David Adams
David Adams

Guest Editorial: Lux Ex NihilO

Let me tell you about a hero.

In a culture sick with nihilism and irrationality, he fought for beauty and meaning. He fought against those who proclaimed his work worthless — because it displayed talent. He fought committees and critics and defied the entrenched esthetics of a century. He fought for what he recognized as vital to human life — and he triumphed.

When Frederick Hart died on August 13, 1999, he had become arguably America's most successful sculptor. His work graces memorials, cathedrals, and hundreds of private collections. And, like an improbable fountain of fresh water in a desert, his work is unlike most any other created today: it is lifelike, technically exquisite, and breathtaking in its exalted realism — the antithesis of modern "abstract" sculpture. His sculpture, at once classically informed and daringly innovative, has reached an enormous audience most artists today never bother to seek: the general public.

In 1968, only 25 years old, Frederick Hart took a job as a clerk at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Before living in Washington, he had grown up in Atlanta, where he had been a high school dropout, a juvenile delinquent — and a prodigy, gaining admission to the University of South Carolina at age 16 by scoring 35 out of 36 on the A.C.T. college entrance exam. But college didn't last, and his interests turned to art, where he discovered untapped talent. In Washington, that talent surged.

At first, the National Cathedral's master carver, Roger Morigi, did not take seriously Hart's request to become an apprentice. But Hart was not dissuaded. Familiar with the crew, he began to borrow their tools and to work on scrap bits of stone. Morigi could not long ignore the talent in this precocious young man, and at last agreed to an apprenticeship. It paid off.

Three years later, Morigi encouraged Hart to enter an international competition to design vast bas reliefs for the Cathedral's west façade, on the theme of Creation. Hart won — and the work's tremendous centerpiece, Ex Nihilo, a sensuous tableau of human figures emerging from a void, has become famous. Its arching, vibrant forms, flesh alive in stone, were to become the trademark of all of Hart's sculpture.

Eager to see response to a project which had taken 11 years to complete, Hart watched newspapers and art magazines. There was no mention of the work. Flabbergasted, and thinking even a harsh attack would be better than silence, Hart began to identify an attitude against which he was to fight for the rest of his life. The art world, a small, self-appointed elite based almost solely in New York City, had no patience with the kind of art that Frederick Hart produced. In contrast to the meaningless slabs of rock, the blobs composed of an artist's feces, the contorted twists of wire and haphazard placement of concrete blocks — in contrast to everything that was the establishment in "serious art," Hart's work displayed three heretical qualities: talent, meaning, and beauty.

In 1982, Hart entered a second competition — this time to design a large memorial to the Americans who had died in the Vietnam War. Hart's entry displayed a soldier atop a semicircular wall, kneeling by a fallen comrade, desperately looking around for help. At the other end, another soldier is shown rushing to their aid. Again, Hart captured in stone something vivid, urgent, and alive. But the judging committee, made up of members of the artistic elite, chose a different entry: a stark wall, the only feature of which was that it was shaped as a gigantic "V."

Controversy ensued, with veterans livid that their heroism and loss should be memorialized by something so arbitrary and absurd. As a compromise, Hart was asked to design an ornamental sculpture — and he created the three soldiers who stand, as if just emerging from the jungle, to stare bewildered at the black wall covered with the names of the dead. Like Ex Nihilo, this quietly dramatic sculpture has become renowned.

Hart understood the difference between his work and the absurd, meaningless show put on by most other artists around him. He fought everything they represented, explicitly championing a celebration of beauty, of form, of realism, of art whose potency was in its ability to communicate — and to nourish the spirits of those who beheld it. One of his later works, a series of female figures entitled The Daughters of Odessa, was Hart's expression of the "martyrs of modernism" — of all that was lost in a century of inhumanity and irrationality. The young girls stand tall, their gowns flowing, arms open, expressing a poignant innocence and a breathtaking grace. As with all of Hart's work, they offer beauty, they stir the soul, and they will outlast all the fads of darker times.

Though the critics snubbed him and other artists snarled at Hart's talent and popularity, it is the public which has avenged him. For in his fight against the meaningless and the ugly, Hart prevailed. While the work of abstract sculptors is briefly gasped and gawked at by an incestuous elite, and then forgotten, Hart's work has captured the adoration of a wide audience. Castings of his figures continue to sell impressively, and his largest sculptures have become major attractions. They are loved not by the "art world," but by thousands of individuals who come not to impress their friends, but to be intimately inspired by figures in stone — figures which, through some amazing alchemy which was Hart's incredible talent, seem to pulse with life.

Hart's crusade, and its implications for what art should be, is best summarized by his own words:

"Today's art has given us nothing that bears the slightest resemblance to our own lives, touches our fears and cares, evokes our dreams, or gives hope in time of darkness. Today's art is no longer a part of life, no longer in the domain of the common man, no longer an enriching, ennobling and vital partner in the public pursuit of civilization, no longer the majestic presence in everyday life that it was in the past. It is not that the public has failed art; it is art which has failed the public."

Frederick Hart championed what is so viciously scorned today: form, meaning, and an exalted view of man — and offered it to a public starved for such values. His is now the most popular contemporary sculpture in the country, as thousands are moved by what a man pulled to life from stone. Fighting against a tyranny of ugliness and destruction, Frederick Hart created beauty, and won.

Photos of Hart's work are available at www.frederickhart.com.

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe?