A Bicentennial Sampler

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COPYRIGHT © 1976, WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

In an imposing observance of the nation’s Bicentennial the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City has devoted its entire building to a huge, exciting exhibition celebrating “200 Years of American Sculpture.” The show opened in March of this year and will run until mid-September. Altogether, more than two hundred sculptors are represented.

Assembling the exhibition from museums and owners across the country presented the museum staff with extraordinary logistic problems. Many of the sculptures had to be taken apart for shipment, and in one instance it took five days to reassemble a work when it finally reached the Whitney. Another piece, a delicate and intricate one, was accompanied by a curator who came along to make sure it was properly put together again. Because of the great number of individual sculptures included in the show—many of them very heavy, or very large, or very fragile—the shipping and insurance problems were formidable.

In the early years of the American Republic most of the sculpture produced here was carved or chiseled by artisans and craftsmen making such utilitarian objects as furniture, gravestones, or ships’ figureheads—forms not yet regarded as art. When a fine piece of sculpture was needed, Americans almost invariably turned to foreign sculptors. In fact, it was a milestone when Congress in 1832 awarded its first commission to an American—Horatio Greenough—for a marble statue of George Washington to be placed in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington. Typically for the time, Greenough produced a neoclassical Washington, modeled on a fifth-century B.C. Greek statue of Zeus.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century American sculptors were edging away from neoclassicism. The twentieth century brought a great explosion of sculptural experimentation and also a belated recognition of folk art as part of our artistic heritage. According to art historians sculpture—traditionally an artistic underdog in this country—has now won a vital place among the American arts.

As a permanent record of the bicentennial event “200 Years of American Sculpture” has also been published as a book by David R. Godine. The book includes not only pictures of the works themselves but also essays on the history of American sculpture and biographies of most of the sculptors. It is from this volume that the following brief sampler is selected.

B.K.