Breathing Life into Welded Steel in the Abstract Sculpture of the Late Julio Gonzalez, the Human Dimension Is Never Absent

Article excerpt

IN 1928, when Pablo Picasso needed technical assistance making sculpture out of scrap iron, he turned to his friend Julio Gonzalez, a Parisian craftsman, metal-worker, jeweler, and painter originally from Barcelona (where Picasso had also spent part of his youth).

Gonzalez was 52 at the time, and his collaboration with Picasso led him to make a liberating decision: that his real calling was to be a sculptor.

From then until his death in 1942, he produced a remarkable, inventive body of work - figures that seem to leap and twist from their base, changing from sinuous curve to angled plane, from boldness of scale to concern with minuscule detail, from linear "drawing in space" to sudden emphasis on weight or mass.

Gonzalez was accepted by the avant-garde of the 1930s - without ever subscribing to either the purely abstract, non-objective school of thought or to the Surrealist persuasion, though containing a personal response to both. He was exhibited, written about, and discussed.

And his work has also earned him a place in recent art history - as a forefather of "direct metal sculpture," a form that has flourished in the post-war years in the hands of such artists as David Smith and Anthony Caro.

Sculptor Smith has paid tribute to Gonzalez by calling him the "first master of the torch," referring to Gonzalez' pioneering use of the acetylene torch in the making of sculpture. Smith also has noted that for Gonzalez "craft and smithery became submerged in the concept of sculpture. The aesthetic end was not dependent upon its mode of travel."

Gonzalez' work is still capable of engaging the attention and enthusiasm of the public and even of today's younger sculptors, as demonstrated in "Julio Gonzalez: Sculpture and Drawings," an exhibition at Glasgow's Art Gallery and Museum.

The exhibition catalog includes an interview with English sculptor John Gibbons. Talking about "Gothic Man," a vertical iron piece made by Gonzalez in 1937, Gibbons finds it has architectural references, a suggestion of African sculpture about it, but to see it as a figure, he feels, "is pushing it." Gibbons believes Gonzalez understood that the discovery of modern sculpture meant that all kinds of surprising, immediate, sensitive experiences could be achieved "without making a figure or a head." What Gibbons sees in "Gothic Man" and Gonzalez' dancing figures is "articulation," "an essence of aliveness." Gibbons goes on to explain, "It's like a state you get into when you're really happy, you're elated. It's as if you can do anything, be anything at that moment."

Artists, of course, select what best suits them from the work of other artists they admire; they are partial. Picasso said he went shopping. The great surge of creativity, of inspired adventure, in the last part of Gonzalez' career, has proved a good place for other artists to shop. …