Alice Godwin is a writer, researcher, and editor based in Copenhagen. An art history graduate from the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art, she penned an essay for the exhibition catalogue Damien Hirst: Fact Paintings and Fact Sculptures published by Gagosian in 2022 and has contributed to publications including Wallpaper, Frieze, Aesthetica, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Duane Hanson’s hyperrealistic figures, scattered among the masterpieces of the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen/Basel, could easily be mistaken for visitors who have just wandered off the tourist bus or workers hired to clean the windows and paint the walls. There is a distance between these people and the Beyeler’s collection. Their juxtaposition is charged with satire, as in the case of the man in a sweat-stained T-shirt riding a lawn mower beside Claude Monet’s Nymphéas (1916–19). Is art more valuable than the lives of these ordinary Americans? Can these people, with real-life struggles, truly care about art?
Hanson’s “types” of middle-class and working Americans provide a new context for the Beyeler’s collection, including the Pop art of Andy Warhol. Though Hanson rejected Pop, he was fascinated by its “banal vulgarity,”1 and noted the influence of mass media in his own subjects: “Why not look at this guy sitting right next to me, what’s going on, what I see on the TV and in the newspaper.”2 Hanson and Warhol even planned to make portraits of one another, which the latter embarked upon before his death. “Don’t push so hard because that distorts,” Hanson recalls Warhol saying, as he posed with a hand against his cheek.3
Warhol echoes Hanson’s gesture in his own silkscreened Self-Portrait (1967), which faces a Hanson sculpture of two people at a table: an average couple in a diner, perhaps, with a melting ice-cream sundae and an empty Coke bottle between them. On closer inspection, we realize the male figure is the artist himself. Hanson’s and Warhol’s eyes are both fixed on the middle-aged woman in her gingham dress. There is something pitying in their gaze; they understand she will never be like the aspirational figures in the magazine she’s reading. We are confronted instead by the desperate reality for those failed by the American dream.
Hanson and Warhol emerged in the wake of Abstract Expressionism in America, and Hanson recalls his early experiments with abstraction: “I would try to do abstract work, but I always put a bit of an arm or nose in it. I never could just do nonfigurative work.”4 At the Beyeler, Hanson’s Old Couple on a Bench (1994) is immersed in the shimmering color fields of a Mark Rothko. Amid hues of crimson and rose, midnight-blue and gray, plum and brown, the pair sit in silence, lost for words. Are they killing time before their bus leaves? Or are they simply overwhelmed by emotion?
In many ways, the haunting stillness of Hanson’s figures and the intensity of their realism speaks to the raw emotion of Rothko’s paintings. Just as Rothko could bring viewers to tears with the invocation of “basic human emotions” like “tragedy, ecstasy, [and] doom,”5 Hanson’s sculptures confront the sensations of loneliness and frustration within ordinary people.
Hanson’s focus upon human experience draws a parallel with the brutal expression of humanity by Alberto Giacometti. Art historian Marco Livingstone explains: “Like Alberto Giacometti in his attenuated reformations of the human body in bronze . . . Hanson sought above all to convey through his art an immediate and uncanny evocation of human beings.”6 Throughout his career, Giacometti tussled with what it meant to be human, reaching a crescendo with the gaunt, standing figures that embodied the existential trauma of the postwar era. Livingstone argues that Hanson went beyond a “form of realism that could be felt in the bones and irradiated through the nervous system” and followed “that initial visceral shock of recognition with a second jolt of astonishing surface resemblance.”7
At the Beyeler, Hanson’s Woman with Child in a Stroller (1985) is placed alongside Giacometti’s L’Homme qui marche II and totemic Grande femme III and IV (all 1960). The mother’s erect body echoes those of the women that surround her, while the diagonal of her extended arms holding the stroller forms a triangle that mirrors the pose of Giacometti’s walking man, tilted forward and striding through space. Stillness and dynamism are bound together in Hanson’s figure, who appears as if she might push the stroller at any time, resonating with Giacometti’s description of movement as “a succession of moments of stillness.”8
Hanson eliminated motion from his sculptures as the phantasm of realism grew more important. In its place, he harnessed stillness and contemplative moods to convey the enduring experience of humanity, giving “permanent form to transient flesh.”9 This notion reverberates with the portraits of Paul Cezanne and John Elderfield’s description of their “settled permanence of character.”10 In his magnificent Madame Cézanne à la chaise jaune (1888–90) at the Beyeler, Cezanne’s wife, Marie-Hortense, sits stoically with her hands in her lap. She is dressed in a vibrant red dress against a yellow patterned chair. Her pose and flamboyant clothing mirror Hanson’s Old Lady in Folding Chair (1976) nearby. Is this a vision of Madame Cezanne’s future?
Both women have been maligned: Marie-Hortense as Cezanne’s long-suffering mistress, whom he lived with intermittently and eventually married after the death of his disapproving father; and the elderly woman who has been ignored by society. Hanson purposefully addressed such forgotten groups and bestowed them with dignity. The old woman is rendered with tender honesty and respect here, capturing her wrinkles and legs dappled with bruises and veins, as well as her lightly made-up face, clipped hair, and white shoes and bag, which match the cardigan carefully buttoned at her neck.
The women share a sense of indifference to their surroundings. They stare into the middle distance and are consumed by their thoughts. Marie-Hortense’s features are distilled into Cezanne’s essential formal language of “the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.”11 As the French Symbolist Paul Sérusier notes in his discussion of Cezanne: “The subject disappeared; there is only a motif.”12 Arguably, this approach to the figure as a “motif,” treating the body with the same formal intensity as a still life, resonates with Hanson’s construction of “types.” Cezanne once chastised the art dealer Ambroise Vollard for falling asleep during a sitting: “Do I have to tell you again you must sit like an apple?”13
Hanson’s sculptures in the galleries of the Fondation Beyeler are like our doppelgängers, reframing our appreciation of the collection through their discerning eyes and the context of middle America. As Livingstone writes, Hanson hits us with the “maximum dose of reality so that the intensity of its presence could radiate outwards.”14 This “dose of reality” makes us rethink the way in which we view art, as we find ourselves being observed in return.
1Christine Giles, “‘Do You Know the Time?’: A Biography,” in Duane Hanson: A Virtual Reality (Palm Springs, California: Palm Springs Desert Museum, 2000), p. 47.
2Duane Hanson quoted in Giles, “‘Do You Know the Time?’,” p. 48.
3Duane Hanson quoted in “Oral history interview with Duane Hanson,” August 23–24, 1989: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-duane-hanson-11643.
4Duane Hanson quoted in Thomas Buchsteiner, “Art Is Life, And Life Is Realistic,” in Duane Hanson: Sculptures of the American Dream (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2007), p. 71.
5Mark Rothko quoted in Bonnie Clearwater, “Selected Statements by Mark Rothko,” in Mark Rothko: 1903–1970 (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang), p. 73.
6Marco Livingstone, Duane Hanson (London: Saatchi Gallery, 1997), n.p.
8Alberto Giacometti quoted here: https://krollermuller.nl/en/alberto-giacometti-walking-man-i-i.
9Katherine Plake Hough, “The Nature of Reality,” in Duane Hanson: A Virtual Reality, p. 32.
10John Elderfield, Cézanne’s Portraits (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 24.
11Paul Cezanne quoted in Nathaniel Harris, Paul Cézanne (New York: Franklin Watts, 2003), p. 41.
12Paul Sérusier quoted in Elderfield, Cézanne’s Portraits, p. 25.
13Paul Cezanne quoted in Holland Cotter, “Madame Cézanne at the Metropolitan Museum,” The New York Times, December 12, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/12/arts/design/madame-czanne-at-the-metropolitan-museum.html.
14Marco Livingstone, Duane Hanson, n.p.
Jubiläumsausstellung—Special Guest Duane Hanson, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Switzerland, October 30, 2022–January 8, 2023