Secondary Object

Clamdigger (1972) by Willem de Kooning, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Clamdigger (1972) by Willem de Kooning, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Title: Clamdigger

Accession Number: 86.1363

Artist: Willem de Kooning (American, b. Rotterdam, The Netherlands 1904-1997)

Date: 1972, cast 1976

Medium: Bronze

Dimensions: 59 1/2 x 29 5/8 x 23 3/4 in. (151.1 x 75.2 x 60.3 cm) on artist’s base, height: 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm)

Credit Line: The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, 1981

Current Location: Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

Clamdigger is a bronze sculpture by artist Willem de Kooning, on display in the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, a sunken plaza just off the National Mall.  De Kooning sculpted the figure from clay in 1972, and a bronze cast was was completed in 1976.

Top tier of the sculpture garden leading to plaza below.  De Kooning's Clamdigger is just visible on the left

Top tier of the sculpture garden leading to plaza below. De Kooning’s Clamdigger is just visible on the left

Willem de Kooning, mostly known for his paintings and drawings, did not venture into sculpture until his late 60s (Russell 1983).  Had it not been for a chance meeting with the owner of an Italian foundry, he may never had explored the medium. His working technique reflected a hesitancy to leave the 2D realm; de Kooning began his sculptures with a drawing which he then transferred to plywood, using a wood saw like an eraser to carve away parts that were not working.  Finally, he added metal rods and slops of wet, slimy clay to create a three-dimensional sculpture (Elderfield 2011).

De Kooning in his studio, 1972. Photograph by Hans Namuth. Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. ©1991 Hans Namuth Estate
De Kooning in his studio, 1972. Photograph by Hans Namuth. Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. ©1991 Hans Namuth Estate

The result is a figure that looks as though it has stepped out one of de Kooning’s abstract expressionist paintings.  Three dimensional yet somehow flattened, the texture looks “like the scabby skin of [an oil] painting” (Elderfield 2011).  The Clamdigger is de Kooning’s first large-scale bronze work, considered by some to be a self-portrait (Stevens 2011).  It represents a turning point in his illustrious career and one of his final pieces before dementia began to take him.

The gestural work only vaguely resembles a standing figure.   Looking closely however, one can make out not only this but a shovel and other details which speak to Willem de Kooning, his working technique and universal themes.

De Kooning, Willem. Clamdigger (1972).  Detail of face and torso

De Kooning, Willem. Clamdigger (1972). Detail of face and torso

In many ways, the sculpture looks less like a man digging for clams and more like a creature pulled from the mud, the primordial ooze in which clams live (Stevens 2011).  The artist’s modelling is evident in the work, which looks lumpy and malleable like the clay from which it was formed. The gouges and pits show evidence of the de Kooning ripping, pinching, and pressing the clay into form.  Though it is hard bronze, the viewer nearly expects wet lumps to drip off the arms and slide down the head of the figure.  Searching what would be the head, one can see a simple, almost sweet elated face, as if de Kooning himself is smiling out at his triumph in a new medium.

Many will walk by, barely registering the abstract work, let alone it’s figural shape.  Even fewer will see the smiling face, or the artist’s fingerprints in the bronze.  Nonetheless, those who do stop will get to experience something truly dynamic and wonderful.

clamdigger5 clamdigger4 clamdigger2 clamdigger1

References

De Kooning: A retrospective. Retrieved from: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2011/dekooning/archives/96

Elderfield, J.  (2011).  WIllem de Kooning, Clamdigger, 1972.  Retrieved from: http://www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/audios/278/3115

Namuth, H (1972).  De Kooning in his studio [Photograph]. Courtesy Center for Creative Photography: University of Arizona.  Retrieved from: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2011/dekooning/archives/category/periods/new-directions

Russell, J. (May 20, 1983). Art: The Sculpture of Willem de Kooning. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/20/arts/art-the-sculpture-of-willem-de-kooning.html

Stevens, M. (October 2011).  Willem de Kooning Still Dazzles. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/willem-de-kooning-still-dazzles-74063391/?page=3

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