The Amazing Colossal Sculptor

The works of Tempe patriot Lawrence Tenney Stevens loom large

Not many people are familiar with the sculptor Lawrence Tenney Stevens, who lived and worked in Tempe from the 1950s until his death at age 76 in 1972, but those who are all take the same sobering gulp of air before exhaling, "Ohhhhh, he was a character, all right."

Irascible, contrary, explosive, authoritarian, loud, eccentric and "mean with a sweet streak" are just some of the additional labels people have pinned on him. And one gets the feeling it isn't just idle talk.

Told early in his career that he had the sculptural genius and promise to rival Saint-Gaudens and Rodin, he seems to have spent his professional life in the unforgiving glare of his own predicted brilliance.

He won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1922 and set off for Italy to seize the day for American sculpture. But he wound up struggling through the twilight of the era that valued his kind of blustery, thematic and architectural monuments, a hint of which is now on view at Tempe Historical Museum through next July.

By the time Stevens died, the simplified shells of modern buildings had all but eliminated his and the rest of sculpture's once secure role in architecture. Still, he landed a fair number of commissions for venues like the New York World's Fair, the Dallas Centennial Exposition and the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds. He preferred "colossal" monuments to those that were just run-of-the-mill big. The bigger statement wasn't just better; it was downright American. Unfortunately for Stevens, it was also expensive and contrary to the more personal scale of modern sculpture that emerged after World War II. So, in the 1950s and '60s, he concentrated mostly on commissions of smaller works--decorative doors, portraits and "sculptural themes"--for a variety of private and corporate patrons.

A key supporter was Phoenix's Walter Bimson, former head of Valley National Bank (now Bank One). Bimson's purchases and commissions for the bank, which supposedly inspired David Rockefeller to start a corporate art collection for New York's Chase Manhattan Bank, almost single-handedly kept Stevens and a number of distinctive Arizona artists afloat at a time when there was little market here for art. He commissioned the "Rodeo Series" seen in the current show. But his enthusiasm for Stevens' work wasn't shared by the art world at large.

"That was a great frustration to Stevens," says John Faubian, who directs a trust overseeing the artist's studio and archives, and who, along with Chad Phinney, exhibits coordinator at Tempe Historical Museum, organized the museum's show.

Faubian says his interest in Stevens began as that of a curious bystander. He owned a frame shop and gallery next door to Stevens' old house and studio and, from time to time, he would lean over the fence and chat with the artist's widow, Bea. "She would tell me a little bit at a time about what her husband had done," he says. "And each time I saw her, I'd ask a little bit more until, finally, I got to see the work."

What he found, he recalls, was staggering. Stevens' house and studio were the mother lode of a forgotten career filled with scores of plasters and bronzes and, as Faubian gradually discovered, just about every scrap of paper, right down to check stubs from the 1930s, that ever crossed the artist's desk. Bea Stevens had kept it all intact, with the faith, says Faubian, that the material would help posterity locate her husband's proper place in American sculpture.

Faubian hopes the show and a book he's writing about Stevens will do just that. But making the case won't be easy.

Stevens was a cultural refugee who fled New York for Wyoming in the early 1930s, before moving on to Oklahoma and settling here. Documents from the archives suggest that he stayed away from the art centers of the day, hoping, as did his regionalist brethren Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Stevens' friend Grant "American Gothic" Wood, to build a bib-overalled and buckskinned following for the kind of heroic art and taste he thought America deserved. It didn't take long for his backwater idealism to turn--as retreats from the mainstream often do--into a poisonous resentment and suspicion of foreign influences. Faubian says that Stevens first blamed the Europeans for the weakness of American art. Then, in the mid-1960s--a little late to be riding this horse--Stevens came to believe that the commies were rotting America from the inside out.

In 1967, he packaged his Pat Buchananesque notions on the decline of American culture into a 14-page complaint that, Phinney says, "was anything but diplomatic. Normally, his wife would have edited it, but she wasn't home at the time to save him from himself. He sent it off to about 200 museum directors and other key people in the arts."

In his diatribe, called "Junk the Junk," Stevens linked the uglification of America and the indifference of the art world toward him and his work to what a friend characterized as "this Marxist scheme to grasp our culture and use it against our way of life." Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Jean Arp, Joan Miro and Isamu Noguchi were among the enemies, with Picasso--his illustration of a dove having served as a Communist emblem in Europe--leading the way.

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