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by James Panero
On the sculptor Sabin Howard & “Constable’s Oil Sketches 1809–1829: The Maria Bicknell Years” at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries.
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Once a cliché of urban blight, the industrial neighborhood of Mott Haven in the South Bronx, bounded by elevated highways and the Harlem River, now outstrips Williamsburg, Brooklyn as the next big place for artist space. Two decades have passed since Sherman McCoy, Tom Wolfe’s fictional “Master of the Universe” from The Bonfire of the Vanities, took a wrong turn in his “$48,000 Mercedes roadster” and passed through here, hurling a tire and running over a kid while wearing his “New & Lingwood party shoes.”
The unknown landmarks that McCoy ticks off—the 138th Street subway station, the Willis Avenue Bridge, Bruckner Boulevard—might today be familiar territory to anyone with an interest in contemporary art in New York. Had McCoy made his wrong turn these days, he might have popped in for an espresso at the Bruckner Bar. He could have even paid a studio visit to Sabin Howard, an artist who works alongside statues of Venus, Hermes, and Apollo—an artist who has become a master of his own universe.
Sabin Howard is a sculptor in bronze whose work radiates a startling presence while finding its roots in the classical past. He is also an entrepreneur who has, some might say, heroically taken on the artist’s relationship with the gallery system. Sabin Howard goes it alone, indifferent to the world around him, developing a model of survival that actively combines art and business. Recently, I visited his studio to discover the secret of his success. “My art and my business both deal with the psychology of human beings,” Howard maintains. “They are both about energy. When you complete a transaction with someone, you create a connection.”
Howard, now in his early forties, displays an Apollonian demeanor—assured, independent, some might even say isolated, a sun god frozen in bronze. Appropriately, Howard is now finishing work on his own monumental statue of Apollo, one of two clay classical figures, arms outstretched, occupying center stage of his studio. Here, bathed in intense artificial light and surrounded by plaster copies of his work, Howard might spend 2,500 hours to take a figure from concept to bronze. He begins early on with live models, whom he finds through ads placed on craigslist, the online classifieds. “I’ll reference something from the Sistine Chapel,” he says, “or a Caravaggio painting. Then I’ll look for models that will fit that idea. The models take me to a place outside of my own head.” Howard uses multiple models for reference to different parts of the body. Supported by nylon straps and other temporary props, the models stand beside Howard’s armatures of steel, foam, and plasteline clay. Over a period of years, Howard translates their contours into what he perceives to be an ideal human form of sinews and curves, arriving at a metaphysical realism that edges towards abstraction: “I use design systems based on vortices and spirals. Those are ways energy travels through the bodies.” His process is also additive: “The human body is based on a convex system where everything is pushing outwards from an internal pressure. So if this pressure is recreated in sculpture, you are actually showing the internal pressure of a human being: the spirit and the soul.”
Maybe there was something in the water at Dalton, the New York private school that Howard attended in the early 1980s. Howard graduated a year apart from an artist with similar lifelong ambitions—Jacob Collins, whom I wrote about in this space last September. The two artists have followed remarkably parallel paths. Both pursued their own muse and a rediscovery of lost techniques. Both found inspiration in the museums of Europe (Collins in Paris, Howard in Rome). Both passed through the New York Academy of Art. Both even became family men with literary wives (Ann Brashares in Collins’s case; Traci L. Slatton in Howard’s).
But whereas Collins has become the don of Classical Realism, starting one painting school after another, Howard took the route of the self-taught MBA. He is an artist-entrepreneur who uses multiple castings, the retention of copyright, outsourcing, and the power of the Internet to leverage the most capital out his artistic product. “My friends are hedge fund managers and rich CEOs,” he says of his milieu. Meanwhile, fellow artists are “flabbergasted” by what he can do in overcoming the financial realities of casting in bronze. Howard maintains a professional website, www.sabinhoward.com, featuring detailed digital photographs of his work. New buyers arrive by email, with the studio serving as a permanent gallery. Howard also has an associate sell his work through constant, rotating ten-day auctions on eBay.
In place of the standard gallery show, Howard has teamed up with Millennia Partners to exhibit his sculpture in high-end shopping malls—most notably, the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Here one might catch Howard’s statue of Hermes (2005) outside the entrance to The United Colors of Benetton.
The marketing may be new, but the artistic technique is an old one. Once Howard completes his figure in clay, the “lost wax” casting process begins. First, the clay figure is covered in rubber and a hard outer shell. This forms a mold. Then wax is applied inside the mold, which is removed and reused, while the positive wax figure that results is covered in a ceramic shell. The wax inside this shell is melted away in a burnout kiln, and liquid bronze is poured in the void. Once the metal hardens, the shell is chipped away, and the resulting bronze statue is covered in an oxidizing glaze and finished by hand.
Sculptors rarely work alone. It is common practice for sculptors in bronze to employ craftsmen in the casting process. Before it closed, Howard sent his work up to the Tallix foundry in Beacon, New York. But Howard now goes much further, maintaining a whole payroll of contractors to support the business end of his art. He employs a national publicist. He is developing an hour-long film about himself. He has already teamed up with a film-maker to create a short profile of him and his work.
James F. Cooper, the director of the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center and the editor of Modern Arts Quarterly, wrote about Howard extensively in 2005, when Hermes was unveiled at Time Warner. He also appeared in Howard’s first video. Here, “standing in front of Sabin Howard’s Hermes,” Cooper says in this film, “we get a glimpse of a world very different from the one we presently occupy. It is a world we very much want to enter. A world we barely remember. Only in our dreams.”
Howard mixes Roman gods with abstract forms and sees himself as a new kind of Renaissance figure—the artist-businessman with his own Medici clients. His bronze sculptures exert an outward pressure against their own metal skin, textured in pointillist marks. Formally and technically, the work is wonderfully compelling.
But I am not fully convinced that Howard’s accomplished sculptures can ever quite get us close to Cooper’s world of dreams, as much as I would like to believe in this poetic sentiment. Trafficking in a defunct mythology, Howard’s work may just serve as another classicized symbol of modernist isolation. “I don’t feel like an individual cog that’s alienated,” Howard says, “like the 1950s vision of de Kooning the drunk, lonely artist, suffering, stabbing his canvas with his paintbrush.” But as a self-described “anomaly,” Howard has distanced himself from many of the artists around him. Howard criticizes the academic urge behind Classical Realism, which can suppress aesthetic sensibility with pedagogy and kitsch. But Howard likewise risks falling prey to a sentimentality that allows little room for his art to live outside of a business plan. If he does, it would be a shame. Visit his studio, and you will see: Howard’s talent is far too great for his work to be considered merely an ornament in the architectural landscape.
Just what do galleries do? Galleries swindle. They lie. They never pay. They don’t lift a finger for your month-long show. They take a fifty-percent commission from the buyer you found. The subject of bad galleries makes for favorite horror-story conversation among artists. But at their best, galleries also cultivate a clientele. They put on shows. They handle the press. They encourage artists. They educate the public.
The gallery owner Lawrence Salander undoubtedly falls in the latter camp. He may just be the Howard Hughes of the art world—the high-flying romantic moving his gallery into one of the more luxurious town-houses on the Upper East Side. He is someone deeply affected by the power of the human form, having put his full resources recently behind Renaissance and Old Master sculpture. He has also long maintained an affinity for the art of John Constable (1776–1837). “My first understanding of his greatness was one of the most important days of my life,” Salander says. “His work speaks of the truth as he experienced it through his eyes, his heart, and finally, his hand. The result of this is in every case a physical manifestation of pure joy and ecstasy. These are the by-products of the human confrontation with Truth.”
At the time of Salander’s last Constable show—a perfect exhibition of his “cloud studies” presented in spring 2004—the gallery’s scholarly catalogue explained how Constable, influenced by William Paley’s Natural Theology of 1802, could find divine order in empirical investigation.
Now through mid-June, an exhibition of Constable’s “by-products of the human confrontation with Truth” is once again on display at the gallery. Salander has assembled an exhibition with his colleague Hermine Chivian-Cobb of magnificent loans from Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Yale Center for British Art, The Metropolitan Museum, and other venues. It should not be missed. The show chronicles the open-air sketches Constable made from the beginning of his romance with Maria Bicknell in 1809, whom he married in 1816, to the year of her untimely death, 1829, when he ceased to make outdoor oils. This show includes examples of his cloud studies of 1822 from Hampstead Heath, but we now also follow Constable through the cow pastures of Epsom and Suffolk to the coast at Brighton, from the graceful brush stokes of the 1810s and 1820s to his pained abstraction in Dedham Mill (1829) and Child’s Hill, Looking Towards Harrow with a Rainbow (c. 1829–1830).
Sabin Howard says of sculpture, “the body is a mirror of the mind. It’s not separate. When you look at a figure, the pose, the morphology—that all dictates a narrative about an individual psychology.” So it is with paintings as well. Constable’s work contain a window on nature and a mirror on a soul.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 May 2007, on page 50
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