Public Memory and Social Conscience

Meredith Bergmann's Sculpture, Feminist and Otherwise

by Donald Kuspit

Looking at the history of public sculpture, at its best, one notes that, until the modern period, it was largely realistic. Whether a portrait of a person or a generalization of a type, it was invariably a representation of a human being, body and soul seamlessly together. Ekkehard and Uta (c. 1250–60), standing upright on the Naumburg Cathedral, are regal but also highly individual, as their expressively alert faces indicate. They are very particular people, dignified by office but also seemingly noble by nature, as their demeanor suggests. Their eyes are open, inviting us to look into their souls. We recognize ourselves in them, however different our social station—our own humanity, for the contrast between the sturdy Ekkehard, a warrior, as his sword makes clear, and Uta, lovely and modest, bespeaks the extremes of human nature. They are the archetypal couple of Mars and Venus, if in post-classical Germanic form. They are ideal types realistically rendered and real people idealized. 

The same can be said of Donatello’s prophet for the Orsanmichele, the so-called Zuccone (1423–25), another ideal Christian type. He is more psychologically complex, as the intense inward stare of his eyes and his grizzled, worn, oddly unwholesome face suggest. The prophet’s flesh has been mortified to expose his spirit. Loose, crumpled, toga-like drapery hangs from one shoulder, giving his wasted body a luxurious quasi-classical covering, partially hiding its very unclassical ugliness while drawing our attention to it. All but raw skin and bone, his ascetic, unsettling appearance strongly contrasts with the healthy, vigorous, tastefully dressed Ekkehard and Uta, models of masculine handsomeness and feminine beauty. The harsh realism of the prophet’s face has its precedent in Roman realistic portrait sculpture, which also used facial expression to convey extreme and complex feeling. The Romans portrayed were more worldly and outward-looking than the Zuccone, but they also had a dynamic inward life, as the fierce face of the brutal Caracalla (c. 215) makes clear. Ekkehard, Uta, the Zuccone and Caracalla were all socially prominent and influential. They stood out from the crowd, not only because of their social position but because of their individuality. They had a strong sense of self and purpose—for better, as seems the case with Ekkehard, Uta and the Zuccone; for worse, as is obviously the case with Caracalla. Perhaps more importantly, their basic humanness is made realistically evident in their portraits. 

Meredith Bergmann, Memorial to September 11th, 2012, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City Meredith Bergmann’s public sculpture is also psychologically realistic, but the individuals she portrays—the African-American poet Countee Cullen (1995); the African-American slave and poet Phyllis Wheatley, the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Lucy Stone and Abigail Adams, the brilliant wife of President John Adams, all in one grand installation (2003); the African-American singer Marian Anderson (2006); the labor leader Edward Cohen (2009); the slave girl Pinky (2010), and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2013)—are altogether different. They are agents of social change, and as such atypical, rather than agents of the status quo, and as such typical of their times. Ekkehard and Uta embody militant Christianity, the reigning ideology of medieval Europe, and Caracalla embodies militaristic Rome, in its heyday the dominant political power. The Zuccone renders unto Christ, and Caracalla renders unto Caesar: the inward-looking face of the Zuccone is as much an expression of his willpower and faith as the outward-looking face of Caracalla is of his. But Bergmann’s figures render neither to Christ nor Caesar, but to the revolutionary ideal of a new society in which all human beings have equal rights and are equally respected. They are democratic idealists, believers in liberty, equality and fraternity, or in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Christian and Roman figures are social conformists; Bergmann’s figures are social nonconformists. All have their integrity, but they are on opposite sides of the social divide. Ekkehard and Uta are wealthy Christian royalty, the Christian Zuccone is a spiritual aristocrat—he wants to share his spiritual wealth with the world with the hope of saving it from its sinful self—and Caracalla was an emperor. They were all, in their different ways, absolute rulers—not simply leaders, but authoritarians with absolute power. In contrast, Bergmann’s democratic Americans are so-called common men and women, or else they identify with them, as Adams and Roosevelt did. They were aristocrats by reason of their wealth, which gave them social authority and power, but they served democracy. The American Revolution was the first in a series of ongoing democratic revolutions against tyrannical authority, against brute power and ruthless absolutism. It remains unfinished: Bergmann’s figures help finish the job. They represent democracy in its stand against tyranny, whether the few “superior” aristocrats who rule over many people, or, more insidiously, the majority that sets the rules the minority must obey, and, more extremely, enforces understanding of them as “inferior.”

From its beginning, there was—and continues to be—an uneasy balance of aristocrats and democrats in America. The aristocrats have power, authority, influence and control by way of their wealth. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were wealthy men, and so were the “robber barons,” and now the so- called “ultra-rich,” all of whom, directly or indirectly, govern society and own much of its property. The democrats are “plain and simple folk,” in comparison to those smart enough to make Big Money (and sometimes patronize them with it by way of philanthropy). Roosevelt, who was born rich, and a member of the ruling class, is the exception to this rule for Bergmann: circumstance gave him a democratic conscience, not only social but personal circumstance.

Infantile paralysis struck him down in the prime of youth, humbling his body so that he could not walk unaided, whether by prosthetic devices or the help of other people. It cut him down to human size, as it were, by reducing him to child-like helplessness and dependency—and eventually led him to identify with, and support, children who suffered his fate. He knew what it was to be incapacitated—to be unable to stand and walk upright, to proudly hold himself upright (for the phenomenological psychologist Erwin Strauss, fundamental to being human). He used his presidential power to help others overcome the same disability. He turned a personally bad experience into a socially good experience—an example of theodicy in action, religionists might say. His sickness, almost unto death, demonstrated the body’s vulnerability, reminding him that all human beings had a body in common. 

Thus he became a “common man,” and gave the “common man” a New Deal, the old deal having served the old aristocrats. The New Deal helped lift America out of the social adversity and suffering of the Depression, fueled by the boundless ambitions and aristocratic pretensions of the economically empowered few. It gave the common man hope, put him back on his feet, just as Roosevelt’s March of Dimes put crippled children back on their feet, giving them the hope necessary to live a fruitful life. Making the best of his personal adversity by becoming a social revolutionary—he “betrayed his [upper] class,” some said—Roosevelt lifted himself out of depression, and the despondency of living a purposeless, useless life.

Meredith Bergmann Phyllis Wheatley and Abigail Adams (detail) Boston Women’s Memorial, 2003, bronze and granite 30 ft. diameter, figures 1.2 times life size © PHOTO BY MICHAEL BERGMANN

Bergmann’s FDR Hope Memorial is her most poignant social installation: it integrates the public into itself. People can’t walk by the couple at the center—Roosevelt seated in his wheelchair and a child supported by leg braces and a crutch, extending a helping hand to each other—as they can with her other figures, giving them a casually appreciative glance, acknowledging their existence without understanding their raison d’être. Instead, Bergmann forces the public to participate in the FDR Hope Memorial, positioning them so that they can grasp its meaning, indeed, become its larger meaning. Sitting on the benches that form a semi-circle around Roosevelt and the child—the simple geometrical benches echo the shape of his larger and higher desk—they identify with him, however unconsciously, if also idolizing him, that is, looking up to him. He has a hypnotic presence, as all of Bergmann’s figures do, for he is fixed forever in a kindly act. 

Meredith Bergmann, Lucy Stone (detail) Boston Women’s Memorial, 2003 Bronze 63" x 65" x 42"

Bergmann has made goodness more engaging than badness usually is. There is a quiet excitement to Bergmann’s installation, with its emotionally harmonious if physically discrepant figures—unlike because they are adult and child, and because the child is upright and the adult seated, but alike because neither is resigned to his position and illness. Roosevelt has, in effect, invested his hope in the public, as the handicapped and Americans once invested their hope in him. The large area of the installation—it’s much larger than the Boston Women’s Memorial, which is part of a park space rather than a space apart, and on a pathway in the park, and thus not as hermetically self-contained as the FDR Hope Memorial—is what the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls “an area of concern.” Concern, for society and individuals, is central to Bergmann’s art. 

Ekkehard, Uta and the Zuccone believed in the Christian dream of salva- tion, Caracalla believed in the Roman dream of absolute power, but Cullen, Wheatley, Stone, Adams, Anderson, Cohen, Pinky and even Roosevelt were not believers in the American Dream—George Carlin said “it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it”—or at least not the whole Dream. As James Truslow Adams said, it had two conflicting parts, one idealistic, the other materialistic. It was “a dream of a social order in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” Less nobly, it was “a dream of motor cars and higher wages”—a dream that came to involve, as William James famously said, “exclusive worship of the bitch goddess success...with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success.” James called it America’s “national disease.” Bergmann’s figures were successful idealists: they were “able to attain to the fullest stature of which they [were] innately capable,” always against great odds, always overcoming some handicap—having a black skin or being a woman, socially defined rather than physically inflicted handicaps—and finally achieve the recognition they deserve, the recognition Bergmann accords them in her portraits.

No “cash interpretation” of success for them, but a human interpretation, their success suggesting that the United States is a humane society despite itself—despite the racism and sexism that were once accepted (and still exist, if not always as openly). Inhumanity is not unique to the United States, but Bergmann’s figures, heroicized to confirm their human greatness, suggest that it can change for the better. It needs a few determined individuals, that is, individuals capable of overcoming the adversity of prejudice by transforming themselves and transforming society by showing it a “better way” to be human. All of them have as strong a sense of self as Ekkehard, Uta, the Zuccone and Caracalla—perhaps even stronger, since they had to overcome adversity to empower themselves. But they enlist themselves in the cause of revolutionary social change rather than elevate themselves at the expense of society as a whole.

Bergmann’s sculpture is a social activist art that uses classicizing means to make its realistic point. The figures she represents are individualists who made a historical difference. She consummately realizes them, both by way of her extraordinary attention to detail—perhaps most conspicuously evident in the hands that “hold” her Urn (2006)—and the larger-than-life authority of many of her figures. However life-size they may be, she gives them a kind of transcendental grandeur that confirms that they transcended the social conditions into which they were born. The sturdiness and solidity of her figures—even Roosevelt and the child seem hardy, however handicapped—and the sense of pent-up force concentrated in them suggest their strength of character, giving them the ability to survive and hold their own and make them all the more uncannily present—like a persisting memory. For public sculpture is permanent social memory, which must be brought to subjective life if it is to have contemporary influence and meaning. 

Bergmann’s realistic memorial sculpture is at odds with abstract memorial sculpture, most notably two Holocaust Memorials, one in Berlin, one in Washington, D.C. The Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was designed by the architect Peter Eisenman with the aid of the engineer Buro Happold. It consists of 2,711 concrete slabs—so-called “stelae”—arranged in a grid pattern on 19,000 square meters of sloping field. However heavy and numerous the stelae, which are set in place like traditional statues, the work is essentially a Minimalist grid in the so-called “extended field.” It spreads through space, seemingly endlessly and dramatically, however limited in size its modular stelae. It is an environment unto itself, ironically natural, even a kind of earthwork, however cut into geometrical shape the stone, and however much it exists in an urban environment. (As does Carl Andre’s Field Sculpture, 1977, in Hartford, Connecticut, however much it uses raw glacial boulders rather than refined and quarried stone, covers a much smaller area and has a somewhat different, less ambitious social meaning.)

Started in 2003 and finished in 2005, Eisenman’s work is one block south of the Brandenburg Gate. It is slightly below street level, suggesting that the earth has settled beneath its weight. Moving through it is a claustrophobic, depressing experience. One is, in effect, in a graveyard: a stele was used as a grave or site marker by the ancient Greeks. It is as much the graveyard of those who died during the destruction of Berlin, almost completely leveled by the Russian Army as it advanced into Nazi Germany, as of the European Jews slaughtered by the Nazis. It may, unwittingly—or perhaps not unwittingly—be a memorial to the Nazi dead as well as the Jewish dead, which narrows its meaning. It is, after all, at the political center of Germany, not in Poland, which is where most of the Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, as perhaps it ought to be, unless one thinks an abandoned death camp is enough of a memorial. If we regard the Brandenburg Gate as part of Eisenman’s sculpture, as it readily seems to be, whether we look north toward it, over the field of stelae (which resemble headstones fallen over), or from its heights down at the work—it rises vertically above the sculpture’s horizontal flatness, conceptually completing it by confirming that it is a geometrical construction—then its theme seems to be the death and resurrection of Germany, that is, the death of totalitarian Nazi Germany and the resurrection of new democratic Germany. The Brandenburg Gate, after all, celebrates a triumphant Germany.

The Washington Holocaust Memorial, Joel Shapiro’s Loss and Regeneration (1993), is less oppressive and spatially ambitious. It has a statuesque autonomy. It is large, even grand, but fixed in place on a small spot of solid ground, rather than occupying a huge plot of barren land, as Eisenman’s memorial does. It is a version of one of Shapiro’s so-called abstract figures—a geometrical construction that has an uncanny resemblance to a human figure, usually precariously balanced. One is unable to determine whether it is falling over or righting itself. It is upright but tilted, its limbs at odds, its body black as death, for it is a memorial to the children who lost their lives in the Holocaust. It stands alone, a singular symbol of suffering, a tragic figure guarding the entrance to the Holocaust Museum. Shapiro’s abstract figure seems to be struggling to live: his sculpture is not a grave marker but a ghostly person refusing to die in a mass grave. Shapiro’s Jewish child actively resists death, rather than passively succumbs to it, as Eisenman’s inert slabs suggest the Jews did. Shapiro’s figure has personality—it is certainly more intricate, and thus more individual than Eisenman’s stelae. They completely depersonalize, not to say dehumanize the Jews, perhaps because they are already dead and anonymous in his mass grave. Their regeneration is impossible—story closed, death is final—unlike Germany’s, as the restored Brandenburg Gate makes clear.

Eisenman claims that his stelae are not symbols, suggesting that they are simply what has been called “concrete sculpture,” that is, purely formal-material constructions. But that would make his memorial socially meaningless, however meaningful as so-called pure art. The title would be beside the point, a “conceptual additive” on the emperor’s materially naked formal body. Shapiro’s terse sculpture can be read the same way, however much it alludes to a dramatic figure. He also wants it both ways: he wants to make a social statement and an art statement in one—reconcile pure art and social reality, make a work that is responsible to both, that “remembers” both. But unless one takes the title seriously, his sculpture is only another art statement, struggling to reconcile the familiar opposites of abstraction and representation.

Shapiro’s work has an evocative title, although it could apply to the human condition in general, and is accompanied by a text, a short poem by a nameless child who died in the Terezin ghetto. This “conceptual additive” affirms its social meaning and marks it as Jewish, as does its placement in front of the Jewish Holocaust Museum, but both are superficial labeling on a sculpture that is quintessentially abstract. Shapiro’s work is Jewish in name, not in substance—the figure can be read as anyone. A figure with a skullcap and even a prayer shawl and phylacteries, like Chagall’s Rabbi (1927), or his 1935 depiction of the crucified Christ wearing them, would make the Jewish point absolutely clear. Similarly, without the list of all the known Holocaust victims—another “conceptualizing” text, adding a meaning that is not inherent in the work— “buried” in an underground chamber (“Place of Information”) beneath the field of stelae, Eisenman’s work is another abstract construction, more formally and materially grandiose and perhaps interesting than many but still “just art.” Or maybe it’s just another graveyard, where anybody and everybody is buried, as its anonymous character suggests. Or is it a burial ground for Minimalist art? 

Even without their titles and location, Eisenman’s work seems to evoke death, and Shapiro’s work seems to suggest suffering. Human beings are susceptible to suggestion, finding human meaning where there may be none, and abstract art plays on our susceptibility to suggestion, the unconscious ease and readiness with which we invest ourselves in anything, transfer our feelings even to unfeeling objects, when encouraged to do so by a name, title or interpretive theory. Titles are names, but they are also theories, for they suggest meanings by interpreting things. Without their titles, both lose their Jewish meaning, and with that can no longer be said to be true to the social reality they claim to “reference” and memorialize. It is worth emphasizing that both are Minimalist constructions, if in different styles, and that Minimalists follow Mies van der Rohe’s belief that “less is more,” but their sculptures suggest that it may not be enough to convey serious, devastating social meaning, only token personal meaning.

The question is whether abstract sculpture, such as Eisenman’s and Shapiro’s, or representational sculpture, such as Bergmann’s, serves the public better—serves social memory and conscience better? Does it make more sense to deal with a social victim in abstract or in representational terms? Which makes the social point while scoring artistic points? Is abstract sculpture equal to social tragedy? For Bergmann’s figures are tragic heroes, in the sense that they have experienced much suffering to realize their human potential, to come into their own as human beings, indeed, to be recognized as the social equals of the human beings who despised and persecuted them. There is nothing inherent in pure abstraction that gives it social meaning. It needs a symbolic overlay, as Vladimir Tatlin made clear in his proposed Monument to the Third International (1919–20). What is important about this work is not its title but the social use it was meant for: it was to be the propaganda center for the Communist Third International, devoted to world revolution and the establishing of Communism in every society. Without the symbolism, the work is just another abstract sculpture with architectural pretensions—and a Minimalist one at that.

The question of which serves idealistic social revolution—and Bergmann’s figures are idealistic social revolutionaries—better, which makes the social point more clearly, abstraction or representation, haunts all memorial sculpture. It is an especially crucial question when art deals with social catastrophe, which is not just an abstract concept or “idea” in some artist’s head, but involves real persons. Clearly, the Holocaust did. Bergmann deals with social catastrophe in the allegorical Memorial to September 11th (2012), which addresses the destruction of the Twin Towers by aircraft as bombs, and in the allegorical Torso (2006), a suicide bomber. Both works integrate classical figures and modern machines to ironical effect. I suggest that the former is feminist in import, all the more so because the phallic airplanes were piloted by men, along with the latter, which shows a male figure, already half destroyed, in the process of completely destroying itself. Both works accord well with Bergmann’s Boston Women’s Memorial, a major feminist monument, all the more so because it depicts actual, socially active women. Contrast that humanism with the expressionistically exaggerated vaginas in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), where the “conceptual additive” of names gives them a certain historical specificity and quasi-individuality while generalizing them into per- sonal and social oblivion. 

Meredith Bergmann Torso, 2006, bonded marble 34" x 17" x 12"No doubt abstraction can be evocative and suggestive—we associate to it despite all its efforts to purify art, reduce it to its formal-material basics, the more austerely fundamental (“minimal”) the better, but the result can be a loss of convincing meaning, personal as well as socially serious meaning, and, more insidiously, of aesthetic effect and expressive depth. It does not necessarily heighten perception, but can trivialize it—reduce it to a few shallow “essentials,” de-existentializing it. Social reality is existential reality. By themselves, the formal fundamentals and material medium are the letter of art without the spirit. Symbolism, when it springs from the subject matter, instantly conveying the latent meaning of the manifest content of the art, gives it more representational and projective power, and with that expressive impact, showing that it is much more than the sum of its descriptive details or the result of the deft manipulation of form and material—more than an illusion or an abstraction, however much it must be both at once to be seriously artistic and aesthetically engaging. 

Bergmann writes: “my intention is the opposite of Jasper Johns, when he painted flags and maps; I want to take an image that has been stripped of narrative, character and any human particulars”—and thus lost its meaning, having been reduced to a sign of pure art, that is, a strictly material form—“and make it back into a symbol,” thus restoring its existential significance and spiritual meaning. Johns was inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s “spirit of negation,” as he himself acknowledged, and his splashy, irreverent, nihilistic treatment of the flag and map of the United States may be his ironical and indirect way of criticizing the country they signify, giving his paintings social meaning, but otherwise they are spiritless and desolate, laying waste to art as well as the United States.

Abstraction does not always “hold” existential and spiritual meaning, or have existential and spiritual purpose, however “artistically” meaningful and purposeful—or at least intriguing—it may be. Abstraction may arouse unconscious feelings, but it does not increase our consciousness and understanding of public fact. Abstraction may be privately edifying, but it does not always enlighten the public. Bergmann’s sculptures do, that is, they remind us of enlightened individuals, finding self-fulfillment in selflessly serving the public. For Bergmann, socially realistic art is a way of doing so, especially when it is critically enlightening, as her memorable sculptures are.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2012, Volume 29, Number 3