Breathing Life Into Welded Steel

In the abstract sculpture of the late Julio Gonzalez, the human dimension is never absent

IN 1928, when Pablo Picasso needed technical assistance making sculpture out of scrap iron, he turned to his friend Julio Gonzalez, a Parisian craftsman, metal-worker, jeweler, and painter originally from Barcelona (where Picasso had also spent part of his youth). Gonzalez was 52 at the time, and his collaboration with Picasso led him to make a liberating decision: that his real calling was to be a sculptor.

From then until his death in 1942, he produced a remarkable, inventive body of work - figures that seem to leap and twist from their base, changing from sinuous curve to angled plane, from boldness of scale to concern with minuscule detail, from linear ``drawing in space'' to sudden emphasis on weight or mass.

Gonzalez was accepted by the avant-garde of the 1930s - without ever subscribing to either the purely abstract, non-objective school of thought or to the Surrealist persuasion, though containing a personal response to both. He was exhibited, written about, and discussed.

And his work has also earned him a place in recent art history - as a forefather of ``direct metal sculpture,'' a form that has flourished in the post-war years in the hands of such artists as David Smith and Anthony Caro.

Sculptor Smith has paid tribute to Gonzalez by calling him the ``first master of the torch,'' referring to Gonzalez' pioneering use of the acetylene torch in the making of sculpture. Smith also has noted that for Gonzalez ``craft and smithery became submerged in the concept of sculpture. The aesthetic end was not dependent upon its mode of travel.''

Gonzalez' work is still capable of engaging the attention and enthusiasm of the public and even of today's younger sculptors, as demonstrated in ``Julio Gonzalez: Sculpture and Drawings,'' an exhibition at Glasgow's Art Gallery and Museum.

The exhibition catalog includes an interview with English sculptor John Gibbons. Talking about ``Gothic Man,'' a vertical iron piece made by Gonzalez in 1937, Gibbons finds it has architectural references, a suggestion of African sculpture about it, but to see it as a figure, he feels, ``is pushing it.''

Gibbons believes Gonzalez understood that the discovery of modern sculpture meant that all kinds of surprising, immediate, sensitive experiences could be achieved ``without making a figure or a head.'' What Gibbons sees in ``Gothic Man'' and Gonzalez' dancing figures is ``articulation,'' ``an essence of aliveness.'' Gibbons goes on to explain, ``It's like a state you get into when you're really happy, you're elated. It's as if you can do anything, be anything at that moment.''

Artists, of course, select what best suits them from the work of other artists they admire; they are partial. Picasso said he went shopping. The great surge of creativity, of inspired adventure, in the last part of Gonzalez' career, has proved a good place for other artists to shop.

Smith was certainly influenced by him in his own realization that steel welding could open up fresh sculptural possibilities. But this was only one aspect of Gonzalez, who worked - when he could afford it - in bronze, stone, even silver, and who wasn't the only sculptor working in steel. (The current exhibition displays this diversity well.)

Henry Moore recognized another aspect of the importance of Gonzalez for 20th-century sculpture - but again in his own terms: bringing ``a lot of disparate elements together'' to make ``one single unified thing out of it.''

But one could also argue that the disparate elements in his figures remain disparate to a degree unprecedented in earlier sculpture, and that this is the element that makes Gonzalez so surprising, even today.

As for Gibbons' recent assessments, it might be said in opposition that Gonzalez himself insisted on referring to his works as ``heads'' or ``figures'' and that they almost always contain small touches, orientations, or amusing substitutions that identify them as heads or figures while at the same time acting as forces, lines, essences.

What Gonzalez did for his own sculpture and the art itself was find astonishing freedom from the model. It is impossible to see Gonzalez as an abstract sculptor - and yet without abstraction as a potent concept, his work would have been just decorative. He is never a geometrical ``Constructivist'' - and yet when it suits him he can introduce an unexpected circle, triangle, square. But these regular shapes are also eyes, mouths, noses.

It is, however, equally impossible to see him as any kind of realist, a portrayer of the figure. And yet the human element is never absent, the expression of human feelings - joy, exuberance, anguish, terror.

It is fair enough for Penelope Curtis to conclude in her catalog essay that ``it is his subject-matter - its profoundly human nature - which sets Gonzalez apart as a modern sculptor.'' And yet that, too, is only one facet of the story. Perhaps the final words should be from Gonzalez himself:

``...The sculptor must give form,'' he wrote, ``not to the imitation of another real form, but to a light, to a color or to an idea. [Thus] this form, even the most human, will be altered from the model. Hence a new source of problems to solve, created by unexpected situations, and an architecture to be created by the artist.''

The Julio Gonzalez exhibition continues at Glasgow's Art Gallery and Museum through June 3. The show then moves to London's Whitechapel Art Gallery from June 15 to Aug. 5 and the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield from Aug. 11 to Sept. 16.

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