Art Review: "Five Sculptors"

Sunday, April 9, 2006
Philadelphia Inquirer
By Victoria Donohoe, INQUIRER ART CRITIC

“Five Sculptors” at Haverford College is an exhibit of quite exceptional interest on more than one count.  With each artist represented by 10 sculptures, it’s a major show, full of remarkable artworks.

It’s also an event of some poignancy, in that only two of the five featured sculptors are living.

The first of the posthumous set is Peter Agostini, the dynamo and teacher at Columbia University and the New York Studio School around whom this group originally formed like a guild in New York starting in the early 1960s.  Agostini, once featured in Time magazine as the “plaster master,” is linked with these four artists by a shared aesthetic of working from the figure, interacting, and influencing one another’s art.

Yet all took separate paths.  Agostini was totally individual in his projection of muscular grace as well as strength, working sometimes totally abstractly, as in this show’s best-known bronze masterpiece Saracen (1959).  But he also sets the pace here in portraying the figure and heads, while his two horse subjects are noteworthy for their rugged boldness.

Representing the late George Spaventa, an Agostini sidekick, are a range of bronzes, most of them small, in which nothing stands between us and the sculptor’s first thoughts.  Even his striking small Crucifixion (1963) has the immediacy of Spaventa’s very best work.

Bruce Gagnier unleashes his own brand of energy by fusing exuberant surface handling of bronze, clay or plaster with urgent expression to achieve often powerful results.  The description once applied to Gagnier’s work—that it’s a cross between “late Roman bronzes and Giacometti”—fits.

Best-known of these sculptors to local audiences is Christopher Cairns, formerly of Haverford’s faculty, who for 35 years, like Gagnier, studied with Agostini and was apprenticed to him.

An artist with a keen sense of social awareness, Cairns shows sculptures here that communicate viscerally, whether with a realism meant to disturb or through traditional mythological subjects.

Surprisingly akin to some of Cairns’ work are the late Jonathan Silver’s calm, deep bronzes and plasters.  His quieter voice demonstrates that the traditional idea of sculpture is alive—Silver’s imagery often is poised at the limit of recognizable subject matter.  The display’s unusually rich context is the firm basis for this brilliant show we shall never forget, organized by Chris Cairns.