Raoul Hague’s Monoliths: A Little Too Romantic

The American sculptor Raoul Hague, whose work is currently on exhibition at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., in Soho, was born Haig Heukelekian in Constantinople in 1905 and died in Woodstock, N.Y., in 1993. Although much admired in his lifetime-especially after 1956, when Dorothy Miller showed his work in the influential Twelve Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art-Hague never attained the status of an artist-celebrity. It was not only that the man himself shunned the limelight. It was also the case that the medium in which he worked, the carved-wood monolith, was no longer fashionable. Hague was thus in the difficult position of being seen to be too modern for the traditionalists and too conservative for the avant-gardists. In the annals of modernist innovation, he looked like a displaced talent.

He belonged, after all, to roughly the same generation as Henry Moore (born 1898), Alberto Giacometti (born 1901) and David Smith (born 1906), yet his sculpture seemed to belong to another period. Unlike these stellar talents, Hague remained untouched by the influence of Surrealism. Neither did his work lend itself to the kind of existentialist gloss that was chic in the 1950′s. And when, in the 1960′s, Pop Art and Minimalism won instant acclaim in the art world, Hague’s vocabulary of organic, unpainted, carved-wood forms was further marginalized. Which may be why, after an impressive exhibition at the Egan Gallery in 1965-the gallery that represented Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Joseph Cornell-Hague was not to have another solo exhibition in New York until 1979, when the late Xavier Fourcade relaunched his career.

While not exactly consigned to the wilderness in the interim-for Hague’s work continued to be included in museum surveys of contemporary sculpture in the 1960′s and 70′s-he remained something of an oddity, an artist of large ambition who didn’t quite connect with the currents of the time. Hague’s preferred material was a cut from the trunk of a walnut tree of a certain girth and height, and his signature style was that of a carved, smooth-surfaced monolith that might at times suggest a human torso and at times pure abstraction, but always remained faithful to the recognizable contours of his given material. By his own design, then, Hague’s sculpture is radically dependent upon the syntax of natural form. This places a distinct limit on the role of invention in his sculpture, which tends to enhance and idealize the forms appropriated from nature while leaving their structure fundamentally unaltered.

The basic impulse governing Hague’s art is an attempt to bring nature into conformity with the aesthetics of modernist sculpture, and if there is a criticism to be made of this ambition, it is that the result too often leaves one with the impression that it meets with too little resistance from the materials the artist adored. It might even be said that Hague sentimentalizes nature in his sculpture, that he confers upon nature the sentiment of veneration. This also accounts for the sculpture’s appeal, of course, for it induces the happy illusion that between the imperatives of nature and the imperatives of art there need be no division or ambiguity or conflict.

But to believe this is to indulge in yet another variation of the pathetic fallacy-the attribution of human emotions and characteristics to the objects and processes of nature. Hague’s sculpture makes a romance of this fallacy, and that too contributes to its appeal. So does the high level of craftsmanship and conviction he brings to the task. Yet the pathetic fallacy remains a fallacy all the same. Art may derive a great deal from nature, but nature itself is indifferent to art, and to all human endeavor. To believe otherwise, even for artistic purposes, is to transform nature into a cultural romance.

In the current exhibition at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., five sculptures by Hague dating from the years 1969-78 are shown in the company of 14 photographs of his work taken over a much longer period, 1956-92. Among the photographers represented are Robert Frank, Rudy Burckhardt and Lee Friedlander, and they provide an interesting counterpoint to the sculpture itself. Some of the photographs are of a more or less straightforward documentary character, while others-especially Robert Frank’s-are more artistically ambitious. While respectful of Hague’s own aesthetic vision, they impose upon the objects of his creation a vision of their own, and the resulting pictures often have the unintended effect of serving as a criticism of the sculpture they were created to celebrate.

This is particularly the case with Robert Frank’s untitled 1964 photograph, which the gallery calls Studio View (Number 11 in the show). In this picture of a wall in Hague’s Woodstock studio, a single sculpture is barely discernible as an image in a small oval mirror that is surrounded on the same wall by the more emphatically articulated shapes and textures of the sculptor’s tools and mementos. Hague’s sculpture was highly photogenic, as many other photographs in this exhibition remind us. Yet in this particular picture, Mr. Frank’s own vision-which might legitimately be described as anti-photogenic-resists all temptation to glamorize the sculptor’s work, preferring instead to give us a very moving account of the environment in which the work was created. By subordinating the art object to the romance of the life of art, I think this studio view sums up a good deal of the ambiguity that still characterizes critical opinion of Raoul Hague’s work-including my own.

The Raoul Hague exhibition remains on view at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., 560 Broadway, through Aug. 4.