A Dada pioneer and one of the most influential Surrealist painters, Max Ernst was not well recognized as a sculptor until late in his career, in the 1960s. Ernst (1891-1976) contributed to 20th-century painting a formidable array of technical innovations in collage, frottage, decalcomania and other procedures. These accomplishments often overshadowed his progressive approach to sculpture, which included casting ordinary household objects in bronze. Major Ernst surveys, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2005 retrospective, contained only a spare selection of his sculptures. For that reason, this gallery show, “Max Ernst: Paramyths, Sculpture 1934-1967,” the first U.S. exhibition since 1993 devoted solely to his three-dimensional works, was illuminating and revelatory.
Ernst made it clear that sculpture was always important to him—as the press release reiterates, he considered it “the most simple, most primeval art”—but he worked on it in only periodic bursts. This installation of 14 sculptures in bronze and stone focused mainly on two groups of works: one from the early 1940s, when the German artist, a wartime refugee, lived in New York and had a studio on Long Island, and another from late in his career, after he had relocated to France in the mid-1950s. As in his painting, Ernst established in his 3-D works a kind of idiosyncratic mythology. He cast objects like flowerpots and seashells to suggest parts of bodies, plants and animals, which often corre- spond to imagery in his contemporaneous paintings.
The sculptures are full of wit. The bronze Âmes-soeurs (Soul Mates, 1961), for example, at about three feet tall, consists of two bamboolike stalks that are each topped with an irregular disk suggesting a flattened mushroom head. The piece might be convincing as a strange plant form were it not for the facial features— raised eyes, concave mouth—that appear on the disks.
Loplop, a recurring birdlike character in Ernst’s paintings, seems present in a number of sculptures, such as La belle allemande (The German Beauty, 1934-35), one of the earliest works in the exhibition. A round shield form mounted on two thin bars resembles a face on one side, with abstracted features and a beakish nose. On the opposite side are protruding tail feathers bearing the imprint of scallop shells.
Ernst received his first serious notice as a sculptor for his now-famous chess set, which was included in the show. Dealer Julian Levy invited Ernst along with other artists to design chess sets for a 1944 exhibition at his New York gallery. Ernst’s Chess Figures, whose abstract wooden shapes were modeled on bits of found objects like spoons and coat hooks, caused a stir.
The largest work on view, La plus belle (The Most Beautiful, 1967), is an approximately 6-foot-tall columnar figure in limestone, whose cream tones strikingly played off the dark bronze patinas of the other pieces. Armless, the figure has a disk-shaped head, a narrowing waist and a richly textured base that flares out slightly. In its strident verticality, the sculpture recalls an elongated figure by Ernst’s friend Giacometti, and might be seen as an ode to the artist, who had died the previous year. With a quiet grace and dignity, this ghostly beauty commanded the elegant installation.