Benjamin Nugent’s stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading and the Paris Review. His first collection, Fraternity, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, there are halls full of life-sized dioramas, fashioned in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, depicting foreign cultures. Wax figures of Armenians, Pokots, Ainus, and Yakuts are posed against painted backdrops of their native lands. In traditional dress, perfectly still, they dance, hunt, marry, charge into battle, and cast evil spirits from the sick.
The anthropological diorama is an intriguing form. Its aim is to offer insight into a whole culture, using just a clutch of figures frozen in a moment of drama. Getting this right is really hard, and the museum hasn’t always pulled it off; visitors often mock the dioramas, or are mystified by them. On a summer afternoon in the Hall of Asian Peoples, I saw a Chinese family laugh at a wax Chinese person, and a young Indian American couple laugh at a wax Indian wedding.
How do you make anthropological art that doesn’t feel belittling? The work would have to capture everyday moments that reveal deep cultural truths.
Duane Hanson, who was born on a forty-acre farm in Alexandria, Minnesota in 1925, became internationally famous when he started to make sculptures of ordinary Americans in ordinary situations, out of fiberglass, polyvinyl, and bronze. He had attended a Lutheran college in Iowa with no art program, and then studied sculpture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, before spending two decades as an art teacher. He settled in the suburbs of South Florida, where, in the mid-1960s, he found some local renown with figurative sculptures of politically potent subjects: soldiers fallen on a battlefield, a woman dead from an illegal abortion, a cop beating a rioter. The Miami Herald, outraged, called his work “non-art.”1 Those early pieces were marked by the influence of Carl Milles, Hanson’s mentor at Cranbrook, whose sculptures were monumental, expressive, and grandiose in theme. Hanson would go on to create work more neutral in tone—tender without being sentimental, unsparing but not satirical. Sometimes he had his friends and family pose as his subjects, but for the most part his models were people he encountered in Florida: a cleaning woman, tourists, an old couple on a bench.
Lunchbreak (1989) is the first thing the eye rests on as one enters I Don’t Like Fiction, I Like History. A diorama of three Floridian white men in repose, it’s unusual, for a Hanson, in that it contains multiple figures and some large props—the scaffolding and trestles. Hanson’s subjects are typically solitary, accompanied by objects that don’t take up much space, like a chair, a table, or a janitor’s cart. The men, whose boots and hardhats tell us they are construction workers, give each other a wide berth and look in different directions: the guy with the Marlboro stares into space, the guy in the pink tank top looks at the ground, and the guy in the Fila tee shirt seems to contemplate the middle distance.
The piece is far richer in particulars than any natural history museum diorama. The guy in the Fila tee has arm hair, fluffy in places and in others matted with sweat. The Marlboro guy’s lunch box contains Nacho Cheese Doritos. The blade in the angle grinder behind him is rusted. The Domino’s Pizza box between the other two guys is misshapen, as though opened and shut too many times and possibly stepped on. There’s a small crack in the upended hardhat of the Fila tee guy. The pink tank top guy is drinking Coke Classic. The Marlboro guy could use some Chapstick. Through these apparently inconsequential details, Lunchbreak captures something essential about our society, or, as Hanson put it, “about the human condition at this point in time.”2
Turning slightly, you’ll encounter Thomas Demand’s photograph Ruine/Ruin (2017), depicting a domestic interior that has been bombed. The image hangs facing Hanson’s figures, like a reality they’re dimly aware of from news stories flashing across a TV screen. We don’t know which country has bombed the building, or where the building is. We know only that the strike has come from the sky; you can tell by the way the rubble has snowed down on the entire room, deep and crisp and even. The crispness is significant. Demand’s method is to build realistic three-dimensional paper models based on photographs, and then to photograph the models, so the texture of the room’s ordinary objects is the first clue that the room is a paper simulation. A socket dangles from the ceiling. Plastic lawn chairs lie overturned. There’s a sandal lodged in the detritus, near a pink armchair that remains upright and pristine. Demand doesn’t put people in his pictures, preferring to let them haunt his scenes via their absence. And when there are no people around, objects take on great importance. Is the owner of the sandal buried in this room? The people who lived here used chairs meant for outdoor use indoors, and they left so little behind: Were they poor, or transient? The medium of paper serves to emphasize the flimsiness of their surviving possessions, and, because paper is the most disposable of products, it evokes the disposability of human lives in times of war.
In Lunchbreak, it’s the disposable products that make the workers familiar, helping us feel that we understand them—well do we know the taste of warm Coke and Doritos. But that we recognize these guys makes them no easier to explain. I’m an American who’s held menial jobs with brief lunch breaks, and during those breaks I’ve sipped Coke, smoked Marlboros, eaten bad pizza, vegged out, and situated myself as far from my coworkers as possible. Looking at Lunchbreak, I remember doing those things. I recognize the subjects’ behaviors as my own. And yet I cannot account for those behaviors, either in them or in myself; I do not know why we so often need to put space between ourselves and others when we’re given twenty-five minutes of liberty.
Hanson made it a point never to embellish the expressiveness of his figures. Instead he practiced what he called “detached” sculpture. “A mold is made directly from the subject’s body which is subsequently cast in fiberglass resin, reworked, assembled accordingly,” he said. “If I could teach my hands to work in a totally detached way, I would prefer to model figures in clay.” Lunchbreak gives no clues as to why the guys are far apart and not looking at each other, but it invites us to wonder about those things. Maybe the guy in the tank top is missing his parents up in the Panhandle, and he’s hoping that if he works enough construction jobs down here in greater Fort Lauderdale he’ll be able to buy his mom a hip transplant. Maybe the Fila tee guy is feeling bad about a fight he had with his wife last night about which one of them will accompany their daughter to The Little Mermaid—it’s 1989—and is turning toward his fellows out of an impulse to confess. Maybe the Marlboro guy is devastated that the Dolphins lost to Atlanta, or maybe he’s musing on his sexuality.
In Sharon Lockhart’s diptych Maja and Elodie (2003), on the wall to your right, Hanson’s Child with Puzzle (1978) is photographed with a real person. The sculpture depicts a young girl seated on the floor, with a partially completed jigsaw puzzle in front of her. In Lockhart’s photographs, “Maja” (after Hanson’s daughter, the model for the girl in the sculpture) is joined by “Elodie,” who plays the part of a caretaker: if this girl were real, Elodie might be her mother, babysitter, or nanny. The two appear to work on the puzzle together. Lockhart’s side-by-side images are identical in almost every respect, with one minute change: in the first picture, Elodie has her fingers on a puzzle piece, while in the second she has lifted it off the floor. Lockhart shot the photographs at the American Embassy in Paris, which makes for a grand backdrop. The wainscoting and wallpaper even match the rug. We are in the kind of ornate old house where, in a horror film or children’s cartoon, a ghost might appear or a statue might come alive. This only contributes to the spookiness of the scene. It’s creepy and funny at the same time, the way we can’t immediately tell the real human being from the fabricated one. It makes you wonder: Who would do this strange work of confusing our sense of reality, and why? No question could be more of our time.
Hanson’s 1980s construction workers bring to mind Charles C. Ebbets’s iconic 1932 photograph Men on a Beam, in which eleven hardhats, packed thigh-to-thigh on their terrifying I-beam, talk, laugh, smile at each other, and light each other’s cigarettes. The very scariness of their circumstances—it appears that they could all plunge to their deaths, via domino effect, if one of them gesticulated a little more broadly—has made a fraternity of them and leant them a casual glamor. It might be why this photograph hangs in so many office environments. Mounted over a communal microwave, it seems to say, Dear Valued Employees, be grateful for the difficult, risky work you do here, for it fosters esprit de corps.
The Lunchbreak guys, by contrast, can afford to space out and enjoy their solitary pleasures. And yet perhaps they too are in peril. The threat of slow corrosion is everywhere: the cigarettes, the junk food, the pot bellies of the older men. Most of all, one worries for their spirits. As the title character of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King says, “Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui—these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed.” Wallace’s “king” is an accountant addressing other accountants, not a construction worker addressing other construction workers. But he puts into words what Hanson shows us in Lunchbreak: the workers fight a war against boredom. In 1993 Hanson described his purpose as portraying “mostly ordinary people of the lower-class, working type who face the daily hardships life creates: a sense of alienation, forlornness, fatigue and frustration, which all of us have faced from time to time.” Considered side by side, Ebbets’s and Hanson’s depictions suggest a shift that took place between the 1930s and the 1980s: in the Depression, having a job is glorious, and working on a skyscraper particularly so; five decades on, having a job is nothing special, and construction sprawls over woods and swamplands.
We catch a glimpse of this sprawl in the photographs by Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky. In Gursky’s Utah (2017), new houses and a trailer, seen from a passing car, stud a rocky orange desert, an ancient and unchanging natural landscape. In her novel Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson describes a western town as “chastised” by the surrounding mountains, and this little western community appears chastised by its environs. But the blurring of the image has the effect of ennobling the houses and softening the rocks; it blends them. (Likewise, the floor in Demand’s Parkett/Parquetry, from 2014, could be the floor of a perfectly generic suburban home, but the photograph dignifies it by insisting we pay it close attention.)
You encounter workers among Hanson’s scaffolding and trestles again in Lockhart’s Lunch Break Installation, “Duane Hanson: Sculptures of Life,” 14 December 2002–23 February 2003, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2003), a four-part work depicting museum workers installing Hanson’s sculpture for an exhibition. The two crewmembers are as real as the workers Ebbets photographed, but indistinguishable from their cast counterparts. Wall’s Tenants (2007) appears, at first glance, to look at a more desperate stratum of the working class. “I found an apartment building whose architecture intrigued me,” Wall said. “It’s probably the worst apartment building in the city. But I’m not concerned with addressing social issues; this doesn’t really interest me.”3 Indeed, the people in the photograph are not posed so as to embody the suffering of the poor. The man seated by the grill and the woman near the ladder are at ease in the dim recesses. Cardboard boxes, toppled houseplants, tarps, and bags of trash surround them, but they don’t look mired in the mess so much as nested; they’ve taken what’s on hand and woven it into a home.
If Tenants tells a story about endurance, together Hanson’s Child with Puzzle and Lunchbreak suggest a narrative, too: the child, lost in her work, is happy; the youth in the pink tank top is still strong; the Fila tee guy is heavier, softer, but still healthy; and the Marlboro guy has, as they say, started to let himself go. His gaze is dissociative; his posture, one of defeat. He looks as if he may be slipping slowly to the ground.
And yet Lunchbreak is not bleak or depressing. I find it, like much of Hanson’s work, oddly cheering. At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington, DC, I recently watched people react to Hanson’s Woman Eating (1971), a sculpture as “detached” as Lunchbreak, at once tender and uncensored. A woman in her forties or fifties eats a mountainous sundae, her shopping bag at her feet. Her reading is TV Guide and the National Enquirer. Her legs are mottled, her shoes worn, her face pouched. Her beverage is 7-Up. She looks indifferent to the impression she makes. The crinkled napkin on the table, covered with little flecks of chocolate sauce, suggests she is not terribly bothered with manners, and her expression is one of satisfaction. She has done her shopping, and now she deserves a treat.
At the museum, her fellow Americans—who resembled her in that they tended to be a little tired-looking, slightly hunched, stocky, casually dressed—responded to her with delight and respect. She was helping them win their war with boredom. While in other galleries they might have taken selfies with artworks as backdrops, here they wanted to photograph only her. And you could tell from how they leaned over the gray boundary line on the floor with the words do not touch do not touch do not touchprinted next to it that the pictures were close-ups: they wanted to capture the Purina Dog Chow in her grocery bag, the flavors of her ice cream, the varicose veins on her legs. These details made her knowable.
As I watched, several people set off an alarm by leaning too close, and then stood back suddenly, as if roused from a dream. Woman Eating was down the hall from Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama, and just upstairs from the National Portrait Gallery, with paintings of Barack and all the other presidents, a sculpture of Grant poring over battle plans with Lincoln, and a sculpture of Tecumseh dying with his tomahawk in his hand. I felt a mix of comfort and dread, knowing that she would still be here, heedlessly eating her ice cream, trying to squeeze a little pleasure from the world, no matter what history did next.
1Doris Reno, “Taste Marks Sculptors of Florida Annual,” Miami Herald, October 30, 1966.
2This and the following quotes by Hanson are from untitled essays by the artist, written in 1973 and 1993 and unpublished in his lifetime, included in the catalogue for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery’s exhibition Duane Hanson (Cologne: Koenig Books; London: Serpentine Galleries, 2015).
3Silke Hohmann, “Pictures Like Novels: An Interview with Jeff Wall,” db artmag, no. 45 (2007).
Text © Benjamin Nugent; I Don’t Like Fiction, I Like History: Duane Hanson with Thomas Demand, Andreas Gursky, Sharon Lockhart, and Jeff Wall, Gagosian, Beverly Hills, September 5–28, 2018