“Henry Moore: Master Drawings from the Collection of the Henry Moore Foundation” at Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, through May 14, 2004 (17 E 76 Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, 212 772 1950)
“Markus Lüpertz: About the Three Graces” at Michael Werner, through May 29 (4 E 77 Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, 212 988 1623
“Daisy Youngblood” at McKee through May 29 (745 Fifth Avenue between 57 and 58 Street, 212 688 5951)
Despite the vagaries of his artworld reputation, Henry Moore endures in popular affection as one of the most accessible and satisfying of major twentieth century artists. These contradictory perceptions are in fact linked: His popularity raises suspicion on the part of cognoscenti who often dismiss him as a period piece, a kind of “entry level” modernist who presents an essentially humanist vision through a fusion of avantgarde styles.
Such views misconstrue his achievement, however, as a modern romantic. Synthesis is fundamental to a vision which finds holistic commonality between the primitive, the prehistoric, the organic, and the geological.
Moore is the subject of a stunning exhibition of several dozen important drawings all of which have been loaned by the foundation he established during his lifetime. It is presented at the New York premises of the old established London old master dealers, Hazlitt, the first public exhibition at this space, and commemorates the completion of a catalogue raisonne of Moore’s drawings. Such an exhibition really belongs in a museum.
While Moore’s sculptures became ubiquituous in postwar recontructed cities, it was actually through graphic work that he established his breadth of appeal. A controversial innovator in carving in the interwar period, with the outbreak of World War Two he took to drawing, and to modeling maquettes, as his principal means of expression. He was commissioned by his friend Kenneth Clark as a government appointed, “Official War Artist,” chosing the Blitz as his subject, depicting shelterers in London’s subway system, the “Tube”. These were exhibited at the National Gallery, where Clark was director, on walls bereft of masterpieces packed off to shelters of their own, in the Welsh mountains. In terms of popular repute, the Shelter Drawings turned a wildman maverick into a hero of the people overnight. Without resorting to sentiment, he managed to invest his subject with tenderness and empathy, revealing a situation that was at once historically specific and primordial.
The current show opens with drawings from life of standing or seated women, and improvised receling figures. Despite his affinity with abstraction and his deconstructive liberties with anatomy, a crucial aspect of Moore’s vision remained rooted in observation throughout his career: He would periodically break off from sculpture to draw, in sustained periods, from a model. Although the vast majority of his works depict women, his vision was essentially unerotic. He was drawn towards monumental, stocky heavy-limbed figures, always presented as self-absorbed, placid and grounded. Even in “Reclining Figure,” (1929) where the body is broken open to reveal inner fissures, through a use of brazenly colored collage elements that radically flatten the picture plane, a sense of wholeness and composure prevails.
What makes many of these drawings so extraordinary is the sense of a sculptor using graphic mediums experimentally to advance his highly particular understanding of form. Moore would center a reclining figure on the page, as in the charcoal and wash “Reclining Figure,” (1933), and then fill the margins with countless approximations of the same figure from different angles, exploring two fundamental aspects of his sculpturality simultaneously: a sense of form in the round, and of a dynamic relationship between interior and exterior. The drawings reveal a fluid evolution within the artist’s mind that would be carry across, in sculptural form, to an equivalent volumetric sinuousness.
In “Studies for Sculpture in Various Materials,” (1939), a profusion of sculptural ideas, in contrasting scales, fill the page to form a pulsating tapestry of ideas. Other drawings would explore further this issue of scale, which was so important to him, placing sculptural ideas in vast panoramic vistas, or socially accomodating groups within imaginary walled compartments. The polished, presentation drawings are as fascinating for what they reveal about scale as the more sketchy, automatic ones are about fluidity.
Moore discovered by accident the expressive potential of the repulsion of watercolor by wax crayon, a device he would use to particularly dramatic effect in his Shelter Drawings, as in another war commission, his drawings of coal miners at work (the artist’s father had been a miner). He could convey with almost spooky effect a sense of humanity alive within the bowels of the earth. The crayon would pick out contour lines, rather like jigsaw pieces, describing volume by linear means.
The pictorial naturalism that comes across in Moore’s late drawings can be problematic even for the hardened admirer: an addition of realistic hands and a sweet face to the otherwise business-as-usual biomorph in “Recling Woman in a Setting,” (1974) seems to trivialize his own language. But there are stunning surprises, even in the late drawings. “Man Drawing Rock Formation” (1982) which has charcoal, chalk and other mediums over lithographic frottage, recalls the rubbed charcoals of Seurat (one of which Moore owned). This drawing is almost a manifesto for romanticism: Rock encrustations inspire patterns of growth and form in the mind of an artist who is literally absorbed in the act of observation.
Markus Lüpertz has often seemed too good for the historical company he keeps. He is identified as part of the neo-expressionist wave that came to the fore in German art of the 1980s. He shares with his peers in that movement a willingness to collide the sensual and the cerebral; he parts with many of them, however, in the heights he attains in both directions.
His new exhibition at Michael Werner, just a block from the Moore drawings, presents sculpture and hand colored etchings on classical themes. His classicism bears a strong German accent, mediated by a Nietschean sense of the dionysian. There is often a tension in Mr. Lüpertz’s work between full-blown expression and an element of irony and historical aloofness, especially where he deals with mythic subjects tinged by association with the Third Reich.
The show is dominated by four hieratic heads, strikingly and disconcertingly displayed at ground level, that are named (mixing Greek and Roman) for the protagonists of the Judgement of Paris: Venus, Hera, Athene, and the hapless Trojan prince himself (all 2002). At once other and familiar, as befits the gods, they pit rough against smooth, earthy color against neutral grayness, legibility against inchoateness, volume against plane.
The “Three Graces,” (2000) are again handcolored bronze; just over two feet high, the group relates to a monumental aluminum work on the same subject placed publicly in Berlin recently. Their stockiness might put you in mind of Moore’s early drawings, if you’ve come from there, but their undulations, at once gracious and jocular, reference beauty, if obliquely. A far cry from the prim, smooth curves of Canova, these graces recall those of Cranach or Rubens, and the bathers of Cézanne.
Henry Moore and Markus Lüpertz each in his own way references the timeless and the tragic in sculpture. Daisy Youngblood achieves a quieter, but equally lingering melancholy in her extraordinary work.
McKee is showing more than a quarter century of her poignant images in clay and bronze of animals, mothers and infants, and holy men. McKee presented a overview of similar scope in 1999. In the intervening period, Ms. Youngblood received a MacArthur genius award and has relocated from New Mexico to Costa Rica.
The portraits of named spiritual teachers sitting in meditation, or preaching, are blessed with grace and charm, but the more startling works are her wistful animals, especially those in low-fired clay and found wood. It is rare to find a modern scultural animalier who strikes such a balance as Ms. Youngblood does between symbolic potency and observational credibility. She achieves the former without resorting to overt primitivism or direct reference to archaic precedents, and the latter without the fuss of naturalism.
Even where her symbolism might, from the telling of it, sound contrived, as in “Horse Crucifixion,” (1975) with its Bambi-like mournful victim suspended from a twig, or “Horse on a Rock,” (1980), with its cleft forehead revealing a hollow interior, sentimentality is spared by a pervading sense of cosmic resignation. The tender economy of her animals share with those of the prehistoric cave painters a sense of unrushed urgency.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, May 6, 2004print