Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden
Now Is the Time to Revisit the Work of the Artist Who Embodies Austin, Charles Umlauf
The small bronze sculpture offers a modest depiction of a Scriptural scene: Jesus kneeling on his right knee, a stone tablet cradled in his left arm and propped on his left leg, his head turned to the right to address a child while his right hand points at the tablet. Two other children are present, both of them hanging, if not on Jesus' every word, then at least on the rabbi himself. One rests her chin on his left knee, the other rests hers on his left shoulder. The style of the sculpture is rough, sketchy, with certain elements of the human figures -- hands, heads, facial features -- exaggerated in size for dramatic effect, and an almost ragged texture covering the dark, hard bronze. Still, the overall effect is of warmth and tenderness. These children so clearly want to be close to the Nazarene -- their faces so open and alert, so eager to absorb what he has to tell them, their bodies pressed into his -- and he is so willing to have them be close, letting them drape themselves over him, his face the image of patience and kindness as he shares with them the law of his father. The composition is simple but elegant: The placement of the children just so, so that individually, each makes a distinct personal connection to Jesus and collectively they encircle him. This is gently reinforced in the rear of the sculpture, where the children's tiny arms stretch across Jesus' broad back -- a neat visual touch that also helps to accentuate the difference in scale between the children and the adult (and perhaps also the human and the divine). The figures eloquently register the expressiveness of the human face and body, the postures we assume when we are making a point or being attentive and when we are completely at ease with someone and surrender our weight into that person's care. But in this miniature there is an understanding not only of the human form but of the human heart, of the innocence of childhood, of paternal care and generosity, of our hunger for the spiritual, of love.
This one small piece, Christ Teaching the Children, currently on display at the gallery Spazio by Lytle Pressley, is by itself enough to rekindle one's appreciation of Charles Umlauf as an artist. It shows a master's sensitivity to the human figure, to medium, to shape and space, to drama, and to the human experience. Looking at it in the gallery's outstanding retrospective of Umlauf's work, you might reasonably assume that this piece represents the artist at his most assured: working in three dimensions and in sturdy, heavy metal, employing a mildly expressionistic style that heightens the depiction of emotion and drama, seeking to represent the human quest for spirituality. Given the way those qualities are shared by so many of Umlauf's prominent works around Austin -- The Family outside the Business-Economics Building on the UT campus, the Torchbearers outside UT's Flawn Academic Center, the Kneeling Christus outside Seton Hospital, the Three Muses in Centennial Park, St. Francis With Birds, Man in Supplication, John the Baptist, Madonna and Child, and Entrance Into Jerusalem, among so many works at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum -- why not assume this?
And yet, all one has to do is turn 180 degrees to see another work by Umlauf that reveals a like surety and command of artistry and craft but with different materials and coming from a completely different creative place within the artist. A few steps away from the small bronze sits a marble torso of a woman. She is shown from knees to shoulders, resting on her left hip, her trunk curving slightly upward at the waist, as if she is leaning on the left arm that is only partially represented. The marble is a creamy hue, tinted with rose, save for one spectacularly intense ruby patch on the right shoulder, almost like a fiery birthmark or sunburn. The figure is exquisitely rounded, the belly and breasts lush in their curvature and sense of weight. While the sheen of the material suggests something cool, the depiction of the human form is so natural, so fleshy and fleshly, that you get the feeling it would be warm to the touch, blood coursing just below the surface. If you had seen this sculpture before the one of Jesus and the children, you could just as easily conclude that Umlauf was most at home working with cool, glossy stone, utilizing a rich naturalism to evoke the human form in all its heady sensuality.
But then you can turn another 90 degrees -- or 45, or 15 -- and encounter other work just as different in subject and approach from the Horizontal Torso as it is from Christ Teaching the Children and yet just as expertly rendered. What about the Jubilate Deo, another work in marble, but this one completely abstract in form, a block that alternates voluptuous curves with crisp, clean edges in an elegant sweep around a hole in the center of the stone? It plays with organic forms, with what is there in space and what isn't, in a way that pleasingly recalls the sculpture of Charles Moore. Or the Bird of Peace and Dragon Teeth, two gouaches hung side by side, that combine the expressionistic and abstract in stark, primal images. They show that Umlauf's skill was not restricted to three dimensions but could be employed on a flat plane, using thick lines, geometric shapes, and color (!) to fashion raw and compelling artwork. Or the bathers, a series of watercolors that reveal a delicacy of line and hue unseen in so much of Umlauf's better-known work? They suggest a sensuality similar to Umlauf's Horizontal Torso but in deftly curving pencil lines, inside of which lie pastel shades of pink and peach and tan; it's like he's seeing how much of human fleshiness he can convey with how little. Or how about the Mustang, a bronze bust of a stallion with the gracefully elongated neck of an El Greco or Modigliani? Or the Head of Mary, a simple crayon portrait of a woman with a gloriously tilted mouth? Or ...?
The thing is, "Charles Umlauf: A Retrospective, 1933-1992" is a fresh reminder that Umlauf was an artistic virtuoso in many ways. This is not exactly news, as any visitor to the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum can attest. That venue, which includes more than 130 works by the artist on permanent display, offers sculptures by Umlauf in bronze, terra cotta, limestone, wood, aluminum, onyx, and more, rendering angels, saints, sinners, children, Madonnas, birds, beasts, lovers, and friends, in styles ranging from the most naturalistic of naturalism to expressionistic bordering on the abstract. And it has a few abstract sculptures, too. And the virtuosity that is so evident in all these diverse subjects and approaches can be seen just as easily on the grounds of the museum as in the gallery. It's just that the exhibit at Spazio gives us the opportunity to see work that has gone largely unseen -- it was drawn from the work still existing in the artist's home with the consent of his widow Angeline and their children -- and viewing what we haven't seen helps us see the artist with fresh eyes, to rediscover what we may have already known but let slip from our minds.
So, wandering among the bust of Ezra Pound and ink studies for a Pieta and bronze of John the Baptist and conte drawings of nude bathers and myriad charcoals and crayon renderings and ink washes and paintings and dozens of bronzes, you and I are able to see -- for the first time in a while or maybe the first time ever -- what makes Charles Umlauf not simply an artist who lived in Austin, but an artist who was Austin, who embodied something of the character of the city and revealed it in his artwork. This is a city of diverse interests -- politics, education, music, nature, literature, technology, the arts, to name a few -- that tries to embrace all of them, even when they may seem contradictory. Austin loves to party, it lets nothing get in the way of a good time, it relishes the pleasures of the flesh, and yet it is a city with deeply spiritual concerns, that is perpetually seeking higher truths, that is trying to find a spiritual path. To look at Umlauf's work -- so eclectic in style and form, embracing two and three dimensions, a broad range of artistic media, and both the representational and the abstract, which relishes the fleshliness of humanity and yet looks beyond the mortal plane to the spiritual -- is to see an artist is in tune with the spirit of the city.
Spazio's retrospective showing of work by this artist of Austin coincides with another significant event relating to him. It was 10 years ago this month that the museum dedicated to Charles Umlauf's work opened on Robert E. Lee Road, at the base of the hill where the Umlauf family have kept their home since 1944. The museum grew out of the magnificent gift that Charles and Angeline Umlauf made to the City of Austin in 1985, a gift of their home and studio, along with 168 sculptures by Charles Umlauf. It was what the artist himself called "payment" for all that he received from the city and from the University of Texas, where he taught for four decades. The idea was for the home and grounds to become a civic showplace for visual art. The Umlaufs continued to live there (indeed, Angeline Umlauf still does), so in the meantime, local arts patrons, led by Roberta Crenshaw, undertook the drive to develop a separate garden home for Umlauf's art. That campaign took six years, with the museum opening its doors in 1991. The 10th birthday will be celebrated with a party, naturally (with free cake, lemonade, and live music by two members of the Mundi Ensemble), but more significantly it will see a dramatic expansion of the grounds, with extensive new landscaping by the local nursery and landscape architecture company Gardens, a possible reconfiguration of the garden statuary, and the first stage in the process of connecting the museum with the Umlauf home and studio. This marks the start of a new era for the museum, one in which the facility expands its focus from the work of one sculptor to contemporary sculpture as a whole, incorporating work by a number of Umlauf's former students, some of whom are prominent artists themselves now, and providing facilities for sculptors to create work on the museum grounds. It will allow the museum to promote the perspective of sculpture as a living thing, says Executive Director Nelie Plourde, not something restricted to the life and times of Charles Umlauf, but something that continues to grow and evolve, that comes in many shapes and forms and styles. That certainly seems to fit the character of the artist whose work is celebrated there and, in reflection, the city where he spent so much of his life.
The synchronicity of these events, the Umlauf museum anniversary and the Spazio retrospective, suggest that it's time for the city to reacquaint itself with this artist who was so much a part of it and whose work still is so much a part of it. In his work we can see ourselves, he teaches us something of who we are, and that's more than reason enough for us to get ourselves back to the garden.
The exhibition "Charles Umlauf: A Retrospective, 1933-1992" runs through June 10 at Spazio, 1214 W. Sixth. Call 474-5768 for information.
The Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, 605 Robert E. Lee Rd., is open Wed-Fri, 10am-4:30pm, and Sat-Sun, 1-4:30pm. The facility's 10th birthday will be celebrated Sunday, June 10, 1-4:30pm. Call 445-5582 for information.