Peter Agostini at the Comfort Gallery, Haverford College
At the time of Agostini’s first one-man show in 1959, Thomas B. Hess described him as “an artist with many arrows to his bow who is working in a period that likes the monolithic shaft.” That richness and variety to which Hess alluded are still apparent in this first major retrospective, which included over 40 sculptures and 75 drawings from the period 1939-74. And still, after 15 years of public scrutiny, the problem of critical reception of Agostini’s work remains.
What do you do with an artist whose range is wider than the historical niches we have reserved for him? To call Agostini a Pop artist would be like calling Manet an Impressionist; to define him by the company he kept – the Abstract Expressionists – would be to set arbitrary limits of another kind on his sensibility. Agostini has always been his own man, an artist whose concern for pure esthetic values has never impeded his search for new sculptural forms or new techniques to achieve them.
Few artists can live solely by their art, and Agostini kept himself alive during his lean years as a mold-maker for other sculptors and as a mannequin-maker. Just as David Smith’s experience as a working welder influence the direction of his art, so too did Agostini’s expertise with quick-setting plaster bring him to the exploration of its formal potentials. He hit upon a way of casting directly from objects which bypassed the needed for modeling and emphasized the free, flowing properties of both the medium and the forms he chose. One of his strongest works is Saracen II 1215 A.D., 1960. To make it, Agostini undid an old foam mattress and twisted its insides until he obtained the desired shape, cast it in plaster, knocked off those humanoid polyps superfluous to his idea, then cast it in bronze. The result bristles with combative energy and aggressive plasticity.
This retrospective confirmed Agostini as a first-rate talent and no “also-ran” in the field of modern sculpture. It was unfortunate that some of his larger pieces like Winter Wall, 1962, Carousel, 1964 and Caged Swell, 1967 weren’t included because of space limitations. A positive aspect of the show was the number of drawings, watercolors and monoprints; these have rarely been exhibited. Agostini has said that he draws “to keep the eye alive.” Representing more than notational sketches, his drawings parallel the thematic and technical concerns of his sculpture. The feeling for plastic poetry found in the large bronze Summer Breeze, 1963, is evoked by the Haiku watercolors, 1967, whose forms resemble tiny bird tracks in delicate tints. The nonfigurative encaustic drawings of 1962 and the “Rorschach” watercolors of 1956 explore the idea of accidental flow and quick, unmeditated action that is explicit in the plaster Butterfly, 1959, and Squeeze, 1967. Agostini’s horses and human figures reveal his love of the body in all its fleshy idiosyncrasies. In both the watercolor Seated Woman, 1957, and the bronze Woman with Bird, 1971, he probes and pushes at drooping breasts and spreading thighs. The bravura of rippling muscles in his bronze horses of 1952 and ’71 is strong and obvious.
This artist has never thrown his esthetic baggage overboard in the alleged interest of an unencumbered sensibility. To be linked to the past might seem to some moderns to be damned by association, yet Agostini’s work compels comparison with historical definitions of the nature of sculptural form. Animating his surfaces is the same current that enlivened Bernini’s cloth or Phidian drapery. But there is nothing stale about his gestures – his work reflects a fresh, witty and extremely human presence. This retrospective should serve notice to the art establishment that a sculptor can be major although he doesn’t fit into its self-fulfilling prophesy of mainstream avant-garde style.