Summary of Duane Hanson
As one of the most successful American sculptors of the twentieth century, Hanson achieved acclaim during the 1970s through a hyperrealistic style that overlapped with the Photo Realist movement. He is associated specifically with a series of uncanny life-size models of working-class American citizens which he modelled in painted polyvinyl, fiberglass resin and bronze. Hanson's sculptures are celebrated for their meticulous attention to detail which included such features as real hair, fingernails, raised veins and various skin blemishes. Dressing his figures in workers uniforms, or clothes bought from thrift stores, he helped to further define the status of his subjects through the appropriation of various found props. Some critics scorned Hanson as a populist and satirist but to his many supporters he was a sincere humanist whose declared goal was to use his art to make "a statement about human values".
- Hanson cast his sculptures from live models, many of them friends and family members, before assembling and dressing them in the desired dress or uniform. Rather than portraits, his figures represented types and it was (in addition to the skill required to render them in the first instance) their "ordinariness" that made them stand out within the gallery setting. It was often noted that, because his sculptures were so life-like, and because they were never elevated above eye-level on plinths, gallery patrons would often try to interact with them.
- Gallery audiences, who might have felt more comfortable contemplating the sheen of the white marble flesh of Roman/Greco gods and goddesses, were taken aback by the sallow, unhealthy, plastic (yet very realistic-looking) flesh that characterized some of Hanson's most famous sculptures. Asked first to consider the lifestyles of people who might have otherwise remained invisible in their everyday surroundings, Hanson's sculpture also presented Americans with a vision of how they might be viewed as a nation by outsiders.
- Hanson was not trying to trick his audience into thinking his figures were somehow real. His intention was rather to illicit a sense of connectivity between these everyday American "types" and the people who came to view them. Some critics, however, read his pieces as satire because there was a humorous quality to be had by (dis)placing his figures in surroundings (the gallery) that were unfamiliar to them. But humor notwithstanding, Hanson's intentions always remained true to his empathetic worldview.
- With early works that featured groups of figures typically placed in a tableaux, Hanson produced a series of disturbing and violent (Abortion (1966) and Football Players (1969), for instance) sculptures that many critics likened to the work of Edward Kienholz. Unlike his later (and kinder) humanist pieces, these confrontational works carried explicit and implicit social commentaries and, because of this, they sit closer in the timeline of Realism to 19th-century French artists Honore Daumier and Jean-François Millet than the 19th century trompe l'oeil American painter John Frederick Peto (all three of whom Hanson cited as influences).
Important Art by Duane Hanson
Muddied and in mid-action, this life-size pyramid of American footballers is frozen at the moment before it is about to topple into a heap. It's an image quite familiar to most football fields. The viewer might be able to speculate on how the action will play out if it was not for the fact that Hanson has omitted the football from the sculpture. It could be, in fact, that the three players are engaged in an off-ball tussle. Though it is a scenario that audiences will have witnessed many times before, Hanson's hyperrealistic treatment of his twisted figures is rather disconcerting having been removed from the context of the playing field.
Hanson cast these sculptures from live models before assembling and dressing them in their carefully selected uniforms. The surface texture of his sculptures was so meticulously rendered that they were even adorned with hairs, bruises and veins. Created in the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and in lieu of the fact that Hanson was operating in the era of Pop Art, it is possible (tempting, even) to read the piece as being analogous with the violence and confrontation that had become a part of day-to-day American life.
The Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in Vienna has given this work pride of place in its collection and claims that there is an underlying violence that disguises itself in sports uniforms in order to act out naked aggression. Indeed, throughout the 1960s Hanson had been making work of a more visceral kind with sculptures depicting content such as the mafia, a murder victim and a bicycle accident. There is a perfect tension between pretense and reality in this and other works inasmuch as Hanson has undergone several complicated processes in order to emulate a convincing trio of figures. The overall effect is a scene that appears to barely have been choreographed at all. Produced in 1969, Football Vignette marked something of a turning point in Hanson's career. It was one of the last of these more sensationalist pieces before he shifted focus onto more mundane aspects of contemporary American life.
Fiberglass, polyester, original clothing - Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna
This woman is looking a little disheveled. Her legs have bruise marks, her face is pimpled, her clothes are worn, her hair unkempt, and the table at which she sits is cluttered. One is left to wonder how to read this woman. She has bags at her feet, one of which is filled with groceries such as branded pasta and corn flakes. This is a strong allusion to Pop Art which very often represented everyday brands and packaging in an ironic way (as fine art). But the work seems more earnest - more compassionate - in the way it presents its audience with a narrative enigma: what has happened to our protagonist and/or what fate is about to befall her? A story pieces itself together in the minds of the audience who become engrossed in the life of an overweight working-class woman who would likely remain anonymous in the average fast-food diner.
This sculpture used a live model which Hanson then cast using fiberglass and resin before bringing her to life through layers of oil paint. He then dresses his model in actual clothes and accessories, which he usually acquired from thrift stores. Where one might have expected Hanson to use synthetic hair, moreover, he actually applied the human hairs piece by piece to the plastic skin on her head.
Although gallery audiences might be more accustomed to the shimmering white marble flesh of Roman/Greco sculptures, the skin on Hanson's model is pallid and unhealthy, and is perhaps an afront to the standards of beauty passed down from the ages of antiquity. Hanson stated, "the subject matter that I like best deals with the familiar lower-and-middle-class American types of today. To me, the resignation, emptiness, and loneliness of their existence captures the true reality of life for these people ... I want to achieve a certain tough realism which speaks of the fascinating idiosyncrasies of our times". Seen this way, the sculpture also provides the American viewer with a kind of mirror image and they could, if so inclined, be given to wonder how they might be perceived by outsiders, not as individuals, but as a nation.
Polyester resin and fiberglass with oil and acrylic paints and found accessories - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
Hanson's life-size figures reached new heights of realism with his Museum Guard. Expected to be quiet and unmoving (as he is) it's easy to imagine that this sculpture could go completely unnoticed. As with his other sculptures, the guard is uncannily lifelike: the head was modelled on his wife Wesla's uncle and the mottled skin featured individual hairs and even age spots on the hands. Unlike most of his other figures, however, Museum Guard is one of the few Hanson works that truly blends into the museum context, bringing his meticulously created illusion to its zenith. The guard is a kind of silent voyeur, unflinching and watchful, confined to his role as a museum guard for all eternity. He is aged, perhaps he has been in his job since his youth. He is even adorned with the badge of the museum - The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas - that was worn by the living museum guards employed there.
The model's grey hair, impassive facial impression, and sagging posture go against the history of figurative sculpture. Unlike marble roman nudes, or even a bronze commemoration of a political victory, Hanson's museum guard is utterly ordinary. And it is his "ordinariness" that endears him to us (should we be so observant as to be able to spot him, of course); our guard is both the viewer and the viewed. On the subject of this sculpture, Hanson spoke of his intention to break down barriers between the visitor and the museum and his guard elicited different reactions from different visitors. Very often the public would walk up to the museum guard and attempt to interact with him, embarrassed or amused as soon as they realize the mistake. Writer Danielle James wrote, Hanson's figures are "captured pensive and dissatisfied, dreaming about a different reality while in uniform for their less than desired day job. All of Hanson's figures seem to be searching for or dreaming of satisfaction".
Polyester, Fiberglass, Oil and Vinyl - Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas
Although he renders his sculptures as lifelike as possible, Hanson's hyperrealistic figures were not the upshot of an artist trying to convince his audience of his great technical skill or that his figures are somehow real. The intention is rather to illicit in the spectator a sense of empathy with his American "every-people". As such, one can claim that Hanson's work is humanist rather than critical or parodic. Indeed, this pair of everyday sun-tanned travelers stand in a gallery setting that suddenly feels warmer and brighter because of their presence. Nevertheless, placing people in surroundings that are unfamiliar to them is a trope well known to situation comedy and there is certainly a humorous quality to Hanson's displaced tourists. As writer Danielle James said, "Hanson's travelers [...] overweight and dressed in bold obnoxious patterns, are caught in a brief moment of inactivity. They look startlingly solitary considering the crowds generally associated with their activities".
This work was in fact the second Tourist iteration, the first dating back to 1970. Hanson explained that his figures were inspired by a trip he had taken to Hawaii where he himself had dressed in bold colors and patterns. Hanson's tourists appear over-prepared and underwhelmed by their surroundings and, like all of his sculptures, the couple are not placed on a plinth. The spectator engages with these disorientated travelers at eye level. James (citing Marinescu) writes, "The sculptures seem to be daring people to look at them at the same time as challenging the viewer to politely avoid staring [they] provide the viewer with the opportunity to ignore the 'rules of appropriate social proximity and etiquette' and 'approach the lifelike sculptures and stare, visually dissecting them and transgressing boundaries otherwise respected in the everyday life'. The sculptures are rendered with such a high level of realism that this still feels taboo, but it feels less invasive than 'visually dissecting' scenes of helpless figures in need of assistance" (as was his preference in his 1960s pieces).
Auto body filler, fibreglass and mixed media, with accessories life size - Saatchi Gallery, London
Hanson's hyperrealism works often trick the eye and the artist has spoken of his fascination with tromp l'oeil painters such as John Frederick Peto. But this knowledge rather belies the fact that his sculptures also offer a more reflective experience through their humanist qualities. As he said, "In the turmoil of everyday life, we too seldom become aware of one another. In the quiet moments in which you observe my work, maybe you will recognise the universality of all people".
Queenie II is one of the few Hanson figures to be given a name. This effects our relationship with her as we feel perhaps more engaged, able to form a picture of her personal life, her background, her characteristics to which her facial expression and somewhat belligerent demeanor give us clues. As the Saatchi Gallery described it, "Queenie can be understood on one level as the personification of all those resigned-looking women who drag their bodies around in pursuit of the mess created by the rest of us. But we are made to confront the fact that such women, who are usually invisible and ignored, are not just faceless domestics".
The majority of Queenie's body has been constructed from bronze; its "heaviness" emphasizing her deportment and Hanson used the same cast for his female Tourist (produced in the same year). The work is in fact closer in tone to Hanson's Museum Guard inasmuch as their identities are tied to their uniforms. James makes the point that "The themes of loneliness and isolation that Hanson tackled with his sculptures are complex and can be overlooked when viewing his work, as the hyperrealism [and] humor [...] often steal the attention". The novelist Douglas Coupland was more interested in how gallery audiences related to the works, "watching viewers interact with his forms is just as much a part of experiencing his work as admiring it on its own. It's very different from seeing mannequins at the mall or model displays in anthropology museums".
Polychromed bronze, with accessories - Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York
This teenager is bedecked in the surfer "uniform" of luminous trunks. These compliment the garish design on the surfboard that defines him. He adopts the pose of a self-aware teenager, right hand placed on his hip; left hand supporting his upright, fluorescently colored board. His gaze does not engage the viewer in this instance. Rather he is looking into the distance, searching the horizon, perhaps, for the perfect wave. Compared to many of his earlier pieces, Surfer is a somewhat minimalist piece. Since all of his figures are abstracted from their natural surroundings, added narrational details are provided in the shape of props which here is limited to just one item: a surfboard. Abstracted in this way, the viewer is asked to ponder a stereotype of that most complex of individuals: the adolescent.
While the sculpture reflects the current consumer culture and its celebration of sportswear, which fitted well with the 1980's preoccupation with outdoor pursuits and physical wellbeing, it also holds personal significance in that the model is Hanson's son. In fact, Hanson often called on family and friends to model for his sculptures (his children Maja and Duane helped out with Children Playing Game (1979), Child with Puzzle (1978), Cheerleader (1988)) but it is not a family portrait as such. It reads rather as a paean to an often misunderstood generation. As Bruce Katsiff, Director of James A. Michener Art Museum wrote: "Artists can expand our understanding of the world in many different ways. Sometimes they introduce us to exotic people and distant vistas; sometimes they offer a vision of a more beautiful and perfect universe. But sometimes artists open our eyes to the world as it is, simply by showing us things that we pass by every day but have never truly seen or understood. Duane Hanson's sculptures help us to see - to know and value the forgotten souls who toil quietly around us in a culture that offers little recognition of their work and their dignity".
Polyvinyl, polychromed in oil, mixed media, with accessories - Phillips, London
Biography of Duane Hanson
Hanson was born to Swedish immigrants Dewey O. Hanson and Agnes Nelson Hanson. They owned and ran a dairy farm in Minnesota and would supply milk for the local town which was, according to Hanson, small and rather conservative. He recalled in an interview with director of the Smithsonian, Liza Kirwin, how he attended the local Lutheran church with other Swedish Minnesotans. However, compared to others in the community, the Hansons only held a "smattering" of religious faith which allowed Duane greater personal freedoms than others in his peer group. As an only child, too, Hanson spent long hours in his own company. He occupied his time working with his hands, often creating wood carvings. He produced his first notable wood sculpture, based on Thomas Gainsborough's, The Blue Boy (1770), aged just 13.
As World War Two was reaching its apex, Hanson saw many of his age group join the draft. Hanson was declared unfit for military service due to allergies and enrolled instead at Luthor College in Iowa. Having already attended a high-school that "had only three art books" in its library, the new college turned out to be even less well equipped and lacked any kind of arts training at all. Luckily, his parents moved their small family for a two-year spell in Seattle where Hanson was able to join painting and design programs and study art history. He recalled an influential teacher, the wood sculptor Dudley Carter, who was involved with the exciting "Art in Action" exhibitions during the 1940s, and was directly associated with the influential Mexican artist Diego Rivera.
Early Training and Work
In 1945 Hanson returned to Minnesota to attend Macalester College, from where he later graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Soon thereafter, he took up a teaching post in Idaho where he met his future wife, a medical student called Janice Roche. It was an exciting time for Hanson. On top of a burgeoning romance he had also held his first solo exhibition (in Iowa). The exhibition convinced him to apply to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan from where he graduated with a Masters' Degree in Fine Art in 1951. He recalled that this was a time before sculptors had discovered welding and so he carried on the sculptural tradition of modelling and carving under the teaching of professors such as Carl Milles (who himself had studied under Rodin in Paris). Hanson was thus engaged with the art of figuration which, though considered "old hat", led him eventually into the sphere of hyperrealism.
Hanson emerged from art school while Abstract Expressionism was at full-tilt. He said that he had tried to latch onto the movement but his training hadn't equipped him with the free-flowing instincts of the action painters. He nevertheless moved to Greenwich, Connecticut to be nearer to the New York City art scene. A close proximity to New York meant that Janice could also pursue her dream of becoming a professional singer. She also fell pregnant while in Greenwich with their first child, a son.
Alas, their preferred careers did not take off and Janice continued her training as a doctor. Disenchanted with the "American dream", the Hansons headed for Europe where they spent seven years in Germany (four years in Munich; three in Bremerhaven) working (Hanson as an art teacher) in the U.S. army school system. The couple had two more children in Germany. It was also during this period, as Historian Lisa S. Wainwright notes, that Hanson met George Grygo. The two men were working as art teachers and Hanson took great interest in Grygo's use of resins and polyester. Attracted to their novelty and finish, Hanson spotted the potential to incorporate these materials into his own practice. Hanson's new voyage of discovery coincided with his family's return to America. The Hanson's settled this time in Atlanta and, although disillusioned with Abstract Expressionism, Hanson found himself much more comfortable with the rise of Pop Art. Though re-galvanized in his art, his marriage collapsed in acrimony in 1965 with Janice taking custody of their three children.
Abandoned by his family, Hanson moved to Miami and started teaching at a Junior College. He noted that artists such as George Segal and Edward Kienholz were producing life-like figures that were making a great impression on him. Hanson started to produce visceral pieces in this vein, his first of note being Abortion - a white cloth veils a life-size version of a woman in the early stages of pregnancy - in 1966. He felt strongly about legalizing abortion and submitted the piece in the annual Sculptors of Florida exhibition. The work drew strong negative reactions and lead to Hanson being banned from working on his sculptures in the College studio. This reaction didn't derail Hanson's ambitions, however. In 1967, he made his first casts from live models and created works that made social and political statements. The writer Danielle James said of these early works, "[Hanson] experimented with sculptures of homeless people, motorcycle accidents, and politically charged subjects including a police officer kicking a black man and scenes of death during war [that forced] the viewer to play the role of helpless voyeur [and forced them to] see people in vulnerable and difficult situations without the ability to assist". Works such as Gangland Victim and Motorcycle Accident were exhibited (to public protest) at the Bicardi Museum in Miami but Hanson was still finding critical and commercial success hard to come by. As James put it, "the nature of being more confrontational" made his sculptures "less inviting [because there was] less focus on the individual and their psyche than on the scene they find themselves in".
Hanson married Wesla Host, a schoolteacher from Florida, in 1968 and the couple moved to New York a year later. With a new marriage and in new surroundings, Hanson started to create what he called his "sculptures of life". With these pieces he began to shift his content away from political commentaries towards the banality of contemporary American life. His new subjects were, in his words, "fatigued, aging and psychologically handicapped", adding that, "For me, the resignation, emptiness, and loneliness of their existence captures the true reality of life for these people [...] In portraying this aspect of life I want to achieve a certain tough realism, which speaks of the fascinating idiosyncrasies of our time". With a new momentum around his work starting to build, Hanson caught the attention of the leading gallerist, Leo Castelli, who took some of his pieces in 1969. He also exhibited in a group show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the same year.
London's Serpentine Gallery claims that his first foray into hyperreal sculptures, made of casts from real human bodies, was his late sixties piece, Football Vignette (1969). In 1970 he produced what would be career-defining works such as Tourists and Supermarket Shopper. These were rendered with the such heights of realism Hanson was being compared with America's emerging photo-realist painters. Curator Imma Ramos has compared his figures to the religious polychrome sculptures of the Baroque period, but Hanson's realism was executed with such exactitude it gave his sculptures an added uncanny quality.
Wesla gave birth to daughter in 1970 but a year later Hanson was treated successfully for cancer (which he put down to one or both of the toxic plasticized materials he was using in his art and/or the fact that he had had survived the stress of a hostile divorce that had seen him alienated from his children). In 1972 Hanson, who was by now featuring regularly at the O. K. Harris Gallery in Manhattan, featured in the Documenta 5 exposition in Kassel, West Germany, which brought him his first taste of international recognition. Wesla gave birth to their second child in 1973 and, in 1974, he enjoyed, on the back of the Documenta 5 exposition, a hugely successful retrospective tour of Europe which included a six month spell in Berlin. His change in fortunes also coincided with his mended relationship with his children from his first marriage.
With his cancer in full remission, Hanson and his family escaped the claustrophobic setting of New York City (and the fumigated studio setting) and moved to Florida - New York is "more of a synthetic world; this is the real world" he said - where the artists spent the rest of his life. His work became more overtly compassionate, treating subjects such as fatigued waitresses with great empathy. By now, Hanson was working solely in the hyperreal style with each work taking several months to complete due to the demands of achieving the required levels of detail. Indeed, his revised outlook on life put him at odds with his early, more sensationalist works, many of which were destroyed in a studio fire (rumored to have been deliberately started by Hanson). His new audience became so beguiled by his uncanny characters that in 1978 the magazine Art in America reported on the new phenomenon of "Hanson Mania". Hanson rounded of the decade with the post of a Professorship at the University of Miami in 1979.
Hanson had been using instant photographs as a sketching tool since the mid-to-late 1970s. As art critic Dan Piepenbring observed, he created over 1,000 Polaroids in his career which was his "medium of choice for testing the accuracy of his simulations, seeing if they passed the smell test [and] maybe tweaking the arc of an eyebrow or the pivot of a foot". Looking at the four angles in Car Dealer, for instance, Piepenbring noted "you can see him fine-tuning the man's ratio of desperation to blustery confidence: breathing life into a seedy stereotype. The beauty Hanson spoke of breaks through".
Moving into the 1980s, Hanson continued to create his uncanny figures but with a sports-spectator theme. Ramos and others have compared these to waxwork figures but with a removed contemplation and a lack of desire to please. His subjects were working class Americans (rather than historical figures) but he treated them with the same sense of heroic reverence. His fortunes had by now improved dramatically. He bought the neighboring plot to his family house on the back of numerous domestic and international exhibitions. Hanson had achieved that rare skill of producing art that appealed to the universality of the human experience, attracting admirers from different age groups, different classes and different professions. In 1983 he received an award from the state of Florida for "Ambassador of the Arts". This was one of many honorary titles he received, including even a "Duane Hanson day" by Broward County in Florida in 1987.
Hanson started to explore sculpting in Bronze as well as casting his children (both of whom wore blank expressions in 1987 works such as Cheerleader and Surfer). In 1994 the Montreal Museum of Fine arts showed a retrospective of Hanson 's work that went on to tour in Texas and then around Japan. He continued to work on new sculptures until he became severely ill with his second bout of cancer. Hanson died in 1976 at Boca Community Hospital in Florida from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma aged 70.
The Legacy of Duane Hanson
Hanson's life-sized models have seen him linked to artists such as John de Andrea and George Segal while his appropriation of every-day found objects have drawn comparisons with Pop artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. His commercial success notwithstanding, novelist Douglas Coupland placed Hanson amongst that breed of artist, like Vincent van Gogh and F Scott Fitzgerald, who didn't get the critical respect they deserved until they had died. Though hugely popular with the public, figurative sculpture was in Hanson's lifetime "academically anathema" while his popular appeal (likened by some to the fame of Norman Rockwell) made him "critically suspect"; the "transient political fashions" leaving him "without a full sense of artistic community".
With his reputation restored, curator Marco Livingstone has observed that Hanson has had an influence on other figurative artists includes Jeff Koons, Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, and Maurizio Cattelan. He has been compared favourably, too, to the French Realists in the way that his art lionized those subjects who were underrepresented in the canons of modern art. The precision at which he (and his French predecessors) excelled reminded us of the universality of the human condition. As writer Danielle James put it, "By sculpting generalized figures instead of specific people, Hanson was able to offer a commentary on the human experience [...] a sculpture of a generalized, slightly caricatured, housewife could speak to the experience of all housewives instead of just the experience of the specific human the cast was made from". Coupland perhaps offered the greatest tribute of all when he remarked that the loneliness of Hanson's figures are "almost achingly beautiful [and] reminiscent of a fellow American unique, Edward Hopper".
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Duane Hanson
- Superrealist Painting & SculptureBy Christine Lindey
- Duane Hanson: More Than RealityOur PickEdited by Otto Letze and Thomas Buchsteiner
- Duane Hanson: Sculptures of the American DreamBy Lotte Sophie Lederballe, Thomas Buchsteiner and Keith Hartley