Swiss artist Hans Josephsohn’s (1920-2012) debut solo-exhibition in New York came late in his life. It was an arresting show of five large-scale bronze figures at Peter Blum Gallery in 2006 by the then-85-year-old. Now a posthumous exhibition at Hauser and Wirth Gallery on the Upper East Side offers visitors an overview of Josephson’s long career, making a compelling case that this often overlooked artist was among the strongest sculptors of his day.
A Jew born in Königsberg, East Prussia, Josephsohn barely escaped the Nazi concentration camps. Entranced by the achievements of Michelangelo, he left home to study art in Florence in 1938. But his schooling was cut short by the fascist regime in Italy. When foreign Jews were expelled from Italy, Josephsohn fled to Switzerland before the Italo-Swiss border closed, settling in Zurich. There the young artist apprenticed with neoclassical sculptor Otto Müller before striking out on his own.
The earliest work in this exhibition, a standing female figure from 1951, holds her arms tightly at her sides, posed like an ancient Greek kore. Made in plaster and cast in brass, the simplified, column-like sculpture’s facial features are only roughly suggested. This somber sculpture expresses both the sorrow of loss and, with its exaggerated verticality, commemorates life.
After the war Josephsohn received word that his parents were last seen at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. In a monograph by Gerhard Mack published in 2005, Josephsohn looked back at this postwar period, saying “I was neither a socialist, who wanted to reconstruct Germany that was now in ruins and serve the socialist cause, nor a Zionist.” And continued: “Sculpture became my home, sculptors from all history became my actual relatives.”
Indeed, many of the works on display here seem to be re-imaginings of sculpture’s greatest hits. Recalling Paleolithic fertility sculpture, a buxom, larger-than-life female figure from 1969 modernizes The Venus of Willendorf into a secular nude weighed down by gravity. And “Untitled,” 1962-1964, a high relief, seems inspired by Romanesque friezes. Like those carved medieval figures, frequently depicted with oversized heads, Josephsohn’s artwork features two top-heavy people, head and feet breaking the confines of the thick frame in which they are set, engaging in what looks like everyday business.
Josephsohn’s “half-figures” from the last two decades of his life are bulging, Easter-Island-like heads, monumental busts animated by small facial features. The most recent sculpture in the exhibition, based on Etruscan sarcophagi, is a reclining figure from 2006 with hips, limbs and head transformed into a landscape of rolling forms. Made from plaster, swiped on with a spatula or chopped away with an axe, the works here have rough surfaces and patinas like lichen-covered stones.
Little-known outside of his adopted country of Switzerland, Hans Josephsohn’s poignant figures simultaneously connect to the art of the past and reflect on modern life -- no mean feat.
Josephsohn, on view through February 22, 2014, Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, New York, 212-794-4970, www.hauserwirth.com
More information about Xico Greenwald's work can be found at xicogreenwald.com