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Duane Hanson

An Exhibition of Sculpture, Tools and Accessories, Printed Materials, Models, and Memorabilia from the Collection of Mrs. Duane (Wesla) Hanson

An Exhibition of Sculpture, Tools and Accessories,
Printed Materials, Models, and Memorabilia from
the Collection of Mrs. Duane (Wesla) Hanson

December 11, 1997 - January 11, 1998
Bienes Center for the Literary Arts
The Dianne and Michael Bienes
Special Collections and Rare Book Library
Broward County Library, 6th Floor
100 S. Andrews Avenue · Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

Co-sponsored by the:
Museum of Art
1 East Las Olas Blvd.
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301

Duane Hanson's Archetypes of Humanity

Apparently from the start, Duane Hanson's primary interest was in recreating the human form. His first extant sculpture is a three-dimensional wood rendering of the figure in Thomas Gainsborough's famous portrait The Blue Boy (c. 1770). Remarkably, Hanson created his version of Blue Boy in 1938 when he was thirteen, while living with his family in Parkers Prairie, Minnesota, an isolated town of 700 inhabitants. According to the artist, there was only one small library in town, which had only one art history book, in which he discovered Gainsborough's portrait of a dashing young man wearing blue satin breeches. Hanson carved Blue Boy out of soft wood, possibly a log, using whatever implements were available, including his mother's butcher knife.

Hanson's early sculptural efforts also included carving his mother's old broomsticks into miniature representations of the human form (or portions thereof), both nude and clothed. Like Blue Boy, these miniatures are naturalistically rendered. Striking a variety of poses, they suggest that Hanson was exploring the different postures that the human body can assume.

In 1941, on a trip to Minneapolis, Hanson visited an art museum for the first time, where he joyfully discovered that actual works of art were on display. His first formal art training began two years later when he enrolled in college. One of the few sculptures that survives from Hanson's college years is a small soapstone likeness of a corpulent woman spanking a child. This sculpture—executed while Hanson was a student at Macalester College in St. Paul in the mid 1940s—is probably one of the earliest that he produced in a medium other than wood, and it is noticeably more stylized and abstract than Blue Boy and the miniatures.

This change in Hanson's style may have resulted from his choice of stone as his medium. It is also likely that, while at college, Hanson was introduced to the dominant artistic trends of the period, which indicated a shift away from naturalism toward abstraction. Woman Spanking Child represents Hanson's attempts to reconcile his naturalistic sculptural inclinations with Abstract Expressionism, a struggle that would consume Hanson throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. This is implied in a statement Hanson made later: ". . . I went to school and heard you had to be modern... I didn't really warm up until Pop Art made Realism legitimate again."

The work of the Pop artists of the 1960s—usually direct, literal renderings of commonplace objects, such as soup cans and Brillo boxes—undoubtedly encouraged Hanson to yield to his naturalistic inclinations. One of the first sculptures Hanson created after moving to South Florida in 1965 was Abortion, a two-foot-long mixed-media rendering of a dead pregnant woman sprawled on a table and covered with a sheet. Abortion reveals that by 1965 Hanson had not only embraced realism unabashedly, but he had begun to comment on contemporary life.

When Abortion was publicly displayed for the first time in Miami the following year, it provoked vehement reactions—both favorable and negative—and Hanson suddenly became a celebrity in the South Florida art scene. Apparently he decided that Abortion would have had even more impact if he had made it larger, for soon thereafter he recreated it life size. Although he was disappointed with the larger version of Abortion and he later destroyed it, he would never again work on a small scale. By 1967 he had begun casting sculptures in molds created directly from the bodies of human models, which became his standard method of working for the rest of his career.

Hanson's provocative lifelike sculptures of the human form, which he embellished with accessories such as hair, clothes and a variety of props, quickly attracted attention beyond South Florida. In 1967, the important New York art dealer Ivan Karp began to woo Hanson away from Miami, and in 1969 the artist moved to Manhattan. Although Hanson's move broadened his work's exposure in the New York art world, he quickly grew weary of the city. In 1973 he returned to South Florida, settling in Davie where he lived for the rest of his life.

Despite Hanson's absence from New York, his work's esteem and popularity continued to increase, and it was during the 1970s that he attained international recognition. One solo exhibition in particular, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City (1978), was influential in establishing Hanson as one of the leading sculptors of the late twentieth century. The exhibition unexpectedly attracted more than 297,000 visitors, thereby setting an attendance record for the museum that has never been surpassed.

Throughout his mature career, Hanson's intent as an artist was not merely to impress the viewer with the incredible verisimilitude of his sculpture. An indication of this was his fondness for quoting Henry David Thoreau's statement that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." In the downcast, sober gazes of Hanson's archetypes of humanity, most of which were inspired by working-class subjects, one senses that he wanted to comment on the contemporary human condition, that he intended to reflect the sense of isolation, loneliness, and alienation that we experience in the modern world.

Among the many awards and accolades Hanson received before his death in January 1996, he was perhaps most proud of those that identified him as a Florida artist. In 1983, he was given the Ambassador of the Arts Award of the State of Florida, and two years later he received the first annual "Florida Prize" of $10,000 for his outstanding achievements in sculpture. In 1987, he was honored with a "Duane Hanson Day" proclamation in Broward County, and he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1992. Today, it is the general consensus that Hanson was the most popular and significant artist ever to have come out of South Florida.

Laurence Pamer, Curator of Exhibitions
Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale


Duane Hanson: An Exhibition of Sculpture, Tools and Accessories, Printed Materials, Models, and Memorabilia from the Collection of Mrs. Duane (Wesla) Hanson, is the result of what is hoped will be the first of many future collaborative projects between Broward County Library's Bienes Center for the Literary Arts and the Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

The Bienes Center's Hanson display developed out of a desire on the part of the Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale and the Bienes Center to establish a closer working relationship. The main objective, of course, was to share scarce precious resources, but the larger and more important goal was to acquire and share new audiences for both institutions so that there would be less of a distinction between booklovers and artlovers.

One of the primary goals of The Dianne and Michael Bienes Special Collections and Rare Book Library is to acquire, preserve, and make available to the public the literary and other cultural records of the residents and institutions of the State of Florida. The documents and artifacts that chronicle the achievements of Broward County and its inhabitants are of special interest, and it is with the above in mind that the exhibit is presented.

Duane Hanson (Jan. 17, 1925-Jan. 6, 1996) moved to Florida in 1965 and became a permanent resident of Broward County and the City of Davie in 1973 where he lived until his death in 1996. He took great pride in his long association with South Florida and flourished in his semi-rural retreat in Davie where he maintained his home and studio. In 1992, equally honored by the fact that he chose to resided in Florida, the State inducted him into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, and in 1995, Broward [County] Cultural Affairs presented him with its Artistic Achievement Award.

Hanson was very protective of his creative output and destroyed many early works because they were not representative of his mature style. In a hand written note dated Nov. 26, 1981 attached to the inside of his personal copy of the Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art exhibition catalog, Hanson put in writing the philosophy behind his later artistic development: "I'm mostly interested in the human form as subject matter and means of expression for my sculpture. What can generate more interest, fascination, beauty, ugliness, joy, shock or contempt than a human being." He continues in the same note: "Most of my time involves concentrating on the sculpting aspect. Casting, repairing, assembling, painting, correcting it until it pleases me. That takes some doing as I'm rarely satisfied."

Hanson's very personal notes to himself furnish an intimate look into the philosophy behind his creative genius, and the objects in the exhibition provide the viewing public with a rare opportunity to experience actual, everyday items used by one of the major American artists of the 20th century.

James A. Findlay, Librarian
Bienes Center for the Literary Arts