The art of Fritz Wotruba has dated very quickly. He thought himself a modernist, a champion of th new, and for nearly half a century he struggled towards abstraction. But his victories were minor. What strikes one first about his blocklike statues at the Phollips, is how old-fashioned they now seem.
They are dependent on the past, on its moods and its materials. Wotruba chiseled plaster, as if carving chunks of stone, and he liked to give his bronzes dull, antiqued patinas. Despite the vaguely modern look of their blunt components, their piled blocks and columns. Wotruba's statues bring to mind armless Grecian statues and the rumins of old Rome.
Wotruba (1907-1975) was born, and died, in Vienna. His politics were liberal. (During World War I he spat on portraits of the Kaiser, he fled to neutral Switzerland during World War II). He was an inflential teacher. His works are repetitious, they have his handwriting about them. The Austrians regard him as their Henry Moore.
Moore's reclining figures, with their shadowed voids, their flowing curves, somehow seem to blend England's rounded landscape and the human figure. Wotruba said that "man as architecture" was his main concern. The phrase sounds nice and neat, but ponder it a moment and its emptiness appears.
If you tried constructing statues with junk found on a building site - that brick becomes a foot, three bricks make a thigh - your human figures would resemble those of Fritz Wotruba. The Wotruba-Kirche, the church that he designed, looks less like a building than a decorative pile of building blocks. His sculpture is not weak, his drawings sometimes charm, but this is minor art.
The Wotruba retrospective, which is touring under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, looks better at the Phillips Collection than it will elsewhere.
Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, the museum's founders, liked painting more than sculpture, and subtle colors more than heavy bronze or stone. Their collection stresses painting, and tends to ignore scultpure, a situation both corrected - and explained - by the Wotruba show.
Duncan Phillips, too, liked works of art that merged devolution of tradition. The partners that he most admired - Cezanne, Bonnard, Augustus Vincent Tack - remained loyal to old forms, to landscape and the figure, even as they struggled towards the realm of abstract art. Because his eye was fine, Duncan Phillips would not have overpraised Wotruba, but he would have seen the sculptor as an ally in the fight for a humane abstraction rooted in the past.
Laughlin Phillips, Duncan's son and the director of the Phillips, has somehow managed to present a series of exhibits - the Canadian "Group of Seven," Horace Pippin, Leon Berkowitz and now Fritz Wotruba - that extend and reinforce the special spirit of that "house for art" founded by his parents. He has taken the right tack. The Wotruba show, sponspored by the Austrian government, closes May 22.