The Amazing Colossal Sculptor

The works of Tempe patriot Lawrence Tenney Stevens loom large

Before posting it, Stevens wondered in a letter to this same friend whether "Junk the Junk" might interest congressmen or then-senator Barry Goldwater. Stevens clearly was a political naif. He hesitated to send it to Goldwater because friends had told him that Goldwater was "half Jewish," adding that "Jewish names are very prominent in all this [sic] subversive actions." He took the chance and sent it anyway. Goldwater thanked him for his views, but added that his own former speechwriter, Karl Hess, who had penned "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," had taken up the kind of welded metal sculpture that Stevens detested.

The irony of Stevens' patriotic sculpture was in its resemblance to Nazi and Soviet realism of the 1930s. His muscular men with rivetlike nipples ("Aspiration") and hardened women with triathlete builds owed less to the Greek ideals that Stevens admired in Praxiteles' sculpture than they did to the trumped-up perfection of the Nazis' pure and invincible--less so after the war--Aryan folks and the Soviets' stoic farmers of the collectives.

Phinney and Faubian don't know whether Stevens was aware of those similarities. What's clear is his sculpture was a form of rhetoric depicting a kind of mythic Yber-American: solid, grounded, stylized and preferably cowboy.

"I don't know whether it was because of his professional experiences in New York," says Phinney, "but I think he felt that cowboys were real people, without chicanery." They were also truly American, which lent itself to his feelings that American art would have to capture an authentic way of life.

Stevens' "Rodeo Series" certainly did that. He made those nine works in the latter half of his career. By then his sense of realism had been softened a bit by efforts to stylize his figures. Not the frilly stylizations of his early Beaux-Arts training, but an art-deco touch that had emerged in his work in the 1930s. It turned hair and horse manes into crashing waves, noses into blunt ridges and eyebrows into excited, sometimes woven crescents.

Beneath it all was an allegiance to the truth of the scene, the way the weight of the rider and the horse shifted to convey a sense of movement and direction, for example, and the way clothing hung on the figures. To get the details just right, Stevens often would pose real rodeo riders in the sometimes awkward positions he was attempting to sculpt.

"In some instances," says Phinney, "he would hang the rodeo riders fully dressed in their rodeo gear just to see how the chaps would fall and the clothing would drape."

When it came to sculpting people, Stevens couldn't resist tarting up the scene, and throwing in bits of cornball to make it shout the words--in capital letters--AMERICAN SCULPTURE.

Though Stevens moved on to smaller works, he never really lost the urge to make Mount Rushmore-size statements. Nor did he lose his interest in capturing the finest available specimen of the breed. His "Gwalior" was a champion horse. And all of his other animals have that king-of-the-Darwinian-hill look about them--always vigilant and ready to bolt. Yet their simplified forms show what Stevens could muster when he wasn't blinded by his urge to preach. That same simplicity appears again in the show's linoleum prints and plaster model for the bas-relief doors he made for Scripps College.

Freed from having to express the big statement, these obviously "lesser works" exemplify the subtle lessons of sculpting on a flat surface that Stevens had learned in the 1920s from the Egyptian bas-reliefs he saw while traveling around the Mediterranean. These small strengths are a far cry from the big ones that Stevens had hoped to be known for. But they're worth the trouble of wading through all the sculptural bombast that surrounds them.

"Lawrence Tenney Stevens--Tempe's Impassioned Sculptor" continues through July 27, 1997, at Tempe Historical Museum, 809 East Southern.

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