The Lives They Lived: Frederick Hart, b. 1943;
The Artist the Art World Couldn't See
By Tom Wolfe
Reprinted from The New York Times Magazine, January 2, 2000
Frederick Hart died at the age of 55 on Aug. 13,
two days after a team of doctors discovered he had lung cancer, abruptly
concluding one of the most bizarre stories in the history of
20th-century art. While still in his 20's, Hart consciously, pointedly,
aimed for the ultimate in the Western tradition of sculpture, achieved
it in a single stroke, then became invisible, and remained invisible, as
invisible as Ralph Ellison's invisible man, who was invisible ''simply
because people refuse to see me.''
Not even Giotto, the 12-year-old shepherd boy who was out in the meadow
with the flock one day circa 1270 using a piece of flint to draw a
picture of sheep on the face of a boulder when the vacationing
Florentine artist Cimabue happened to stroll by and discover the baby
genius -- not even Giotto could match Frederick Hart's storybook rise
Hart was born in Atlanta to a failed actress and a couldn't-be-bothered
newspaper reporter. He was only 3 when his mother died, whereupon he was
packed off to an aunt in a part of rural South Carolina where people
ate peanuts boiled in salty water. He developed into an incorrigible
Conway, S.C., juvenile delinquent, failed the ninth grade on his first
try and got thrown out of school on his second. Yet at the age of 16, by
then a high-school dropout, he managed, to universal or at least
Conway-wide amazement, to gain admission to the University of South
Carolina by scoring a composite 35 out of a maximum 36 on an A.C.T.
college entrance test, the equivalent of a 1560 on the College Boards.
He lasted six months. He became the lone white student to join 250 black
students in a civil rights protest, was arrested, then expelled from
the university. Informed that the Ku Klux Klan was looking for him, he
fled to Washington.
In Washington he managed to get a job as a clerk at the Washington
National Cathedral, a stupendous stone structure built in the Middle
English Gothic style. The cathedral employed a crew of Italian masons
full time, and Hart became intrigued with their skill at stone carving.
Several times he asked the master carver, an Italian named Roger Morigi,
to take him on as an apprentice but got nowhere. There was no one on
the job but experienced Italians. By and by, Hart got to know the crew
and took to borrowing tools and having a go at discarded pieces of
stone. Morigi was so surprised by his aptitude, he made him an
apprentice after all, and soon began urging him to become a sculptor.
Hart turned out to have Giotto's seemingly God-given genius -- Giotto
was a sculptor as well as a painter -- for pulling perfectly formed
human figures out of stone and clay at will and rapidly.
In 1971, Hart learned that the cathedral was holding an international
competition to find a sculptor to adorn the building's west facade with a
vast and elaborate spread of deep bas reliefs and statuary on the theme
of the Creation. Morigi urged Hart to enter. He entered and won. A
working-class boy nobody had ever heard of, an apprentice stone carver,
had won what would turn out to be the biggest and most prestigious
commission for religious sculpture in America in the 20th century.
The project brought him unimaginable dividends. The erstwhile juvenile
delinquent from Conway, S.C., was a creature of hot passions, a
handsome, slender boy with long, wavy light brown hair, an artist by
night with a rebellious hairdo and a rebellious attitude who was a big
hit with the girls. In the late afternoons he had taken to hanging about
Dupont Circle in Washington, which had become something of a bohemian
quarter. Afternoon after afternoon he saw the same ravishing young woman
walking home from work down Connecticut Avenue. His hot Hart flame lit,
he introduced himself and asked her if she would pose for his rendition
of the Creation, an array of idealized young men and women rising nude
from out of the chaotic swirl of Creation's dawn. She posed. They
married. Great artists and the models they fell in love with already
accounted for the most romantic part of art history. But probably no
model in all that lengthy, not to say lubricious, lore was ever so
stunningly beautiful as Lindy Lain Hart. Her face and figure were to
recur in his work throughout his career.
The hot-blooded boy's passion, as Hart developed his vision of the
Creation, could not be consummated by Woman alone. He fell in love with
God. For Hart, the process began with his at first purely pragmatic
research into the biblical story of the Creation in the Book of Genesis.
He had been baptized in the Presbyterian Church, and he was working for
the Episcopal Church at the Washington National Cathedral. But by the
1970's, neither of these proper, old-line, in-town Protestant faiths
offered the strong wine a boy who was in love with God was looking for.
He became a Roman Catholic and began to regard his talent as a charisma,
a gift from God. He dedicated his work to the idealization of
possibilities God offered man.
From his conception of ''Ex Nihilo,'' as he called the centerpiece of
his huge Creation design (literally, ''out of nothing''; figuratively,
out of the chaos that preceded Creation), to the first small-scale clay
model, through to the final carving of the stone -- all this took 11
In 1982, ''Ex Nihilo'' was unveiled in a dedication ceremony. The next
day, Hart scanned the newspapers for reviews . . . The Washington Post .
. . The New York Times . . . nothing . . . nothing the next day, either
. . . nor the next week . . . nor the week after that. The one mention
of any sort was an obiter dictum in The Post's Style (read: Women's)
section indicating that the west facade of the cathedral now had some
new but earnestly traditional (read: old-fashioned) decoration. So Hart
started monitoring the art magazines. Months went by . . . nothing. It
reached the point that he began yearning for a single paragraph by an
art critic who would say how much he loathed ''Ex Nihilo'' . . .
anything, anything at all! . . . to prove there was someone out there in
the art world who in some way, however slightly or rudely, cared.
The truth was, no one did, not in the least. ''Ex Nihilo'' never got ex nihilo simply because art worldlings refused to see it.
Hart had become so absorbed in his ''triumph'' that he had next to no
comprehension of the American art world as it existed in the 1980's. In
fact, the art world was strictly the New York art world, and it was
scarcely a world, if world was meant to connote a great many people. In
the one sociological study of the subject, ''The Painted Word,'' the
author estimated that the entire art ''world'' consisted of some 3,000
curators, dealers, collectors, scholars, critics and artists in New
York. Art critics, even in the most remote outbacks of the heartland,
were perfectly content to be obedient couriers of the word as received
from New York. And the word was that school-of-Renaissance sculpture
like Hart's was nonart. Art worldlings just couldn't see it.
The art magazines opened Hart's eyes until they were bleary with
bafflement. Classical statues were ''pictures in the air.'' They used a
devious means -- skill -- to fool the eye into believing that bronze or
stone had turned into human flesh. Therefore, they were artificial,
false, meretricious. By 1982, no ambitious artist was going to display
skill, even if he had it. The great sculptors of the time did things
like have unionized elves put arrangements of rocks and bricks flat on
the ground, objects they, the artists, hadn't laid a finger on (Carl
Andre), or prop up slabs of Cor-Ten steel straight from the foundry,
edgewise (Richard Serra); or they took G.E. fluorescent light tubes
straight out of the box from the hardware store and arranged them this
way and that (Dan Flavin); or they welded I-beams and scraps of metal
together (Anthony Caro). This expressed the material's true nature, its
''gravity'' (no stone pictures floating in the air), its ''objectness.''
This was greatness in sculpture. As Tom Stoppard put it in his play
''Artist Descending a Staircase,'' ''Imagination without skill gives us
Hart lurched from bafflement to shock, then to outrage. He would force the art world to see what great sculpture looked like.
By 1982, he was already involved in another competition for a huge piece
of public sculpture in Washington. A group of Vietnam veterans had just
obtained Congressional approval for a memorial that would pay
long-delayed tribute to those who had fought in Vietnam with honor and
courage in a lost and highly unpopular cause. They had chosen a jury of
architects and art worldlings to make a blind selection in an open
competition; that is, anyone could enter, and no one could put his name
on his entry. Every proposal had to include something -- a wall, a
plinth, a column -- on which a hired engraver could inscribe the names
of all 57,000-plus members of the American military who had died in
Vietnam. Nine of the top 10 choices were abstract designs that could be
executed without resorting to that devious and accursed bit of trickery:
skill. Only the No. 3 choice was representational. Up on one end of a
semicircular wall bearing the 57,000 names was an infantryman on his
knees beside a fallen comrade, looking about for help. At the other end,
a third infantryman had begun to run along the top of the wall toward
them. The sculptor was Frederick Hart.
The winning entry was by a young Yale undergraduate architectural
student named Maya Lin. Her proposal was a V-shaped wall, period, a wall
of polished black granite inscribed only with the names; no mention of
honor, courage or gratitude; not even a flag. Absolutely skillproof, it
Many veterans were furious. They regarded her wall as a gigantic
pitiless tombstone that said, ''Your so-called service was an absolutely
pointless disaster.'' They made so much noise that a compromise was
struck. An American flag and statue would be added to the site. Hart was
chosen to do the statue. He came up with a group of three soldiers,
realistic down to the aglets of their boot strings, who appear to have
just emerged from the jungle into a clearing, where they are startled to
see Lin's V-shaped black wall bearing the names of their dead comrades.
Naturally enough, Lin was miffed at the intrusion, and so a make-peace
get-together was arranged in Plainview, N.Y., where the foundry had just
completed casting the soldiers. Doing her best to play the part, Lin
asked Hart -- as Hart recounted it -- if the young men used as models
for the three soldiers had complained of any pain when the plaster casts
were removed from their faces and arms. Hart couldn't imagine what she
was talking about. Then it dawned on him. She assumed that he had
followed the lead of the ingenious art worldling George Segal, who had
contrived a way of sculpturing the human figure without any skill
whatsoever: by covering the model's body in wet plaster and removing it
when it began to harden. No artist of her generation (she was 21) could
even conceive of a sculptor starting out solely with a picture in his
head, a stylus, a brick of moist clay and some armature wire. No artist
of her generation dared even speculate about . . . skill.
President Ronald Reagan presided at a dedication ceremony unveiling
Hart's ''Three Soldiers'' on Veterans Day 1984. The next day, Hart
looked for the art reviews . . . in The Washington Post . . . The New
York Times . . . and, as time went by, the magazines. And once more,
nothing . . . not even the inside-out tribute known as savaging. ''Three
Soldiers'' received only so-called civic reviews, the sort of news or
feature items or picture captions that say, in effect, ''This thing is
big, and it's outdoors, and you may see it on the way to work, and so we
should probably tell you what it is.'' Civic reviews of outdoor
representational sculpture often don't even mention the name of the
sculptor. Why mention the artist -- since it's nonart by definition?
Hart was by no means alone. In 1980, a sculptor named Eric Parks
completed a statue of Elvis Presley for downtown Memphis. It was
unveiled before a crowd of thousands of sobbing women; it became, and
remains, a tremendous tourist attraction; civic reviews only. And who
remembers the name Eric Parks? In 1985, a sculptor named Raymond J.
Kaskey completed the second-biggest copper sculpture in America -- the
Statue of Liberty is the biggest -- an immense Classical figure of a
goddess in a toga with her right hand outstretched toward the
multitudes. ''Portlandia'' she was called. Tens of thousands of citizens
of Portland, Ore., turned out on a Sunday to see her arrive by barge on
the Williamette River and get towed downtown. Parents lifted their
children so they could touch her fingertips as she was hoisted up to her
place atop the porte-cochere of the new Portland Public Services
Building; civic reviews only. In 1992, Audrey Flack completed
''Civitas,'' four Classical goddesses, one for each corner of a highway
intersection just outside a moribund mill town, Rock Hill, S.C. Has been
a major tourist attraction ever since; cars come from all directions to
see the goddesses lit up at night; nearby fallow cotton field claiming
to be an ''industrial park'' suddenly a sellout; Rock Hill comes alive;
civic reviews only.
Over the last 15 years of his life, Hart did something that, in
art-world terms, was even more infra dig than ''Ex Nihilo'' and ''Three
Soldiers'': he became America's most popular living sculptor. He
developed a technique for casting sculptures in acrylic resin. The
result resembled Lalique glass. Many of his smaller pieces were nudes,
using Lindy as a model, so lyrical and sensual that Hart's Classicism
began to take on the contours of Art Nouveau. The gross sales of his
acrylic castings have gone well over $100 million. None were ever
Art worldlings regarded popularity as skill's live-in slut. Popularity
meant shallowness. Rejection by the public meant depth. And truly
hostile rejection very likely meant greatness. Richard Serra's ''Tilted
Arc,'' a leaning wall of rusting steel smack in the middle of Federal
Plaza in New York, was so loathed by the building's employees that 1,300
of them, including many federal judges, signed a petition calling for
its removal. They were angry and determined, and eventually the wall was
removed. Serra thereby achieved an eminence of immaculate purity: his
work involved absolutely no skill and was despised by everyone outside
the art world who saw it. Today many art worldlings regard him as
America's greatest sculptor.
In 1987, Hart moved 75 miles northwest of Washington to a 135-acre
estate in the Virginia horse country and built a Greek Revival mansion
featuring double-decked porches with 12 columns each; bought horses for
himself, Lindy and their two sons, Lain and Alexander; stocked the place
with tweeds, twills, tack and bench-made boots; grew a beard like the
King of Diamonds'; and rode to the hounds -- all the while turning out
new work at a prolific rate.
In his last years he began to summon to his estate a cadre of
like-minded souls, a handful of artists, poets and philosophers, a
dedicated little derrire garde (to borrow a term from the composer
Stefania de Kenessey) to gird for the battle to take art back from the
Modernists. They called themselves the Centerists.
It wasn't going to be easy to get a new generation of artists to plunge
into the fray yodeling, ''Onward! To the center!'' Nevertheless, Hart
persevered. In the four months since his death certain . . . signs . . .
have begun, as a 60's song once put it, blowing in the wind . . . the
sudden serious consideration, by the art world itself, of Norman
Rockwell as a Classical artist dealing in American mythology . . . the
edgy buzz, to use two 90's words, over the recent sellout show at the
Hirschl & Adler Gallery of six young representational painters known
as ''the Paint Group,'' five of them graduates of America's only
Classical, derrire-garde art school, the New York Academy of Art . . .
the tendency of a generation of serious young collectors, flush with new
Wall Street money, to discard the tastes of their elders and to collect
''pleasant'' and often figurative art instead of the abstract,
distorted or ''wounded'' art of the Modern tradition . . . the soaring
interest of their elders in the work of the once-ridiculed French
''academic'' artists Bougereau, Meissonier and Gerome and the French
''fashion painter'' Tissot. The art historian Gregory Hedberg, Hirschl
& Adler's director for European art, says that with metronomic
regularity the dawn of each new century has seen a collapse of one
reigning taste and the establishment of another. In the early 1600's,
the Mannerist giants (for example, El Greco) came down off fashionable
walls, and the Baroque became all the rage; in the early 1700's, the
Baroque giants (Rembrandt) came down, and the Rococo went up; in the
early 1800's, the Rococo giants (Watteau) came down, and the
neo-Classicists went up; and in the early 20th century, the Modern
movement turned the neo-Classical academic giants Bougereau, Meissonier
and Gerome into joke figures in less than 25 years.
And at the dawn of the 21st? In the summer of 1985, the author of ''The
Painted Word'' gave a lecture at the Parrish Museum in Southampton,
N.Y., entitled ''Picasso: The Bougereau of the Year 2020.'' Should such
turn out to be the case, Frederick Hart will not have been the first
major artist to have died 10 minutes before history absolved him and
proved him right.
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