Last Thursday I was glad to see the Wall Street Journal‘s Eric Gibson call out (without naming him) the NY Times‘ Ken Johnson for his perplexing, dyspeptic review last month of the Metropolitan Museum’s rip-roaring roundup of The American West in Bronze (to Apr. 13). Johnson dismissed that show as “troubling, because it underplays a real-world history of appalling violence and evil, to which the sculptures appear oblivious.”
This is not the first time that a choice selection of lushly textured, lusciously patinated bronzes has triggered Johnson’s righteous indignation about society’s historic inequities. Who can forget his astonishing tirade against the Met’s 2009 “Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution”? He rejected those energetic, sensuous pieces, which captivated me for their fluidity, expressivity and intricate detailing, as “a conservative, backward-looking genre that affirms and celebrates imperial power and order.”
Unlike Johnson, I’m a “bronze junkie,” as Met curator Thayer Tolles recently described fellow aficionados of that medium. I’ve been hooked since at least 1974, when I visited the Modern Art Foundry in Astoria for my detailed article on bronze casting—”A Crucible in Queens”—that appeared in the NY Daily News‘ Sunday magazine. As you’ll hear Tolles say in the video below, a subtext of the Met’s exhibition is the development of foundries in the U.S. (including Roman Bronze Works, New York, and Gorham Co. Founders, Providence), as well as the intricacies of connoisseurship that make certain casts of the same subject more desirable than others.
Here’s the irresistible beast who opens the show—a casting tour de force and the first of several animated animals by an artist whom I was glad to get to know—Henry Merwin Shrady. (Apologies for the reflection in the glass case, near his mouth.):
For me what was missing from the Met’s display was not the social and political context that ruffled the Times’ critic, but the problematic prevalence of posthumous casts and forgeries that plague this field. The Denver Art Museum, which co-organized this show, didn’t help matters back in February 2011, when I visited, by displaying and selling in its own gift shop too-faithful, high-priced replicas of several bronzes by Alexander Phimister Proctor, described as “posthumous limited editions.”
According to the descriptive booklet, then in Denver’s giftshop, these posthumous, limited-edition “Proctors” were “created from molds made from Alexander Phimister Proctor’s original plasters.” Those plasters were “passed down through the family to Proctor’s grandson,” Phimister Procter (Sandy) Church, who “personally inspects and approves each bronze cast.” Even the signatures and dates inscribed in the sculptures’ bases are faithfully (and problematically) reproduced in the posthumous edition.
Here’s one such offering:
And here’s its label:
Now here’s the real deal, on loan to the Met show from Denver (whose Thomas Brent Smith co-curated the show), where a larger version of the exhibition will be seen from May 11 to Aug. 31 (after which it travels to the Nanjing Museum, China):
Thankfully, none of the posthumous knockoffs that I saw in Denver are being marketed at the Met. And when I called Denver’s giftshop about this today, I was informed that it’s no longer selling them.
For the current display, “we were able to select the best and most beautiful [original] casts,” curator Thayer noted at the Met’s press preview. The labels, where possible, document the foundries and precise cast numbers of the pieces on view. She particularly urged us to compare the two Remington “Broncho Busters” that are pictured at the top of this post.
The one in the foreground of the top image is of historic interest, having been presented to an appreciative Theodore Roosevelt in 1898 by his Rough Riders:
But this one, the rare (only eight produced) “wooly chaps” version (which was produced at a different foundry, using a different casting technique—lost-wax, rather than sand casting), is, to me, the more detailed and dynamic of the two versions of “Broncho Buster”:
In this “wooly chaps” model, the rider is more off-balance, with his crop pointing menacingly at viewers, who will share the feeling of danger when gazing at the off-kilter rider from horse’s right side:
Another sign that the rider is in jeopardy—the right stirrup is flying away from his foot:
And now a detour from the sublime to the silly: Another cast of Remington’s “Broncho Buster”—one of two recently acquired by the Denver Art Museum—will soon be dispatched on loan to the Seattle Art Museum as the loser’s stake in the SAM/DAM Super Bowl bet.
Back to more serious matters. Join me now at the press preview, where curator Thayer Tolles elucidates her show’s themes and reveals that (like the Museum of Modern Art’s Barry Bergdoll) she enhanced the display by traveling to what apparently has become a new curatorial hotspot—Bartlesville, OK: