Obituary: Duane Hanson

Marco Livingstone
Thursday 11 January 1996 00:02 GMT

Duane Hanson, the American sculptor known for his uncanny replicas of people cast from life and dressed in real clothes, was in his early forties when he made his first pieces of this kind in 1967 under the inspiration of Pop Art and particularly of George Segal's direct-cast plaster figures. Only five years or so later, when his project of documenting contemporary society was barely under way, he became severely ill with cancer, a disease with which he continued to battle intermittently and to which he eventually succumbed shortly before his 71st birthday.

Almost all the work by which he will be remembered was thus produced, in a sense, on borrowed time. These circumstances must help account for the sense of urgency with which Hanson's art embraces the here-and-now, but also for its profound meditation on life and its recognition of the inevitability of death.

Hanson's first direct-cast figures brought him instant notoriety, not because of the astonishingly realistic technique - that would come later - but because of the bluntness with which he presented the violent facts of life in American society at a time of great ferment. His early subjects, including the bloodied victim of a road accident, a drug addict and an alcoholic, rioters, dead and dying soldiers, the dredged corpse of a gangland murder and a group of down-and-outs on the Bowery, were brutal and often grotesque.

By the early 1970s he had turned to less overtly disturbing sights, drawn in particular from ordinary suburban life, with a humorous or satirical edge only partly masking the tragic aura of an existence conditioned by boredom, aimlessness and lack of aspiration. The broad comedy of sculptures such as Tourists of 1970, the only work by Hanson in a British public collection (the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh), in which a physically mismatched and appallingly dressed couple look outwards in dazed bewilderment, still carries in its tow the bleak insights of the more directly political works that had preceded them. The people to whom he was consistently drawn, and whom he represented with such rare dignity and compassion, were all out of control, subject to the kinds of compulsions, such as shopping and over-eating, by which we try to anaesthetise ourselves against despair and the harsh realities of life.

The originality of Hanson's work was quickly recognised, and he received particular acclaim in Europe after his participation in the Documenta exhibition in 1972. In spite of this early success, he gradually fell out of favour with the art establishment, in part because of suspicion of his immense popular appeal but also as a result of his misleading alignment with the Photorealist movement, which lost critical favour within the space of just a few years. His status both in the marketplace and in the affections of the general public remained high, but he was woefully undervalued by the critics and was keenly aware of their neglect. Nevertheless his work has exercised an immense influence on young artists during the past decade, particularly in their use of direct casting of the human body: such notable artists as Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, Charles Ray and Kiki Smith all owe him an immense debt.

What most concerned Hanson, however, is that his work should speak clearly to his constituency: the ordinary people of his own society. The retrospective for which I served as guest curator with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in early 1994 attracted, almost entirely by word of mouth, an audience of more than 200,000. This success was repeated in Fort Worth and in 1995 in a seperate retrospective organised by me which toured Japan. Some may have come simply to marvel at his increasingly miraculous technique, but few will have left the exhibition without an enhanced understanding of what it means to be a human being.

This is only fitting in the case of such a remarkable man: kind and immensely compassionate, thoughtful and with an endearingly dry sense of humour; totally without pretension, yet enormously dedicated to his art.

Marco Livingstone

Duane Hanson, sculptor: born Alexandria, Minnesota 17 January 1925; first marriage dissolved (two sons, one daughter), married 1968 Wesla Host (one son, one daughter); died Boca Raton, Florida 6 January 1996.

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