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.

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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