It's difficult to know what to make of Leonard Baskin. On the one hand he has produced some truly remarkable sculpture, prints, watercolors, and drawings. On the other he has also been guilty of some of the most trivial art of any major American artist in recent years.
Although I prefer to ignore the latter and to concentrate on the former, Baskin himself makes this difficult by practically flooding the market with drawings and prints which should never have left his studio. Their shrill and empty facility is depressing to behold.
Fortunately, however, his sculpture so far seems immune from this trivializing tendency. Perhaps it is the more resistant nature of wood and bronze which keeps him challenged and on his toes. Or possibly the subject he prefers find greater fulfillment in large three-dimensional pieces than in small , flat drawings and prints. Whatever the reason, his graphic work becomes weaker all the time, while his sculpture generally continues to become stronger and more assured.
The show now at the Kennedy Galleries here is a representative exhibition of Baskin sculptures and drawings. While it does not include any of his prints, these can be seen in large numbers in the adjacent Kennedy graphics department.
The first piece one encounters upon entering the gallery is one of Baskin's most recent: a bronze sculpture cast this year of Adam and Eve. It is a dramatic departure from his usual style of working.
For one thing, it's open and fluid, without the stiffness one usually associates with his sculpture. It conjures up fleeting memories of works by Massaccio, Michelangelo, and Rodin rather than remind one of earlier Baskin bronzes. It is quite a performance and Baskin should be commended for the attempt, but despite its good intentions, it just doesn't add up to much as sculpture.
The very fact that it brings up comparisons to Rodin destroys it, for Baskin just doesn't have the necessary knowledge or skill to compete in that league. To tackle such a subject in the fashion Baskin attempted it is to throw oneself on the mercy of art history, and its verdict -- based on accomplishment and not in intentions -- will be harsh.
It's one thing shrewdly to gauge one's talents and limitations in the light of creative goals and to then hammer out a personal style accordingly. It's quite another to enter the lists of the historically great on their terms.
At heart Baskin's skills are simply ones: Bulky forms and a few shrewdly observed and sharply delineated authenticating details in the head, arms, hands, and feet. He is at his best dealing with stillness and solemnity, with a frozen kind of monumentality.
With these skills and qualities he has created some of the best American sculpture of recent years. One can't help but applaud his wish to expand his creative themes, but to do so he will also have to expand his creative resources and skills.
The most powerful piece in the show, "The Altar," represents Baskin at his most comfortable and individual. Its formal and conceptual integrity is trully remarkable. This piece has an aura of religious primitivism which inspires a very real sense of devotion and awe. If I remained in its presence for long I would have difficulty operating at less than my best.
It is obviusly a deeply felt and carefully pondered work, one which put up a good, hard fight to remain just a large block of wood. One senses that its successful completion was a very real creative victory. And, somehow, that it was a moral victory as well. It is pure Baskin from start to finish, and will still look impressive centuries from now.
Only slightly less impressive are "Oedipush in Exile," "Phaedra," "Sibyl," and the older "Small Birman," with its human body and bird head and feet. Again , these are pure Baskin: simple, taut, and highly interior, with a linear elegance that be-speaks a strong talent for drawing.
This talent for drawing is also manifest in the several bronze reliefs scattered throughout the show. These are among Baskin's most sensitive works. The combination of raised relief and linear form is a natural for him, and he uses it frequently. Among the best of these are what amount to bronze relief drawings of birds and human figures executed with a biting charm that incorporates the best of sculpture and of the graphic arts.I was particularly taken by his 1970 "Man With Sheep's head."
With the exception of the powerful "The Death of the Crow," the less said about the drawings the better. As a whole they are trivial and dull, and in some cases down-right silly -- and are not at all like the magnificent drawings he did earlier in his career.
Despite my complaints, this is a very worthwhile show to visit. Anyone who can produce the high level of sculpture on display in this exhibition deserves serious attention.