Salander O’Reilly Galleries
20 East 79 Street. 212 879 6606
June 1, 2006 to June 23, 2006
The United States in the mid-twentieth century produced a wider range of artistic styles than is generally acknowledged in the art history books, and the critical preference for abstraction obscured the achievements of many good artists who did not reject representation and tradition. An excellent example of one of these overlooked artists is the sculptor Peter Agostini (1913- 1993), a selection of whose work can be seen at Salander-O’Reilly through June 23rd.
Agostini was deeply committed to the classical tradition of studying from the model. His sculptures are influenced by Modernist and Renaissance masters. The artist stated that his painterly clay and plaster life studies of the human figure, which vary in size, and his masterful studies of a horse in action, were heavily influenced by such Renaissance masters as Verrocchio and Donatello, as well as Tang dynasty tomb sculptures of horses.
Agostini’s most unusual works are his castings of everyday objects such as clothes lines and clothespins, egg cartons, bottles, and soft inflatables such as balloons and twisted automotive inner tubes, combined in a variety of ways with other elements.
These works, produced in the fifties and sixties have been associated with Pop Art, but have a different origin and artistic effect entirely, and are closer in spirit to the painters categorized at the time as ‘romantic realists’ such as Edwin Dickinson, Ivan Albright and Walter Murch. These painters combined cubist and surrealist ideas with virtuoso naturalism and a concern for rich paint surfaces and romantic decay.
The surreal and ambiguous group of cast plaster and hydrocal pieces included in the show, such as “Butterfly” of 1959 and “Swell” of 1965, where a semi- inflated rubber inner tube cast with great precision is twisted in a way that makes the identity of the subjects of the castings (i.e. the inner tube, etc.) quite clear, suggests many readings, but especially the female body (or genitals). In “Squeeze” (1960) the artist makes this very explicit by including of a pair of hands which could be caressing one another or caught in the act of sculpting or creating. These works have always attracted attention, but aren’t Agostini’s best.
The castings are too raw and don’t synthesize with his additions to them. They produce a result that is closer to the conceptualism of a Racheal Whiteread than the sketch-like unity that Agostini sought. They lack the unity and internal rhythm that mark his best work.
By the seventies Agostini had abandoned the casting of real objects and began to make life studies of the nude figure and horse. These figural works are haunted by a certain nostalgia for ancient art and a love of the fragment. The group of elegant small clay and plaster sketches included here, like most of his best work, emphasizes touch and the integrity of the materials. The large terracotta “Untitled Head” (1972) retains a sense of the lump of clay that it is made from, the features drawn directly into the clay in a way that recalls Ruben Nakian.
The life sized “Old Apollo” (1976) demonstrates Agostini’s classicism and his fascination with decay and archaic objects. This is a vigorous sculpture the style of which has been emulated by his Agostini’s best pupils, Chris Cairns and Bruce Gagnier, as Gagnier’srecent show at Lori Bookstien demonstrates. Agostini’s horses however, are inimitable.
There are three medium-sized examples in this show. They are subtly stylized, the proportions manipulated in the interests of unity and compactness. There is something uncommonly right and timeless about these works. They are as convincingly connected to cubism as to the Tang Dynasty. They represent, in their freedom, a generosity of spirit and deep sensitivity. They are spiritual self-portraits and ultimately, Peter Agostini’s greatest legacy.