Explorations by two 20th-century masters 


British artist Henry Moore has been hailed as the greatest sculptor of the 20th century, best known for large-scale abstract human figures. The exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, though, features his small bronze maquettes (models for full-sized sculptures), lithographs and drawings, allowing a glimpse into his creative process. The exhibit runs simultaneously with another show that highlights artistic evolution: etchings by Pop Art master Jasper Johns, in which he reworks a series on the four seasons.

Along with revealing how each artist tries out different ideas, the two exhibitions simply showcase the immeasurable talents of the artists. Moore won critical acclaim for his unique, often abstracted treatment of human and organic forms, while Johns was one of the formative artists of the New York Pop Art movement in the '50s and became famous with images immortalizing popular culture and consumer goods.

The 52 etchings in "Jasper Johns: The Seasons" convey the objective detachment characteristic of much of his Pop Art, but they depart stylistically from his usual work. The show centers around a series of four color trial proofs from 1987 titled after the cycles of nature, which in the years following he revised into a finished product. Beautifully drafted and richly symbolic, the seasonal cycles of birth, maturity, decline and death are allegories of Johns' own life.

In the initial version of "Spring," he incorporates symbols of fertility to convey his own creative energy. An anonymous figure that recurs in each season is Johns' own shadow, and he alludes to himself as a boy in a smaller shadow in the square. In "Summer," the figure moves to the left to make room for his personal effects, including a ladder, paintings and pottery bound together with rope, which is a visual reference to Picasso's "Minotaur Moving His House" (1936). Optimism is created by the balanced composition, but this harmony is shattered in "Fall." The figure is split in half, representing an impasse in the artist's life. The ladder is cracked. The rope sags as though unable to hold the belongings together. The tree branch is barren; clearly Johns contemplates his mortality. By contrast, "Winter" expresses a quiet solemnity, perhaps acceptance of the inevitable cycles of nature. Snow falls, and there is order to both the shapes along the bottom and the belongings.

As he reworked the series in the following years, Johns altered and erased motifs as he honed down each print to its essential ideas. For example, the stars in "Spring" were replaced by swirling galaxies, which add a sense of timelessness. In the 1989 version of the series, he aligned the four works horizontally but began with "Summer" and ended with "Spring," thus reinforcing the cyclical flow of human existence. In the third version he stacked the seasons, and in the fourth they are displayed in cruciform shape, which negates any definite beginning or end.

Johns is a meticulous craftsman, as is Moore, whose masterful drawings, prints and sculptures convey a deep sensitivity to his subjects. Drawing allowed Moore, born in 1898, to explore forms; he often turned his drawings into maquettes, which upon his approval were sent to a foundry to be scaled into monumental sculptures. His lithograph "Reclining Woman IV" (1980-81), while a deft figurative portrait, could easily be a study for the bronze maquette "Reclining Torso" (1981). But his drawings can also stand on their own. In the print "Stonehenge VI" (1973), Moore focuses on the monolithic stones in the foreground that are weathered by time and the natural elements, and appear grooved and cracked like human skin.

While these two artists tackle very different subjects, these exhibits give us insight into how they refined their ideas.


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