It may be said of the Spanish sculptor Julio González (1876-1942), whose work is currently the subject of a splendid exhibition at the Dickinson gallery, that he served one of the longest and most versatile apprenticeships in the history of modern art. It wasn’t until 1928 that he began to produce the open-form icon constructions that radically altered the course of 20th-century sculpture. He was 52 years old, and until then was virtually unknown outside the circle of his immediate family and friends in Paris, where he’d been living and unsuccessfully attempting to establish himself as a painter since 1899.
Like González himself, most of his Paris friends were from Barcelona, and to the most illustrious of them-Pablo Picasso-he owed his belated breakthrough to achievement and influence. They had known each other a long time, having met in 1896, when both were exhibiting their earliest works in a big contemporary show in Barcelona. At the age of 15, Picasso was exhibiting an ambitious figure composition, La Première Communion ; at 20, González showed a wrought-iron Bouquet de Fleurs . It is the belief of Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, that “memories of this [González] work helped trigger Picasso’s determined attempts in later years to exorcise the prettiness of flowers by representing them in sculptures, as well as paintings, as objects of menace.”
Be that as it may, Picasso certainly knew that from an early age González had been trained by his father in all sorts of decorative metalcraft, which had been the family business. During the First World War, González added to his skills by mastering oxyacetylene welding at the Renault factory, which was producing armaments for the French military. And as we learn from Marilyn McCully’s illuminating essay for the catalog of the current exhibition, González “also used his studio to supply his sisters, who had opened a dress shop on the Boulevard Raspail, with [metal] buttons, buckles and jewelry.”
Ms. McCully reminds us, too, that “In 1925-26 [González] had worked as a studio assistant for Brancusi (probably making armatures and as a polisher).” González had himself produced some traditional small-scale bronze sculptures of heads and figures in the years preceding the 1914 war; there are some excellent examples in the Dickinson show. Yet despite his prodigious technical prowess, González had still not fully committed himself to the art of sculpture.
All this changed radically when, in 1928, Picasso asked for his help in creating several metal sculptures that would need to be welded. González was eager to oblige, and as Picasso did not then have a space equipped for the task, their historic collaboration took place in González’s studio. By Ms. McCully’s estimate, “Over a period of about three years, they worked together on at least six sculptures, which were realized in welded metals.” What they created was essentially assemblage sculpture based on the methods of Cubist collage. Sheets of iron and other metals were cut and joined by welding to form highly abstracted heads and figures.
At no time, however, did either Picasso or González have any interest in creating abstract sculpture. Yet their inspired new method of sculptural construction inevitably served as the basis of much of the abstract, open-form welded sculpture that became an established sculptural genre in the second half of the 20th century. The American sculptor David Smith, for example, always made a point of acknowledging his debt to González, and Smith, in his turn, exerted a crucial influence on the early open-form metal sculpture of Anthony Caro, who, in his turn, altered the course of 20th-century British sculpture.
González, for his part, acknowledged his debt to Picasso by asking his permission to adopt for himself the assemblage methods that resulted from their collaboration. Picasso gladly agreed, and it is from this moment that González enters the history of modern sculpture as one of its master talents. The open-form sculpture he created in the remaining years of his life is truly original. Only in one important respect does it bear any resemblance to Picasso’s sculpture: in its attachment to the human figure. To the sometimes explicit, sometimes hermetic depiction of the figure, however, González brought powers of invention that could scarcely have been imagined from his earlier work. It was as if he had been reborn to a new vocation.
His gifts as a draftsman proved to be crucial. What he created on his own has come to be called drawing-in-space: open-form sculpture in which beautifully wrought, slender masses of metal form delicate traceries of subtly poetic human gestures. No matter how abstract González’s open-form sculpture may seem to the uninitiated eye, it always harbors an expression of intimate feeling. This is sometimes hinted at in the titles of the sculpture, as in the work in the current show called Le Rêve/Le Baiser ( The Dream/The Kiss ), circa 1934; in other sculptures, it is left to the observer to find the motif.
It is the great virtue of the current exhibition that it places some fine examples of González’s open-form metal sculpture in the company of sculptures and drawings from every period of his development. The selection of drawings includes a great many items that have not often (if ever) been seen here before, and there are many sculptures that will also be new even to those, like myself, who have admired González’s work for many years.
Julio González: A Retrospective Exhibition remains on view at Dickinson, 19 East 66th Street, through June 28, and is accompanied by an elegantly printed catalog in which almost every sculpture and drawing in the exhibition is illustrated.