In 1934, sculptor Reuben Nakian, already an accomplished pro, came to town to sculpt the heads of Franklin Roosevelt's first Cabinet. "I did Harry Hopkins, Cordell Hull, all those busy men, and I did them fast. I caught them on the run. And let me tell you something," says Nakian, smiling at the memory. "I really messed their offices. I splattered wet clay everywhere. I ground it into carpets. That was almost 50 years ago. I still like sloppy places. I guess you can't get rid of me. Here I am again."
Nakian, since then, has changed a little bit. "I'm going on 86, you know." His fine, long hair is white now, he walks more slowly than he used to and his hearing is less acute. And Nakian no longer portrays pols. These days he prefers to sculpt Leda and Europa and other mythic maids chased by lusting gods.
"Now, Jove," says Reuben Nakian, "had an eye for handsome maidens. He would battle his wife, Juno, and she'd bop him on the head. Then he'd change his form. He'd become a swan, a bull, a shower of bright gold. You have to sculpt the human figure. You can't sculpt the landscape. And you don't want to show a man beside a woman. That's merely illustration. But a woman with a swan or a woman with a bull. Why, that's poetry."
Nakian, obviously delighted by the image of those nymphs fleeing through his head, is standing in the garden of the National Portrait Gallery, preparing to examine four of his New Deal heads, now part of the "Portraits From the New Deal" exhibition upstairs. "Now, the female nude . . .," says Nakian. Suddenly he pauses. A woman is approaching across the bright green lawn.
He watches her with care. He carefully examines her head, her hips, her legs. When at last she shakes his hand, he pulls her to his side. "I got to get up close," he tells her. "My eyes are going bad." He is kidding, and she knows it. "What's your phone number?" he says.
Nakian has seen as much American art history as any living sculptor. He was born on Aug. 10, 1897, in College Point, Long Island. "That's where La Guardia Airport is today." He was certain he would be a newspaper cartoonist--until the day he went to see the European statues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "I decided I'd become an apprentice. I looked up 'sculptors' in the phone book. And set out to get a job."
Nakian got lucky. He was seen by James Earle Fraser--"he's the man, you know, who designed the buffalo nickel"--and Fraser introduced him to Paul Manship, the sculptor, who gave Nakian a job. The year was 1916. The gifted Gaston Lachaise was then Manship's assistant. By early 1917, Nakian had made his first successful sculpture. It was a sort of piggy bank, but of a cow, not of a pig. Nakian designed it for the "Free Milk for France" campaign.
Nakian, in time, would get to know a whole century of artists--Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Bellows, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning--and, as he aged, his sculpture would significantly change.
At first tightly gathered, rounded and highly polished, it gradually grew looser, rougher and more open. Examples of his recent work--three ceramics, seven small bronzes, one watercolor and seven prints--are now on exhibit at the Addison/Ripley Gallery, in back of the Phillips Collection at 9 Hillyer Ct. NW. Their prices range from $400 to $13,000. They will remain on view there through May 15.
Witty, energetic, orgiastic and vivacious, they are pieces full of contrast. Although their look is modern, they are based on antique Mediterranean themes--"Leda and the Swan," "Europa and the Bull," "Nymph and Goat," "The Garden of the Gods." For years Nakian has been making mythic-expressionistic art of the sort that nowadays is so much in vogue. His art looks quickly made. His surfaces are sketchy--one sees his thumb prints clearly--but he likes a look of richness, and he sets his bronzes on green marble slabs.
Nakian lives in Stamford, Conn. "You have a nice city here," he says. "New York? New York is a coldhearted canyon."
He stretches in the sun and then looks around the courtyard at the modern sculptures there, most of them constructed of welded metal sheets. "Look at that," he says, pointing with disdain at an Alexander Calder. "And they call themselves sculptors. If they called themselves iron mongers, then I wouldn't mind."
Cameras are waiting. Rose, his wife since 1934, reaches up to fix the tangled collar of his white turtleneck sweater. "Oh, let me be," says Nakian. Patiently and carefully she fiddles with the collar. He does not move away.