March 31 – May 27, 2006
at Peter Blum SoHo

Hans Josephsohn at Peter Blum

Art in America
September 1, 2006

This exhibition marked the American debut of 85-year-old Hans Josephsohn. An excellent monograph on the artist by Gerhard Mack recounts that at age 17 this Jewish-German sculptor traveled to Florence to see the work of his hero, Michelangelo. Shortly after (this was in the late 1930s), as Switzerland closed its border with Germany, Josephson found himself stranded in Zurich. There he has remained. After training under the neo-classical sculptor Otto MOller, Josephsohn spent years barely subsisting, initially exhibiting locally, then nationally as he slowly gained recognition. When he was already in middle age, a younger artist, Gönther Förg, accidentally discovered Josephsohn's work. Impressed by how these "classical sculptures... seamlessly merged figuration and abstraction," Förg helped bring about an exhibition of his work at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum in 2002. Selections from Josephsohn's oeuvre are on permanent display in an unheated, concrete-walled museum devoted to his work in Giornico, Switzerland.

Josephsohn makes freestanding figures, groups of figures in high and low relief, abstract reliefs, reclining figures and particularly impressive half-figures, five of which constituted the exhibition at Blum's SoHo space. All these works have an archaic, existential quality that first brings to mind Giacometti. But while Giacometti worked by stripping away excess to arrive at a spindly essence, Josephsohn perceives figural sculpture as mass. Although he works in plaster and then casts in bronze, his sculptures feel as if the figures have been partially released from a block of wood or stone. Their bulk and weight is an essential part of their character.

The half-figure sculptures are mostly head, but possess a totality that stops them from seeming like fragments. When placed on waist-high pedestals as they were in the Blum space, they stand a foot or two higher than the average adult. Circulating among them, one is first aware of their dark, gray-green patina and their tree-bark/elephant-hide surface texture. Then one sees the facial features. In the bronze Half-figure, untitled (1995-96) for example, the eye socket and mouth become apparent only after a period of scrutiny. The effect reminds one of how the eye on a large animal when viewed up close is perceived as a separate event from the surrounding head.

Further time spent looking reveals the hide-and-seek quality that Josephsohn develops with all the sculptures. What is atone moment perceived as a frontal bust becomes at another moment a head in profile. These personages seem to have sprung from the hands of an earthy magus who dwells in a sculpture studio. They combine caprice with timeless-ness, whimsy with Neolithic inscrutability. It is extraordinary work.