Back to First Page

David Cohen at Artcritical

March 2, 2001

Pure Beauty and the Beastly Sublime

BARBARA HEPWORTH: Stone Sculpture, at PaceWildenstein, New York City

As every kid in New York knows, Albany is the State Capital, Washington is the Federal capital, and New York City is the capital of the world. The palpable symbol of this last noble truth is the UN Secretariat Building, whose totem of universality is Barbara Hepworth's Single Form, 1961-64, that pierced menhir tanning itself in the world's most famous 1950s swimming pool.

The sculpture was a memorial for Dag Hammarskjold, the arts-loving Secretary General who was a personal friend of Hepworth's. Just this once, Hepworth beat her old friend and rival Henry Moore to a moment of sculptural apotheosis (of course, he had adorned the UNESCO Building in Paris a few years earlier). Every other time it was she who came off badly from the inevitable comparisons invited by their twin-track careers. They had, after all, graduated from the same schools (Leeds and the Royal College of Art); they were both championed by the same critic, Herbert Read; they both produced Epstein-influenced heavy limbed "primitive" sculptures, soon to be followed by modernist essays with holes and strings, belatedly and reluctantly followed by a turn from "direct carving" to modeling in bronze, more to meet the commissions spurned by post-war building boom than out of creative "inner necessity". At every stage it looked as if the female artist was dutifully following the male, to the chagrin, understandably, of Hepworth's feminist advocates. The choice of Hepworth to represent Britain at the 1950 Venice Biennale made her look like a Moore student, and of course there was no golden lion as there had been for Moore in 1948. All a bit of a sob story, and in reviewing the current exhibition of her late carvings at PaceWildenstein I was determined to leave the beastly bad Moore out of it. But guess what jumped out at me, as striding down 57th Street on my way to Pace I passed the curvy voluptuous Grace Building? One of Moore's most memorable and original mature works, his Standing Figure: Knife Edge, 1961: robust, earthy, dynamic, morphological, monumental, abrasive, heroic. One hates to submit to gendered dualities, but there is no escaping the virility of Moore, even with his persistent feminine subject matter, compared to the soft, subtle, and understated in Hepworth.

Herbert Read (and other critics) saw the two sculptors in starkly contrastive terms, though rarely failing to point out Hepworth's debt to Moore. By contrasting Hepworth's desire for "loveliness" and a "sense of mystery" with Moore's striving for "power" and "vitality", Read effectively identified Hepworth with beauty, Moore with the sublime, to follow Edmund Burke's classic distinction. In this world view Moore's vision is grand, fearless, millenial, whereas Hepworth's is refined and confined. Moore was, for Read, the artist most significantly in touch with the archetypal collective unconscious, the artist-seer of his time. Hepworth was apollonian, Moore dionysian.

Beauty is, indeed, the only word that will do for the cool, sensual, mystical modernism of the group of fourteen Hepworth carvings mostly dating from the last decade of her life (she died in 1975) exquisitely installed - those gray-blue walls! - at PaceWildenstein. And it is their wobbly-edged subtly asymmetrical beauty which makes them fresh. There is an undeniable problem with Moore, which the Hepworth of the UN Building shares, and that is an overwhelming mid-century humanist-modernist rhetoric. These late marble sculptures by Hepworth are free of that, and even of the rhetoric of "truth to materials" and direct carving - they are impersonal in touch, and were in fact mostly carved by supervised assistants - that inflected her experimental work of the 1930s. Sophie Bowness, the artist's granddaughter, points out in her elegant catalogue essay that these late carvings recall the purist modernism of this earlier period, but in look not strategy.

I guess what it comes down to is this: the sublime inevitably entails a degree of theatricality for its effect, which cannot help but wear off, whereas beauty by its nature touches on actual, physical sensations rather than imagined or recalled ones. The "loveliness" and "sense of mystery" of Hepworth's sculptures are precisely what give them renewable aesthetic potential. For sure they are period-bound in their utopian sense of purity. She and Moore belonged to a puritanical modernist generation committed to a notion of universal form as a quasi-religion. Unlike Picasso, they are both constitutionally incapable of stylistic self-irony. True to her affinities with Arp, Mondrian, Gabo, and Brancusi, Hepworth's titles invariably incorporate the word "form" and are pregnant with a vague, generalised sense of growth and life and natural rhythm. Hepworth's brilliant style gambit was to connect her abstraction with prehistory - think of all those "menhirs" - as an alternative to primitivism, conceptually linking her cool modernist streamlining with a "timeless" human continuum. Of course "timelessness" itself dates as surely as hi-tech futurism does because ideological belief in it rises and falls as relentlessly as hem lines. But the sense of refinement in Barbara Hepworth is so acute that purity of form and high style are rendered inseperable.

Barbara Hepworth: Stone Sculpture at PaceWildenstein, 32 E 57 Street, New York City, February 10-March 17, 2001