The following essay is reprinted with permission of the Portland Museum of Art. PMA is presenting the exhibition Bernard Langlais: Independent Spirit, which will be on view April 11 through June 9, 2002. An illustrated catalogue containing this essay may be purchased through the museum's bookshop. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Portland Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Bernard Langlais -- The New York Years: 1956-1966

By Aprile Gallant

 

Bernard Langlais's first sculptural work in wood was a rebuilt wall constructed at his summer home in Cushing, Maine in 1956. By the time he established Maine as his primary residence in 1966, he would be a nationally known sculptor, with an impressive list of gallery and Museum exhibitions. The intervening ten-year period was a vital time of activity and growth for the artist, played out against the backdrop of the New York art world of the 1950s and 1960s. The works produced during this time display the development of Langlais's mature imagery and working methods as well as his search for a unique artistic voice.

When Bernard and Helen Langlais returned from Norway in 1956, they moved into a small loft in a three-story building on West 28th Street in New York City, in addition to purchasing a summer cottage in Cushing, Maine. During renovations to the cottage, Langlais rebuilt an interior wall by piecing together scraps of wood. He found the work invigorating and inspiring, and he proceeded to construct a similar wall in the loft when he and Helen returned to New York in the fall. The fact that the loft was situated over a lumberyard provided Langlais with a constant source of wood as well as fragments in various shapes and styles. Langlais found that working with wood allowed him to be not only more physical but also more intuitive, remarking: "Paint is too sophisticated, too removed. When I work with it the distance between my hand and the canvas, the distance the brush represented, was too great. The balance is wrong. Painting is ninety percent intellectual and ten percent physical, but using wood is closer to even."(1) According to Langlais, painting had "not come easy" to him, and his extensive training and cumulative years of study made him think more deeply about the process of painting rather than relying on his instincts.(2) He also believed that wood, as opposed to canvas, oil, and brush, is a material that has "life,"and thus, could be an active participant in the act of creation.(3)

In the beginning, Langlais did not do much carving, preferring to allow the character of the wood to assert itself, either through the use of found wooden objects in assemblages such as Heap Big Chief (circa 1957-59), or, more frequently, through inlaid mosaics of wood scraps or planks, called "intarsia," as in Untitled (Cat) (circa 1957-59).(4) He also preferred to work with natural colors and textures, such as the weathered board and pale, earth-toned shards of wood in Heap Big Chief and the thin layers of white oil paint he used to stain the wood in Untitled (Cat). Although these early works in wood are primarily abstract, Langlais often provided them with evocative and open-ended titles, in contrast to the descriptive titles he had given his paintings.(5) This was an extension of the freedom he felt while working with wood -- he saw the existing forms and textures of the scraps of wood as complete compositional elements, the automatic movements of his hand arranging them to "reveal" the subject.(6) This flexibility also extended to the orientation of some of the works. For example, Untitled (Cat) features two stamped signatures on the front, one indicating a horizontal hanging, the other a vertical hanging. Working with this new medium allowed Langlais the opportunity to use all of his training in composition, color, and draftsmanship in an intuitive, rather than deliberate, fashion.

Despite this newfound passion, Langlais continued to show his paintings throughout 1957 and 1958, including a successful show at the Roko Gallery which attracted some notice.(7) During this period, he began to favor the intarsia method for his woodworks, which he called "painting with wood," rather than straight assemblage. He also occasionally used completed paintings as the backing for wood reliefs such as Forenoon (circa 1961-77). Although many young artists frequently recycled materials to save money, Langlais often allowed sections of the expressionistically painted backing canvas to show through the wood, making it more a part of the piece than a mere support.

Langlais's first show of wood reliefs took place in 1959 at the Area Gallery, a co-operative on East 10th Street founded the year before.(8) By this time, 10th Street boasted a number of co-operative galleries, many of which had been open since the early 1950s, and their varied exhibitions of new talent attracted the attention of artists, art lovers, and patrons from all over the city.(9) Although the exact composition of Langlais's exhibition there is not recorded, the Area Gallery was a small space (approximately 20 x 20 feet with a 7-foot ceiling), and it is likely that it contained only a modest number of pieces.(10) A review of the exhibition describes the works as "a show of paintings made by staining various-sized pieces of wood that are arranged on a flat surface," noting that the fragments of wood "are also used as brush strokes, and a pictorial image more characteristic of painting than of mosaic is produced."(11) In the studio, however, Langlais was beginning to play with the fine line between figural and abstract imagery, introducing more sculptural elements and carving into his work. The Crows (circa 1959), for example, features two triangular, carved shapes, painted matte black, floating in a jumble of multi-textured fragments of wooden molding. This piece is one of the first of Langlais's woodworks to feature a representation of animals, a subject that would soon consume his creative energies.

Although Langlais became known for his depictions of animals, he continued to draw from models throughout his career, and the human figure was often a central motif of his early wood reliefs. Nice Figure (1960), for example, features a central vertical form composed of pale blue wood fragments pieced together. The composition of the "figure" was undoubtedly formed by the natural breaks of the horizontal weathered boards which surround it. At this time, Langlais still allowed his materials to dictate the form of his work, although he was beginning to move toward transforming them in subtle ways, such as carving and painting the "crows," as well as painting the "figure" an artificial color and stamping small Xs to delineate certain features, such as the curved section in the upper right.

Several important events emerged from Langlais's show at the Area Gallery. His work caught the eye of noted contemporary collector Richard Brown Baker, who acquired a piece and introduced Langlais's work to other collectors and institutions; his work was also chosen for inclusion in the ground-breaking exhibition New Forms--New Media exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery in June 1960.(12) The exhibition featured 75 diverse works including collages, assemblages, installation works, and even a few traditional paintings and sculptures.(13) Langlais's contribution to the exhibition was described in the catalogue as a "painting in which various shaped slivers of wood are used as media."(14) His inclusion in the New Forms--New Media exhibition heralded an increased interest in his work in wood.

The critical discourse surrounding the emergence of Assemblage as a movement in the late 1950s focused on its relationship with Dada and its urban and industrial focus in subjects and materials. (15) Although both New Forms--New Media and The Museum of Modern Art's pivotal exhibition The Art of Assemblage (1961) cast a wider net and included many other works, including Langlais's, that did not fit these parameters, most of the work that became identified with Assemblage fully embraced these connections. Langlais, however, was moving even further away from such a stance. Especially after 1960, he became more interested in altering the nature of his found materials through burning, carving, painting, and weathering, among other techniques, rather than allowing them to assert their original identities or dictate the form of the works of art he was creating.

1961 was a pivotal year for Langlais, and one that was marked by far-flung experimentation. Not only was he more comfortable with his medium, but he also had just agreed to exhibit with Leo Castelli, a major uptown venue, and was to have a solo show there in March. Langlais had always been prolific and often remarked on his rationale for producing so many pieces: "I'll have a better show if I have 100 pieces to pick from when the show is, say, 20. I sometimes do three or four similar things -- not the same, but similar, and out of the three or four will be one that's better. You learn from the first one ways to improve; also the more you do, the freer you can be."(16)

Two works that exemplify how different Langlais's "similar" works could be are: Arrivederci Roma and Hero Worship, both from 1961. Both works take blond, paddle-shaped pieces of wood as a central component, yet the finished works are quite different in intent and effect. Arrivederci Roma is a classic example of the visual complexity of Langlais's intarsia works, combining the paddle-shaped pieces with a jumble of multi-colored and textured inlaid pieces of wood, bordered by wide planks bearing carved lines and compass roses. The overall effect is that of a city seen from the air­a series of wide avenues surrounded by a variety of buildings of different shapes and sizes. The visual effect of Hero Worship, however, is defined more by what is missing than what is present. Langlais uses a cut-out in the center to emphasize the three-dimensionality of the paddle handles, as well as the fact that they are floating in a void. These visual elements, combined with the title, give the paddles a human aura, as if they are individuals assembled into a ring bowing toward an honored figure. The titles of these works are typically open, allowing the viewer to invent a context for the visual elements in each piece. Despite this, they remain primarily non-objective.

During this period, however, Langlais also reached further into figurative subjects, as in Gull on a Pile (1961). Although certainly not realistic, the gull is much less abstract than The Crows and seems to be a reassertion of Langlais's expressionistic painting style, using both found and applied color. Although the weathered buoy fragments that form the gull's wing and tail probably inspired the form of the piece, Langlais depended on carved elements and applied color to pull his composition together. This also allowed him to play with depth and texture in a new way, as certain areas of the gull's body project, while others recede. Throughout 1961, Langlais refined the building blocks for his mature imagery and working style.

The fact that Langlais was rapidly evolving a new figural style at this time makes the composition of his show at the Leo Castelli Gallery even more surprising. A review in Art News remarked "Most, perhaps all [works] in this show, are non-representational," adding, "this show in relation to the complete range of [Langlais's] work in this direction is somewhat restricted and it might have been a good idea to have included examples of his other tendencies."(17) Despite this assessment, the reviewer also cites Langlais's "humorous quality" which is aptly seen in Pig in a Poke (1959). The title, undoubtedly acquired after the piece was finished, refers to the hemming in of the circular area of blond wood slivers by areas of dark wood. Not all reviewers, however, recognized Langlais's playfulness. Another review of the Castelli show in Arts remarked on Langlais's "curiously limited" use of wood, finishing with a damning reference to the New Forms--New Media exhibition of the year before: "Although there are some elements of interest here, especially when the medium is left in its natural state, there is a strong feeling of being among last year's best-sellers, now remaindered."(18)

Despite the fact that he had worked almost exclusively in wood since 1958, Langlais was chosen for the magazine Art in America's 1962 survey New Talent USA by the painting jurors, collector Richard Brown Baker and art historian and critic Dorothy Gees Seckler. In the article Baker specifically mentions the selection of two "mixed media artists," for this category, one of whom was Langlais.(19) In the text that accompanies the illustrations, Langlais notes that, "my thinking [is] close to that of the painter rather than the sculptor, and the ideas [are] abstract." He also addressed the use of surface and color, remarking: "Sometimes the wood remains in its natural state, at other times, the textures are featured. . . . At times color is introduced and washed off, then replaced until it's just 'right.'"(20) This quote is indicative of the continuation of Langlais's intuitive approach to making work. Although figurative imagery had already become a major subject for his work, he was still engaged with working out formal issues through the automatic process he had used to make his abstractions.

While Langlais was undoubtedly pleased to be allied with a major uptown gallery, the mixed review of the show's selections might have galvanized his increasing inclination toward figurative imagery. As Langlais remarked in a 1973 interview "An exhibition can allow you to see your work in an entirely different light. You're seeing it as a viewer too. Sometimes you learn from that." (21) He also did not like to be directed as to the character or course of his art work. Langlais was reportedly told by Leo Castelli that when he returned from Maine in the fall of 1961, he should "bring more abstract work."(22) Although it is unclear what effect such a comment might have had on the artist, it is apparent that early in 1962 he was no longer satisfied with only making abstract wall reliefs. A crucial transitional work, Pigeon Holing (circa 1962), appears to be a direct statement of independence. In this work, a grid of 54 panels contains components and techniques found in Langlais's earlier abstract reliefs. The work effectively exorcizes Langlais's sense of being "pigeon-holed" -- trapped into a specific style or media -- and asserts his desire to break free of his image as an abstract wood-collagist. He left Castelli's gallery and began to show both figurative and abstract work at other major New York venues.(23) As Langlais said in a 1974 interview: "You finally get accepted by doing certain kinds of work. People expect you to keep right on doing it. But you can't. You have to take up the next thing and go on. That's how you grow."(24)

The Next Thing

The "next thing" for Bernard Langlais was to focus on recognizable subject matter in his work. Although his ideas may have been "abstract," as he stated in Art in America, his work was rarely non-objective, and it most often referred to things in the visible world. Langlais's abstract wood reliefs were primarily the products of his experimentation with a new medium. He even went so far as to use some of his early abstract reliefs as backgrounds for figures later in his career. Forenoon originally referred to a carved intarsia relief mounted on painted canvas that Langlais completed in 1961. In rethinking this work sometime in the 1970s, he applied a lion onto the surface of the work and changed its orientation from vertical to horizontal.

When Langlais began to make figurative work again, he used the human form as well as that of animals. Bathers (circa 1962) and Woman in the Window (1962) are two prime examples of Langlais's work with the human figure. Bathers features a heavily painted background juxtaposed against carved areas of worn and weathered wood, treated with a similar approach to Gull on a Pile. Woman in the Window is less sculptural but more naturalistic, depicting a bust-length image of a woman in profile. The woman is rendered primarily in toothpicks, which Langlais uses ingeniously as an artist would draw lines, seen in the hatching used to delineate the contours of her cheek and neck.

It appears that Langlais did not find the human figure as compelling as animals. For all of their strengths, neither Bathers nor Woman in the Window evokes a sense of a human presence -- Woman in the Window is an anonymous silhouette, while the figures in Bathers are masked, and although it is compositionally strong, its meaning derives primarily from several works in art history, most notably Pablo Picasso's Demoiselles D'Avignon (1907, The Museum of Modern Art) and Paul Cézanne's Bathers (1901-1906, National Gallery, London). Representing the other extreme are the few "portraits" Langlais created during the early 1960s, such as L.B.J, which depends upon the recognizable physical characteristics of a famous person. In 1971, Langlais explained his eventual decision to focus on animals with characteristic directness: "I got tired of abstractions and tried to find a new expression. I did a few of people but I eventually discovered that working with animals gives me greater freedom of expression. People are too specific as subjects, too limiting. Animals are more general."(25)

Bernard and Helen Langlais were forced to leave West 28th street in 1963, as their building was slated to be torn down. Their new loft, located on West 29 th Street, had higher ceilings and more space which allowed Langlais to work on a grander scale, a challenge which he fully embraced, creating works such as Noon Exercise (1963), which is over nine feet tall and composed of two interlocking sections. The horse depicted in this work floats on a background of dark stained wood and is composed of hundreds of small sections of carved blond wood planks and moldings. The small sections that make up the horse's body seem to mimic both skeletal and muscular structures, making the viewer aware of the horse more as an object than an image. This work is also notable for its absence of color and its static positioning, suggesting that Langlais was trying to balance the abstract formal qualities of his work with new figurative subjects. Noon Exercise is a transitional work, conceptually and chronologically straddling two different periods in Langlais's production: the intuitively patterned abstractions of the late 1950s and early 1960s with his later, increasingly realistic animals. Mammoth multi-figural works, such as Animal Farm (1963) and My Jungle (circa 1963) soon followed, each displaying Langlais's continual mastery of his techniques and the development of his mature vision and imagery.

Langlais remarked in an interview in the early 1970s: "I'm much more interested in the feel of the animal than in the object itself. . . . I like animals, of course, but it's more for their form than for their own sake."(26) Langlais also noted the "variety" among animals and the fact that they lend themselves to more imaginative and "symbolic" variations than human beings.(27) As Langlais began to prize the symbolic presence of his animals over reproduction of their naturalistic shapes, he began to simplify his forms and reintroduce vibrant color. From My Window (circa 1965), inspired by the variety of birds easily viewed from his studio in Cushing, exemplifies the dramatic change in Langlais's work that nonetheless combines the strengths of his life as a painter, an abstract sculptor, and a maker of realistic animal figures. He used a found window frame as his ground, placing the simplified forms of his birds into a realistic viewing context. The grain of weathered wood shines through the brightly colored backgrounds, which set off the images of various birds at rest and in flight. The panels are linked by their shared subject matter, yet they remain dynamic as individual vignettes within an overall composition. While the birds themselves are simplified, their postures, in various states of rest and flight, adeptly capture the actual sensation of bird-watching better even than his magnificent, naturalistic Eagle of only a year before. From My Window seems to be the perfect resolution of Langlais's desire to not be "pigeon-holed," and it heralds the increasing strengths of his work in Maine.

Despite its playful and figurative subject matter, Langlais's new style of work did not fit into the public or critic's idea of Pop Art. Langlais's animals lacked the irony displayed by the work of his contemporaries, and they also celebrated the bucolic rather than exploring commercialism or urban life. During the early 1960s he increased the amount of direct carving in his work, with all of its intendant references to "craftsmanship," while creating anthropomorphized views of naturalistically depicted animals. This confluence of characteristics led some New York critics to either dismiss his work altogether, or to ally it conceptually with a "naif" or "folk-art" style.(28)

Langlais had a brisk exhibition schedule in New York throughout the mid-1960s, when the Grippi & Waddell Gallery, with which he was showing, abruptly changed course, dumping all of their regular artists and then fading into obscurity.(29) A more immediate and lasting influence on his artistic career was the 1965 purchase of 80 additional acres with a farmhouse and barn adjacent to his summer property in Cushing, a move which would allow him to create even larger works Originally, Bernard and Helen Langlais intended to maintain residences in both New York and Maine, a strategy that soon became unfeasible. They sublet their loft in New York and began to settle into a new life in Maine. Artistically, Bernard Langlais was exalted by his departure from New York. The physical atmosphere of Maine would inspire a new course for his art and engender a host of memorable works.

 

Notes

1. Bernard Langlais quoted in Jay Molishever, "Big Stuff: The Wood Sculptures of Bernard Langlais," Boston Sunday Globe, May 9, 1971, p.10.

2. Undated notes by Bernard Langlais quoted in Shirley Jacks, "The Middle Years: The Artist," in Bernard Langlais: The Middle Years (New York: Midtown Payson Galleries, 1986), p. 13.

3. Bernard Langlais quoted in William Langley, "Bernard Langlais: Many Times I Find Myself Laughing," Maine Times, February 11, 1972, p. 14

4. Untitled (Cat) includes both hard and soft woods, which was often the case with Langlais's early wood pieces. The title "Cat" is not recorded on the piece, although it has been known by that name since shortly after it was acquired, and has remained in its original family collection.

5. In addition to Heap Big Chief, titles from this period include Masonic Parade, Pig in a Poke, and The Round Up.

6. Bernard Langlais quoted in Scrap, April, 1960, quoted in Jacks, p. 14.

7. See reviews in Arts 32, no.8 (May 1958), p. 61 and Art News 57, no. 3 (May 1958), p. 58.

8. In addition to Bernard Langlais, the original "founders" of the Area Gallery were Tom Boutis, John Ireland Collins, Charles DuBack, Joe Fiore, Norman Kanter, Ed Moses, Daphne Mumford, and Paul Yakovenko. For more information on the Area Gallery, see Joellen Bard, ed., Tenth Street Days--The Co-ops of the 50s (New York: Education, Art & Service, Inc., 1977), p. 60.

9. Other co-operative galleries in the Tenth Street area included Tanager Gallery (1952-1962), Hanna Gallery (1952-1959), James Gallery (1954-1962), Camino Gallery (1956-1963), March Gallery (1957-1960), Brata Gallery (1957-mid 1960s), and Phoenix Gallery (1958-present). For more information see Bard, op. cit .

10. Ibid., p. 60.

11. A[nita] V[entura], Review, Arts 34, no. 3 (December, 1959), p. 64.

12. According to Rosalind Constable, the exhibition was the result of an article she was preparing on the new "junk" sculpture being shown at the Reuben Gallery on Tenth Street in 1960. See Harry Rand, The Martha Jackson Memorial Collection (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), p. 32. The success of New Forms--New Media prompted the gallery to organize New Forms--New Media II in September 1960. Langlais's work was also included in this exhibition. Both shows garnered significant media attention. See John D. Morse, "He Returns to Dada," Art in America 48, no. 3 (summer 1960), pp. 76-78, and John Canaday, "Art: A Wild but Curious, End-of-Season Treat," New York Times, June 7, 1960, p. 32.

13. Virginia M. Mecklenburg, Wood Works: Constructions by Robert Indiana (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984), p. 22.

14. Jacks, p. 14.

15. See Morse, op. cit., pp. 76-78, and William E. Seitz, The Art of Assemblage (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961).

16. Taped interview with Bernard Langlais by Robert Brown for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, February 21, 1973.

17. L[awrence] C[ampbell], Review, Art News 60, no. 2 (April 1961), p. 14.

18. V[iven] R[aynor], Review, Arts 35, no. 7 (April 1961), p. 56.

19. "New Talent USA," Art in America 50, no. 1 (1962), p. 21. The other "mixed media" artist chosen by the painting jurors was Irwin Rubin.

20. Ibid., p. 31.

21. Brown interview, 1973.

22. Conversation between Helen Langlais and the author, August 11, 2000.

23. Donald Judd, in a 1962 review of Langlais's show at Allan Stone, dismissed the work as "decorative," "folk art," and "craftsmanlike," criticisms which are not surprising, considering Judd's own sculpture of the period. See D[onald] J[udd], Review, Arts 36, no. 10 (September 1962), p. 49.

24. Bernard Langlais quoted in photo essay produced by Robert Grant. Commissioned by the Maine State Commission on the Arts and Humanities, circa 1974.

25. Bernard Langlais quoted in Molishever, p. 11.

26. Bernard Langlais quoted in Robert Newell, "Bernard Langlais Sculptures Give 'Impression of Primitiveness,'" unidentified newspaper clipping, early 1970s. Portland Museum of Art artist's files.

27. Lynn Franklin, "Man With a Zoo in His Garden," Maine Sunday Telegram, October 10, 1972, page unknown.

28. See J[udd], p. 49, and V[ivien] R[aynor], Review, Arts 39. No. 2 (November 1964), p. 60.

29. Brown interview, 1973.

 

About the author

At the time of writing of the essay Aprile Gallant was Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at Portland Museum of Art. At the end of January, 2002, she will leave the Museum to accept a position at Smith College. Ms. Gallant, who has been with the Museum for eight years, will become the Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at Smith College, where a new art center will open in the spring of 2003. During her tenure at PMA she worked with the Photography Advisory Committee to significantly expand the Museum's photography collection. She organized and curated many exhibitions, some of which include Graphic Language: Printmaking and Popular Culture, 1960-1990; In Print: Contemporary Artists at the Vinalhaven Press; PERSPECTIVES: The Art of the Book; Love and the American Dream: The Art of Robert Indiana; Lasting Impressions: Contemporary Prints from the Bruce Brown Collection; Alberto Giacometti; Local Color: Six Contemporary Photographers; and the Open House series which invites area photographers into the Museum to document and interpret the project to preserve the McLellan-Sweat House and L. D. M. Sweat Memorial Galleries. The 1999 catalogue Love and the American Dream: The Art of Robert Indiana was the recipient of two major awards: honorable mention in the American Association of Museums 2000 Publications Design Competition, and first prize in the Art category of the Independent Publisher's Book Awards, or "Ippy Awards."

 

Please see our prior article Bernard Langlais: Independent Spirit (1/24/02)

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