Figures With a Modernist Look

Five-country exhibition brings together 20th-century sculptors working in a neglected field. ART: REVIEW

FIGURATIVE sculpture hasn't done too well in this century. Most major sculptors, from Brancusi and Arp to Calder and the Minimalists, dealt primarily with abstract or nonrepresentational forms. Yet many of those who did work directly with the human figure felt free to adopt any modernist ideas that interested them, and usually did so effectively. As proof, the Marlborough Gallery here has assembled an impressive international exhibition of the work of six outstanding or emerging figurative sculptors: Magdalena Abakanowicz from Poland; Grisha Bruskin from Russia; John Davies and Raymond Mason from England; Red Grooms from the United States; and Fernando Botero from Colombia.

Of the group, Abakanowicz strikes the most deeply and produces the most moving images. But that should come as no surprise, considering how profoundly her standing and seated figures and her sculptures of heads reflect her World War II experiences in Poland and her faith in mankind's ability to survive any and all calamities.

Her works are at once poignantly human and oddly detached. Some, like the faces in the ``Incarnations Cycle,'' cluster in extended groups, achieving a collective anonymity through repetition. Others, such as ``Sage,'' stand awesomely, almost pathetically, alone, with the dignity usually found only in ancient sculptures that have survived the elements.

Grisha Bruskin, a Russian artist, is little known in the US despite the record-breaking prices his work brought at Sotheby's art auction in Moscow last year. The primary clue to what his art is all about is his 1989 ``Birth of a Hero,'' a single work consisting of 15 individual painted bronze figures ranging from 12 to 26 inches in height. Each is loosely based on one of the coldly academic statues the Soviets build to instill such ideals as health, patriotism, and moral achievement. Most are pure white. A few include symbols or phrases painted in bright red. What Americans will think of these mildly amusing pieces I cannot predict, but I was not particularly impressed.

That was not the case, however, with John Davies's dramatically oversize heads and provocative, full-scale ``Man on Wooden Ladder.'' They make their points clearly and impressively. ``Head (I.P.),'' a 45-inch resin, fiberglass, and stone-dust sculpture overpainted with acrylic, confronts the viewer with the impact of a two-ton truck. The 63-inch-high ``Painted Bronze Head,'' on the other hand, exudes the calm serenity of a Chinese Buddha figure.

For pure entertainment, no American artist can match Red Grooms. Though I'm not fond of his work, I cannot help admiring his fertile creative imagination and his ability to transform even the most commonplace things into witty and colorful constructions. His ``Sailor Kelly'' may be a bit too broadly caricatured, but it comes across with so much good fun that one cannot help accepting it. And ``Muscle Beach Totem'' and ``Mr. Universe,'' although vulgar, nevertheless score as successful examples of social satire and human commentary combined into one.

Botero, as always, is a special case. His plump, playfully monumental pieces steal the show with their impish distortions. There's nothing ``little,'' for instance, about his 1988 ``Little Bird,'' that towers over its environment like a monstrous-footed colossus. And who but Botero would have conceived so out-of-proportion and yet totally convincing an equestrian statue as his delightful 1989 bronze ``Man on Horseback''?

Finally, there's Raymond Mason, whose smallish groupings of figures in urban locations - ``Latin Quarter'' has roughly 50 men and women walking on a sidewalk - strike me as banal and painfully self-conscious. They undoubtedly make interesting conversation pieces, but I don't think they succeed as art.

At the Marlborough Gallery through June 17.

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