By the mid-1930s Nakian had established a considerable reputation for his naturalistic portrait sculptures. This period culminated in an over-life-size sculpture of the baseball hero Babe Ruth (George Herman Ruth) in 1934, and an exhibition of portrait heads of President Roosevelt and members of his cabinet, which was held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, in 1935. Shortly after this, however, Nakian abruptly changed course. He virtually stopped exhibiting, except in isolated group shows, and concentrated on drawing as a means of revising his ideas on sculpture.
By 1935 he had established a close friendship with Arshile Gorky (1904-48), and through him met Willem de Kooning (b. 1904) in 1937. It would seem to have been the example of these artists that precipitated the crisis in Nakian's work. by the late 1940s he was working on a series of small terracotta sculptures, both in three-dimensional form and as drawings incised into the surface of terracotta slabs. He called the slabs 'stone drawings' or 'Fragonards' because of their pastoral subject-matter and the delicacy of the incised patterns.
As evident in the three terracotta sculptures in the Australian National Gallery, these works are sliced, modelled and incised with a brisk, improvisational freedom that aligns them with the painting style of Abstract Expressionism. Yet Nakian remained committed to traditional subjects, the stories of classical mythology, especially Europa, and in this respect his work harks back to that of his teacher, Paul Manship (1885-1966), who had elevated Europa and the bull to a central place in his work in the 1920s. 'Myths are good', Nakian said, 'because they give you form and a grand story. I don't want only form; I want philosophy, love'.1
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.254.
- 'Sculpture: Demigods from Stamford', Time, 30 June 1967, p.50.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010