take. Adhering to a “truth to materials” philosophy, they let the physical characteristics of their objects guide their art. Nadelman and Lachaise, too, were at the forefront of technical ingenuity, at times combining traditional subjects and styles with scientifically informed sculptural practices such as electroplating.

As Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach pioneered their distinctive approaches to representing the figure in modern art, they established their positions as preeminent sculptors of the interwar period. A New American Sculpture is a unique opportunity to see so many of the works that have defined their reputations and become iconic examples of 20th-century American sculpture. Sculptures such as Lachaise’s Standing Woman (also known as Elevation) (1912–27); Laurent’s Plant Form (circa 1924–28), Nile Maiden (circa 1914), and Kneeling Woman (modeled 1935, cast 1938); Nadelman’s Man in the Open Air (circa 1915) and Tango (circa 1920–24); and Zorach’s Spirit of the Dance (1932) and Mother and Child (1922) all received critical accolades in their time and encouraged a new era of interwar collectors to purchase cutting-edge modern art. This show brings these outstanding examples together for the first time, while also situating lesser-known marvels within beautiful juxtapositions, prompting a new consideration of American modernism.

The sculpture that Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach developed between the World Wars represented something novel. Melding the forms and influences of the artists’ European heritages, Parisian experiences, and new American identities, the sculptors reimagined the human body for modern art. Neither abstract nor naturalistic, the artworks convey a blend of classicism, modernism, and energy that was original and innovative in its time, and still appears vibrant and fresh to our eyes today.

A version of this story first appeared in Inside the Circle, the quarterly members magainze. To become a member, click here.

A New American Sculpture, 1914-1945: Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach has been organized by the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Generously supported by Isabelle and Scott Black.

Corporate Sponsor: Bank of America

Government Support: National Endowment for the Arts

Image credits (from top): William Zorach (United States, born Lithuania, 1889–1966), Mother and Child, 1922, mahogany, 31 x 12 x 12 1/2 inches. Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Private collection, anonymous loan, 2.2002. © Reproduced with permission of the Zorach Collection, LLC. Photo by Bruce Schwarz. Robert Laurent (United States, born France, 1890–1970), Hero and Leander, circa 1944, limestone, 27 x 39 x 20 inches. Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Hamilton Easter Field Art Foundation Collection, Gift of Barn Gallery Associates, Inc., Ogunquit, Maine, 1979.13.45. William Zorach (United States, born Lithuania, 1889–1966), Spirit of the Dance, 1932, bronze, 78 inches (height). Private collection.

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June 9, 2017
Susan Donnell and Harry W. Konkel Assistant Curator of European Art

Andrew is responsible for overseeing the PMA’s collection of European art, including long-term loans from the Isabelle and Scott Black Collection and the Albert Otten Collection, as well as developing special exhibitions and other projects. He holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Maryland, College Park, an M.A. in Art History from Tulane University, and a B.A. in French and French Literature from Davidson College in North Carolina. A native New Englander, he is fluent in French.