When Seattle sculptor Everett Du Pen died in 2005 after a career that spanned almost eight decades, he left behind a huge body of work, much of which remained in his own collection. Now the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner has mounted a retrospective of his career, and KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, finds it a somewhat jumbled presentation of an under-appreciated local artist.
When the Seattle City Council was searching for a site for a new skateboard park at Seattle Center, their first idea was to replace a very period fountain from the 1962 World’s Fair near the center of the campus called the Fountain of Creation. The hue and cry that arose from the art community and other concerned citizens quickly led to a change of heart on the part of the authorities, but it was also a reminder that the sculptor of that fountain, longtime UW professor Everett DuPen, had fallen off the radar of regional awareness.
The Art Deco pieces in the show, which go back as early as 1938, have aged very well indeed, but the same cannot be said about the artist’s later detour through abstraction. The exhibition includes a set of carved and cast works that are DuPen’s own versions of the bland, biomorphic abstraction that became so ubiquitous in the plazas, shopping centers, and office buildings of the post-war US, and based on the other work in the show, it represents more of a blind alley in terms of his career, than a decisive shift in style . Abstraction did not allow DuPen to do what he clearly does best, which is to carve, cast, and sculpt his various takes on the human form.
A representative strong piece is “Northwest Fisherman,” from 1954. Although DuPen gradually moved away from the extreme stylization and anatomical exaggeration of his earlier work, this virtuostic cherry wood carving borrows both from Manship and the American Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton to celebrate physical labor as a sort of ballet. Mounted on the wall and about the size of the a flat-screen TV, Fisherman features two nude musclemen – father and son – stretching an elastic, blanket-like net to enmesh three lively, jumping fish, their faces intent, unsmiling, almost mournful. The piece seems to conflate the act of fishing with the act of love, catching up all five creatures in a complicated internal dance of affection, entrapment, and dependence.
The act of love is celebrated more explicitly in two small, side-by-side sculptures of merging, embracing couples, which acknowledge their debts to earlier 20th-Century treatments of the theme by Brancusi and Klimt. Love is also referenced much more coyly in the early Deco bronze Reflection, where a greenish nude goddess carefully encircles the base of voluptuous flower with her hands, while the extremely phallic central portion thrusts skyward.
The central drama of DuPen’s career is only hinted at in the exhibition, something which makes it less than helpful as a summary of his life. Trained in the classical tradition at mid-century, an expert in the realistic depiction of the figure, DuPen came to Seattle in 1945 to begin a nearly 40 year teaching career at the University of Washington at the very time when abstraction was beginning to dominate the art world, both locally and nationally. It’s easy to understand why he felt compelled to turn some of his attention to abstraction, but a comparison of his figure and abstract work from the same period is very telling.
The small, non-descript bronze Egg, for example, a spider’s web of spindly bronze tendrils on a small pedestal, is dated 1971, the same year that DuPen created the life-sized male nude Upheaval, a reclining figure with an upthrust arm that has been conceived of as a single, pointed triangle, an attempt to express conflict and defiance in a single, compact pose. Perfect for a biblical narrative or Renaissance fountain, this powerful figure was not the sort of thing to get displayed or commissioned in the early 70s; it is, according to DuPen’s dealer John Sisko, a response to the political rather than artistic upheavals of its time. Likewise the tiny, struggling Falling Man #2 of 1974 – which strikes us now as a foreshadowing of 9/11 – was crafted at the same time as the eminently forgettable curling bronze ribbon Forms in Linear Movement.
A look at DuPen’s resume shows that churches were his most reliable source of figurative commissions, holdouts against the non-objective tide, but the very Seattle Center fountain that was briefly slated for demolition happens to be one of his most successful works, as it both well sited, user-friendly, and completely of a piece with its surroundings. The exhibition could have used more and better photographs of this familiar piece, which does appear prominently in a video on view elsewhere in the gallery. Close-up photographs of the central sculpture in the fountain would have also revealed that almost hidden within the overall abstraction is a tower of highly literal animal and human forms, barely visible from a distance. Here DuPen attempted to merge the two traditions – realist and abstract - in a single work, and it is a shame that the show includes no explicit reference to this struggle, nor other similar examples, if in fact any exist.
Everett DuPen was an enormous talent (his legacy as a teacher, quite prominently highlighted in the show, was also very significant), who did some of his very best work at the outset of his long career, when his training and what the marketplace wanted were in nearly perfect synch. It is instructive and somewhat distressing to see the ups and downs of the long period that followed, when the art world moved to a very different place and he both did and did not attempt to keep up.