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John Storrs


by N.F. Karlins
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“Elegant” is the word for the work of American sculptor John Storrs (1885-1956). His Stone Panel with Black Marble Inlay (1920-21) has the grace of a ballet dancer, with upward thrust and elongated planar shape that recall both the human figure and majestic architecture. Widely considered to be one of the few great sculptors that this country produced in the early 20th century, Storrs discovered his own style of bold, dynamic abstractions.

Some of his most radical works, which date from the teens to the early 1930s, are on view in “John Storrs: Machine-Age Modernist,” Apr. 12-July 9, 2011, at New York University’s Grey Gallery.

Born in Chicago, Storrs was a Francophile through and through, eventually spurning the family real-estate business (giving up his inheritance) to take a French bride and live and work in France for most of his life. But don’t worry -- this ardent Socialist still had sufficient funds to buy a beautiful chateau near Mer in the Loire River valley.  

While in Paris, Storrs studied with French sculptor Auguste Rodin, but it was Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism and the other great movements of European modernism that were key to his development. Frequently shuttling back and forth between Europe and the U.S., Storrs was seen as a link between European greats like Duchamp, Man Ray and Brancusi and the pioneers of American abstraction.  

His style was shaped by the time he spent touring Gothic cathedrals in France and elsewhere -- drawing from them a certain soaring grace -- as well as by the skyscrapers of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in his native Chicago. This hybrid influence can be seen in New York (1925), a dynamic sculpture of brass, steel and vulcanite that embodies his fascination with new forms and materials.

It is safe to attribute at least some of the motifs that Storrs used during this period to America. His interest in a zigzag pattern, prominent in the stone and inlay work Abstraction (1917-19), can be traced to a trip that he made in 1915 to the Southwest, where he became fascinated by Native American art. His adaptation of the pattern presaged its use by other American artists in years to come.

Meanwhile, Storrs’s sensitive blending of light and dark in shallow relief became one of the identifying characteristics of French Art Deco, which borrowed the practice from Babylonian ziggurats and Egyptian pyramids. In fact, his incorporation of motifs such as the zigzag into his sculpture resulted in a dearth of American buyers until the late '20s, while prominent French furniture makers such as Emile Jacques Ruhlmann were purchasing his work long before then.

I think he independently developed what we now call Deco, but there is an unmistakable Gallic sense of refinement in his style. His work has a restraint and simplicity that is very American. In 1928, the painter and poet Marsden Hartley, a close friend of Storrs, remarked to him that, “Now here we two have spent most of our creative lives living in France and Germany, yet our work is American as apple pie and baked beans.”

John Storrs was not just a sculptor. He made prints and drawings, and started painting seriously in the 1930s, a period that is beyond the scope of this exhibition, but that is hinted at in the painting Monologue from 1932. By the '30s, Storrs had shifted to using interlocking mechanical forms for both his paintings, like Monologue, and sculpture, like his Composition around Two Voids (ca. 1934).

One of Storrs’ cleverest drawings in the exhibition combines his ongoing interest in skyscrapers with his passion for cars, which Storrs started collecting around 1920. His Study for Auto Tower (Industrial Forms) (1920) suggests a building that would have been a landmark, and a witty one at that.

Storrs did find an audience in the United States eventually. During the late 1920s he got some of his major commissions here, including his best-known one from Chicago. In 1928, the Chicago Board of Trade commissioned him to sculpt Ceres for the top of its building. The final version is made of aluminum, weighs 6,500 pounds and measures 31 feet tall. It still sits atop the Board of Trade Building. The building is still there even though the board itself has since merged with the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

A smaller version, under two feet high, stands in for his monumental work in the current show. Ceres here is cast in terra-cotta and nickel-plated. The Roman goddess of grain, she holds a sheaf of wheat in one hand and a bag of corn in the other.  In Chicago, the bag of corn was said by many to represent the bags of money made by grain traders at the Board of Trade.

In the later part of his life, Storrs’ work did change direction several times. During WWII in France, he initially transported the wounded for the Red Cross in his second-hand Rolls Royce, but ended up in a concentration camp with his daughter, who worked for the Resistance. That took its toll on him physically and mentally, but he continued to work, returning to the figure. I’m especially fond of his figural bas-reliefs outlined in paint that he created in the '40s and '50s. He died in 1956.

“John Storrs: Machine-Age Modernist” tells the early, more revolutionary part of his story succinctly in about 40 items. It was organized by Debra Bricker Balken, who also wrote the excellent catalogue, for the Boston Athenaeum, where it was seen in 2010. The show also appeared at the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach; Grey Art Gallery is its final stop.  

“John Storrs: Machine-Age Modernist,” Apr. 12-July 9, 2011, New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, New York, N.Y., 10003.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.