“John Storrs: Machine Age Modernist” at Grey Art Gallery

John Storrs, Forms In Space (1926), mixed metals and wood on stone base; courtesy The Grey Art Gallery

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Sometimes a cigar,” Sigmund Freud is reputed to have said, “is just a cigar.” If Freud was cognizant of the limits of interpretation—this was, after all, the man responsible for the contemporary tendency to divine symbolic portent within even the most negligible of objects—then why isn’t The New York Times? In his review of John Storrs: Machine-Age Modernist, the critic Ken Johnson notes that the exhibition curator Deborah Bricker Balken resisted phallic elaborations of Storrs’s streamlined and columnar meditations on urban architecture. That doesn’t stop Johnson from mulling over how “the rigidly upright autonomy of Storrs’s sculpture reads as a symbolic bid for . . . undiminished masculine potency.” A hard man may be good to find, but sometimes a vertical is just a vertical.

Besides, it’s a stretch to assign erotic intent to an art as machine-tooled and ascetic as Storrs’s. Sculpture was the thing, and Machine-Age Modernist is an exhibition many devotees of the art form have been eagerly awaiting, if only on the strength and peculiarity of the sole Storrs piece seen in this-or-that survey of American art. Over the years, Forms in Space #1 (1924) has been intermittently on display at The Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the permanent collection; its snug synthesis of Cubist innovation, Futurist speed, and Secessionist ornament has proved diverting—and a tease. Hilton Kramer made something of the same point in a 1970 review of a Storrs exhibition at Schoelkopf Gallery. There was, in Kramer’s estimation, a level of “frustration . . . in realizing how partial and fragmented our knowledge of this artist’s work remains.”

It’s not necessarily a slight on Balken’s efforts to note that Machine-Age Modernist doesn’t thoroughly explore the accomplishments of (as Kramer had it) “this neglected figure.” The resources of a major museum would be necessary for an encompassing overview. Truth be told, Storrs (1885–1956) doesn’t command the star power or theoretical pertinence conducive to either the bottom line or contemporary fashion. He’s a specialist’s enthusiasm and, even within that selective purview, relatively narrow in appeal. At least, that’s the conclusion arrived at from Balkan’s highlighting of Storrs’s “most innovative period,” roughly 1917 to 1930. Given her curatorial acumen—Balken had a decisive hand in superb exhibitions devoted to Arthur Dove and The Park Avenue Cubists—she deserves the benefit of a doubt. Still, there are years of Storrs’ life and work that are unaccounted for. You leave The Grey Art Gallery curious as to where his pursuit of “perfect freedom” came from and led to.

Storrs was a mercurial figure whose fate was determined, in significant part, by parental caprice. His father, the Chicago real-estate developer David W. Storrs, made it contingent in his will that son John be a part-time resident of the United States in order to derive any benefit from the estate. Storrs yearned to live in Paris, the capital of world art, and attempted to wiggle out from under the “legal technicalities” his father put into effect. The arts had been a major component of Storrs’ home-school education. As he grew older, Storrs took advantage of his parents’ unorthodox ideas about learning and traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa as part of his “university education.” He studied with the sculptor Arthur Bock in Hamburg, Germany, and later apprenticed with Auguste Rodin. But there was never a doubt as to the ultimate—that is to say, his father’s—plan. Whatever artistic interests or skills Storrs possessed would be funneled into the senior Storrs’s real-estate concern.

As Balken details in the catalogue essay, Storrs’s status as a Franco-American had a pivotal influence on the scope and nature of his art. Because of his travels, he came into contact with a veritable who’s-who of modernism: Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, Ezra Pound, Buckminster Fuller, and Constantin Brancusi, whose distillations of the human form and adoption of non-Western motifs have correspondences in Storrs’s work. But it was in the United States and, in particular, his native Chicago where Storrs’s distinctive leitmotif, the skyscraper, was forged. The Chicago-based architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright had a significant impact on the city’s skyline—Wright, in fact, redesigned the lobby of The Rookery, where Storrs’s father had his offices—and Storrs shared their preoccupation with streamlined planes and distrust of ornament. In the end, Storrs’s American identity proved decisive. His art is defined by a terse sculptural brevity that is, in the words of his friend Marsden Hartley, “as American as apple pie and baked beans.”

As seen at The Grey Art Gallery, Storrs’s achievement comes across as, if not quite ill formed, then uncomfortably straddled on the cusp of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sensibilities. Whether working in bronze, aluminum, terra-cottta or marble, Storrs seems simultaneously stymied and energized by the headlong momentum and anonymity of the industrial age. Notwithstanding his insistence on sleek and stark planar geometry, the pieces are constrained by formal conservatism. Storrs’s reliance on the monolith ties him to Rodin and, by fiat, Michelangelo and antique art, more than might at first be discernible. But it’s there—patently in L’Homme Nu (1919), less so in Study in Architectural Forms (1927)—and it burdens Storrs’s radical impulses with an unwelcome stodginess. The odd fillip of decoration—motifs which key as much into Native American patterning as to Austrian Secessionism—come off, in this context, as hedges against the future. Refining a tradition doesn’t preclude extending it, but Storrs’s sculptures don’t transcend their status as period pieces. All the same, if Machine-Age Modernist isn’t the revelation many of us hoped for, its pleasures, while modest, are real enough.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 2011 edition of The New Criterion.

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