Living and working history
In the course of my life as a sculptor and teacher, I have shared many stories about my experiences as an artist. When I was asked if I might write something that would be of interest to students, I thought first that I would write about some aspect of sculpture technique. I quickly realized that almost everything I wanted to convey to my students was encapsulated in my own life experiences and the people I met along the way.
As a result, I have decided to write a series of articles which feature important artists with whom I have studied and worked. Among those are Malvina Hoffman, Donald DeLue, and several others from my studies in America, and Emilio Greco, Giacomo Manzu, and others from my studies in Italy.
Traveling around the world she sculpted on location over one hundred figures and portraits of men and women from all parts of the world. In the 1930's when the world was still mostly unknown to the average person and the winds of war and conquest were beginning to be felt by some, she like Amelia Earhart was off on a great adventure.
My first meeting with Malvina was through a wonderful sculptress who I was working for by the name of Eleanor Mellon. One day at her studio she asked for critique of a greater then life size figure of St. Christopher we had been working on. She told me it was finished. After looking it over for a few minutes I said it couldn't be finished, as I had noticed that the inside of a hand was not as complete as the outside was. I pointed out that in the darkest corners of the cathedrals of southern France if one were to take a flash light, one could see that all the figures were as complete as those that set out in the light for all to see. Of course, this comment had been taken straight out of one of Malvina books. She smiled and said, “I see you have read Malvina's book”. Adding, “do you know her?” After my apologies and explaining my admiration for Malvina she asked if I would like to meet her. One week later, in the spring of 1964, I found myself standing at the door of Malvina's home and studios. With the arrival of Eleanor we were allowed in under the watchful eye of Golda, Malvina's secretary. I was immediately overwhelmed by the largeness of space and the feeling that I was moving back in time as I entered what I came to call her reception studio. Almost fifty feet long and about thirty feet across, it was imposing. As I looked around I had the impression I was in a museum not a working studio. On the one hand I felt disappointed, and sad that I was too late, what I was hoping I would find, I thought must be long gone.
Malvina was sitting in a comfortable chair in her office at the front of the building when I was introduced to her. Malvina seemed old and tired, yet as we spoke she seemed to still have some power and a sparkle in her eyes. She seemed to be looking for something from me. The conversation was lighthearted but direct. I could see she was scrutinizing me the whole time. She seemed not to be overly interested by my admiration for her achievements, though she accepted my complements with grace. After awhile she said, “what do you want from me, my day is done?” I looked at her and said, “What I want is to learn from you, and work with you”. She sat up straight and told me, “I have nothing for you to do. I am old, and tired, just a few things to finish up and send to museums”. I spoke to her like a child would to their parent, trying to convince her that she had all the time in the world, and lots to do before her time was up. She seemed unconvinced.
I then thought I would play the same card I did with Eleanor, who had been sitting next to me through what I made myself believe was an interview to work with this great and powerful artist.
In Malvina's book Heads And Tales she describes how she meets and convinces Rodin to take her in as a student. Rodin, at first, refused her entry into his studios, and had rejected her, she thought mostly because she was a woman, an American, and believed she was a dilettante. She said in her book after his rejection that she was determined to work with him. Being strong willed and fearless, she pulled up her courage and said to him that she would arrive every morning and sit on his doorstep until he accepted her, and let her in to work with him. The next day and for several more she sat until Rodin opened his doors to her and she became one of his students. As I sat in front of her I looked her in the eyes and with a smile on my face, I said, “well of course you understand that I will be here tomorrow morning sitting on your doorstep until you let me in”. Malvina gave a wonderful laugh and smiled. Her next words were music to my ears, what time could she expect me to arrive, “I don't serve coffee, as I am a tea drinker”. This was the beginning of a wonderful two year relationship in which Malvina shared much of her life's stories, showed and explained some of her ideas about art making, and started me on a path of life and art that has become so much more then I ever thought it could be. After our initial meeting and during the time I worked with Malvina, there was one thing that I think made our relationship so close and beneficial for me. Although she had been the only American artist to work with Rodin, a fact that followed her through her life, I never asked directly about him. I focused on Malvina and our relationship, which I believe was what made it so good. When we talked about Rodin it was she who initiated the subject, and it was almost always about something she had learned from him, rather then about him. I think because I did not focus on him as so many had done before me, our relationship was closer and more productive. I once read some place “Great Oaks never grow well under the shade of other great Oaks.” With me Malvina was always the bright light of sunshine.
Working with Malvina
It is hard for me to describe how wonderful I felt after leaving Malvina's studios that first day. I was a very young man, an art student, and full of the kind of spirit and bravado that all young artists seem to have in abundance. The next day, however, and for many weeks and months to follow, I learned to understand the benefits of modesty and humility. Malvina spent most of the first few days of our new relationship asking me questions about my interest and knowledge of sculpture. I wanted to impress her so I responded to her inquiries with my usual lack of modesty, not knowing I was about to learn some very important lessons that were not just about sculpture making.
My first lesson was about to be learned when after just a week, Malvina asked me to demonstrate my skills with mold making; she had asked me early if I know how to make molds and cast small figures. I had told her that I had excellent skills and felt very confident about mold making.
This day I was about to learn just how much I had to learn about making molds. When we had finished our morning tea and talk, she surprised me by asking me to demonstrate my mold making skills. After a few moments of silence she asked me to go over to a shelf and bring back a small cloth wrapped clay figure, about 10 inches high, which she had shown me earlier. I placed it on a sculpture stand that she had placed in the center of the studio. She then directed me to a table with a few tools, a soft rubber dish about 4 or 5 inches across and 2 inches deep, a small bag of plaster of Paris, and some thin, stiff paperboard. “I would like you to make a mold and cast this figure for me'. My first thought was that I was going to be sick. I was terrified, not only was this figure sitting in front of me a work of art by a great master, but here I was standing in Malvina's reception studio with wonderfully finished hard wood floors, with not a speck of dust, and the sculpture stand that the figure was sitting on was equally fine and clean. Before I could make a protest, Malvina said, “You know neatness counts, being able to cast without making a mess usually means the mold will come out well”. Modesty and humility all of a sudden seemed very appealing. At that moment I took my first step in beginning a wonderful relationship with Malvina. I said “ I don't think I am that good, when I cast it is usually messy, can we move this to the work studio?” She took a risk as I had and we moved into the big working studio, were I stayed and worked for her for the next 2 ½ years. Along the way we would repeat that lesson a few more times, always with the same openness and honesty I learned that first week.
Malvina was a wonderful stone carver and I wanted to learn all she could offer me on that subject. One day after we had lunch, we always had our sandwiches, tea and talks up on the top floor of her home which she called the “Eagles Nest” she said,” do you know how to carve stone?” She was sitting with her legs stretched out on her grand chaise lounge, a light blanket covering her legs, and the lounge itself covered with animal skins left over from her travels around the world. In her right hand a cigarette holder, with smoke rolling off the unfiltered Camel cigarette at its end. I said “no, but I would like to learn”. We were soon down in the working studio and standing over two stones, one was a finished head and the other had been partially roughed out with comparable outlines. Malvina had a habit of studying my reaction to the challenges she presented to me. I could see her out of the corner of my eye as a small smile crossed her face.” She said, “ Tell me what you see?” I explained that I could see that both heads were meant to be identical but one was unfinished and just a roughed out version of the finished piece. She asked me to look even closer and to give my impressions of the work and how the work was being done. As I looked closer and more at the method by which the stone was being removed I noticed the there seemed to be very many defined linear drawing marks that had been made by the tools. I told her what I was seeing and how the way it was being carved helped me to see the surface more clearly. She started to talk about Rodin and how he had learned this method and had shown her how to use this technique. What I was seeing was what Michelangelo and all the great stone carvers had known, how to carve accurately into stone and using a method of drawing with the carving tools that brings forth the patterns, and surface movement that join together to produce details and likeness. Malvina asked if I thought I could finish the work on the roughed out head, I agreed, if she were to guide me that I thought I could. She placed in my hands a set of stone carving tools, warned me not to think too quickly about the surface modeling, and to do all my work with an eye on working out all of the understructures first. Projections became supreme; knowing what needed to be kept in place, and what could be removed, anticipating what would happen when a cut was made, drawing on the stone, and how the tools could be used most effectively. This was all under the watchful eyes of a great master, and was enough to make anyone nervous. I was nervous and, because I was, I picked at the stone. Malvina didn't waste any time in saying, “With authority strike the stone, with authority. You can't be timid with stone”. Several days later I was striking the stone with authority.
What I learned that day, and the many days it took to complete the carving, was and still is one of the great lessons of my life. Stone is not hard, it in fact is soft and pliable, and time reduces everything. Cutting stone by means of a more deliberate drawing and tooling approach is most helpful for figurative works and free form works that have organic quality. Drawing in stone is a product of the use of tools, and cutting into the stone while using planes to move across the surface to a point where it bends and moves into another shape or contour. The drawing is dependent upon already established under structure either physically established or anticipated to be present by the artist. The use of drawing has the added advantages of moving form around corners, pulling structures together, and contributing to a more complete perception of the development of the total work. When used successfully it appears as if the sculptor is peeling stone and exposing the underlying forms. The drawing with tools grows successively finer until the work is completed and is either polished or left with the drawing marks as the finish. Last but not least, cutting stone by means of a more deliberate drawing and tooling approach allows the artist to work with a greater sense of authority when striking the stone in his or her search for the elusive boundaries of the sought after final image which she often turned into sculpture. She often sounded like she thought she had some kind of contact with the spirits of those who had passed over to the other side of the River Styx, as she called it. Soon after her death I started to understand better what it was she was trying to tell me. Malvina had given me many of her tools and a few she had gotten from Rodin. Later on as I worked and used them I started to think about the tools and how she and Rodin had once used them and how prized they were. So as I would work with them I would start to
have little one-way conversations with them both. Saying things like, “well what do you think, “ or “Thanks, Malvina”. Over the years I have included great personalities like Michelangelo and others. Malvina showed me that art is like a great river that flows through time. It is the measure of time and humanity's reflections of itself; it's wonders, beauty, misfortune and possibilities. Meeting and working with Malvina allowed me the good fortune of entering into that river at an early stage of my life as an artist. The lessons learned gave me the understanding that I am a part of something much bigger then myself. I am just one of many. Thank you Malvina, for teaching me humility that allowed me to learn from you and all the others that came before us. Malvina taught me to work hard, be true to myself, trust my instinct, be open, and enjoy the waters of the great river of art. My time with Malvina came to an end one day when we were up in the “Eagles Nest” with Malvina and we were having one of our discussions about something or other, and out of the blue she said, “ I have waited a long time for you to come into my life, and I think you are ready, I think you should go to France, would you like to go to the Beaux Arts? I'll have Golda write you a letter. It is time for me to cross over the River Styx.” I am leaving out some of the discourse, but within two weeks Malvina was dead.
With Malvina's death and the coming of spring of the same year I was on my way to Paris to enter the Beaux Arts, where new people and a new story begins.
However, I need to I finish my account of sculptors, like Donald DeLue and Michael Lantz, whom I worked with while I lived in New York City,
I don’t know if anyone has written anything about Michael, but if they have not they should have as they missed an amazing man and artist. Michael or Mr. Lantz, was a wonderful artist and teacher. He was my very first real sculpture teacher and I studied and worked with him at The National Academy of Design in New York City. He was the art professor incarnate with all the visible trappings. At first sight, a man of just under average height, shocking bright white hair, a little rounded, always impeccably dressed, and always in a light green shop overcoat while he was teaching. Michael always conducted himself and his classes with great professionalism, and a willingness to help his students. Although he had and was to complete many notable commissions, he seemed most to enjoy the fact that he was the brother of Walter Lantz, the noted cartoonist and creator of Woody Woodpecker. Michael called himself the poor side of the family.
Mr. Lantz enjoyed telling his story and had some wonderful stories to tell. He had many friends who were successful artists; many were famous monumental sculptors and when he was working and teaching he would tell stories about them and their work. His way of teaching, which I adopted later on when I began teaching, was to work on his own sculpture while simultaneously instructing and demonstrating. He offered himself and what he knew openly and bravely. The class I entered was a very advanced group who had been working together for a long time. For them I was an unknown factor in their friendly but highly competitive world. Egos spilled out all the time. Mr. Lantz seemed to enjoy being part of our struggle. Those are the moments and times when stories would be told and we would be seduced by our dreams of what we might become. While at The National Academy of Design I met and worked with Michael Stelzer who would become a life long friend and colleague, We spent many hours working together, discussing sculpture, technical processes, politics, and women, artists we like and disliked, not necessarily in that order.
Mr. Lantz taught me many important elements about sculpting the figure and helped me to open myself up to more interpretive approaches to imagery and metaphors. He taught me about monumental scale and optical illusion and its importance when projecting imagery. I think the most significant growth I had while studying with Michael Lantz was how to think dimensionally and a willingness to depart form stereotypical imagery and to risk invention. Much of Michael’s work that the public knew of was large monumental art, but he also seem deeply invested in small figures and especially low relief. I had the opportunity to see the work he did with us in class which was small, alive and full of movement. He would sometimes say as he demonstrated, “feet, midsection,, head, and hands“, and up it would go small markers of clay that would outline the whole of the figure and the points in space. “There you see it’s done. All you have to do is fill in the rest”. Outside of class he was another person and his work was monumental . When we did discuss his large commissions he seemed to have less of his heart in them. Lantz wanted us to understand that monumental art was his job where he made a living, but his joy of working with the small figure and bas relief he loved doing.
Lee Lawrie the famous artist best known for the bronze Atlas at Rockefeller Center in New York City was featured prominently in his history and stories as Michael got his start working for Lawrie under the WPA with other artists of the time. One of them was Paul Manship whose sculpture of Prometheus at the Rockefeller Plaza in in New York, a case of the art being more famous then the artist. I met Mr. Manship at the Natural Sculpture society meeting a year before his death and had the opportunity to see his wonderful sculpture work. His work embodied the natural grace found in wild animals and dancers. Mr. Lantz also let us in on how his hair turned white over night. In his early days, after working for Lee Lawrie in 1938, he won a competition for a commission of two very large stone sculptures of a horse reared up on hind legs. He was just 29 years old. Just a few days before the judges were to come to his studio to look at the presentation of the work while still in clay the head of one horse fell off. In a panic he worked all through the day and night to restore the work.. Mr. Lantz swore that the next day when he looked in the mirror he was looking at a man with white hair. The commission was called “Man Restraining Trade” and is at the Federal Trade Commission building in Washington, DC. This also was a turning point in Michael’s political life as he give up his earlier “New Deal” idealism that was such a part of the Roosevelt area and the WPA that gave him his start. We mostly stayed away form politics which was a good idea.
Over time Mr. Lantz and I became closer and my friend, Michael Stelzer, a fellow student and I would get work from Mr. Lantz helping him with sculpture commissions. Michael Stelzer was and is a fantastic gifted sculptor who was the first to befriend me in our class and was helpful to me in many ways. Michael and I have been friends ever since. At the end of the first year we had a student show. The prize for the winner was a scholarship for the next year. My work, a half life size female nude was selected by the judge who happened to be Donald DeLue. The next fall I became a teaching assistant and class monitor for Mr. Lantz also introduced us to other artists who needed assistants. One of the artists, a sculptor was Donald DeLue. Mr. Lantz introduced me to the National Sculpture Society. By the summer of 1964, the end of my first year the Academy, I had met and was working for Malvina Hoffman, Donald DeLue, Eleanor Mellon and Michael Lantz. Over the next eighteen months I would travel by bus two times a week down to Leonardo, New Jersey to work with DeLue, twice a week I went to Malvina Hoffman’s Studios to assist her. Sometimes I would get a call from Eleanor Mellon or Nathan Chote who liked to help students out with work.
Lantz and his wife Reggie took a liking to me and my girlfriend and we frequently joined them for dinner at his studio. He was also a wonderful cook which was something we had in common, and from time to time we would cook something for each other. Over the next year I had started to work for other artists and by the spring of 1966 I was planning to go abroad and study in France and Italy. After I left the states I lost contact with Lantz hearing about him now and then through Michael Stelzer. I was sad to hear about his passing in 1980.
Of all the sculptors I have known, none had more of a sense of their place in history then Donald DeLue. Right or wrong, DeLue believed in himself and what he was doing intellectually and artistically. As I recall he was a little taller then average, trimly built, and for his age he looked like a strong man, with thinning hair on the way to baldness. At times he wore light weight steel rimed glasses, and a quiet smile that could come across as condescending. Mr. DeLue was very hard to get to know. He made no secret of his views and would articulate them often. I found myself more then a little confused by his very narrow prospective on the subjects of art and politics. He had very few good words for art critics and felt the art world had lost its way. He loved the figurative art of the Italian renaissance, especially the work of Michaelangelo, and the fist day at his home and studios he gave me a book of poetry by Michaelangelo. Mr. DeLue had no place in his world for the new avant-garde art of the day, rejecting it as art without merit, a devise of marketers & speculators. From the fist day it was clear to me that to enter into his world it was going to take time. When I got to his studios in Leonardo he was working on the clay modeling of a very large figure. The work had progressed to the point were a large armature of steel and wood had been erected and DeLue had started to cover it with oil based clay. Long foldout ladders standing as high as the armature were near by, and used to climb up to the outstretched arms and hands The wooden surface was made up of finely cut wood latts and it was easy too see the figure emerging, it was beautiful to behold. As the work moved forward and more and more of the wood latting became covered the more impressive the sculpture became. The figure was enormous, when finished it would stand 37 feet tall. Once you see something like that figure being built your understanding of monumental art has to change. I was put to work that day and spent several days helping with various parts of the clay modeling.
The sculpture grew and I was growing as well, I came to see the work was not just a sculpture it was a engineering fete as well. The clay modeling had to be finished , molds had to be done and then shipped to Italy for bronze casting.
Donald DeLue was not a teacher for me, at least in the sense of a traditional teacher- student relationship. Rather I learned from him while working on projects he had.