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Duane Hanson - Biography and Legacy

American Sculptor

Born: January 17, 1925 - Minnesota, United States
Died: January 6, 1996 - Florida, United States
Movements and Styles:
Pop Art
American Realism

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.

Late Period

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".

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Content compiled and written by Esme Blair

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Duane Hanson Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Esme Blair
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 14 Jun 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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