The Saga of Spirit of the Sea

william zorach spirit of the sea
William Zorach, Spirit of the Sea, 1961. Bronze cast, 7 ft 1 in. Library Square Park, City of Bath, Maine. Photo: Rick Beckjord.

In 2005, while installing a show of my sculpture at the University of Maine at Machias, I encountered an intriguing object. Flanking the entry to Powers Hall, home of the art department and gallery, was a bronze statue of heroic-scale: a masterful female figure, nude from the hips up, posed on one knee. While it was worthy of interest for its own sake, what caught my eye was the signature at the base: Zorach. The name meant more to me than to a casual observer. I had studied at the Art Students League of New York in the 1990s and served as a monitor for Sidney Simon, who introduced me to the work of William Zorach. Simon spoke of Zorach as his distinguished predecessor, though there were thirteen years between Zorach’s retirement, in 1960, and Simon’s hiring, in 1973. While a student, I had restored the surface and renewed the patina of Zorach’s plaster of Ben Franklin, which stood in the vestibule of the first floor studios. Moreover, I suspected I had heard echoes of Zorach’s art teaching even though he had left over thirty years before I arrived. Instruction at the League was like the clay one took from the bins. While fresh was continually added, some of what one found there remained from decades past.I felt a personal connection with that bronze in Machias by virtue of my New York experience, and wondered how it had come to be there. Sidney Simon, a founder of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, had said Zorach taught a few summers at that institution, so I knew he had ties to Maine. I also knew Zorach had maintained a studio in Brooklyn, where another of Sidney’s students, Gary Sussman, had reassembled the pieces of Zorach’s Ben Franklin statue. It is a long way from Machias, a small coastal city twenty miles from the Canadian border. Here was a mystery.

william zorach spirit of the sea
Spirit of the Sea, 1960. Bronze maquette, 28 in. Photograph: William Zorach 1887–1966, A Retrospective Exhibition of Major Sculptures (1968), plate 46.

Five years later, in April 2010, I visited the library at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where a pair of Zorach’s bronze pumas flank a passage in the West Building. I discovered from a catalogue there that Zorach maintained a residence and studio in Georgetown, Maine. He had also received an honorary degree from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where my parents had recently moved. With heightened purpose, I visited Bowdoin College’s fabulous Walker Museum of Art. This time, I paused an extra minute before Zorach’s granite head of his wife, Marguerite. On the way out I mentioned my interest to the receptionist, who told me the sculptor’s daughter lived in the area and that I should contact her by phone. That evening I spoke to Dahlov Ipcar, who, I was to learn, is a leading Maine artist, and a story in herself. She knew the Machias piece and its name, The Spirit of the Sea. She also suggested I find and read her father’s autobiography, Art is My Life (1967).This book answered many questions. Zorach’s family fled anti-Semitism in Lithuania when William was six and settled in the slums of Cleveland, Ohio. He could draw well and trained in a lithographic shop, but broke away at eighteen to study at the National Academy of Design in New York. At twenty-two, he went to Paris where he met his future wife, Marguerite. He made his first sculpture in 1921 at the age of thirty-four. The following year he bought a house and land at Robinhood Cove in Georgetown, Maine and maintained his legal residence there, though he also kept a house and studio in Brooklyn. To supplement his income from sculpture he took a post at the Art Students League in 1929, which he held until 1960. The book told much but not the whole story of the statue in Machias. Spirit of the Sea was apparently a duplicate of a work Zorach made in 1961 for the City of Bath, Maine. This, the first cast, stands newly restored in a park opposite the Patten Free Library about eight miles from my parent’s place in Brunswick. The piece is analogous to a work the sculptor had made three decades earlier for Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, Spirit of the Dance, and not in name only. Both are female figures of a similar scale who rest on one knee. If standing they would be nine feet tall. As their names and ideal features suggest, they come from the realm of icon and archetype. They are larger than life, and their histories are similar. In 1930 Zorach was asked to submit drawings for a work to grace the lobby of what was to be Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center. It was during the Depression, so only $850 was available, enough for a thirty-six-inch figure. Zorach made a model, but soon realized it was far too small for the intended space. He scaled it up to over six feet for free just to give the project a fitting piece. Cast in aluminum to save money, it stands to this day. Thirty years later the Bath Garden Club approached the sculptor for advice on creating a fountain to enhance a small pond in the city park. On reflection, Zorach offered to design and make a figurative fountain, the centerpiece of which was to be Spirit of the Sea. He would donate his time and talent if funds for casting and other costs could be raised. Between his sculpting and a good many bake sales and raffles, the project came to fruition and stands, recently refurbished, in Library Square Park today.

william zorach spirit of the sea
William Zorach, Spirit of the Dance, 1932. Aluminum cast, 6 ft 6 in. Radio City Music Hall, New York City, 1932. Reproduction from Art Is My Life, plate 32.

While the Spirit of the Dance (1932) and the Spirit of the Sea (1962) are akin in many ways, their differences are telling. The earlier figure strikes a complex and elegant pose. Spiraling subtly to the left, the classically proportioned dancer takes a knee as if curtsying at the conclusion of her act. Behind her, she hangs a drapery from either arm, which suggests a stage curtain. Her refinement suits the intended setting, a showcase for performing arts regularly inundated with sophisticated metropolitans. Zorach gambled on their tolerance in making her wholly nude, a bet he nearly lost when the piece was refused and removed for a time on that score. In contrast, Spirit of the Sea strikes a simpler pose, wholly frontal but for the right-turned head. It is simpler, but more dynamic: a feeling of action derives from the strong left oblique of its basic shape, which from the main view is not a static isosceles, but an irregular triangle. The right profile undulates, wavelike, from lowered knee to upraised hand; the left bends angularly like a jagged coast. Where they meet, at the apex, the cupped hands suggest waves breaking on a shore. The bold figure befits a work intended to face the elements of coastal Maine. Here, Zorach took no chances with the townspeople of Bath, draping his figure from the hips in a rather aqueous skirt. Iconography and audience account for some of the differences between the two works. Others reflect changes in the artist and his outlook. Zorach was forty-three and at the height of his energy when he made the Rockefeller Center piece. His drive must have been extraordinary as he made the mold and cast the plaster himself. The complex design necessitated casting in several pieces and re-assemblage: a colossal undertaking. Thirty years later, at seventy-three, he might have considered casting as he designed Spirit of the Sea. Here, the drapery, which would have been cast separately for the earlier work, simplifies the job: a three-piece mold could well have sufficed to cast this piece.

“To me, direct sculpture is greater than modeled sculpture,” Zorach wrote. “Its problems are greater and its possibilities of creative expression are deeper: more goes into it, not just in time and work, but in creative thought and feeling.”

The shift from the open format of the Spirit of the Dance may also reflect the sculptor’s predilection for stone carving. When he made the earlier piece, Zorach had only been sculpting for nine years and was still exploring the art’s many branches. In any case, consideration of carving must have been far from his mind. The open pose, with the enormous projection of the raised thigh, and the extension of lowered leg and foot far beyond the torso mass, make a design that would have been most uneconomical to carve. Later in his career, Zorach’s preference for direct carving came increasingly to the fore. Gary Sussman said that Zorach, if he had had the choice, would have carved stone exclusively. And Zorach himself wrote in his autobiography, “In the last years I’ve gotten so involved in stone and get so much pleasure out of it that I think in stone.”

william zorach spirit of the sea
William Zorach, Bestowal or Kneeling Girl, 1947. Bronze cast taken from a stone carving, 20 in. Collection of Mrs. Dahlov Ipcar. Photo: Rick Beckjord.

Spirit of the Sea recalls a carving from the late 1940s, the Bestowal, or Kneeling Girl, which I know from a bronze cast in the collection of the artist’s daughter. Both are female figures on one knee. Zorach favored carving figures on one knee—another example is his granite Football Player (1931) at Bowdoin College—and with good reason. Many well-proportioned blocks are too squat to accommodate a standing figure, yet too tall for a seated figure; for such, a kneeling figure is a good bet. A pose on one knee offers more variety than one on two. For such a figure the raised lower limb presents a design challenge as its projection invariably pushes the boundary of the block. It certainly was a major element in Spirit of the Dance. In the Bestowal, Zorach kept the wayward knee within bounds by the simple expedient of making the thigh shorter than in nature. The device apparently so pleased him that he had an edition of six casts made from the stone, and later used it in his design for Spirit of the Sea, in which the raised upper thigh is likewise disproportionately short. “To me, direct sculpture is greater than modeled sculpture,” Zorach wrote. “Its problems are greater and its possibilities of creative expression are deeper: more goes into it, not just in time and work, but in creative thought and feeling.” While he clearly favored the direct approach, throughout his career he undertook commissions that required  committee approval. In these instances, he made a scale model, and then, upon approval, a full-scale enlargement. This was his expedient for both Spirit of the Dance and Spirit of the Sea. The latter is a straightforward enlargement of the twenty-eight-inch maquette he presented to the Bath Committee. Scaling it up was a big job, but mechanical rather than creative. The result, in his mind, almost necessarily lacked the charm of his direct work. Having enlarged the Rockefeller Center piece in clay, and cast it in plaster for free, Zorach ordered a second cast in bronze in hopes of a sale. He also had his thirty-six inch model cast in an edition of eight. The second full-scale cast toured art museums in the U.S. as far as the West Coast, garnering plaudits but no offers to buy. Zorach finally shipped the piece to his own property in Maine and set it up, where it overlooks Robinhood Cove today. I guessed that William Zorach, having also taken no money for making the Bath piece, likewise ordered a second bronze in hopes of eventual sale. I know that he ordered an edition of six maquettes. He made no mention of such a cast in his book, however. The good ladies of the Bath Garden Club were unaware of a duplicate, and, as one appeared in Machias, there was a local uproar.  They evidently thought that, having worked so hard to raise casting funds, the piece was to be theirs and theirs only. The University of Maine at Machias was able to tell me that they received Spirit of the Sea in 1988. Could it have been made as late as that date, twenty-two years after the sculptor’s death? The Zorach family records had no answer as they typically do not include dates of duplicates.

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