A show about fragmentary human forms in modern and post-modern sculpture might sound intriguing, since so many artists have devised their own visual vocabularies for the human figure, replacing the whole by the part to heighten or emphasize certain emotional, kinesthetic or formal qualities.
Indeed, the roster of American and European artists in "The Essential Gesture" at Newport Harbor Art Museum (through Dec. 31) is hard to fault in terms of quality. But the show itself is disappointing.
Instead of finding fresh ways to explore artists' attitudes toward the body, chief curator Bruce Guenther has opted for a rote art history lesson. The exhibition lacks a sense of the relationships among pieces from different artists and from different eras--and gives little sense of why the incomplete figure has been such a satisfactory solution for so many.
The show begins with Auguste Rodin's "Walking Man," the larger-than-life bronze torso and striding legs dating from the late 19th Century. The artist's stature and the sheer power of the piece helped legitimize the use of incomplete figures in modern sculpture.
The continuing fascination of "Walking Man" stems from its concentrated evocation of forward movement, a decisive shifting of weight from leg to leg. Given this overriding theme, arms and a head would be superfluous.
The Rodin could have been juxtaposed with, say, Joel Shapiro's 1987 "Untitled (JS 768)," shown elsewhere in the exhibition. The small bronze is composed of four smooth rectangular bars representing a head, torso and legs. By virtue of deft angling, the figure stands on one leg. Lacking arms, the piece exquisitely emphasizes the tenuousness of balance.
Here, the Rodin is juxtaposed with two Giacometti sculptures of attenuated women, Gaston Lachaise's daintily gesticulating female torso with the swelling breast-buttocks of a fertility amulet, and Picasso's flattened, tactile image of a single arm.
To be sure, these artists--as well as Constantin Brancusi, Hans Belmer, Jean Arp and others--made a decisive break with normative ideas of what a figure sculpture could be. But this is not news.
Why not show the ultra-vulnerable Giacometti women next to Kiki Smith's extraordinary and shockingly fragile paper sculpture of a dead body? Drained of its organs and vital juices, it dangles above its cast-off head and arms, heaped on the floor like pathetically useless armor. Why not discuss the different ways male and female artists have condensed and exaggerated the female form?
As it is, the essay and wall texts offer only basic information about the individual works, art movements and traditional sculptural materials--information more appropriate to an art history survey.
Rather than represent 22 artists with 33 pieces, the show might have gained in breadth by winnowing out a few of the multiple works by a single sculptor and including more artists working in nontraditional media. Additionally, several works--such as Willem de Kooning's "Seated Woman on a Bench," Oliver Lee Jackson's "Untitled," and Antony Gormley's "Word Made Flesh"--seem rather too "whole" to fit comfortably within the show's theme.
Despite the stature of the artists and the quality of the art--reason enough to visit--"The Essential Gesture" is a discouragingly hollow curatorial gesture.
\o7 * Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach, through Dec. 31, closed Monday. (714) 759-1122. \f7