R E U B E N N A K I A N
Front cover and opposite page Nymph, 1983 Terracotta 32 x 28 x 3 inches
R E U B E N N A K I A N
THE.DIVINE.FEMALE.FORM S EPTEMBER 17 â€“ N OVEMB ER 14, 2015
19 E AST 66 TH S TR EET
N EW Y ORK , NY 10065
W W W. R O S E NB E RGC O . C O M
Reuben Nakian in studio, 1961 Image courtesy of Thor Bostrom
I NT R O D UC T IO N
osenberg & Co. has the great privilege to present the exceptional work of Reuben Nakian, an artist whose distinct style is recognizable for its smooth rendering of the female forms of Greco-Roman mythology. As a sculptor, Nakian enjoyed success and recognition throughout his expansive career, winning awards and accolades of the highest order. The merit of his art and his dedication as an artist granted him the honor
of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. The content of Reuben Nakian’s oeuvre may be of the ancient world, but the universal themes of seduction, power, and jealousy carry the same weight and relevance today as in the days the myths first were said to have unfolded. Nakian was not swayed by the trends and movements of his time, but rather staunchly pursued his own artistic vision, inhabiting a “land of his own.” His “hard won confidence” and “characteristic stubbornness,” in the words of poet and MoMA curator Frank O’Hara, were testament to the type of artist he was: intensely original and faithfully committed to his personal craft. Nakian’s refusal to conform completely to core movements within Modern art made him not an artist of an age, but rather an artist for the ages. In his work we are given inspiration that walks the line between the Classical and the Modern. Reuben Nakian pays homage to the arc of art history while asserting his rightful place within it. His work will endure for its mastery, its expression, and its humor. A number of the bronzes and the works on paper in the exhibition have never been previously exhibited. Surely, there can be no greater joy for a gallery than to be afforded the opportunity to delve into the treasures of the Nakian estate to select works to be shared, shown, and admired in their glorious reawakening. No one knows this better than the foremost scholar on Reuben Nakian and Emeritus Director of the Reading Museum, Dr. Robert Metzger, whose following essay “The Divine Female Form” explores the true depth of Nakian’s work to which I can only allude.
M AR I A N NE R O SE NB E R G
R EUB EN N A KIA N : T H E D IV INE F E MA L E F O R M
his exhibition represents a fresh look at an American master of sculpture through the inspired vision of Marianne Rosenberg. As a young artist in the 1920s, Reuben Nakian (1897-1986) was formulating his distinct style on the hardscrabble streets of New York. Arshile Gorky and Gaston Lachaise were among his fellow artist-friends and both had a strong
impact on his life and work. Also two giants of contemporary sculpture, Paul Manship
and Constantin Brancusi, served as role model mentors and presented the opportunity for Nakian to observe them up close, advancing his artistic development. New York’s museums and galleries introduced him to such European masters as Boucher, Fragonard, Rubens, Titian, and Rodin, all of whom he greatly admired. Yet, from the beginning, the enduring cornerstone of his art was classical antiquity. In the decade of the 1930s he deepened his knowledge of Classical and European art through a Guggenheim fellowship in Europe, where his interest in both mythology and Modernism was further stimulated. By the 1940s Nakian’s encounters and friendships with the Abstract Expressionists, especially Willem deKooning and Franz Kline, lead him to become part of the new and revolutionary American art movement. Later in life, Nakian often remarked that, generally speaking, it was painters who informed his work, rather than other sculptors. Three of his welded works of the late 1950s represent the pinnacle of Abstract Expressionist sculptural achievement in what was primarily a painting movement. Nakian used welded steel sheets and rods for The Rape of Lucrece (1959), The Duchess of Alba (1959), and Mars and Venus (1960). These three unique monumental works capture the spirit of American action painting in three dimensions, unlike any other sculptor before or since. Nakian’s reinterpretations of ancient myth in the early 20th century continued unabashed throughout his long career. His art displays an extensive knowledge of Greek and Roman antique art and literature. He often spoke to me glowingly of Phidias and Praxiteles or of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with its descriptions of the cosmic seducer Jupiter
and his serial infidelities. Yet Nakian avoided the pedantry of academic Classicism by eschewing a display of his own erudition and instead accommodated mythology with a liberated Modernist mode of expression. His work fully exploits the erotic nature of Ovidâ€™s narrative, yet never gets overloaded with esoteric archeological evidence of antiquity. Nakian found creative ways of distancing himself from his Classical subject matter, never attempting to push notions of civic virtue, patriotism, or nationalism. Along with his contemporaries Picasso, Beckmann, Klimt, de Chirico, Dali, Grosz, and Pollock, who were simultaneously finding inspiration and imagery in antiquity, his art was invigorated through Freudian and Jungian interpretations of Classical archetypes. Most significantly, Nakian and other Modernists adopted new open-minded attitudes in their handling of eroticism. Taking Greek and Roman mythology as a point of departure, Nakian was both rooted and uprooted from the distant Mediterranean past. His artistic vision mirrors the personal longings of a man living in the 20th century with new progressive ideas toward both art and human sexuality. For Nakian mythology became subterfuge not only to justify his interest in the female nude, but as a device to reveal hidden or unconscious motives in which perfection of the body reflects the perfection of the spirit. His lifelong quest for an ideal of Classical beauty was often presented symbolically, embodying a perfect union of a man and a woman. Nakianâ€™s profound, tenacious attachment to the female nude as an emblem of eroticism set him apart from his European contemporaries. The isolated female nude, in Nakianâ€™s oeuvre, becomes a subject in its own right, rather than the vehicle for Classical narrative. Despite the omnipresence of Jupiter, in the form of a swan or a bull, the god functioned as a substitute for the human male, often no more than a perfunctory accoutrement or afterthought to the female. In the last quarter of the 19th century Auguste Rodin dominated French sculpture with his monumental realism. European sculptors and their American counterparts were actively involved with classical mythology in a well-worn academic style, which, in the
new century, gave way to Modernism. By the 1870s, Degas began a series in wax which was among the first Modernist sculptures. Although they were not cast in bronze until after Degas’s death in 1917, they were unusual for their time in their avoidance of reference to antiquity. Degas depicted the nude female in common everyday activities such as bathing, stretching, practicing ballet steps, or simply at work. Degas had a tendency to simplify the body in his sculptures, as did Nakian. Yet Nakian’s nudes usually reveal a knowledge of the presence of the observer, whereas Degas’s subjects were unselfconscious and totally self-absorbed. Nakian’s self-possessed women frequently take a confrontational stance and radiate a confident attitude. They look directly at the viewer, similar to the nudes in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Freud revolutionized the way women and men think about themselves and revealed how mythology gives you insight into the human condition. Freud’s startling ideas served Nakian in New York, along with Picasso and Matisse in Paris, to find new ways of graphically and sculpturally depicting the female nude in the early 20th century. All three artists brought a bold, erotic vigor to the robust female nude, which had not been present in the work of their predecessors. Their shocking distortions and gently surreal exaggerations of the female form and their “deliberate dérèglement” and playful indulgence of comportment gave the highly stylized works a shattering seismic jolt. Nakian’s burgeoning Modernist tendencies were tempered with his ongoing study and admiration of Classicism and for the great figural masters of Renaissance and Baroque Europe. Nakian regarded himself first and foremost as a sculptor, yet his superb drawings, watercolors, and prints reveal his mastery of draftsmanship. The graphic works were less strictly prepatory for sculpture, unlike his British contemporary Henry Moore, who regularly made drawings intended to be converted to three dimensions. Nakians drawings suggest more generalized sculptural forms, which were germinating in his mind, which he drew to please himself with a certitude that they would also give pleasure to the viewer. Both Moore and Nakian generated their ideas for sculpture by kneading the raw clay with an astonishing economy of means. In their drawings of the human figure, they
shared a perennial search for the monolithic earth-mother/rock-woman. The sinuous curves of Nakian’s generously proportioned nudes contrast with Moore’s less sensuous compressed forms, often with missing limbs and impersonal, faceless heads. For both artists, their female subjects ran the gamut from abstractions to quasi-realistic radically disproportioned forms. Yet Moore and Nakian’s statuesque contours exhibit the graceful transcendent energy and strength of the human body. Nakian was a prolific draftsman, avidly sketching daily much of his life. Each of his signature drawings catches a humanistic echo of the artist himself with his sure, expressive power of outline. Nakian’s drawing emerged directly from his imagination, as he rarely, if ever, used live models. He often would leave a drawing unfinished and did not feel the necessity to bring each drawing to technical perfection. Nakian frequently added his titles after a drawing was finished, dependent on the shading of a range of human emotions: desire, passion, indulgence, ecstasy, bliss, amusement, shyness, aggression, fear, or terror. Usually the figures are isolated in an infinite space with no horizon, or sky, or earth, yet seldom completely liberated from allegory or history. Nakian’s unerring balance of figure and infinite space pull the viewer with an earthy sculptural consistency and solidity of line. Despite their relatively small scale, Nakian’s series of tondos from the 1970s displays considerable grandeur and a sense of triumphal monumentality. Tondo is the Italian word for ‘round,’ used to describe circular painting, sculpture, terracotta, or bronze. The distinct outlines of the central female forms catch highlights, which swim and float, weightlessly and unanchored on the bronze surface. Although the poses ultimately derive from Classical art, the emotions of these goddesses are given free reign, as Nakian explored almost every conceivable way of displaying the nude, without monotonous repetition. These amorous goddesses in their prime suggest slightly dangerous psychological confrontations charged with intimations of sexual dalliance, yet these encounters are playful and never brutal. Ironically, female innocence and its violation, despite ancient allegories passed down through the centuries, never held much real resonance for Nakian. The prurient, lascivious reality and consequences of rape and
prostitution, which include human degradation, self-destruction, despair, and cynical resignation were not aspects of Greek mythology that found their way into his art. Nakian’s over-riding interest was in the excitement, joy, glory, and beauty of the female nude, and unlike artists such as Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pascin, and Rouault, he never placed his subjects in the brothel or the bedroom. His goddesses present the viewer with a vivid spectacle of amenable, coquettish complicity and eagerness to frolic with an unbridled ferocity. Nakian’s theatre of the human comedy has a strong element of provocative performance in dramatically charged situations, suggesting the erotic potential of women’s bodies. Each oval bears a harmoniously undraped female conceived in low relief with delicate incised lines of great perspicacity. The enticing, ardent figures, either alone or with attending forms, are never static, but sway and levitate in jubilant ecstatic dances. A number of the compositions provide the goddesses with accessories, such as flamelike drapery, diaphanous fabrics, or exotic botanical shapes. Their contorted, contrapposto positions are erotically provocative, as though they are about to burst the tondo form that contains them. Nakian’s dynamic, heavily built, curvaceous goddesses have soft flesh that flows like lava. Free of outmoded screening devices, they posses no erotic ambivalence. Although they are sometimes framed by thin buffer lines, nothing ever appears to be hidden. Representative of “the eternal female,” Nakian’s goddesses are highly sensuous, titillating, and jubilantly voluptuous with a distinct air of scarcely contained triumph. He viewed women as the muse and inspiration for men with the same charm, lightness, and capriciousness one finds in Hellenistic art. These goddesses never appear put upon or at the mercy of male lust, but radiate delight in Jupiter’s various guises, in the form of a swan, bull, eagle, cloud, tree, thunder or lightning bolt. Despite the ubiquitous presence of multiple animal guises or the rustic goats, rabbits, and satyrs, Nakian’s women often appear as lustful femme fatales who are out to ensnare men. Unembarrassed, these fleshy athletic creatures’ demeanor is joyously, sexually alive. They appear to be full of supercharged energy as they cavort and romp about with arms and legs invariably
splayed in frenetic motion. Their spontaneous, fleeting gestures brazenly display the contours of their limbs in a spirit of pure, impulsive hedonism. They are more often than not busty, nubile full-figured creatures with their more bulbous anatomical features emphasized, thus calling attention to primary sexual characteristics with connotations of carnal love. The series, Fragments, also dating from the 1970s, again reveals the infinite variety of sensuality of nubile goddesses reveling with Jupiter, Cupid, and assorted mythical beasts and exotic hybrids. The outer edges are rough and irregular fragmentary shapes which maximize the aura of forbidden intimacy. The rawness of execution is appropriate for these anatomical segments compressed into tight, constricted spaces in intense motion, largely stripped of anecdotal detail. The flamboyant outstretched arm, pervasively evident in each fragment, bears witness to the tactile animation of these lively, spirited goddesses. Nakianâ€™s firm grounding in anatomy and his masterly foreshortening technique heightens the poetic sensual abandonment with great energy and imagination. The highly elegant and balanced compositions in low clay relief achieve a sure, convincing linearity of sinuous sybaritic figures. These hypnotically compelling bas-reliefs are deceptively simple, yet Nakian seamlessly brings together the ancient and the modern, recreating a profound human dynamism of 2000 years ago. In all of his sculpture and drawings, Nakian celebrated the greatest emotional experience the flesh can know, distilling the very essence of human life and passion through the prism of a heightened poetic Classicism. Nakianâ€™s quest for an ideal classical beauty of exalted goddesses and earthly nymphs led him to reinvent the human form, which resulted in a veritable feast of solid rounded torsos, pneumatic breasts, large and full buttocks, invitingly titled hips, and come-hither arms which exquisitely reach back in time to the very wellspring of Western art.
D R . R OBE RT P. M ETZGE R EMERITUS DIRECTOR
READING PUBLIC MUSEUM
Europa and the Bull, 1964-65 Terracotta
113/5 x 171/4 x 31/2 inches
Europa and the Bull, 1970 Bronze
16 x 22 x 1 inches
Moon Goddess, 1983 Bronze
8 x 101/4 x 41/2 inches
Leda and the Swan, 1981-82 Bronze
283/10 x 37 inches
Europa with Cupid, 1970 Bronze
171/2 x 15 x 1 inches
Nymph and Goat, 1978 Bronze
23 x 161/2 inches
Europa and the Bull, 1979 Bronze
161/2 x 20 inches
Voyage to Crete, 1970 Bronze
141/2 x 191/2 x 41/2 inches
Nymph and Goat, 1970 Bronze
16 x 171/2 x 11/2 inches
Rock Drawing: Duchess of Alba, 1955-60 Terracotta
121/4 x 153/4 x 31/2 inches
Nymph, 1983 Terracotta
32 x 28 x 3 inches
Abstraction, 1978-79 Bronze
141/2 x 191/2 x 41/2 inches
Satyricon I, 1980 Bronze
101/2 x 91/4 x 6 inches
Nymph and Goat, 1978 Bronze
15 x 191/2 x 11/2 inches
Europa and the Bull with Cupid, 1970 Bronze
15 x 21 x 23/5 inches
Nymph and Dolphins, 1960-65 Bronze
91/2 x 81/4 x 5 inches
B IO G RA PH Y
euben Nakian, born August 10, 1897 in College Point, New York to Armenian parents enjoyed a long and distinguished career. He maintained a innovative spirit and creativity over more than seventy years, constantly rethinking and revising his modes of sculptural expression and exploring and mastering new media: marble, clay, plaster, metal, paper, and, in his last years, styrofoam.
Nakian was a guest of honor at the “Famous Artists’ Evening” at the White House (1966), and the Smithsonian Institution produced a documentary on his life and work titled “Reuben Nakian: Apprentice to the Gods” (1985). He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931 and a Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1958, and he represented the Unites States as the major sculptor in the VI Bienal in São Paulo, Brazil (1961) and the 1968 Biennale in Venice, Italy. Nakian’s work is represented in the permanent collections and sculpture gardens of many of America’s most prestigious museums and institutions. He has been honored with many major one-man exhibitions including at the Los Angeles County Museum (1962), the Museum of Modern Art (1966), the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. (1981), and a Centennial Retrospective at the Reading Public Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (1999), the site of Nakian’s first one-man exhibition in 1935. “Garden of the Gods I” was one of five sculptures to inaugurate the Metropolitan Museum of Art Roof Garden. Reuben Nakian is a major figure in 20th Century art, his long career touching more of American art history than most artists, living or dead. He died on December 4, 1986 in Stamford, Connecticut at the age of eighty-nine, as “one of the most distinguished American sculptors of the 20th Century” (New York Times obituary, 12/5/86).
Image courtesy of Lois Dreyer
S EL EC T ED S O LO E X H IB ITIO NS
Reuben Nakian: The Divine Female
Reuben Nakian, Fundação Calouste
Form, Rosenberg & Co., New York, NY,
Gulbenkian, Centro de Arte Moderna,
September 17 – November 14.
Lisbon, Portugal, September.
Reuben Nakian: Terra cottas,
Reuben Nakian, Galerie Basmadjian,
1955-1983, Zabriskie Gallery, New York,
NY, April 19 – June 3. 1987 1999
Reuben Nakian Sculptures, Veranneman Foundation, Kruishoutem, Belgium.
Reuben Nakian: Centennial Retrospective 1897-1986,
The Corcoran Gallery of Art,
Nakian, Batuz-Stiftung, Schaumburg,
Washington, D.C., February 6 – April 4.
Reuben Nakian: Centennial
Reuben Nakian: Sculpture and Drawings,
Retrospective 1897-1986, Reading
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI,
Public Museum, Reading, PA,
April 2 – June 23, and Stamford Museum and Nature Center, Stamford, CT,
October 10 – January 10, 1999.
September 8 – December 1. 1991
Reuben Nakian: Works from 1960-1985, Kouros Gallery,
Reuben Nakian: Recent Works, Marlborough Gallery, New York, NY,
New York, NY, October 10 – November 2.
October 7 – November 3. 1989
Nakian: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Collection, Hirshhorn
Reuben Nakian: Drawings and Sculpture,
Museum and Sculpture Garden,
Stamford Museum and Nature Center,
Stamford, CT, August 5 – October 30.
D.C., August 24 – January 4. 1967-68
Reuben Nakian: Small Bronzes, Terra Cottas and Drawings, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.
Sculpture and Drawings by Reuben Nakian: An Exhibition to Honor the Artist on his 70th Birthday, Felix Landau Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, July 24 – September 9.
Nakian, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, June 22 – September 5.
Nakian, Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, D.C., January 8 – February 18.
Reuben Nakian Sculpture and Drawings, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, May 16 – June 24.
US Representation, VI Bienal, São Paulo, Brazil.
Solo exhibition, including Voyage to Crete, Egan Gallery, New York, NY.
Portrait Heads of the Officials of the Present Administration, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., April 13 – April 28, and at Downtown Gallery, New York, NY, April 13 – April 28.
Seven Sculptures of Seals, Downtown Gallery, New York, NY, October 28 – November 16.
S EL EC T ED P UB L IC C O L L E C T IO NS
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
Australian National Gallery, Canberra, Australia Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin City of Stamford, Connecticut The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, New York City of Norwalk, Connecticut Museo della Scultura Contemporanea, Matera, Italy Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan Forth Worth Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas FundaĂ§ĂŁo Calouste Gulbenkian, Centro de Arte Moderna, Lisbon, Portugal Harvard University, Fogg Museum,
Institution, Washington, D.C. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. New York University, New York, New York Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey
Cambridge, Massachusetts Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Oregon
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, New York, New York Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, David H. Koch Theater, New York, New York
Skidmore College, Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Saratoga Springs, New York
The Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York Stamford Museum and Nature Center, Stamford, Connecticut Stanford University, Iris and Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford, California State Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, New York St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, New York, New York University of Connecticut, William Benton Museum of Art, Storrs, Connecticut University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
S EL EC TE D A WA RD S A ND H O N O RS
Award for Excellence in Sculpture, Connecticut Commission on the Arts President’s Fellow Award, Rhode Island School of Design
Award of Merit Medal for Sculpture, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
U.S. Representative, Venice Biennale White House Festival of the Arts, Invitational Exhibition, Washington, D.C. Sculptures de XXe Siècle, Musée Rodin, Paris; West Germany; Mexico
U.S. Representative, VI Bienal, São Paulo, Brazil
Ford Foundation Fellowship
Trois Siècles d’Art aux Etats-Unis, Jeu de Paume, Paris
Official Portraitist, Roosevelt Administration Guggenheim Fellowship
Rosenberg & Co. ©2015
Published on Sep 17, 2015
Published on Sep 17, 2015
Catalogue accompanying Rosenberg & Co.'s retrospective exhibition of the modernist sculptor Reuben Nakian's oeuvre. The exhibition was on vi...