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29 November 2014
Morning Sedition

The Artist the Art World Couldn’t See

Imagination without skill gives us contemporary art.

— Tom Stoppard, "Artist Descending a Staircase"

Once art served society rather than biting at its heels. Once, under a banner of beauty and order, art was a rich and meaningful embellishment of life, embracing - not desecrating - its ideals.

— Frederick Hart, Washington Post Op-Ed page, 1989

Photograph of Frederick Hart

Frederick Hart, Sculptor

Frederick Hart (1943-1999) is one of the greatest realist sculptors ever. Not just this century, mind; but ever. Now, I must point out that I actively dislike a lot of Hart's work; art glorifying religion — art has nothing in common with religion — never makes me especially happy. Beyond that, I think a lot of his work is just, well, crap that's on the level of what Hummel or Lladro sell. (Sales of Hart's artwork made him an estimated $150 million during his life. The only reason there weren't Franklin Mint editions is it would cheapen his brand.) But what I do like, I like very much; the man could turn clay into amazingly realistic works. His level of talent endows otherwise unmoving statues with life and spirit, and allows them to deliver complex and intense messages.

But first, a little bit about Hart who almost didn't end up a sculptor at all. Although a high-school dropout, he was admitted to the University of South Carolina based on impressive test scores — 35 out of 36 on the ACT, a score equivalent to a 1560 on the SAT. At this point he became the lone white protestor among 250 black students at a civil rights march. Before the local KKK affiliate could show its appreciation for his actions, Hart high-tailed it out of town for Washington, DC. This is where serendipity, or blind luck, intervened.

In Washington he managed to get a job as a clerk at the Washington National Cathedral, a stupendous stone structure built in the Middle English Gothic style. The cathedral employed a crew of Italian masons full time, and Hart became intrigued with their skill at stone carving. Several times he asked the master carver, an Italian named Roger Morigi, to take him on as an apprentice but got nowhere. There was no one on the job but experienced Italians. By and by, Hart got to know the crew and took to borrowing tools and having a go at discarded pieces of stone. Morigi was so surprised by his aptitude, he made him an apprentice after all, and soon began urging him to become a sculptor. Hart turned out to have Giotto's seemingly God-given genius -- Giotto was a sculptor as well as a painter -- for pulling perfectly formed human figures out of stone and clay at will and rapidly.

In 1971, Hart learned that the cathedral was holding an international competition to find a sculptor to adorn the building's west facade with a vast and elaborate spread of deep bas reliefs and statuary on the theme of the Creation. Morigi urged Hart to enter. He entered and won. A working-class boy nobody had ever heard of, an apprentice stone carver, had won what would turn out to be the biggest and most prestigious commission for religious sculpture in America in the 20th century.

The Artist the Art World Couldn't See By Tom Wolfe, The New York Times Magazine, 2 January 2000

That entry was Ex Nihilo.

Ex Nihilo

Ex Nihilo

From his conception of "Ex Nihilo," as he called the centerpiece of his huge Creation design (literally, "out of nothing"; figuratively, out of the chaos that preceded Creation), to the first small-scale clay model, through to the final carving of the stone -- all this took 11 years.

In 1982, "Ex Nihilo" was unveiled in a dedication ceremony. The next day, Hart scanned the newspapers for reviews . . . The Washington Post . . . The New York Times . . . nothing . . . nothing the next day, either . . . nor the next week . . . nor the week after that. The one mention of any sort was an obiter dictum in The Post's Style (read: Women's) section indicating that the west facade of the cathedral now had some new but earnestly traditional (read: old-fashioned) decoration. So Hart started monitoring the art magazines. Months went by . . . nothing. It reached the point that he began yearning for a single paragraph by an art critic who would say how much he loathed "Ex Nihilo" . . . anything, anything at all! . . . to prove there was someone out there in the art world who in some way, however slightly or rudely, cared.

The truth was, no one did, not in the least. "Ex Nihilo" never got ex nihilo simply because art worldlings refused to see it.

Hart had become so absorbed in his "triumph" that he had next to no comprehension of the American art world as it existed in the 1980's. In fact, the art world was strictly the New York art world, and it was scarcely a world, if world was meant to connote a great many people. In the one sociological study of the subject, "The Painted Word," the author estimated that the entire art "world" consisted of some 3,000 curators, dealers, collectors, scholars, critics and artists in New York. Art critics, even in the most remote outbacks of the heartland, were perfectly content to be obedient couriers of the word as received from New York. And the word was that school-of-Renaissance sculpture like Hart's was nonart. Art worldlings just couldn't see it.

The art magazines opened Hart's eyes until they were bleary with bafflement. Classical statues were "pictures in the air." They used a devious means -- skill -- to fool the eye into believing that bronze or stone had turned into human flesh. Therefore, they were artificial, false, meretricious. By 1982, no ambitious artist was going to display skill, even if he had it. The great sculptors of the time did things like have unionized elves put arrangements of rocks and bricks flat on the ground, objects they, the artists, hadn't laid a finger on (Carl Andre), or prop up slabs of Cor-Ten steel straight from the foundry, edgewise (Richard Serra); or they took G.E. fluorescent light tubes straight out of the box from the hardware store and arranged them this way and that (Dan Flavin); or they welded I-beams and scraps of metal together (Anthony Caro). This expressed the material's true nature, its "gravity" (no stone pictures floating in the air), its "objectness."

The Artist the Art World Couldn't See By Tom Wolfe, The New York Times Magazine, 2 January 2000

Ex Nihilo from Left, Closeup

Ex Nihilo from Left, Closeup

Ex Nihilo from Right, Closeup

Ex Nihilo from Right, Closeup

Ex Nihilo in Devil's Advocate

Ex Nihilo in Movie "Devil's Advocate"

The only recognition Ex Nihilo received was as a result of it being copied in the movie " Devil's Advocate" and the resulting lawsuit for copyright infringement. (Artists do have a right to be compensated for their work, and the use in the movie clearly was did not fall under the "fair use" exemption in copyright law.)

After the film's initial release, sculptor Frederick Hart sued Warner Bros. claiming that a large sculpture prominently featured in the film (on the wall of Al Pacino's penthouse apartment) is an unauthorized copy of his work "Ex Nihilo", displayed at the entrance of Washington's Episcopal National Cathedral. According to a court settlement reached in February 1998, Warner has been authorized to release an initial run of 475,000 copies of the video of the film for rental, but will have to remove or re-edit over 20 minutes of scenes where the sculpture can be seen before releasing any further video or television versions.

IMDB entry for Revised "Devil's Advocate"

Hart's Sculpture at Vietnam Memorial

Hart's Sculpture at Vietnam Memorial

From the recognition-less Ex Nihilo, Hart moved on to a project that should have delivered significant recognition:

By 1982, he was already involved in another competition for a huge piece of public sculpture in Washington. A group of Vietnam veterans had just obtained Congressional approval for a memorial that would pay long-delayed tribute to those who had fought in Vietnam with honor and courage in a lost and highly unpopular cause. They had chosen a jury of architects and art worldlings to make a blind selection in an open competition; that is, anyone could enter, and no one could put his name on his entry. Every proposal had to include something -- a wall, a plinth, a column -- on which a hired engraver could inscribe the names of all 57,000-plus members of the American military who had died in Vietnam. Nine of the top 10 choices were abstract designs that could be executed without resorting to that devious and accursed bit of trickery: skill. Only the No. 3 choice was representational. Up on one end of a semicircular wall bearing the 57,000 names was an infantryman on his knees beside a fallen comrade, looking about for help. At the other end, a third infantryman had begun to run along the top of the wall toward them. The sculptor was Frederick Hart.

The Artist the Art World Couldn't See By Tom Wolfe, The New York Times Magazine, 2 January 2000

The above photo is from Hart's contribution to the Vietnam Memorial. Consider the raw emotion in the soldier's faces, the weariness and suffering etched into them, and then pay attention to the figure's overall detail. Their equipment, their boots, the dog-tags woven into the laces, the stubble on their faces and the musculature and veins in their arms; all are incredibly detailed and lifelike. So much so it looks like actual soldiers sprayed with a clay-colored makeup. Hart even manages to make the laces and aglets look real, and he did this without using castings.

Closeup of equipment on belts of clay models

Closeup of equipment on belts of clay models

Closeup of boot of clay model

Closeup of boot of clay model

Closeup of dogtag on boot of clay model

Closeup of dogtag on boot of clay model

Were it not for their bronze patina, one might think they had just walked out of the jungle mist in Southeast Asia. Now consider the reaction of Maya Lin, whom I've never considered to have any talent. (Remember, Hart's original proposal also included a wall with names; all the proposals were required to have a list of names, so her "creation" is hardly so amazing given that it was in the rules.)

Hart Sculpting a Marine from Life

Hart sculpting soldier using Marine Corporal James Connell as model

The problem was that Hart didn't win:

The winning entry was by a young Yale undergraduate architectural student named Maya Lin. Her proposal was a V-shaped wall, period, a wall of polished black granite inscribed only with the names; no mention of honor, courage or gratitude; not even a flag. Absolutely skillproof, it was.

Many veterans were furious. They regarded her wall as a gigantic pitiless tombstone that said, "Your so-called service was an absolutely pointless disaster." They made so much noise that a compromise was struck. An American flag and statue would be added to the site. Hart was chosen to do the statue. He came up with a group of three soldiers, realistic down to the aglets of their boot strings, who appear to have just emerged from the jungle into a clearing, where they are startled to see Lin's V-shaped black wall bearing the names of their dead comrades.

Naturally enough, Lin was miffed at the intrusion, and so a make-peace get-together was arranged in Plainview, N.Y., where the foundry had just completed casting the soldiers. Doing her best to play the part, Lin asked Hart -- as Hart recounted it -- if the young men used as models for the three soldiers had complained of any pain when the plaster casts were removed from their faces and arms. Hart couldn't imagine what she was talking about. Then it dawned on him. She assumed that he had followed the lead of the ingenious art worldling George Segal, who had contrived a way of sculpturing the human figure without any skill whatsoever: by covering the model's body in wet plaster and removing it when it began to harden. No artist of her generation (she was 21) could even conceive of a sculptor starting out solely with a picture in his head, a stylus, a brick of moist clay and some armature wire. No artist of her generation dared even speculate about... skill.

The Artist the Art World Couldn't See By Tom Wolfe, The New York Times Magazine, 2 January 2000

Book cover for Frederick Hart: Sculptor

TitleFrederick Hart: Sculptor
AuthorTom Wolfe, J. Carter Brown, Homan Potterton, Frederick Hart
ISBN1555951201
PublisherHudson Hills Press

TitleFrederick Hart
AuthorDebra Mancoff, Frederick Turner, Frederick Hart, Michael Novak
ISBN155595233X
PublisherHudson Hills Press

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Frederick Hart Official Website
  2. Mary Ann Sullivan's photographs of Hart's Vietname Memorial
  3. Frederick Hart, Obituary from The American Society of Classical Realism
  4. Overview of Hart's copyright-infringment lawsuit against Universal Studios for "Devil's Advocate"
  5. Washington National Cathedral Sculpture by Frederick Hart
  6. IMDB entry for "Devil's Advocate"
  7. IMDB entry for "Devil's Advocate" Revised for removal of Ex Nihilo
  8. Frederick Hart: Sculptor by Tom Wolfe, J. Carter Brown, Homan Potterton, Frederick Hart
  9. Frederick Hart by Debra Mancoff, Frederick Turner, Frederick Hart, Michael Novak

We are really composing our reflections of the great beauty and the majesty of creation itself and as such, it’s only natural that your craft and the honing of your craft is something that you do to the signal purpose of trying to be as faithful to that reflection and as honest in your response to that reflection as you are humanly capable.

— Frederick Hart, Obituary from The American Society of Classical Realism

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