IN "ZOO TO ART: Animal Subjects by American Sculptors" at the Museum of American Art, the animals in stone are powerless. They can charm, but, unlike those in African art, they never frighten. Were they not in a gallery, one would pet them.
In this sculptor's ark, the 42 animal figures are staid shadows of the real thing: a plump turkey, an ebony panther, two cute wild boars, an Egyptian cat, a decorative owl and tortoise, cat and crab statuettes reminiscent of Renaissance bronzes, and a rather large and complacent pink baboon.
They are shadows, with much more form than detail. The sculptors at their best made the animals sleek, using well the intrinsic color and texture of the marble, granite, bronze and aluminum.
Antoine-Louis Barye began the "animalier" tradition in France in the 1800s: After studying animals in the Paris zoological gardens, he showed wild things as vying for survival.
His style was picked up by Americans, but the realism of the "animalier" has since been pecked away at. Such detailed renderings contrast strongly with the simplified work of John Bernard Flannagan, who in the 1930s wrested a donkey from a stubborn chunk of granite. He developed his own variation of Michelangelo's law that sculpture is inherent in stone. Of his own sculpture, Flannagan wrote, "I like to have them appear as rocks left quite untouched -- and natural." Conforming to the discipline of the stone, the donkey curls over.
In this show there are few lions and tigers, but bears, oh my, yes. Paul Manship's bronze "Group of Bears" is green -- yet no more green than the polar bears one sees at the zoo in the summer with algae growing in their coats. Beautiful and benign, the central bear stands with paws poised, while two crawling bears flank him like bookends.
Manship in 1934 was asked to design the gates of the Bronx Zoo, and one can't help thinking that the animal houses at a zoo would provide the best setting for most of these creatures. ZOO TO ART: ANIMAL SUBJECTS BY AMERICAN SCULPTORS -- At the Museum of American Art through October 14.