Sunday, April 9, 2006
By Edith Newhall
Before venturing into the current exhibition at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, do yourself the favor of reading the essays pinned to a bulletin board behind the front desk. Not only do they provide fascinating insights into the personalities and teaching styles of the artists who make up “Five Sculptors,” they explain why their work has so much in common.
Peter Agostini, Christopher Cairns, Bruce Gagnier, Jonathan Silver and George Spaventa all practice or practiced a visceral figurative sculpture most obviously influenced by Picasso, Giacometti and De Kooning. This has more than a little to do with the fact that Agostini (1913-93) and Spaventa (1918-78), the elder statesmen of the five, were established artists in the aforementioned approach by the time the younger three went to study with them.
Agostini and Spaventa were lifelong friends and colleagues who were born in New York and met as teenagers when they attended the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in Manhattan. They also had a New York School abstract expressionist imprimatur that was extremely attractive to young artists. Cairns, Silver and Gagnier became students of Agostini’s at Columbia University in the 1960s. Cairns also studied with Spaventa, and Gagnier and Cairns were Agostini’s studio assistants.
Cairns, the youngest of the five, who taught painting and drawing at Haverford College from 1970 to 2005 (he is now professor emeritus), organized “Five Sculptors” with his children, writer Alexis Cairns and painter Nicholas Cairns.
Most of the works in this exhibition were borrowed from private collections, and most are modestly scaled. The show is densely packed, but it suits the nature of these quasi-figurative pieces. For example, there are so many sculptures of heads (by all five artists) on pedestals that from a distance the gallery appears to be crowded with people. The effect of this installation seems entirely purposeful, however, as if to mimic a sculpture classroom.
A few of my favorite pieces—and there are quite a few intriguing works in this show—included Cairns’ recent cast-bronze sculpture Blanche (2002), Gagnier’s super-blobby ceramic Figure (1983), and Silver’s wonderfully weird plaster work (1976) that is a female figure from the hips up, but from the hips down deconstructs into cascading fragments of body casts, ending in a fragment of an upside-down male torso missing a head.
I also admired Spaventa’s two small bronze figures from the 1960s that demonstrate his familiarity with the works of the Italian impressionist sculptor Medardo Rosso, and Agostini’s two bronze horses, one from 1932, the other from 1972. The latter horse embodies the changes that occurred in Agostini’s work over 40 years, many examples of which can be seen here.
I left the exhibition thinking that for all the agitated surfaces, awkward poses, and expressionistic handling and marking I had just seen, the experience of being in the dimly lit gallery with these works was of a profound stillness both archaic and eerily contemporary.