Al Capone is supposed to have groused that, "When I sell liquor, it's called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on silver trays on Lake Shore Drive, it's called hospitality."
He would, no doubt, have enjoyed the fancy airs surrounding the Dallas Museum of Art's new show, Henry Moore: Sculpting the 20th Century. An equally appropriate subtitle would, of course, be "Promoting Big D as a Mecca for Arts and Culture," an agenda nobody even bothers to hide. Indeed, museum officials brag about it, right up front, during remarks to the press and in the exhibition catalog, mentioning the "imminent" Nasher sculpture garden and public-private partnerships, and sounding an awful lot like real estate promoters, or at least graduates of the Thomas Krens school of museum management.
Anyway, as is often the case when Big D wants to go shilling for itself, it's puttin' on the dog at that city-owned manse dubbed the DMA, and the host is pulling out all the stops. As the official title implies, the exhibition, which opened last Sunday, is a mind-bogglingly ambitious effort. Organized by the DMA in conjunction with the Henry Moore Foundation, the show contains some 104 pieces of sculpture and 95 drawings, making it the DMA's biggest and arguably most important show in a decade. From Dallas, it will travel to San Francisco and to Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, accompanied by a lavish, full-color, 323-page catalog published by Yale University Press.
In short, the DMA's show leaves no multi-ton stone unturned; few monolithic pieces seem unbegged, and no critical leaf from Moore's sketchpad appears to be unborrowed. Art-historically speaking, however, questions do remain, including the obvious: Why Moore, and why now? Here, the organizers falter. Though they claim to be about "critically evaluat[ing]" Moore's mixed art-historical reputation, most of the essays examine this question in the most timid and jargon-laden fashion. The result is a show that isn't going to resuscitate Henry's rep anytime soon. In the end, its only justification is the old fallback: It's been nigh 20 years since a major Moore show was mounted in America, and so, by golly, it's time.
There are worse excuses for a blockbuster, and Moore is the perfect PR tool. One of the show's chief organizers, DMA curator Dorothy Kosinski, points out that Moore has been performing for the victorious nations of World War II since shortly after Nagasaki. (Curiously, Kosinski does not acknowledge the irony at work in the DMA's appropriation of Moore for PR purposes--an omission that produces the only moments of humor in this otherwise deadly serious show.) Moore was born in 1898, the son of working-class parents in Castleford, England, a northern mining town. Following World War I, he was educated at The Leeds School of Art, where he was the only student of sculpture. By the time he died in 1986, he was one of the world's most well-known artists, responsible for much of the major public sculpture in North America and Western Europe. Henry Luce put him on the cover of Time. The Dallas City Council put him in front of its I.M. Pei-designed city hall. Ray Nasher and the DMA put him in their collections, which goes a long way toward explaining things.
Despite his humble beginnings, Moore was never provincial. Throughout his long life, Moore absorbed knowledge like a sponge, traveling, reading, spending long hours looking at sculpture in museums, copying it in his sketchbook and turning it around in his mind. Indeed, near the end of Moore's 88 years, a critic noted that "few 20th-century sculptors have Henry Moore's encyclopedic knowledge of the history of sculpture." As a young man, he was first exposed to the British avant-garde, especially to Vorticism, the movement espoused by artists such as Wyndham Lewis and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not focus on the influence of this remarkable little corner of the history of the avant-garde.
Instead, we begin with the 22-year-old Moore admiring the primitive sculpture he saw in the British Museum and in the Trocadero. We see him copying sculpture into his sketchbook, reworking them in drawings, deviating here and there, changing angles, forms, motifs. At first, the final products were worked over very little in Moore's imagination; in pieces such as "Snake" and "Dog," the final product was not far, if at all, removed from the source. Many of his pronouncements on the topic of sculpture were similarly derivative, borrowed from lights of the day; thus we see Moore getting metaphysical, dabbling in the "what does this stone want to be?" dottiness around him, championing sculpture as a kind of advanced Ouija.
The good news is that this exhibition does provide rare insight into how Moore worked, as well as into the process of his artistic maturation. Gradually, throughout the 1920s, we see Moore beginning to peek through; the intermediate drawing process takes on a more important role in the final product, and his own ideas take on more importance.
One of the most astonishing features of Moore's career is how long it took him to find his own voice. Even in the '30s, as he moved from primitives and the British avant-garde toward the influence of the School of Paris, one is astonished by how much was borrowed directly from others. Though the exhibition proclaims this the period of Moore's most "radically" inventive sculpture, many of the "inventions" look a lot more like quotes. Throughout this period, Moore is a veritable magpie of Modernism, and his sculpture is permeated with cubist and surrealist devices. Several of these borrowing relationships remain largely unexplored, especially Moore's debts to Joán Miró and Giorgio de Chirico. Moreover, despite the exhibition's bombastic claim that Moore was a "master" with a pencil, the abundantly evident truth is that Moore was a workmanlike, not a brilliant, draftsman, with a sometimes wretched color sense and a taste for busy, wallpaperlike background.
Just as one begins to despair that Moore will ever emerge from the cocoon, toward the end of the 1930s, Moore begins to strip away the affectations. Suddenly, we see him pare down, jettison the plagiarized baggage, and formally reduce shapes to their essence. In pieces such as the elmwood "Reclining Figure" from 1936 and the Museum of Modern Art's 1938 "Mother and Child," Moore finds his own, mature vocabulary: spare, nuanced, and humane.
He found his voice just in time, for the Second World War would provide him with his best subject matter. To be sure, Moore was no Goya; political events do not appear to have loomed large in his mind, and any artist who could, as Moore did, describe the huddled, homeless hordes in a bomb shelter as "dozens of perfect Henry Moore figures" can be fairly accused of letting aesthetic concerns distract him from certain unpleasant realities of life. But in Moore's case, a bit of darkness was a very good thing, producing haunting drawings and pieces such as the "Helmet Heads," which are among Moore's most affecting work.
As the curators point out, World War II made Moore's reputation. He was feted in the 1948 Documenta and trotted out as a freedom-loving, Western rebuke to totalitarian art everywhere. It was during this period that he first began to dabble in truly monumental sculpture, placing his minimalist creations in the public landscape as others had painted in plein air, recalling not only Manet and Courbet but also the anonymous artisans of Stonehenge. Thanks in large part to what the organizers of this show describe as Moore's "humanism" and his "neutral subject matter," he became a primary beneficiary of postwar government commissions.
Even as the public applauded, however, the art world played a cruel joke. By the time Moore found his own style, his brand of modernism had become passé. After the war, Moore's onetime cohorts, the surrealists, newly resettled in New York, mentored a new generation of American radicals. The second half of the 20th century belonged not to Moore and the proponents of "closed" or solid sculpture, but to the Picasso-Gonzalez-David Smith school of "open," or constructed form. For critics such as Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro, Moore became something of an art-world whipping boy, an example of "good taste" and other sins against Art.
It is here that the current Moore show misses the mark, and at great length. Though somewhat obtuse, the thesis of the DMA's show seems to be that Moore's "radical" avant-garde style became the postwar mainstream. Yet what really happened is that the prewar concept of the avant-garde ceased to have any relevance. America was the new art-world center, its claim to dominance based on its official embrace of ever-new, ever-more-radical artistic fashion. In such a world, Moore's modernist vocabulary, full of minimalist Madonnas and suckling babes, simply had no meaning.
It is true that later sculptors from Smith to Bruce Nauman looked to Moore, taking cues from him even as Moore himself had looked to the past. By and large, though, Moore took his proper place in the pantheon of old fogies. The DMA's self-serving show unfortunately does little to prove he belongs at the head of the class.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.