Artist Sy Gresser’s work stands the test of time. Carved in stone, his sculptures speak of elemental human capacities for love and valor, beauty and grace, nature and humanity, in their depictions of biblical prophets and Mayan earth mothers.
Gresser, who died at 88 in November, took up the art form as a young man, when a friend gave him a set of carving tools, which he brought to the Institute for Contemporary Art in Washington, where he promptly signed up for sculpture courses. He studied sculpture there from 1949 to 1952 and worked in the medium for the rest of his life.
This month a sampling of Gresser’s works — carved in white marble, granite and gray steatite — make up Stone, Silence and Speech: Sculpture by Sy Gresser, a modest tribute to this artist’s long and fruitful career, built in the Washington area. Displayed in the cloistered cement yard of American University’s Katzen Arts Center, the show provides a sampling of the visual poetry Gresser wrought with stones, tools, and the unbound force of his imagination.
“I’ve always thought of Sy as a medieval stone carver,” said American University Museum director and gallery curator Jack Rasmussen. “In a way, he was a medieval artist, totally dedicated to his craft, and not in a self-centered way. His work wasn’t at all about him, but about the art itself.” And it remained pure to Gresser’s vision, rather than shifting with the whims of 20th-century conceptual and contemporary art. He remained steadfast in his approach and his newest works — the latest from just before his death done in more malleable wood — resemble his oldest.
Rasmussen put together his first Gresser show in 1979. The forms and shapes of the artist’s work from then to today remain constant. The swoops, concave and convex carvings of faces, hair, deep-set almond-shaped eyes and full lips, arms, hands and torsos emerging from stone recall Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse paintings, but still remain singular to Gresser’s vision.
Baltimore-born and raised, Gresser studied zoological science at the University of Maryland; he worked as a researcher and editor to supplement his income. He was also a published poet; his first collection, Stone Elegies, came out in 1955. After he discovered stone, marble and wood as mediums of expression, he built a home studio in Silver Spring. Rasmussen recalls a recent visit to the Gresser backyard, with its overgrown vegetation, sculptures and partially carved stones half hidden among the plantings, peeking out of grasses and bushes. “It was like they had been there forever,” Rasmussen said.
Gresser allowed the stones themselves to show him the way into his art. His “Meeting Struck By Lightening” frames two mottled faces in a tangle of hair. Shot through the dyad is a fault line slashing diagonally through the implacable stone, the stone’s imperfection becoming the raison d’être for the piece.
His “Hagar and Ishmael: Self Portrait,” a marble from 1985, draws from his Orthodox roots and interest in biblical subjects.
“His approach was very midrashic,” said Ori Soltes, who showed Gresser’s work at the old B’nai Brith Klutznick National Jewish Museum and other galleries, and then became an owner of a Gresser piece and a friend. Gresser’s approach to carving out biblically themed works is connected as much to his artistic sensibility as to his Orthodox Jewish roots. This show features his
“Hagar and Ishmael: Self Portrait.” Gresser was more likely intrigued by the family relational dynamics of this biblical tribal family than the religious underpinnings, whether related to Judaism or Islam, Soltes noted.
“That whole notion of human relationships and exploring the ins and outs, ups and downs of human relations, that drew him beneath the surface text in the Bible,” said Soltes, a professor of art history and theology at Georgetown University.
Soltes said that Gresser, though raised in a traditional Orthodox family, as an adult couldn’t have been more secular in his approach to life. However, he always maintained a deep-seated connection to his cultural Jewish roots, which came out in some of his art. Soltes compares Gresser’s work in direct carving to that of the more well-known 20th-century Jewish sculptor Chaim Gross, who immigrated in the 1920s and built his career in Greenwich Village. They both dealt in curvaceous figures, carved directly in stone, and they both often found inspiration in biblical iconography.
Gresser’s white marble “I and Thou: Embrace,” from 1983, is a seductive entwining of limbs, grasping at one another as warm-blooded flesh rather than cold stone. The piece echoes ideals of 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, whose philosophical treatise I and Thou raises conception of the God-human relationship was of one that could be personal, intimate, dialectic.
The work is best when it depicts relationships and almost always, at least in this show, the sculptures are pairs — a mother and child, for example — trios or familial groupings. In the stone there’s a sense of liveliness, movement, breath that endures.
Gresser taught rock to speak.
Stone, Silence and Speech: Sculptures by Sy Gresser, through Aug. 16, Tuesday – Sunday, 11-4. American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Visit http://www.american.edu/cas/museum/.