James A Michener Art Museum
JONATHAN HERTZEL: THE GATHERING
by Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator
James A. Michener Art Museum
There's a simple
question that's often the starting point when one looks at a work of
art, especially if the work is leaning toward abstraction: What is
it? For sculptor Jonathan Hertzel, the answer to the question is
never entirely clear. Is it a tree? Is it a tornado? Is it a
convoluted strand of random DNA? Is it a woman, arms outstretched,
dancing with the wind? Is it real at all, or could it be a creature
from a Tolkien novel, or perhaps one of those mythical figures from
the mind of the Roman writer Ovid, who loved to turn people into
tree trunks and animals?
For Hertzel, the answer is yes--all of the above. And maybe that's
the message of his work, to the extent that art ever has a message.
Hertzel's sculptures tell us that all those names, labels, and
categories that we use to codify and classify the world are
misleading. If we could see the universe for what it really is, we
would see more unity than division. We would see a gathering of
dynamic forces rather than a static collection of unrelated ideas.
The universe is above all alive, growing--in a constant state of
flux. But like Hertzel's sculptures, that growth is focused,
centered--emerging from a single point, the hub around which
everything revolves. As he says, "I want my figures to evoke a sense
of perpetual change, expressing the energy that propels and guides
us--an essence of an underlying hidden order."
April 2nd through June 26th, 2005
by Victoria Donohue
Philadelphia Inquirer Art Critic
Seldom are we
privy to a less earthbound vision of bronze sculpture that with
Jonathan Hertzel's eight free-standing pieces in the Michener Art
Museum sculpture garden. Yet each of these gnarled and twisting
sinewy shapes insists on its physical uniqueness.
Each has something like a physique, a physical tone, by which we can
remember it. Their fluid movements make them seem like expressions
of the human figure rather than mere objects.
Such works by this Chalfont [Pennsylvania] sculptor grow on one
slowly, and the outdoors is the ideal environment in which to see
them. In their favor, too, they have no optimum viewing distance.
With Hertzel's pieces, the distant view and the near surface are
equally interesting because his sculptures were fashioned for
complex interaction, not for impact.
Building and modeling these "whirling dervishes" gives the work an
uncommon texture and the minuscule incidents of such textures are a
microcosm of larger pictorial events.
If there's something gothic about Hertzel's sculptures, perhaps it's
because, by their seeming vitality, they won't let us forget we live
in an increasingly automated society.
Jonathan Hertzel brings it all together in bronze
by Geoff Gehman
The Morning Call
"The Gathering" is
the name of the Michener Museum's outdoor exhibition of Jonathan
Hertzel's spiraling, molten, reef-like bronzes. It's a congregation
of pieces that co-exist naturally as humans, aliens and elements.
It's a mythic sculpture garden, a lawn party of mortality and
immortality, a cosmic weather station.
"Pipal Tree" is one of the most paradoxical pieces. Named for the
site of Buddha's burst of enlightenment, it resembles a bonsai
bursting from a California cliff. It's rooted and uprooted, unruly
and ruly, a serene tornado.
Hertzel, it turns out, is an earthy philosopher. "I like to sculpt
things that are constantly moving, but not moving at all," says the
51-year-old from the home in Chalfont, Bucks County, he shares with
his wife, painter Linda Guenste, and their sons, Elias and Ezra.
"Some people might think that enlightenment means something in
stone, like a seated buddha. I'm more of the sort of whirling
dervish enlightenment type."
For four decades Hertzel has been sculpting aliens. In the early
'80s he created distorted figures that clarified his interests in
history, social realism and the Cold War. Artificially beefed up
characters and short-circuited pieces made of electrical wires and
computer parts allowed him to protest the threat of nuclear war and
diplomatic Russian roulette.
Hertzel then moved to his best-known series: android faces, cyborg
mummies, astronauts and terranauts with skinny bodies swimming in
huge costumes. Placed on everything from urns to Christmas-tree
ornaments, they represent "the essential self with armor built
around it," says Hertzel, a former teacher at the Baum School of Art
in Allentown. "A life support to sustain us in an increasingly
In the early '90s Hertzel enshrined the Holocaust, where millions
lost not only their life support but their lives. "Kristallnacht:
Night of Broken Glass," which was exhibited in the 1992 Mayfair
juried show, is a terra-cotta tower with illuminated glass-plate
negatives of ghostly people, a roof of plastic shards and one of
Hertzel's familiar sleeping heads with a cauliflower creature
instead of a left ear.
A chapel bursts through the figure's brain, and a Statue of Liberty
substitute rises from the church.
Twelve years ago, at the age of 39, Hertzel discovered that his own
temple, his body, had been invaded by Type 1 diabetes, an affliction
of children and young adults. Worried about making a living as an
artist, he now had to worry about taking insulin and monitoring
blood sugar, preventing heart disease and blindness. His collapsed
life led him to make sculpture that was more collapsed. Working more
abstractly, more viscerally, he turned the alien inward.
"After diabetes my work became more about my own mortality," says
Hertzel, who excused himself during a telephone interview to drink a
glass of juice to raise his blood sugar. "It became less and less
about biology and more about the energy within. The element of what
I felt I am as opposed to the container I felt was failing me."
In the late '90s Hertzel began creating the sort of biomorphic,
telepathic bronzes displayed at the Michener. "Narrator," for
example, has a ribboning body with a jaw that becomes a
three-fingered, jester-hatted hand. "Observer" has legs like
seaweed-wrapped roots and a helmet/cove for a head. Both works have
the skeletal, craggy DNA of sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, one of
Hertzel's heroes. He discovered Giacometti's work as an
undergraduate on the cover of "The Irrational Man," William
Barrett's classic study of existentialism.
Hertzel admits that his bronzes attract and distract. He enjoys
watching viewers contemplate what is front and what is back, where
physical ends and metaphysical begins. He wishes they paid less
attention to definitions and more attention to feelings. He hopes
the Michener show, the first solo exhibit of these bronzes, will
improve understanding and sales.
Maybe, says Hertzel, it takes a mathematician to get the hang of it
all. "One came to my studio and he was going on and on about chaos
and order," says the sculptor, who for 25 years has worked adjacent
to his wife's studio. "I didn't know what the hell he was talking
about. But it sounded great. I wish I could quote him."
April 28, 2005