AFTER DECADES OF ABSTINENCE (never mind how many) I have returned to what is known in Romance languages as the plastic arts. In my youth, I painted with oils and heavy metal pigments, and across a lifetime I have designed more posters than I can count, but now I have taken up sculpture. Inspired by Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol, whose work I teach, I committed to realizing life-sized bronze busts.
The enterprise is an appealing union of the fine arts and the industrial arts. First there is construction of a robust armature (I used a packing crate, wire screen and Bondo). Then comes the model. For clay, I declined using a homemade concoction whose vehicle was diesel oil in favor of a commercial, water-based batch. The head took shape following photographs sent from France—a transcendental experience involving my fingers, arms and torso.
Skill is involved in going from eye to hand, but there is also aesthetic choice. Hair and eyes seem to represent two poles of decision. At one pole, it is practically impossible to model a hundred thousand separate hairs. The consequence is a compromise of lumps and tracings or fantastic bejeweled coifs. At the other pole, the surface of the eye is entirely smooth. Ancients left eyes blank in stone sculpture or hollow in bronze (moderns often punt and represent the subject with eyes closed). By the 18th century, relief commonly appeared in the form of raised rings for iris and pupil and that which became central in modernity: the glint of reflection (a small wedge hanging at 12 o'clock on the iris). Late in the 19th century, Rodin's iris and pupil became concentric holes taking up much of the space between the eyelids. Henri Matisse's Large Seated Nude has iris and pupil sculpted as raised, oblong rectangles. For my piece, asymmetric craters seemed best.
Enter the industrial part of the union. A negative mold must be taken from the clay model. The usual choices today are silicon or rubber, although in Rodin's time the molds were made in plaster, and a colleague reports that five thousand years ago, in China, the molds were made from the same clay as the model. The mold is pried or cut from the model. A plaster shell is formed around the flexible mold to keep it rigid when liquid wax is poured into it. This wax positive is normally just a quarter-inch or so thick and resembles a hollow chocolate Easter bunny. To the wax positive is attached a wax funnel and conduit, called a gate or sprue, serving to define a channel for the molten bronze; there may also be vents for exiting air. The sprue and mold are dipped a dozen times in a ceramic slurry and dusted in silica, then fired hard, in the process vaporizing the wax. (My first gating of a wax bust failed because it did not allow the slurry to dry on the hollow, inside surface.) Formerly, the mold was packed in plaster many feet thick and buried in sand to keep it intact during casting. Today, the ceramic shell stands upright to receive the molten metal, poured outdoors from a crucible by hand or by mechanical lifts. The casting then cools, aided by a water bath, and the shell is cracked off, revealing the result. (Just as there is much chemistry in the ceramic part of sculpture, so physics enters into the casting process.) In terms of time and technology, bronze work is a kangaroo flaunting a heavy and powerful rear end.
Artistic engagement might be dismissed as the conceit of a scholar whose remaining hair is mostly white, but it also fits with my continuing investigation into the relations between art (understood in a general sense) and science in modernity. The connection is present not only among artists like Vincent van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky and Le Corbusier, who welcomed scientific discoveries. Scientists at the top of their game over the past three generations have taken up prose fiction, among them physicist Leopold Infeld, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and astronomer Carl Sagan, and they are succeeded today by...