“The Third Meeting of the sculptors group was held at Abram Schlemowitz’s studio, 139 West 22nd St., on Thursday. April 18th. The minutes of the previous meeting were read and accepted.” So begins a pedestrian account from the year 1957 of what would become an extraordinary group, The New Sculpture Group, artist-run and dedicated to fostering sculpture shows during an era when painting was king and sculpture was “something you bumped into on the way to a painting.”
You can make out from the minutes that no one was sure what the group was about, whether it should be a place “where members could come to relax” or to exchange ideas or to form a cooperative gallery–everyone had their own notion. Sidney Geist felt “there should be some important idea other than a gallery as to our existence.” Stankiewicz agreed and noted how much work went into running a gallery (he was already involved with the cooperative Hansa). Gabriel Kohn said there were plenty of places for sculptors to exhibit and didn’t see “the pressing need for another place.” Both he and Stankiewicz said that “maybe we should have a sculptors club, perhaps a social club.”
On the back side of that dog-earred copy of minutes typed by secretary-sculptor, Ruth Vodicka, a roster of dues payers rings out like a sculptor’s who’s who, now both famous and obscure. Calvin Albert, Jason Seley, George Sugarman, Ruth Vodicka, Israel Levitan, Rhys Caparn and Mary Frank wrote checks for $5. Richard Stankiewicz, Herbert Kallem, Anne Arnold, Sidney Geist, Blanche Phillips, Abram Schlemowitz, Waldemar Baranowski, Jean Follett, John Chamberlain and William King contributed cash. Expenditures included $25 for printing, 92 cents for labels, $29 for stamps and $18 for refreshments. The first New Sculpture Group show was in the works.
The group did not just pop up out of the blue. The first tremors were recorded in late 1955 at the now famed Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street with “Sculpture 1955.” Galleries like the Hansa, Alan, Egan, Artists, Peridot, Bertha Schaefer. Grace Borgenicht, Willard, Contemporary Arts and Kootz were represented. Going over the 24 names, certain ones stand out such as Giorgio Spaventa, David Hare, Louise Bourgeois, Marisol Escobar and David Smith. Others draw question marks. In light of Reuben Kadish’s remark, “Being in a Tanager show was a point of achievement among the sculptors,” one wonders what happened to the then familiar names Blanche Dombek, Fred Farr and Raymond Rocklin?
Thirty years after the New Sculpture Group’s debut at the Hansa Gallery at 210 Central Park South, a handful of the original group were contacted and memories played back another kind of minutes. “We weren’t really an organized group,” recalled Abram Schlemowitz. “It has a place in history but from the beginning we agreed that if it lost its usefulness we’d dissolve and it did…it just died out.
“It got us talking and thinking about what sculpture should be,” said George Sugarman. “The group came into being because we sculptors felt that there was a need for more extensive showing of sculpture. Most of us were lousy sculptors. There was no aesthetic preference. It was a community thing…l’m still a 10th Street person in feeling.”
“It was a pretty modest gesture,” said Reuben Kadish. “Contemporary sculptors were orphans to start with in the ’40’s and ’50’s…Sculptors’ work was not taken seriously. There was a hell of a lot more interest in Moore, Giacometti and Lipchitz than anything any American sculptor was doing.”
“Alot of people in the group didn’t have a place to show,” recalled Dorothy Dehner. “For me it was like suddenly being part of the art world. It was very exciting and wonderful. There was a certain equality in those days which doesn’t exist now. Everyone was just getting by.”
“It was really more about painting in those days, like de Kooning and Franz Kline,” said Marisol. My small bronzes haven’t been shown since then. I don’t know what happened to the other ones. I think I gave them away.”
“I used to watch people come into sculpture shows–like a wisk broom-they’d sweep over the whole thing from the door and leave,” said Peter Agostini. “…People got anxious about what a mess I could make out of sculpture.”
“Sculptors were hard put to make noise then because the noise was paint noise,” opined art dealer, Virginia Zabriskie, who opened her gallery in 1955.
“There were people who were working like crazy and getting little recognition,” said Stephen Radich, who first worked for Curt Valentin, the legendary dealer who introduced Henry Moore to America, before open-ing his own gallery with a Peter Agostini solo in 1960. “There was very little response to sculpture in those days. They had a tough row to hoe and as Agostini said, no one expected to sell.”
It is difficult to get a feel for that time without context and it is hard to beat the New York Times’ booming headline on Wednesday, September 25, 1957 (the day following the first New Sculpture Group opening): “President Sends Troops to Little Rock, Federalizes Arkansas National Guard; Tells Nation He Acted To Avoid Anarchy.” The president, of course, was Dwight D. Eisenhower and the front page photo showed troops from the 101st Airborn Division positioned outside Central High School in Little Rock, armed with carbines and billy clubs to insure compliance of a courtordered integration plan involving nine black students.
Internationally, French paratroopers seized a 29 year old rebel chief in Algiers while on the local scene, the Board of Estimate approved a $24 million parking garage project for midtown. By the end of the New Sculpture Group’s three week exhibition, the Soviets fired Sputnik into space, James Hoffa was elected Teamsters head and an Asian influenza outbreak kept 200,000 New York City pupils out of school. Down in troublesome Little Rock, Governor Orval Faubus compared his racist stand to Lee’s.
What didn’t make the front page that fall was the music being played at a dingy nightclub on St. Marks’ Place called the Five Spot and the beginnings of the Free Jazz Movement. The joint was lust a short hop from the co-op galleries on East 10th Street. John Coltrane on tenor sax and Thelonius Monk on piano drew the artist crowds. In 1959, Don Cherry on the pocket trumpet and Ornette Coleman on his plastic alto sax stormed the Five Spot with the new jazz. A year rater Coleman chose Jackson Pollock’s “White Light” to illustrate his revolutionary album, “Free Jazz.” During that same period two sculptors, Reuben Kadish and George Sugarman, titled works (one in bronze, the other in painted wood) “Ornette l’ and “One for Ornette Coleman.”
What is the point of bringing back sculpture (or even headlines) from that time? Simply put, The New Sculpture Group butted its head stubbornly against the New York art world and made some noise in the process. Some critics and collectors took notice and a number of once obscure sculptors emerged on the scene, Many of these front-line troops suffered and remain “underknowns,” a term recently minted by Henry Geldzahler. Today, because of the group’s activist stance that triggered critical turbulence in the art magazines and homesteaded a place for the work beyond the small artist co-op galleries, American sculpture is a legitimate force in the contemporary arena and if anything, painting must share its crown.
Consider some critical opinions of Louise Bourgeois’ first sculpture show at the Peridot Gallery in October, 1949 of work that today is hailed as ground-breaking. “…the three dimensional forms …cannot correctly be called sculpture,” huffed one unsigned New York Times reviewer, “…I, for one, find them neither convincing as symbols nor pleasing as forms.” Another critic, Stuart Preston, felt “…Louise Bourgeois’ intentions were sincere but she certainly overestimated her talents …To our way of thinking the rough-hewn wooden forms painted white, black and rust color convey nothing at all.” (The snatches of excavated criticism call to mind Harold Rosenberg’s acerbic comment in his essay, “10th Street: A geography of Modern Art” published in the Art News Annual of 1959: “…Like the American Indians, the artists find themselves Aliens on their own
These sculptors-representing a vast range of styles, temperaments and material preference–banded together and created an assemblage of differences. Carved wood, foundry resurrected junk, welded steel, terra-cotta, cast bronze, painted wood, ghost white plaster and any number of two-dimensional reliefs became part of this new, fragmentary voice. It was both abstract and figurative, surrealistic and jazzy, humorous and piercingly earnest. In many ways it reflected a comment made by Richard Stankiewicz to collector-interviewer, Richard Brown Baker in 1963 for The Archives of American Art: “…I make sculpture according to my ability to see and to construct, and the work will be as profound or as shallow as I am.” It was a brief movement, lacking in both hype and slickness. It was not neo-anything.
In 1958, sculptor Philip Pavia, after a bout in night school learning typography, published It Is, A Magazine for Abstract Art. In June of that year Arts devoted an issue to sculpture and the section on New York included a brawny cross-section, many from The New Sculpture Group. The editors quoted Pittsburg International curator, Gordon Bailey Washburn, “…sculpture is unquestionably the equal of painting in our time.”
In the Portfolio and Art News Annual, No.1, 1959, Thomas B. Hess wrote a drum-banging essay, “U.S. Sculpture: Some Recent Directions,” in response to The Museum of Modern Art’s massive “Recent Sculpture U.S.A.” that opened in May. “…I think no fair-minded person,” noted James Thrall Soby in his penetrating introduction, “can look at the present show, wide in range of styles and materials, and not realize that a spark has ignited our younger sculptors.” The show traveled to muse-ums in Denver, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Boston, spreading the news that “…sculpture has seemed to us an atavistic miracle, depending for authority on uninhibited vitality and on visual imponderables which our literary traditions could not provide.”
By 1960 the New Sculpture Group had jumped from the modest space at Hansa Gallery, the picaresque backyard of the Brata Gallery on East 10th Street and a warren of elegant rooms at the Riverside Museum at West 103rd Street to Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery, a windowless ex-horse barn turned art palace at Seventh Avenue and 58th Street. (The New Sculpture Group’s annual should not be confused with the much larger Stable Annuals initiated there in 1953 by an artist committee, dominated by painters. These rites of spring began obscurely enough at the “9th St.” show in 1951, held on the ground floor of a vacated store on East 9th Street.)
In October, 1960, American sculpture took a giant step across the Atlantic, landing in Paris at Galerie Claude Bernard. “Aspects de la Sculpture Americaine” represented 60 artists, all but 13 having previ-ously shown under the New Sculpture Group banner. (Stephen Radich, one of the 21 New York art dealers involved in the exhibit, recalled that Claude Bernard “was very enthusiastic but there was very little response to the show.”)
Writing in Artnews that November, Lawrence Campbell pegged the group, “…a rather quiet, solid avant-garde” who “have selected each other by a democratic process, and the sculptures, no matter how differ-ent, seem to have an affinity for each other.” In Arts that same month, Hilton Kramer addressed the group’s fifth annual exhibition at the Stable Gallery: ”The New Sculpture Group is an informal alliance of the liveliest sculptors on the current scene; its exhibition is concerned to show new work that truly represents, at a level artists themselves can respect, what contemporary sculpture is actually creating. There is no air of theory or cultural apocalypse in a show of this kind; instead there is a clarity of focus, an access to the individual artistic statement, at times a purity of insight into the conceptual world of the sculptural mind, that one cannot help being grateful for.”
Success scattered The New Sculpture Group and with it, the demise of artist-organized shows. No one took a vote but the collective spirit expired, Reflective of that change, the Tanager closed in June, 1962. Under a different banner, “Sculptors Choice” in December, 1963 held at the East Hampton Gallery on West 56th Street, was the group’s last gasp. None of the participating artists contacted could point a finger to a particular episode, issue or personality that scuttled the group. Politics was mentioned-there was too much of it-or that too many women had joined the group, making some of the men uncomfortable.
Thirty years is a long time to hold undocumented memories. For now, it is enough to re-stage some of the work from that time in a place that was the first home of the Whitney Museum of American Art. When the building took on another guise in 1964, Agostini, Bourgeois, Geist, Hare, Ladish, Lassaw, Pavia and Spaventa became part of the revolving Studio School faculty. The context, like Ornette Coleman’s evasive chords, resonates with 8th Street history. The Artists Club, Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17, Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Art, Club 35 and the old Cedar Tavern shared the same street. Those places don’t exist anymore but this look at the New Sculpture Group can serve as a beacon for new things to come.