Sabin Howard

Recovering Beauty in Bronze

by James F. Cooper

Sabin Howard, Hermes, bronze, 2004 Courtesy of the artistSabin Howard’s sculpture studio is located in upper Manhattanin an old factory building near the East River. The neighborhood, which consists primarily of three- and four-story structures, is undergoing a real estate boom much like the one downtown experienced in the 1960s and 1970s, when the first waves of artists seeking good light, and cheap and open space gentrified their lofts. Howard’s studio is reached by three double-flights of stairs. A wall has been removed from one side of the studio to allow space for the seven-foot-high statue of Hermes Howard has been working on ferociously day and night for the last fifteen months. Privately commissioned and cast in bronze at the Tellex Foundry in Beacon, New York, Hermes will be installed at the Millenia Gallery’s public space in the new Time Warner Building in New York City. The unveiling is scheduled for April 29, 2005. According to Millenia Gallery director Robert Lombard, Hermes “brings humanism and narration to a modern setting. Its energy cannot be ignored.”

It is a remarkable work of art. Messenger of Zeus and herald of the gods, Hermes is depicted as a graceful, muscled youth. He stands with one foot resting casually upon a stone, with most of the body weight shifted to his left hip and leg. The torso twists to one side, while the right leg swings in the other direction, creating an elegant contrapposto of curved, twisting volumes. The pose is quite stationary, anchored on one hip, yet it gives the sensation of movement and arrested dance. As you circle around the Hermes 360 degrees, the configurations of the limbs and torso appear different from every angle, so that the whole figure works equally well visually seen from the back, side and front. Hermes holds a snake coiled around his left wrist, its ductile head arched toward his face, providing a visual counterbalance to the right arm, which is extended behind and to the right. The arrangement is quite abstract in terms of composition and movement.

At age forty-three Howard has suddenly emerged from relative obscurity. In the last two years he has cast seventy pieces at the Tellex Foundry. Many of them have been sold to private collectors and museums. He has started initial planning for his next project, a full-size statue of the god Apollo. He teaches at the New York Academy of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and has lectured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and theDaheshMuseuminNew York. He is a fellow of the National Sculpture Society and the subject of a recent documentary, “Sabin Howard at Forty: A Retrospective in Bronze.” The neoclassical architect Michael Graves has commissioned several pieces.

Howard confesses he was initially intimidated by the commission for Hermes. His previous work has been limited to pieces three feet high and smaller. The shelves and table tops in his studio are filled with small bronze masterpieces such as Persistence (1997), Mars (1999), Eros (2001) and Armor (2003). There is also a thirty-eight-inch bronze model for the full-scale Hermes (2004). He sometimes spends a year or more perfecting these sculptures, many inspired by Greco-Roman mythology. Much of his studio time is concerned with adjusting the volumetric relationships between separate sections of the body. A large sculpture is more difficult than a smaller one, he explains, because the relationships between the sections of the figure appear to change visually when the size of the work is increased dramatically. The smaller, thirty-eight-inch model of the Hermes does not have the expressive power of the full-size sculpture because the system of curves cannot be fully developed at that size. “You can develop the rhythms, but the smaller model does not have the same lights and shadows as the full size,” he tells me.

Howard explains that the larger Hermes required an aggressive effort in pushing the contrapposto:

Everything in this sculpture is designed on a spiral system, the whole pose, to each of the smaller parts and how they fit into the larger parts. In most of my sculptures you have two things going on at once. You have a stable or an anchored leg representing the stationary, a fixed anchored system. Off that core or axis is developed a spiral, moving system. I place all my figures on a square base so that you can relate the pelvis and rib cage and the head to the base. If you move up, the pelvis rotates clockwise, the rib cage rotates more clockwise; the head rotates even more, until you have the gaze that goes off in another direction.

As he speaks, Howard follows the twists and turns each muscle group makes to pick up the evolving spiral movement in the Hermes. Starting with the tibialis anterior muscle on the front of the shin, he moves to the frontal plate, where he demonstrates how the vastus lateras on the side plate pulls to the front of the figure, how the iliac crest on the pelvis pulls to the back, and then how the latissimus dorsi pulls again toward the front.

He thinks of himself as an architect working with organic form: “The architectural part of the figure is the skeleton, or the structure. The organic part are the muscles, which always spin from one side of the pedestal to the other side of the pedestal, creating a spiral motion. This is why Michelangelo’s work is so powerful. Because you have a connection between structure and architecture and movement. You have something that is solid, at the same time it has tremendous vitality and movement.”

It is hard to reconcile the impressive knowledge Howard displays so convincingly—in his work and the anatomy classes he teaches at the New York Academy of Art—with his late start as an artist. His youth was troubled, introspective, rebellious, full of false starts. He held a series of failed blue-collar jobs in construction, woodworking and furniture restoration before deciding, at age nineteen, to become an artist. Howard presented himself at the admissions office of the Philadelphia College of Art with no prior schooling in art. He had dropped out of the University of Massachusetts after a year, where he had majored in English. The admissions dean explained that he must present a portfolio of work. Howard laughs when he recalls, “I didn’t even know what a portfolio was.” He studied the human figure for three hours every night, no matter how tired he felt after a full day of heavy construction work. Three months later he returned to the admissions office with ninety drawings of remarkable caliber. He was immediately accepted.

Howard’s vision of the human male form is heavily indebted to the works of Michelangelo. Although he was born in New York City, Howard’s early years were spent in Milan, Italy. His mother was Italian, his father German. He intuitively drank in the glories of the Renaissance the way American youths are molded by baseball and pop culture. When he was fourteen, his parents took him to Florence. In the Sacristy of the Medici Chapel he saw for the first time the sculptures created by Michelangelo for the unfinished tomb of Lorenzo Medici. Their beauty and power made an indelible impression. “That was an epiphany for me,” he recalls. If he were going to be an artist, this was the kind of art he wanted to do, “beautiful, timeless work that can be appreciated on many levels, by the average blue-collar American worker and the Yale professor.”

How could a young artist without any training in anatomy and figurative art hope to create great works of art? Enter two remarkable artists, teachers at the Philadelphia College of Art, Martha and Walter Erlebacher. Both had begun their careers as abstract artists in New York City. Dissatisfied with the vacuous postmodern art scene, they began the laborious process of restoring the study of classical figurative anatomy in sculpture and painting. Although he started late, Howard lost no time at school: “From the very beginning I knew I wanted to make Renaissance-quality art.” His classmates and several instructors tried to dissuade him, claiming that figurative art had no abstraction, no ideas behind it. “I was very lucky to have Martha and Walter as my first instructors,” he remembers. “With their help I started right away with no mistakes to erase later.”

Over the years he has developed a remarkable series of anatomical drawings, which he uses to teach a new generation of artists. His goal is not only to explain the architecture of the human figure but to demonstrate how all these components become integrated into an aesthetic whole. The models he uses in class and the models he hires for his own work possess well-developed muscular bodies. This is a marked departure from the type of models that were used for decades by instructors who shunned anything that looked “classical.” Howard wants his students to see and understand how the body works. The quality of work produced by his students is remarkable. Many have never sculpted the human figure in clay before.

Sabin Howard, Armor, bronze, 2003 Courtesy of the artistHoward’s sculptures have content as well as exquisite form. All art is about art, even with a recognizable subject, and Howard clearly states the importance of Michelangelo to him. Each of the bronze sculptures in his studio has a theme; many are inspired by Greco-Roman mythology. Others are intense psychological portraits. He subscribes to the literal translation of psyche logos, which means the study of the soul, psyche and anima. Whether he is conscious of it or not, many of his sculptures, including the Hermes, resemble him. He is very selective about the models he works with: “I depend greatly on a live model. I worked ten hours a day with two live models for the Hermes. I used one model from eight in the morning, and one model in the afternoon until six. If you have a model who is alive, and has a tremendous amount of energy and vitality, and you’re looking at this day after day, it’s going to rub off on you.”

A nineteen-inch bronze Anger (2001) expresses the sense of isolation he felt when he was younger. He recalls a feeling of “separateness” from the rest of humanity. The figure of a muscular nude man stands with his head turned to one side, staring at the ground. His hands are placed firmly on his hips, the torso rotated away from the viewer toward one side, creating the spinning rotation that Howard invariably uses with his figures. It’s an aesthetic approach he borrowed from Michelangelo and Bernini. Michelangelo’s David (1503) and Bernini’s David (1623) both employ the same twisting contrapposto of the torso, Bernini’s more violently. Bernini often referred to the architectural quality of Michelangelo’s figures. Howard sees himself as this kind of architect: “When I draw and teach anatomy, I’m actually building and constructing something. These two words—-constructing and building—are what I use constantly as a teacher.”

Armor (2003), a small, beautiful bronze of a crouching figure extending an arm downward as if reaching into a pool, rotates on its spinal axis. The extended arm reaches out toward the right of the pedestal, the upper torso facing toward the viewer, while the lower torso rotates left. The head is turned right, counterbalanced by the left leg, which has been rotated almost ninety degrees toward the rear left. It’s as abstract in aesthetic terms as one of Noguchi’s carved basalt stones. He describes the tension between stasis and movement that gives the idea of pent-up energy: “Energy is built into something that is like the solid frame of a house; at the same time, you have these organic spinning forms that create a sense of energy.” This is what makes the sculpture look alive, he explains. Armor engages our emotions as well as our sensory appreciation. The viewer’s attention is riveted upon the somber features of the figure, seemingly in the act of deciphering whatever it is reaching for.

The sculptor works with NSP Plastine Modeling Clay, which he makes malleable by heating in a microwave oven. The completed clay Hermes was sent to to the foundry, where the arms and legs were cut off and molds made. Then separate casts were made of each part, using the lost wax process. The individual parts were then reattached, and the wax sections cut up in a similar manner. Each wax section was then cast in bronze. After the bronze was removed from the molds, the parts were reassembled, and the entire figure subjected to a laborious process of applying a patina, using a sulfate that creates a black tarnish on the bronze. Howard then applied a red iron oxide that gives the sculpture a grayish-reddish patina, an organic finish that makes it look as if it had been buried in the earth for a long time. He describes this texture as “industrial” or weathered.

Sabin Howard, Persistence, bronze, 1997 Courtesy of the artistWhen I monitored one of his classes, I was impressed with Howard’s method of working with students. Using a wire armature, they each create a clay figure based on detailed anatomical drawings which show the connections between the pose, skeleton and muscle groups. It is a remarkably rational process, in contrast to the free-hand expressiveness favored in art schools since World War II. Howard believes art students need to be re-educated, “to see nature translated into form, and as they continue to develop as artists, to be able to bring their individual psychology into the work.” Even in his anatomically driven classes he talks with students about human psychology: “It’s not just about how you do the art, it’s how do you apply it to the human condition. . . .Artists need to be integrated back into society.”

Howard believes that man’s physical measurements reflect the order found in nature. If we use calliphers and measure parts of the human anatomy in terms of millimeters and centimeters, he suggests, they would come out to be the same specific proportions that are found in nature. These proportions are referred to as the Golden Ratio or Divine Proportion, which Eucliddefined around 300 A.D. On the wall of Howard’s studio is a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (c. 1495–98), located in the Refectory of Saint Maria delle Grazie in Milan, where Howard grew up. He thinks no artist understood better than Leonardo the mathematical relationship of the human form to nature. Leonardo was the first artist to show that the human body is composed of building blocks whose proportional ratios always equal the formula PHI or Divine Proportion. His Vitruvian Man was studied by art students for centuries but was later abandoned. The Erlebachers restored the study of Divine Proportion shortly before Howard joined their classes at the Philadelphia College of Art, and he believes these proportions are “ingrained in our thought process, in our brains when we are born…. As an artist you become aware of this inheritance, and you are able to apply that to your form and your art.”

Howard explains that he uses a spiral system because energy travels in spirals in nature, through the human body. What makes a sculpture “work” is that it has all these systems of spirals interlaced from every view. Howard traces his hand over the flow of interconnected muscles prominently displayed in Hermes, pointing out specific spirals or curves that evolve as you move around the figure 360 degrees, tracing the energy of movement he takes from the model: “I did not learn this system in this country. I learned it by looking at art inItaly. Raphael had all these systems of curves, which are so beautifully interlaced.”

Like Michelangelo, Howard takes artistic license with the proportions of the limbs and torso, even the head. He will elongate an arm or a leg in order to balance compositional mass. Few contemporary artists have a better understanding of human anatomy. He works slowly and meticulously. Even a small sculpture can take a year or more. The commission for the Hermes required it to be completed within two years. Howard worked ten hours a day, sometimes six days a week. He credits his wife, writer Traci Slatton, for giving him the language and ideas to understand the deeper implications of his art: “She gave me a vocabulary to be able to talk about issues of closed energy systems, which is basically a modernist system, and an open energy system.”

The model for Hermes is a muscular, fierce-looking young man named Andrew Hampas, who seems to understand Howard’s philosophy and goals almost as well as the sculptor himself. He has been posing for the sculptor for the last several years, several hours a day. Models are important for Howard, who tries to use models who have intelligence and an affinity for his work. Body types, he explains, express archetypal character—warrior, intellectual, spiritual. Poses, body types, gestures, faces, all embody psychology. He adds: “Physiognomy reveals character. Body types are extremely distinctive, a direct result of the person’s mind. There is no separation between mind and body.” This is an old idea, but Howard has a modern sensibility: “I’m not trying to recreate the past, I’m trying to take the past and apply it to the present.”

Howard thinks art should be understood by the average subway commuter as well as the Yale professor, who sees the rich historical context. The Last Supper by Leonardo or The Last Judgment by Michelangelo inspired illiterate workers to fall to their knees in worship and, at the same time, challenged philosophers on an intellectual level. Howard understands how to reconcile the demands of physicality and idealism: “I sculpt man not as he is, but as he aspires to be. My work is heroic.”  Sabin Howard is represented by the Frey Norris Gallery in San Francisco, Arcadia Fine Arts in New York Cityand Millenia Gallery in Orlandoand Las Vegas. To view the artist’s work, visit www.sabinhoward.com

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume 22, Number 2