Exodus III, 2018. Marble, 56 x 45 x 40 cm. Photo: Erio Forli

Things of the Spirit: A Conversation with Helaine Blumenfeld

Sculpture Magazine Robert Preece

Helaine Blumenfeld, an American sculptor who moved to the U.K. in the 1960s, has spent most of her decades-long career avoiding the media spotlight. More interested in pursuing a personal vision than in chasing success, she has focused on creating sculptures that explore her subconscious and the human spirit. Blumenfeld’s search for a means of expression that transcends language has led her to a fusion of abstraction and figuration realized primarily in marble and bronze—sometimes stark and reductive, sometimes turbulent and emotional, always beautiful and elusive. Her most recent works have turned from the inner to the outer world, distilling issues of common humanity. Her public sculptures, for which she is best known, have been installed at Canary Wharf in London, on the grounds of Westminster College in Cambridge, England, and at the Henry S. Reuss Federal Plaza in Milwaukee.

Robert Preece: In 2018, film director Rupert Edwards wrote an article titled “Helaine Blumenfeld: Britain’s most successful sculptor you’ve never heard of.” What did you think about that title?
Helaine Blumenfeld: I really loved it. It amused me and pointed to some very important aspects of my journey. When I was just starting out, living in Paris and studying with Ossip Zadkine, Beverly Pepper told me that I was too idealistic. “In the art world,” she said, “success is five percent talent and 95 percent public relations.” This shocked me and went against everything I believed. Conversely, the Argentinian sculptor Alicia Penalba warned me not to remain with the same gallery for more than two shows or they would try to take over my career, package my persona, and encourage me to create only sculpture they could sell.

Success, to me, has never been measured in sales or press notices. It has always been the struggle to put my dreams into form, to find my voice, to create beauty, and to move the viewer to see a world that lies beyond the materialism that surrounds us. Being “known” was never my goal. Going through museums, I have often found that the most profound art—works that have survived over time—was created by unknown artists.

For most of my career, I have followed Penalba’s advice, exhibiting in many different galleries all over the world, actively avoiding publicity, drawing support from a growing number of collectors who loved my sculpture, and gradually developing what has been described as “Genre Blumenfeld.” More recently though, I have felt that I wanted to leave a legacy. I want my sculpture to reach out to people. To achieve that, I’ve made a conscious effort to make myself more available for public events and more accessible to the press.

Ascent, 2007. Patinated bronze, 335 cm. high. Photo: Henryk Hetflaisz

RP: You received a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University in 1964. What effect did those studies have on the sculpture that you began making afterwards? And is that background still an influence on your work today?
HB: Trying to describe my dreams as a child, I continually found that language failed me. The words I used never seemed to express the magic of my dreams. The journey to discover a way to express myself eventually led me to philosophy. But the more “words” that I acquired, the less I seemed able to communicate my visions. I began to understand that the ineffable quality of dreams could only be expressed by an “extraordinary language.”

I discovered that language when I was in the National Museum of Naples looking at early Cycladic sculptures. It was to be found in three-dimensional forms, not in words. I spent the next years in Paris becoming a sculptor and began learning how to translate my dreams into form. Beginning with the first pieces, I felt a certainty. I knew that this was what I was meant to be doing. My grounding in philosophy continues to inform the concepts and themes that I explore in my work.

RP: What was your experience with Ossip Zadkine, who served as a mentor for you?
HB: Zadkine was fierce, concentrated, and totally focused on his commitment to sculpture. He expected the same of me. He was irritated when he noticed that my attention was divided, furious if I left early from the studio, and glad when I lost track of time. He believed in the importance of working with a wide variety of materials and insisted that I do the same. I learned to mold clay, carve wood and stone, and I even attempted welding. Above all, he taught me what it means to be an artist. Working in Paris with Zadkine, I began to understand that being a sculptor is a way of life—it requires an almost total commitment.

All of his work was drawn directly from his unique inner life, his emotions and experiences. His painful time during World War I was frequently expressed as beauty in his drawings and sculptures. He was fascinated with mythology and often returned to themes that moved him. The raw material for his sculpture came from who he was, what he felt, and his reactions to the world around him. He did not repeat himself—he evolved.

Zadkine was a great inspiration to me, and I feel I have followed his approach to sculpture. I see his influence in the importance that themes have played over the course of my career. Expressed differently over time, these themes have been a focus as well as a way of charting the changes in my work.

Souls, 1986. Patinated bronze, 5 parts, 58 cm. high. Photo: Henryk Hetflaisz

RP: Do all of your works draw on your subconscious? Do you have to be in a certain mental framework to make your work, and how does that affect your process? What roles do emotion and reason play?
HB: Every aspect of creativity involves risk. Creating a “work of art” is a continuous struggle between chaos and order. I begin every new sculpture without any preconceived idea of what I am going to do. I have no inner structure, no drawings. In creating the work, I am creating the very conditions of uncertainty. This “self-crisis” drives my initial process. There is the risk of not knowing where I will begin, not knowing where the work is going, not knowing if it will ultimately reflect my vision, and then not knowing if my vision will mirror only my subconscious or resonate with viewers.

Each time I start a new piece—I always begin working directly in clay—I tap into a part of myself with which I normally have little contact. The key for me is to almost lose consciousness, to enter a state where I have no sense of time. Initially I achieved this state by listening to music, but gradually, just entering my studio opens up another world. I can work through the night—for days even—if inspired. Eventually, a form will emerge that expresses what I am feeling. All of my work begins in this way. This is the most important aspect of my creative process—my hands are in direct contact with my subconscious. At this point, I go into the next stage, which is to translate the rough model resulting from a state touched by inspiration into a finished sculptural model. I must be able to stand back from the work, judge it, and understand how it can be improved. I have to switch from working emotionally through my subconscious to making a reasoned, intellect-driven appraisal. I am constantly aware of the need for both emotion and reason in my creative process.

The work I do in clay contains the energy, the vision, and the emotional landscape that will set the parameters for the completed work. I can create the initial model in a few days. Refining the plaster, casting it in bronze, or carving it in marble can take months, even years. Although my essential process does not vary, my experience will differ from one sculpture to another.

The original model for Souls (1986), for instance, appeared almost instantly. I had a vision in which the elements were so clear that, once I was in my studio, the forms came within a few hours. I found myself working in a new way. Instead of building up the sculpture gradually in clay, I worked with a wire, cutting and rapidly shaping paper-thin elements. I felt I had finally captured my vision of the soul: beautiful, fragile, and elusive. I was elated and decided to cast it immediately, without any changes, in bronze.

The model for Taking Risks (2019) was slower to emerge. After many weeks of intense concentration, the three-part clay model was ready to cast in plaster. I continued to work to refine the surfaces, to create thinner, jagged edges, and to elongate the pieces by adding plaster to the top and bottom. Yet, I still felt that the forms needed time to “grow,” so the very slow process of carving them in marble appealed to me. Statuario marble would allow light to enter into the elements. The translucency would heighten the apparent fragility and precarious balance of the composition. The inherent spirituality of the marble would resonate.

Metamorphosis, 2020. Patinated bronze, 362 cm. high. Photo: Henryk Hetflaisz

RP: Could you talk about a few works that you feel were important to the development of your practice?
HB: Three Figures/Two Sides of A Woman (1967), which I made when I was living in Paris, was a very important piece for me. It was the first of many works exploring the contradictions inherent in a woman’s identity. It shows a closely connected couple, the woman dependent on the man. A second, freestanding female figure—proud, independent, and turning on her own axis—completes the sculpture and represents the alter ego. When I finished, I was aware that it expressed a synergy between my inner emotional state and the sculptural form. Two Sides of a Woman (2016) indicates how far I have journeyed with this idea. The linear, figurative reference of Three Figures has become a multifaceted, suggestive, and complex marble sculpture. There are many configurations within it. Successive views blend and change. Some images are rounded and serene, others are asymmetrical and uncomfortable. One senses possibility and tension. The sculptural unit lifts off the ground. There is the illusion of movement.

Tension (1978), in Greek marble, was one of the earliest sculptures dealing with the theme of metamorphosis. It reflects the belief that we hold within ourselves many different and conflicting elements, which are barely contained in the one unit that is our “psyche.” They exist in a dynamic balance that could give way to chaos if the parts were to separate. Metamorphosis (2020), in patinated bronze, shows how this idea has developed. The many elements contained in the single unit are combined in a lyrical way that extends the form in every direction. The spaces between the forms suggest the possibility for change and movement. The potential for growth is implicit. Instead of imminent explosion, there is continuous evolution.

Seascape (1983), in Roman travertine, was the most successful early piece exploring the theme of options.” My skills in carving, which I had begun to develop in the early ’70s, were by then enabling me to realize complex ideas. Seascape has six freestanding elements, which allows for an infinite number of configurations. The possibility of extending our ways of thinking and the parameters of our relationships is essential to our growth. With Seascape, I was looking at how the individual elements fit together and also exist as separate units. Vulnerability and strength are perceived differently in each grouping. The individual forms are fragmented and precariously balanced. The surfaces are rough and the edges jagged. The overall sense of the composition, regardless of how the pieces are arranged, conveys turmoil and pain. Yet, people inevitably comment on the beauty of the work.

RP: Could you talk about “beauty” in relation to your work? 
HB: A recent film about my work was titled Hard Beauty, a reference to the hardness of the materials that I use, the emotional and physical difficulties involved in creating my work, and my insistence that although beauty begins with deeply felt emotion, often despair, it is transformed into the sublime through the process of creation.

Beauty has been devalued, stripped of its profundity and mystery. I was described in The Independent as “fearless” because I have not been afraid to create unapologetically beautiful work. In my more recent sculptures, I have moved from the expression of intensely personal themes to addressing the moral and physical upheaval that surrounds us. I feel that now, living in a turbulent and troubled world, it is more necessary than ever to create beauty that will be transformative. I reject Adorno’s 1949 dictum: “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I have never felt that there was a contradiction between beauty and pain. On the contrary, only by revealing a profound emotional reality that recognizes the chaos and disruption in our lives can we ever hope to transcend it. Beauty is not a denial of pain, but an acceptance of it. Beauty is what causes the viewer to struggle with reality. This idea is at the center of many of my recent sculptures.

Three Figures/Two Sides of A Woman, 1967. Patinated bronze, 55 cm. high. Photo: Erio Forli

RP: Many of your works deal in some way with the Holocaust. Could you discuss that focus in relation to Tree of Life (2000)?
HB: My sculpture is about possibility and hope, healing and renewal. The focus has not been on the Holocaust as such, but rather on a larger, continuing theme that has occupied me for many years—that, despite atrocities and widespread destruction, life finds a way to renew itself.

The original concept for Tree of Life came in response to a statement made by my mother that many Holocaust memorials have a “total absence of spirituality.” She noted that they were often depictions of objects that victims had to leave behind—empty bookcases, suitcases, vacant buildings—which did not convey the immense loss felt then and for generations to come. Years later, I found myself creating a sculpture that began with what looked like a tree formed by many bodies twisted and turning, combining and forming the trunk. I realized, as I was completing it, that it represented the victims of the Holocaust. Instead of disappearing in smoke, however, the trunk moved upward and opened into a panoply of branches, with a regrowth of blossoms and clouds of leaves creating a sense of hope. I was trying to express that although there had been almost unbelievable destruction, there could still be renewal and regeneration. These bodies were vanishing, but their loss might provoke society to respond with greater compassion and creativity.

Although this first Tree of Life was inspired by the Holocaust, subsequent “Trees” are about connection, empathy, and transformation. They reflect the shift in my focus, from an introspective to an outward-looking perspective. This is clearly seen in my most recent body of work, the “Exodus” series, which expresses the precarious dreams of those fleeing to find a better life.

RP: In addition to Zadkine, who would you identify as your main influences? 
HB: Throughout my years as a sculptor, I have found myself moving between different paradigms, at times seeking simplicity, at other times enrichment through gesture, detail, and form. For me, Cycladic sculpture, dating as far back as 2500 BCE, seems to evoke humanity and individuality in a way that transcends language. The figures are simplified, stark; only the essence remains. I can detect the Cycladic influence in many of my reductive works. On the other hand, the turbulence and power in the complex sculptures of Umberto Boccioni and Raymond Duchamp-Villon encouraged me to develop new forms capable of conveying emotional movement. The eroticism and the mystery of nature that permeate many of my translucent marble sculptures originated in my fascination with Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, which capture the splendor of nature and suggest a joyful and elusive realm beyond the material. Her work is visionary.

Seascape, 1983. White Italian travertine, 5 parts, dimensions variable. Photo: Henryk Hetflaisz

RP: Thinking back to college philosophy surveys, I have to ask: Are we here, or do we just think we are here? Does this question relate to your work?
HB: We are “here,” but here is not limited to the material world we see around us. A desire to capture in form the mystery that is the human spirit was the initial reason I turned to sculpture. The essence of what it is to be human, I believe, is located in the soul—not an entity that can be seen or measured, but a force that suffuses us, illuminates us, and that can be nurtured. It is not physical. It is beyond substance. Many of my sculptures explore this intangible quality that gives meaning and vision to our lives.

RP: What are your plans and dreams for the future?
HB: I am hoping in the next years to focus even more on the creation of public sculpture, so that a wide audience can participate in the transformative power of beauty. My favorite sites are those that are accessible to everyone. I have been involved with projects in parks, hospitals, universities, malls, community centers, and schools. Each one has had different parameters, but I have always been concerned with creating something that would provide a reference point, establish a sense of place, and arouse a feeling of civic ownership. My objective has been to create things of the spirit that add another dimension to the daily lives of the people who experience them. My dream is to see a worldwide program established using the model of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) that FDR endorsed during the Great Depression. The world has never been in greater need of the restorative power of art.

01/12/2021Sculpture Magazine
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