Frederick Hart: The Complete Works

by James F. Cooper

Frederick Hart, Daughters of Odessa, 1999This is the third volume to appear about the life and art of a sculptor whose career significantly changed the direction of public art and memorials in the nation’s capital. Frederick Hart died in 1999, at the age of 56, with many projects and commissions waiting on the drawing board in his studio at Hume, Virginia, including his maquette proposal for the World War II Memorial. He has become part of a yet-to-be-written history that is still unfolding, not only in the arts but in the cultural fabric. The earlier publications Frederick Hart: Sculptor (1994) and Frederick Hart: Changing Tides (2005) were lavishly illustrated and included fine essays by Tom Wolfe, Michael Novak, J. Carter Brown and others. Frederick Hart: The Complete Works presents the most insightful analysis of the sculptor’s oeuvre to date. This comprehensive, chronological overview features several hundred photographs of his work, personal and professional life, some never published before. But it is the inspired essays by Donald Kuspit and Frederick Turner which stand out. They should be primary resources for those who want to understand the deeper issues involved in the current cultural shift and the vital role Frederick Hart played in this evolution.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2008,  Volume 25, Number 1.It was clear from the start of his career that Hart’s objective was to change how we view art. The frontispiece of Frederick Hart: The Complete Works contains this quote by the artist: “If Art is to flourish in the twenty-first century, it must renew its moral authority by rededicating itself to life. It must be an enriching, ennobling, and vital partner in the public pursuit of civilization.” Hart’s great achievement was to create inspirational works for public consumption, fusing a new, contemporary iconography with formal classical beauty, what Nietzsche called An-Sich-Für-Sich, or the total unity of subject and object. The challenge facing this untutored young artist during the fractious years of the 1960s was formidable. With no kindred spirits to instruct him, since traditional academies had virtually disappeared, Hart had to teach himself how to sculpt a classical human figure. While apprenticing as a stonecutter with the craftsmen working on Washington National Cathedral, he struggled to invent a new iconography, one that could be visually understood by his contemporaries. Hart had to overcome what Kuspit aptly describes as the “self-destructiveness…anti-social, ugly…rebellious, barbaric feelings informed by alienation and anomie, dominant psychological forces in modernity.”

Kuspit knows the subject well. Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and the recipient of fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation, he has authored and edited hundreds of articles and books, including The End of Art (2005), After Nihilism: Essays on Contemporary Art (2000) and Pyschostrategies of Avant-Garde Art (2000). He is also contributing editor to Artforum, Sculpture, New Art Examiner and Art Criticism. In short, he speaks as an insider disillusioned with the critical establishment. Alarmed and bored by postmodernism, Kuspit started thinking about alternatives to the irony and morbidity of late-twentieth-century art. Searching for a new kind of cultural discourse, Kuspit has turned to the regenerative powers of Beauty.
 
Hart died in 1999 and therefore missed meeting Kuspit, who is now forging an epistemology that goes a long way toward building a bridge between a failed modernity and the new sacredness Hart sought in the arts. For those familiar with Kuspit’s impressive work over the last forty years, chronicling the twists and turns of postmodernity, his championship of Hart may be surprising. But Kuspit finds in Hart’s work qualities critical to saving Western civilization from itself. He writes: “Hart’s sculptures—Ex Nihilo (1982), Three Soldiers (1984), Daughters of Odessa (1997)—are an antidote to the destructiveness of modernism…. [A]n attempt to restore wholeness…rightness and soundness, emotional and moral health, dignity and integrity…without denying the suffering that humanity endured in the twentieth century.” Kuspit is insightful about the new realism: “Great art is about revelation rather than verisimilitude.”
 
During his lifetime, Hart often acknowledged that realist painters and sculptors lacked the language to describe what they were trying to do. The language of ideas, at that time, was the private domain of a consortium of scholars, curators, patrons, artists and the electronic and print media, largely enthralled by a prescribed set of deconstructive values we label loosely as “postmodern.” Hart sought out anyone who might contribute to a new epistemology based upon beauty, transcendence, virtue and truth. Sometime around 1992, he contacted the poet Frederick Turner, a champion of narrative and meter in poetry, one of the architects of the new traditionalism. Turner, Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas, Dallas, and author of Beauty, The Value of Values (1992), The Culture of Hope (1995) andApril Wind (1992), provides an insider’s perspective. Turner became part of Hart’s inner circle of friends, artists and writers who would gather occasionally at the sculptor’s sprawling estate located along the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, seventy miles southwest of Washington, D.C. He was one of five speakers invited to deliver a tribute to Hart at a special ceremony held at Washington National Cathedral.
 
He sees the sculptor’s work in a cultural context: “Like the great Renaissance artists who took Nature to be the very book of God—Hart sees the Divine in the structure of the physical world.” In the primal “nothingness” of Ex Nihilo, from which the life-size carved figures emerge, explains Turner, Hart “sees the divine not only in the world’s hierarchical structure, but also in the very process of evolution by which the Earth metamorphosed from a ball of molten rock and gas into a fertile planet with a wealth of living species.” Despite their different backgrounds, Turner and Kuspit glimpse in Hart’s work a cure for the cultural and moral malaise that gripped the nation in the last decades of the twentieth century. For both, the keystone to Hart’s career is Ex Nihilo, a cloud of Indiana limestone (21-by-15-feet) with eight life-size human figures emerging from primordial flux, set in the tympanum above the front entrance of Washington National Cathedral.
 
Hart’s last major work is Daughters of Odessa, an allegorical tribute to the millions of innocents who fell victim to the barbarous forces of totalitarianism during the twentieth century. Initially inspired by the tragic death of the four young daughters of Nicholas II, it evolved into an elegaic tribute to the sacred beauty of life. Four young women are joined in a circle, their delicate faces lifted upward, their eyes shut, their bodies drawn together as if listening to some distant music. Is it a coincidence that Daughters of Odessa has much the same compositional structure and formal beauty as Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais (1888), Rodin’s tribute to the brave burghers who sacrificed themselves to save Calais, a seminal work which ushered in the age of modernism a hundred years earlier? Hart brings us full circle, with an archetypal image of heroism and grace.
 
Other texts in the book include a moving tribute by Robert Chase, Hart’s business collaborator and partner, and personal reminisces from Hart’s wife, Lindy, and son Lain. But the best argument for Hart’s lasting contribution, short of visiting the works in situ, are the illustrations ofthe Creation Sculptures (Ex Nihilo), The Herald, set in the tympanum at the entrance to the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, Three Soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, Daughters of Odessa and his figurative works in the Lucite process, for which his estate holds the original patent. Most outstanding are the figures of Peter, Paul and Adam, which complete the Creation Sculptures at Washington National Cathedral. This handsome volume will no doubt be required reading for future generations of artists and poets, inspired by his example.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2008, Volume 25, Number 1