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Everything Old Is New Again

Hadzi's Sculpture Makes Art History Thoroughly Modern

In pieces such as "Gilgamesh" Dimitri Hadzi gives ancient forms a modernist twist.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 5/16/2001

Dimitri Hadzi: Sculpture

C. Grimaldis Gallery through June 2

Dimitri Hadzi wants you to make connections. His abstract sculpture will make you think of classical sculpture, or of the early modernist Auguste Rodin. Like other artists who grew up with modernism, the 80-year-old Hadzi, whose work is the subject of the current show at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, often makes new artwork out of very old influences.

Hadzi's merger of old and new begins with his materials. By working in bronze, he carries on a sculptural tradition going back to the ancients. He places many of his pieces atop pedestals made of marble, the very material upon which much of civilization was literally built. Plastic or found objects have no place in his artistic vocabulary.

Architectural echoes resound throughout the show. He uses reminders of primitive construction methods in "Gilgamesh" and "Perseid Shower." The megalithlike bronze slab in "Ithome Beacon" also looks like something from antiquity, and its title, with its reference to a Greek mountain, underscores that feeling.

Ironically, Hadzi's modernist reworkings of classical references are themselves part of a 20th-century sculptural tradition. Although it would be overstating things to say that his art seems old-fashioned by the standards and interests of many younger sculptors, he's clearly working in a manner that is itself firmly placed within art history.

Not every sculpture here rises to the occasion in a compelling way, but the structural and thematic twists, turns, and transformations are worth watching. There are two sculptures in particular that merit a long look. The best piece in the show is "Balzac's Cloak II." Even if its title didn't directly point you to Rodin's famous sculpture of the French writer Honore de Balzac, the reference probably would register anyway.

Wrestling with the most primal sculptural issues at the turn of the 20th century, Rodin came up with a sculptural vocabulary in which forcefully expressive curves conveyed the essence of a figurative subject. He remained representational but did away with fussy detail. Rodin's looming sculpture of Balzac suggests the writer's strong personality through the sweeping cloak that largely defines the figure.

Being an abstract sculptor, Hadzi isn't about to make a figurative sculpture that riffs on Rodin's iconic one. Instead, he goes for the essence of a sculpture that itself went for the essence of Balzac. In "Balzac's Cloak II," a wavelike cloak is draped around a void. It's as if Balzac the human being has dematerialized, leaving just an empty, almost cavelike space surrounded by the curving bronze sheets that function as a cloak. The impression is reinforced by the way the bronze cloak rises up higher than it would if it were real. It seems as if Balzac has ascended to a writerly heaven, tugging his cloak in his wake.

This is an impressive sculpture in several ways. Its art-historical reverberations are wonderfully apt--you can sense how a 20th-century sculptor such as Hadzi stands on the shoulders of his late-19th-century forebear, taking a modernist approach to reductive forms. It's a stylistically beautiful sculpture, its curves demanding that your eyes follow them. In terms of method, those curves are something of a Hadzi trademark, particularly in a few exhibited pieces that evoke ancient helmets.

Examining the darkly sensuous bronze surface of "Balzac's Cloak II" is good preparation for considering another first-rate sculpture, "Metamorphosis." The Balzac piece is a little fellow compared to "Metamorphosis." It seems to be deliberately slightly taller than a person and yet a bit smaller than the average public monument. It's not a figure, but its stacked and curving forms more or less rise upward as a figurative sculpture would.

What's of greatest interest here is how the sculpture, true to its title, seems to change shape right before your eyes. The surface treatments change radically from one planar section to the next. There are horizontal incisions in one plane, vertical incisions in another; smooth curves here, nubby surfaces there. Whatever art-historical influences are percolating in such a sculpture, its primary appeal resides in its repertory of surface treatments. Hadzi's knowledge of the surface is deep, and you get the feeling he could keep working variations well into the 21st century.

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