Harold Paris: Emotions Of Mixed Media
WE live in an age of sophisticated, emotionally distant art, the product of two I-don't-really-care decades. But the 1990s promise to be challenging times, and if artists become willing to take the risk of seeming too excited, they might do worse than study the example of Harold Paris, who was an unashamedly emotional artist from the 1940s until his death in 1979.
He was born in New York in 1925. His father acted in the Yiddish theater, and Paris grew up in a tradition that valued emotional expressiveness. Both as an artist and in private life, he was always dramatic and often melodramatic. During World War II, he served in Europe as an illustrator for the Army newspaper "Stars and Stripes." Much of his art in later years would seem to have been an attempt to come to terms with his experience of the war, and not least with his reactions to seeing the concentration
camp at Buchenwald.
Paris began his career in the fine arts as a printmaker and later took up bronze sculpture. After 1945, he divided his time between New York and Europe. Unlike most of his fellow Americans, Harold Paris chose to make art that reflected the physical and psychological ravages of the war, still evident around him in the 1950s.
He wrote, in a statement published in 1954, "I am concerned with the forces of good and evil that exist not only in man but in myself.... If people in my work seem to be in pain or anguish, it is, I guess, because I see people suffer ... and I guess I do too...."
In 1960, Paris began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. The university authorities, overestimating his experience in bronze casting and his periods of travel and study in Europe, may have imagined that Paris would bring Old World skills to the West Coast.
What happened was that a group of artists originally trained in other media taught themselves and each other. The principal lesson to be learned at Berkeley's foundry was that an artist can be an artist in any medium and without regard to tradition.
Paris's colleague and friend Peter Voulkos had begun as an academic potter. Influenced by painting in the 1950s, Voulkos made what were called forms of pottery. He painted the clay surfaces, often using brightly colored glazes and emulating the free manner of such painters as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning.
Exposed to the heady atmosphere of the foundry, Voulkos moved from clay to bronze. Paris went in the other direction, adapting clay to his special mixture of abstract and figurative art.
He began a series of wall-sized sculptures, building up massive forms, then dividing them into mysterious, writhing fragments. In a piece of theater performed for himself, he attacked the clay with a sword. The whole process reflected flamboyance as well as anguish.
More allusive than realistic, his walls offer hints of ruined structures and fragmented human bodies. Paris managed to bring together the Surrealists' interest in psychology and their imaginative treatment of the body, the concern of postwar European artists to reflect the horrors of war, and the Abstract Expressionists' freedom of design.
It is understandable for artists to identify themselves with the Creator, but Paris also identified himself with the created world. He wrote of his first wall, "We too are clay.... My hand and every mark I make in the clay is a sign that I am here now - At this instant - and this clay is what I am and will be."
During the early 1960s, Paris made several bronze sculptures of chairs with suggestions of human figures attached to them. As with the use of clay to stand for vulnerable flesh, the chairs can be understood as human bodies. Damaged by violence or simply worn by the passage of time, they retain their form as chairs, which is to suggest that something in human beings retains its integrity in spite of the ordinary difficulties of life and even the extraordinary challenges of the 20th century.
Although the subject matter of his early sculpture was often brooding and tragic, some of his work was unabashedly pleasant. During the 1970s he made a series of plastic sculptures he called "souls." They were transparent slabs of silicon, about the size of a book, in which he embedded butterfly wings, paper cutouts, and other objects. The anguish of his earlier bronze and clay sculpture was completely gone. What remained was sweetness, presented without the slightest fear of falling into sentimentality.
Writing about the "souls" in Time magazine, Robert Hughes said, "Their like has not been seen in America since Joseph Cornell's boxes. Memory and touch, a poignant archaeology of the self: at its best Paris's work is pure magic."
The comparison with Joseph Cornell was apt. Like Cornell, Paris wore his heart on his sleeve; he could seem painfully maudlin to an art public that prided itself on being sophisticated. In holding back, he resembled a child, albeit a child with unusual skill and seemingly limitless energy.
But there eventually did seem to be limits. Paris became ill and, in 1974, was hospitalized for 50 days. He responded to involuntary idleness by making a series of drawings and collages. Confined to bed, he used the most readily available materials - paper from letters and postcards, gauze from bandages, and even the pyramid and eye from a dollar bill.
In the following year he wrote ecstatically, "The small room I resided in became a mirror in which the immediate facets of my life leaped joyously about and, with life restored, sprang out of my window into the street, the earth, the sky and the world around me."
In our time, it often seems that much avant-garde art exists to teach cynicism about art as well as society. But there has always been art that teaches hope. For Harold Paris, an acute awareness of suffering coexisted with a sense that beauty and joy were also possible. Above all, art was possible.