Remarks at the Dedication of the Madelaine K. Butcher Sculpture Grove

Sunday, October 2, 1988
By Edward F. Fry

I met Christopher Cairns for only the second or third time a few years ago in the city of Florence. We were both astonished to see each other there --- he much more than I, since everyone knows of my interest in outrageous contemporary art and in sculpture such as that of Engman and Rickey. But now that I know Cairns' work much better, I realize that it was fitting that he should be visiting Florence, the very birthplace of Western classical humanism. For Cairns is deeply committed as an artist to that very classical part, is immersed in it, from the Victory of Samothrace to Donatello to Rodin to cubism. All of this rich heritage is densely present in such works as the Black Madonna which you see before you.

Cairns has a very special relation to the classic, however, and one may observe in all his works assembled here the way in which he avoids an academic classicism of sheer literal mass. He uses the cubist device of making an equivalence between solid and void; and he dissolves mass into suggestive generality and into planar elements when one least expects it, all for the sake of creating an energized and primarily frontal, pictorialized sculpture that is nevertheless in keeping with the resolved frontality of the best classical sculpture since the Renaissance.

But what is most important about Cairns is not these various issues and technicalities of the history of art, but instead the nature of Cairns' relation to the classic. Cairns is a Northerner whose encounter with the classical traditions of Italy and the Mediterranean, like that of Winckelmann and Goethe before him, changed him forever and led him in turn to transform that very classical heritage into something new: The classical was rescued from itself and given a new life that transcends the academic residue of that now completed classical heritage.

What is so extraordinary about Cairns' sculpture is the miracle by which he invests inert material with what one could only call a psyche. That is why he is a figurative artist, because the mind, and the psyche, need a body for what Shakespeare calls a local home and a habitation. In each of these works Cairns has created a psychic presence of extreme concentration, using every possible means: As you observe his works you should be aware not only of their titles and subject matter but also of every detail, from overall bodily posture to the smallest gesture of hands, to the base on which the sculpture stands. Every element is brought together in the service of this psychic presence, and that psychic presence is in turn of a rare immediacy but also of a concentrated, meditative silence. It is the silence of the human spirit dwelling within a transitory bodily vessel yet struggling to understand its miraculous existence in this strange material world; a spirit which searches for a higher wisdom within and beyond itself that might illumine our earthly dwelling place.