The vision beyond the describable is the realm of non-representational art. — Wassily Kandinsky
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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.
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.