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Monday, March 03, 2003


The Weight of the Past

An Interview with Dmitri Hadzi

Sculptor Dmitri Hadzi, born in America of Greek descent, is an artist for whom both materials and a sense of the past remain deeply important. In contemporary culture, where too often history is swept aside in favor of the superficially glamorous or the superciliously ironic, there is the tendency to look askance at art that remains focused on what sculpture has originally been asked to do — to memorialize, that is, to give voice to the grief of the living as they attempt to communicate their feeling to the dead. Sculpture’s role in keeping memory alive would seem to keep it close to figuration, but one of Hadzi’s achievements has been to push such figuration toward increasingly abstract expression, to some extent universalizing his language of memorial. The chthonic forces and monumental forms of Hadzi’s art argue for an awareness of the past that owes its focus to the unspoken hegemony of the dead, who are represented in massive forms that are as unusual for their abstract energies as they are implicit reminders of the figure.

Art that is meant to memorialize keeps track not only of the afterlife but also of the living; it is meant to clear the paths between, and draw attention to, the bridges between those who have passed away and those still alive to form. Hadzi’s art, which draws attention to the past, attempts to bridge the gap between the dead, who represent cultural memory, and the living, who are in the midst of defining what culture means in the present. Hadzi, who spent many years in Italy, looks to the tradition of the bronze not as a dead-end of culture, but as a living art still capable of memorializing, in ways both known and unknown to the active sculptor, the passage of people and time. Most recently, Hadzi has become involved with ceramics; his last show at Kouros Gallery in New York, the result of a collaboration with potter Chris Parris, comprised many experiments with clays and glazes. Hadzi was particularly taken with the wood-fired kin, which resulted in unusually rich colors on the stoneware that had been fired.

If anything, the stoneware is even more taken with classical culture than the earlier work. Circe (2002), the malicious enchantress of The Odyssey, is represented as a five-foot-tall figure in brown, tan, and reddish-brown fired clay; something of her presence is communicated in the truncated forms, which are monumental and lyrical at once. A dark-blue circle, at once a symbol and a face, is painted on the upper two segments of the sculpture. Vulcan (2002), in many ways a companion piece to Circe, is a bit taller and shows a similar sense of vertical, columnar composition. Other works, such as the wall reliefs and amphorae, follow classical forms closely without being entirely beholden to the past; there is the sense, again and again, of Hadzi’s involvement in Greek culture as a starting-point from which to begin rather than as a template to be slavishly followed. In the interview that follows, Hadzi honestly replies to a series of questions that draw him out about matters both private and public; his informal, informative replies clarify some of the points of discussion discussed above.

*** Please describe your background.

Dmitri Hadzi: Greek was my first language in New York, where I was born. Interestingly, I was born in Greenwich Village and moved to Brooklyn, where I went to several public schools, then on to Brooklyn Technical High School and Brooklyn Polytechnic University. During my public-school years, my sister and I went to the local Greek church after school for Greek lessons, five days a week.

My father was a furrier from Kastoria; my mother was from Adrianoupolis (modern-day Edirne) in Turkey. I suspect the Balkan wars were responsible for their being refugees and coming to the US. My uncle — also a furrier, but also a well-known violinist known as “the Macedonian“ who recorded for Columbia — and my father established the Hadzi Brothers Fur Company in New York City. The Depression wiped them out. My mother came from an affluent family in the grain business, but when they left for the States they had to leave everything behind. Part of the family went to Greece, but grandmother, mother, and three of my uncles came to America.

Until I went to school, I only spoke Greek at home. My mother would help me with the English lessons with her Greek accent — I only understood what I sounded like when I recited in class. I certainly consider myself a Greek American. Did you have any mentors when you were growing up? You taught at Harvard for a considerable amount of time; how has your own teaching experience affected your work?

DH: My uncle George played a major role in my youth. Although he was a machinist, he was a serious Sunday painter, who introduced me to painting, even though it was copying postcards. He introduced me to the mysterious and wonderful museum world, including the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At that time, there were marvelous objects in dusty cases, and it was discovery time — no instructive labels or interns lecturing to distract me. The museums were quite empty then — very lovely!

Another mentor when I was growing up was an extraordinary romantic — the theater-oriented teacher at the church school: Mr. Palladios (a Venetian Greek?). He demonstrated another world to me — that of myth, poetry, theater, and artists — with his dramatic gestures and sweeping long, jet-black hair, as we performed many Greek plays in the school basement.

An interesting turn in my life came just as I was preparing to go on to a regular high school. Because of my high grades in science and math, a teacher — a Mrs. Anderson — suggested that I take the exams to Brooklyn Technical High School [a highly selective polytechnic secondary school]. This stunned me. I had thought I’d just follow in the footsteps of my friends, and Brooklyn Tech was like the Acropolis to me. However, I passed the exam, and since I couldn’t afford the necessary books and materials, Mrs. Anderson arranged for me to shine her family’s shoes all that summer to make the money I needed. By this act of care and kindness, she totally changed my life.

Later, after Cooper Union, when I was a struggling young artist, a major mentor for me was the Greek American sculptor, Michael Lekakis. I knew him in New York and admired his work. I also admired his absolute dedication to his art, sometimes under the most difficult circumstances. He inspired me to persevere.

I wasn’t invited to teach at Harvard until the ripe age of 55, but going there at my age and experience was a good move. After 25 years of living abroad, it seemed time for me to return to the US. But as I had never taught before, it was difficult. My colleagues were supportive and eased my introduction to academia, but the task was made easier because I loved the students. They were so bright, curious, and above all very creative. However, it didn’t take long to realize that I had to restructure my life and thinking for this exacting profession. I could no longer let my ideas and thoughts flounder; I had to structure them if I was to teach in a logical and meaningful way. I also considered what I would like to be taught if I were to start all over again. I strongly believe that I was liberated during the course of my teaching; I felt that I had entered a new creative phase. I consider the works I produced while at Harvard to be some of my strongest creative statements. How did your 25 years in Italy influence you as a person and an artist? Are you as affected by literary culture — poetry, mythology — as you are by visual culture?

DH: I was surrounded by some of the greatest art and architecture of the past. Some of the great living artists had an enormous influence on me: Marino Marini or Pericle Fazzini, for example, astonished me with their freedom of expression as well as their extraordinary techniques. I was so fortunate to have worked with great artisans, mold-makers, bronze-founders, finishers. A good part of my life in Italy was spent in the foundries — either working on my waxes or finishing the bronzes. I had a great relationship with everyone I worked with.

The gallery scene was very active in Rome — constant openings — and, of course, there was the Venice Biennale, where you meet not only Italian artists but artists from around the world. It was exciting — a time when art wasn’t big business. I was invited several times to exhibit with foreign artists in Italy, but my big chance was an invitation to show in the American Pavilion with Louise Nevelson, Jan Muller, and Loren McIver in 1963.

As for books, they play a large role in my life. I have numerous poet friends, and I have read poetry for a long time, and illustrated several books. Mythology has been inspirational ever since my youth. The gods almost came alive when visiting the sites in Greece, Italy, and Turkey. Music also has been very important. In fact, being involved with the American Academy in Rome for so long, I was privileged to develop lasting friendships with many creative people: composers, poets, writers, painters, sculptors, and architects. My natural curiosity drew me to them and also to their particular artistic expression. What does it mean to be an artist inspired by ancient sources today? How much have you been influenced by Greek art? It is unfortunately true that interest in classical culture is at a minimum today; has this affected you adversely?

DH: Well, Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens is currently being staged to great acclaim at the Met, and this is only a small facet of what I think is in fact a classical revival. Recently, there have been numerous new translations, including Robert Fagle’s Homer, David Ferry’s Ovid and Virgil, as well as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. In addition, theatrical productions are continually appearing across the country and in Europe — Deborah Warner’s Medea, Peter Sellars’s Children of Heracles, to mention just two. Therefore, I do not feel I am working in a vacuum; on the contrary, I feel that the relevance of the ancients is being recognized more than ever. Can you speak about your use of heroic scale, and of how your command of scale has factored into your career as an artist of public works? Also, what do you think is the difference between public and private art?

DH: I became aware of scale upon studying the work of Henry Moore, which I first saw in his New York retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. I was impressed that the small sculptures appeared larger than they were; in a sense, they were monumental. This inspired me to work small — which was an approach that was also necessary for financial reasons — but think big. Gradually, I moved up in scale. At every opportunity, I studied the masters in Greece and Italy, especially how they interpreted sculpture in an architectural context or in a piazza. The metopes on Greek temples — the Parthenon, for example — were striking examples of “small“ sculpture appearing larger. When I had the opportunity to work with several important architects, they seemed to sense my command of scale — my desire to make sculpture appear larger than it was. I believe that all those years of looking and observing contributed to this wish until it became almost second nature to me.

Public art or commissions were always a great stimulus, a challenge, and an opportunity to experiment. (Different dynamics are explored, the project opens up possibilities: different materials, such as water, various parts of the country or world, new people.) I did not have a bag of tricks to pull out for a project — each job was different — but I hoped each would have my signature. Public art is to be enjoyed by those who do not know the artist, probably have not seen his or her other creations, and who usually have strong opinions but probably no influence on the work. Whereas in private art, a collector is involved with his or her own personal vision that responds to a specific work of art. What is your relationship to the New York school of painting? How has abstract expressionism influenced your art?

DH: I first saw a small de Kooning at the original Whitney Museum on Eighth Street, and later the early abstract paintings of Philip Guston. Their influence was somewhat minimal — I didn’t appreciate the work until I saw the large traveling exhibition of American abstract art at the National Gallery in Rome. It had an enormous impact in Europe, and I was very taken with it. The installation enabled one to see the work as it should be seen — the gallery’s huge rooms gave the paintings the scale needed to fully appreciate the work’s importance. Later, I would see their influence creep into my own painting and printmaking. What are your feelings about the use of different materials? You began as a painter, and many writers have commented on the finished quality of your patinas. How do you think about the surface of your monumental works?

DH: I have been a rock collector since my youth. It started as a collection of souvenirs, and to this day I continue to own a large collection of minerals. An early extreme example, during World War II, was sending some rock samples from the Pacific to my mother, who was expecting exotic objects — no precious stones like jade, but rather sandstones! I regret now that while I lived in Italy I didn’t spend more time in Carrara or Pietrasanta, working in stone. Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Marini and many others took advantage of the artisans there.

Although I had done some stone carving in Greece during my Fulbright, it was only in 1975, when I was commissioned to do a work at the International Sculptors’ Symposium in Eugene, Oregon, that I did a monumental public work in basalt. It was my intention to do a work in a local material, and basalt was plentiful there. This commission began a whole new period of working in stone. I enjoyed the challenge, the obdurate quality of the stone, the use of color that was not possible in bronze — you have to love the material to work it. This all came at a time when I was moving back from Italy (and my bronze foundries) to live in the US, and somehow stone sculpture became my main focus. I enjoyed the change as well as the challenge, and the commissions kept coming.

Throughout all this, however, I continued to work in bronze in the studio, but in a smaller scale. Sometimes these smaller bronzes were converted to large-scale commissions in stone. So it worked for me to go between each medium, making necessary changes as the medium changed.

I’ve always believed in a strong silhouette. Then, as you approach the sculpture, I want the surface to become much more meaningful, that is to say, tactile: I want it to be touched. What had appealed to me about the Italian artists was that, no matter whether they were painters or sculptors, they always managed to embellish the surfaces. I believe I was influenced by their skill and artistry. In terms of patina finishes, perhaps my training in chemistry took away the fear of experimentation, and I enjoyed working with different chemicals and getting a variety of results. Why did you turn to ceramics? What kind of help did you receive in realizing the sculptures?

DH: The main reason for studying ceramics in Rome was to keep warm. The Museo Artistico Industriale was a huge building with high ceilings; the studio for bronze-casting was cold, so, once I noticed that the pottery-throwing studio had a huge stove and the kick wheels were around it, well, I signed up! To my delight, one of the wheels used warm water for throwing. I did manage a few pots, which I decorated with Greek themes.

My next adventure in ceramics was in Deruta, where I had been invited to decorate vases for a competition. Then, in the 1960s, the Rosenthal company included me in a group of prominent European sculptors asked to make a limited-edition relief. I spent about two weeks making two reliefs.

A few years ago, in 1999, I was invited to teach sculpture for a week in the summer at Castle Hill in Truro on Cape Cod. The material was clay. I worked well with the studio manager, who became interested in my approach to art, and he asked to work with me in my Cambridge studio. The collaboration worked out very well, and this was when more consistent and serious work in clay began. The work of trial and error over the forthcoming three years resulted in the exhibition at Kouros Gallery. What kind of future do you see for sculpture? Has it become too conceptual in nature? If so, would you advocate a return to traditional form?

DH: I find the present state of sculpture quite baffling. Multimedia seems to have crept into the scene — installations are also welcomed by the museums since this way the space can be given without necessarily acquiring the work. Sculptors will always continue working in bronze, stone, wood, and clay. Some time ago, painting was declared by some to have died, but somehow there are more painters around than ever. I’m not particularly interested in conceptual art but neither am I moved by very traditional art. It’s a bewildering time, but I will continue exploring — as always.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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