Harold Cousins: Forms of Empty Space
On ViewMichael Rosenfeld Gallery
Forms of Empty Space
January 28–March 25, 2023
Nearly fifty works—metal sculptures, unique pieces of jewelry, and works on paper—at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery amount to a mini retrospective of American sculptor Harold Cousins’s work. Collectively they show the sweep of a career open to brave experimentation and Cousins’s searching eye for the power of simple forms found in surrounding culture. Born in Washington, DC in 1916 and educated at Howard University and the Art Students League in New York, Cousins moved to Paris in 1949, and from there to Brussels in 1967, where he worked for the remainder of his life. This lifetime away from his home country may in part account for the artist’s relative obscurity in American art history—this along with the fact that he never had a powerful critic or gallery consistently championing his work. If his name is known, it is primarily in the more focused fields of African American art history or in studies of American expatriate artists following World War II, as in the forthcoming exhibition Americans in Paris: Artists Working in Postwar France, 1946–1962 at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. In this context, Cousins was part of a cohort that included Beauford Delaney, Claire Falkenstein, Sam Francis, Larry Potter, Bill Rivers, and Shinkichi Tajiri. At Rosenfeld, we see an artist doggedly pursuing abstraction in three dimensions at a time when, Cousins recalled, “most non-figurative sculptors were regarded askance.”1
At the Art Students League, Cousins studied with William Zorach, Will Barnet, and Reginald Marsh. The earliest sculptures in this exhibition date to about 1949, so there are no examples of student work made in the US. Even so, we sense in the simplified anthropomorphism and asymmetrical geometries of Cousins’s work from the early 1950s a familiarity with mythic signs that recalls Adolph Gottlieb’s glyphs or the stacked, gently rectilinear totems of Cousins’s mentor Barnet, a so-called “Indian space painter.” (Such comparisons make Cousins’s absence from the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection especially stark, since he would find instructive company there among steel works by David Hare, Richard Stankiewicz, and David Smith.) Once in Paris, Cousins joined the atelier of Ossip Zadkine and began making tabletop sculptures of animals, mythological figures, and gladiators in steel wire and found metal components. These merge the openness and transparency of wire configurations with (usually) a single planar surface deployed as the curved back of a torso in Orpheus (ca. 1951) or the slender shield of Tall Gladiator (ca. 1953).
In Paris, the young sculptor studied ancient Egyptian gold-plated decorations as well as bird and tomb sculptures and, in tandem, began to develop his own approach to creating “empty” sculptural space. He found that Egyptian art “gave one the visual impression of something existing that was not present in the forms of their material parts. I became convinced that this ‘something’ was the form of the empty space between the parts of a sculpture or around a solid.”2 Cousins’s choice to incorporate African artists’ treatment of space in artworks he saw at the Louvre and the Musée de l’Homme makes him an important counterexample to art historical accounts of abstraction that have long placed Europe at the center and the rest of the world at the margins. In a fuller narrative of American abstraction, Cousins would join others who understand specific artistic operations or forms as diasporic extensions of African cultural practices, like Howardena Pindell, who adapted the notion of protective accumulations from Ghanaian war tunics, and Odili Donald Odita, whose paintings feature West African scalene triangles.
When Cousins made his first welded steel “drawing in space” in 1952, his empty space was the centrally-placed “body” of his subject, more or less articulating that body’s hollow core around which the metal components form a shell of arms, skin, spine. Because Cousins’s creatures were both human and animal—thus with spines upright as well as parallel to the earth—this playful figurative work seems to have inaugurated a principle of axial rotation that runs straight through the work. The upright vertebral emphasis of works like Shield (1969) is reimagined as a backbone lying flat across the middle of the Forest works and the brilliantly economical wall sculpture Dancing Figures (ca. 1955). In the latter, Y-like pairs of wires pointing upward like rejoicing figures with one arm raised terminate at the bottom in a bend that yokes them all together through an irregular but continuous horizontal line near hip level. In the sculptures that emphasize horizontality, Cousins’s “empty space” is distributed between equidistantly-placed planes or wires, unlike its central consolidation in the more figural early work. In the context of American modernism, it is just such a transition to “disconnected, disjunctive, and shifting” surfaces that deny sculpture’s historical convention of the volumetric interior core that Rosalind Krauss identified as a crucial move in modern sculpture.3 Her argument credited this innovation to David Smith by contrasting his work to old notions of the closed sculptural volume in Picasso and Julio González; Cousins said that González’s work inspired his own early sculptures.
The three decades of work on view at Rosenfeld are especially strong in the 1950s, 1960s, and late 1970s, ending with Block Man (1977). This chronological sweep allows us to see that Cousins was making mask-like wall sculptures such as Shield alongside the masterful and conceptually-distinct Untitled (Plaiton Suspendu) (ca. 1968) and Plaiton Horizontal (ca. 1969), suggesting two simultaneous modalities for thinking through the activation of space. The steel shields merge slim circle segments along a vertical axis to suggest volumetric bodies, their flat planes variously angled into real space like butterfly wings. Hanging Shield (1969) is especially compelling, since seven of its eight arc segments hang from a small hook mounted on the shape above; each of the hooks appears both on the front and the back of the steel segment, indicating the possibility that the planes could be flipped from front to back. This haptic sensibility links the shields to the metal jewelry that Cousins fabricated to generate income, a selection of which is displayed here in a vitrine alongside related drawings.
In contrast to the shields’ consolidation of form, the plaiton sculptures—especially those with planes turned parallel the ground—open up space. (Cousins’s neologism plaiton yoked the French word “laiton” for brass with the English “plate”; which, as Marin R. Sullivan notes in a catalogue essay, reflected his embedded expatriatism in creating something new by blending two cultures.) In Plaiton Horizontal Cousins welded rectangular steel planes together by straight posts in irregular cascades, while in Plaiton Suspendu (Hanging Plaiton) (1958) and Untitled (Gothique Plaiton) (1970) he dares gravity in overlapping frontal plates that, respectively, hang from a single wire or are built into an inverted triangle apparently balanced from a single small plane at the sculpture’s base. In all cases, the impression is a beautifully lightweight armature that suggests a kind of natural, imperfect order.
There is much here that is ripe for art historical analysis, and parts of Cousins’s archive have only recently come to light due to Rosenfeld’s efforts. A set of exquisite little drawings of schematized violins suggests that Cousins was considering the lessons of cubism, for instance, while the vacant areas between the four wires marking out a canvas’s framing edges in the wall sculpture Hommage à Mondrian (1957) begs questions about Cousins’s relationship to the pictorial space of geometric abstraction. All the salient components are there for a scholarly monograph or a major museum retrospective, and Rosenfeld’s exhibition has demonstrated beyond doubt that Cousins’s varied approaches to sculptural space demand such sustained attention.
- Harold Cousins, “‘Plaiton’ Sculpture: Its Origin and Development,” Leonardo 4 (1971), 351.
- Cousins, “‘Plaiton’ Sculpture,” 351.
- Rosalind E. Krauss, Terminal Iron Works: The Sculpture of David Smith (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 36.