By DANIEL MAIDMAN, June, 2018
At the New York Academy of Art, sculptor Sabin Howard recently presented the current state of what is emerging as a remarkable achievement in contemporary sculpture – particularly, in that broad sector of sculpture: the war memorial.
Before we can talk about Howard, or indeed about any contemporary war memorial, we need to address the nature and legacy of Maya Lin’s work. Her Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a black granite wall, descending into the living earth, upon which the names of all our Vietnam dead are chiseled.
Lin was a 21-year-old architecture student when her design was selected, and the overpowering, metaphysical quality of her work blew the concept of the war memorial wide open. In a single masterstroke, she eliminated the figure, the sentiments, and the heroics of the genre, replacing them with an image of profound loss, expressed as much through what it lacked as what it presented. That black wall spoke to the beyond-words quality of the tragedy of war.
Lin’s memorial quickly came to serve as the aesthetic pole star of public monuments to American tragedy and war. They suit the anti-figurative, conceptual tenor of the contemporary art landscape of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. But her principles, like all aesthetic principles, are only as good as the artists who deploy them. The twin reflecting pools of the 9/11 memorial in New York are sublime transubstantiations of the footprint of the destruction. The so-called “crescent of embrace” memorial to flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on the other hand, wobbles between unfocused and kitschy.
As hindsight lengthens, it seems to me it is becoming clear that Lin’s memorial works best in context. A significant fraction of its force depends on its frightening and alien intrusion into a more classical cultural landscape. Contrasted with a tradition of sculptures of small groups of soldiers, fighting the good fight, her wordless knife-cut is overpowering. In a landscape of its own artistic progeny, however, it begins to read as just a variation of a too-familiar pose. In short, like so much else about 20th century art, its impact depends on shock.
As time passes and events fall into the bitter perspective of history, it is also fair to ask – why this? What made this one worse? I intend no offense or diminution at all toward those who fought and died, and those who had to go on living. I have a criticism, but it is only of the role their fight was assigned in American culture. What made this one worse wasn’t, from my post-Vietnam perspective, that it was worse. It was that it happened to baby boomers. Of all the American generations, only the boomers were endowed with a narcissism so profound as to shade from solipsism into nihilism – a generational “après moi, le deluge” stance.
In my opinion, Maya Lin’s memorial is premature. Did it help to heal an American culture torn apart by division? Perhaps. But let us remember that the division was, once again, at the hands of the boomers; but mainly not the ones who fought. No, Lin’s memorial is a memorial to annihilating war, to war beyond repair, beyond recognition, beyond recounting. Lin’s design should have been locked in a steel box and sunk in a mineshaft, to be retrieved and executed in the event that the US and USSR ever came to nuclear blows. Until then, it will not be time for Maya Lin.
If there was ever a real war that came close to the apocalyptic destructiveness of the final nuclear war, it was World War I. American high school students don’t learn nearly enough about this war, because we entered it late and lost comparatively little. But in four savage years, this most senseless of butcheries hammered a thousand years of European civilization into oblivion. A delicate and sophisticated world, a world which was nearly at the point of sustaining both the porcelain teacup and the interplanetary rocket – was destroyed in a torrent of steel and mud, cutting down the flower of the continent, an entire generation, snuffing out everything their talents and their heritage had prepared them to accomplish. World War I left in its bloody wake a crude and impoverished artistic culture, and a coarsened political culture primed for the totalitarian catastrophe of the 20th century – for Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and the whole sorry, murderous parade. There have been only a few turning-point wars in human history, and World War I was arguably the worst of them. At least, it is the one we are still suffering from the most. If any war merits the Lin treatment, it is World War I.
Let’s delay talking about Sabin Howard’s World War I memorial a second longer though, and jump far, far back, as far back as we can go, to the first human gatherings devoted to recounting what happened in life and fixing it in memory. I picture these gatherings as happening around campfires, but that’s only because I first encountered this primordial recounting impulse, this original form of storytelling, around campfires. Perhaps fleeting memories were first turned into fixed stories in some other context – under trees providing shade on a lazy afternoon, or out fishing on a sand bar, or in a sewing circle, or while walking to the hunt or foraging in the woods. Whatever it was, it was something; because people feel a need to remember. It is said that if octopuses could pass knowledge from one generation to the next, they would have excelled us already. But they can’t. History is one of those things that makes us human.
So the first memorials were in words, and we retain not only traces of them, in books like the Iliad and Gilgamesh and Beowulf, but also the instinct of them in our sense of story and language. Try reading a sestina sometime, and see how natural its lamenting rhythm feels to you.
But nearly as early as we conquered language, we seem to have conquered the plastic arts as well, the making of matter into image. And from the walls of caves onward, we have always used that mastery to make pictures that tell the stories of people. Just as war has shadowed the history of humanity, so the war memorial has helped to redeem and save us. I don’t mean only the formal public memorial-monument, but every sculpture, painting, and amphora depicting war and its aftermath. They have celebrated the heroism of those who make war and commemorated the miseries of those who endure its consequences. They have helped humanity to reckon with its tragic mix of ambitions – to protect and to dominate, to preserve and to conquer – and with that most terrible of sufferings, the suffering inflicted by one human being upon another – the only suffering against which we can justly rail, because it might, by choice, have been avoided. Nature may be horrible, but only man can be evil.
It is these facets of our shared human character which war memorials help us to reckon with. When we are inspired by war, they give shape to our pride in the history of our people. When we are shattered by war, they help us to recognize and reassemble ourselves. When indifferent time buries our fiercest emotions, they re-present the human face of what was won and lost, and wound us afresh, as we need to be wounded, in order to remember.
In a sense, a war memorial without the figure shirks its duty to console, to educate, and to lead war’s survivors. It is to be invoked only in the case of the annihilating war, the war after which we do not wish to go on. Until then, it is not time for the black granite memorial. Until then, the memorial, its creator, and its viewers have the more difficult task of rebuilding.
In this context, we can consider Sabin Howard’s World War I memorial. He is not its originator – Joe Weishaar is. Like Maya Lin, he is a very young architect; 25 when he created this design. But Howard partnered with Weishaar and transformed a concept for a figurative frieze into a clear proposal. Of 350 design submissions for the congressionally-mandated National World War I memorial, only one was figurative, and that one, the design of Weishaar and Howard, was selected.
As Howard details in a fascinating talk he gave at the New York Academy of Art, archived on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/263458079, he had no extant artistic tradition to draw upon in creating this memorial. He knew that he had to tell a story, somehow, and he knew the story he wanted to tell. It was a simple story, as all fundamental dramas are simple:
A man is called from the bosom of his family to fight in the war.
He survives, but comes home nearly ruined.
His family welcomes him.
This is a good story of that stupid and senseless war. It is the story of the only innocent participants, the soldiers themselves. But how does one tell such a story in a fixed medium like sculpture? Howard details his self-education in the narrative frieze. He describes several principles:
The telling gesture: Actors came in and ran through a series of actions, Howard snapping away with a camera. Sifting through his photographs afterward, he would find those instants which conveyed their moment of the story in a riveting unity of action and meaning.
The broad composition: He then composed his figures along the length of the frieze. The frieze is designed to be read from left to right. The story progresses along it, the same characters appearing again and again as they move through their narrative. Arranging this gigantic scroll took endless refinement and massaging. It started as visual chaos, a mere jumble of instantaneous impressions. Howard worked and worked on his computer, until the spacing and heights of the figures took on a wavelike character, a compression and rarefaction across the length of the frieze. Pulses of initial and final action frame lulls in image density, and the lulls rise in the center to a dense chiastic composition, two harsh multi-figure diagonals meeting in the narrative moment of battle, of the individual overwhelmed by a universe dissolved in atrocious violence.
The composition was realized, at this stage, as a series of elaborate drawings which took months to draw, and as a series of photographs manipulated in the computer.
His composition achieved, Howard faced the problem of industrial-scale fabrication, for which he turned to WETA, the special-effects studio that gave us the Lord of the Rings movies. They 3D-scanned his actors in their poses and printed them out, allowing construction of a scale model of the composition. To their utter horror, Howard intervened and began to carve into the printed figures – you’re destroying this expensive model, they objected. But he wasn’t; even as he lamented the schedule that prevented him sculpting the dozens of figures from scratch, he invested the time he did have in transforming the pricey model from a photograph into a sculpture. Through alterations of scale, of gesture, of expression, of the folds in uniforms, he turned the mechanical representation of an object into a surging evocation of life. WETA’s fears allayed, they re-scanned his altered figures, and printed a new, larger model. And this was the model presented in public for the first time at the New York Academy of Art.
It is a dramatic memorial, and it is, as all human things must be, imperfect. Geometry is perfect; the apocalypse is perfect; the Vietnam memorial is perfect. Sabin Howard is eccentric and irregular. He is good at some things and bad at others. He does not conceal himself behind his work. All his strengths and weaknesses magnify in his work, and when it is finally rendered and installed at its intended over-life-size scale, his virtues and vices will be fixed in superhuman form. He has done his best, but the best, even of the greatest artists, will never be enough. This lends their work its organic quality, its pathos.
For me, this is a tremendously hopeful memorial. It looks to the worst of wars and says that it not only can be spoken, but must be spoken. That as much as it killed, it did not kill everything, and what survived deserves to be nurtured, cherished, and regrown. It has a lesson to teach about the nature of war, and even though it is not a new lesson, it is a lesson vividly told, and told with respect for those who make war and contempt for those who start it. To me, this memorial is a memorial for a culture which is beginning to heal from the wounds of the annihilating modernist and postmodernist ethos, a culture which is beginning its uncertain return to the human need to look at human beings, to tell stories about human beings, to share memories and find insight and comfort around the campfire. WM
Daniel Maidman is a painter and writer. His art is included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Long Beach Museum of Art, as well as numerous private collections, among them those of New York Magazine senior art critic Jerry Saltz, Chicago collector Howard Tullman, Disney senior vice president Jackson George, and Gemini-winning screenwriter Jeremy Boxen. He has produced paintings in collaboration with best-selling novelist China Miéville, award-winning poet Kathleen Rooney, independent film icon Martin Donovan, and noted installation artist Erika Johnson. Maidman’s art and writing on art have been featured in ARTnews, Forbes, Juxtapoz, Whitehot Magazine, Hyperallergic, American Art Collector, International Artist, Poets/Artists, MAKE, Manifest, and The Artist’s Magazine. He blogs for The Huffington Post. He lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.
Follow Whitehot on Instagram
view all articles from this author