Sorting out the best of Henry Moore

Henry Moore (1898-1986) was, in his prime, arguably the greatest sculptor of the 20th century. The reputation he earned during the 1930s was based on his carvings in wood and stone, many of them reworked over a period of years.

By the 1960s, however, the huge demand for his work led him to sell so many bronzes (far easier to produce than carvings) that the avant-garde art public decided he had gone commercial. "Henry Moore: Sculpting the Twentieth Century," his first museum retrospective in the United States in almost 20 years, attempts to sort out what was best about his work.

A daring innovator in his youth, Moore based his art on the human body and the land. His father had begun life as a coal miner, and Moore himself said he was inspired by the rolling hills of his native Yorkshire. He wanted his sculpture to suggest the enduring strength of mountains.

At first, Moore offended conventional taste by rejecting the ideal of beauty handed down from classical Greek sculpture. He found models elsewhere, particularly in pre-Columbian Mexican sculpture and the natural world around him.

It was his work as an official war artist during the 1940s that brought him widespread acceptance. One evening he went down into a London Underground station and was struck by the crowds taking shelter from German air raids. Moved by that experience, he made a series of drawings that were among the greatest works of his career.

Under a blanket, any of us is reduced to a hint of elbow or knee or foot, and, in failing light, the face itself becomes a shadowy suggestion of itself. Suddenly, Moore's abstracted figures seemed understandable, and Moore himself became a beloved personage, symbolizing faith in England and hope for the human future. His favorite subjects - the reclining woman, the mother and child, the family - and his sense of art growing out of nature earned him enormous success in the postwar decades.

By the 1970s, however, the concerns of art had gone elsewhere. Although this exhibition cannot make the older Moore seem young, it does show - decade by decade - how he became a modern-day colossus among English artists.

Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, the exhibition will be at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, in San Francisco, through Sept. 16. It will then be seen at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., from Oct. 21 through Jan. 27, 2002.

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