They’re all wearing underpants. This either means that Duane Hanson thought his superrealistic sculptures of ordinary people were real enough that they deserved their dignity, or that he felt the degree of illusion he wanted required the inclusion of garments that would never be seen. It’s probably a little of both.
The main room of Hanson’s retrospective yields one of the strangest sights you’re ever likely to see in a New York museum. It’s Madame Tussaud’s meets the Mall of America, a spooky group of sleepwalkers caught in a state of suspended animation. It’s like a meat locker of American— some would say ugly American— types: tourists, kids, old people, a shopper, a mother, and a cleaning lady (one of only two black people in the show). In the adjoining galleries you can see their kin: construction workers, a cop, a cowboy, a waitress, and a housepainter. It’s a theme park of white America. Weirded-out and mesmerized, you wander among this clutch of familiar strangers as you would the frozen figures at Pompeii, thinking, What will people make of this sculpture in the 23rd century?
Hanson’s brood oozes ennui. They sit or stand off to the edge of the world they inhabit. They stare vacantly into space or passively into themselves. It’s creepy and dopey. Somehow they seem burdened; you almost want to play social worker or be like the doctor Robin Williams played in Awakenings: you want to coax them out of their comatose states. But what can you say to the listless waitress Rita that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Or how do you tell the Lou Ferrignolike bodybuilder he has to find something better to do with his time?
In this way, Hanson brings out your humanity, your soft spots and prejudices. You watch yourself watch the gullible tourists, the forlorn policeman, or the surrealistically inward old couple. And all these moods start to funnel into some amazingly existential American place just this side of the imaginary town of Hopper’s Solitude. Then it hits you: these aren’t types at all— these are all portraits of states of mind, feelings, and inner qualities.
Even though he had an international reputation by the late 1970s, no one talks about Hanson anymore, except to trot him out as a predecessor to a cadre of younger sculptors who employ the lifelike figure. Hanson is the perennial odd man out of American sculpture, our embarrassing uncle; a guilty pleasure, like M.C. Escher or Dalí. But Hanson, and his uncanny art, is so American it almost hurts.
Born in the dairy country of Minnesota in 1925, he grew up there in a tiny town called Parkers Prairie. He was called to art early when, at 13, he carved an earnest, realistic wooden replica of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy. Except for four years spent in New York City in the early 1970s, Hanson lived in Florida from 1965 until his death in 1996. But the fates smiled on him; as it happens, Florida has the highest concentration of Hansonian types anywhere in the world.
By the late 1980s, the art world had turned its back on him. With only one solo show in New York between 1985 and 1995, and virtually no critical support, he was on his own. Even the catalogue for this show is kind of dinky; plus the show’s itinerary wasn’t Washington or Los Angeles, but Flint, Michigan, and Fort Lauderdale.
Hanson may have ended up out of it, but he definitely comes from the thick of things. Grouped with the Photorealists in the 1960s, he is really more of a vernacularist who presents the eccentricities of the common man. He has more in common with real-life tableau artists like George Segal and Ed Kienholz. But where Segal was interested in generality, Hanson lives and breathes specificity; and while Kienholz certainly wanted his art to be real and specific, he was too all over the place for Hanson, who is after fact, focus, and wholeness.
Hanson started early, but he bloomed late. You can write off all the work before 1967 except Blue Boy (which foreshadowed everything), and even his first cast-from-life sculptures are pretty primitive. However, one of them, Motorcycle Accident— a cast of a lifeless boy lying next to his wrecked bike— caused a sensation and put him on the map. It looks tame now, but in 1968 it was banned from an exhibition as “too grisly.” But Hanson must have known his work was too expressionistic, so he retreated to the studio. There he mastered the craft of cast polyester and fiberglass, and by 1971, he set to work, like some kooky Geppetto, creating his own American family. He got rid of the exaggeration and concentrated on the individual. Then he began to paint these meticulously cast works in closely observed detail, down to the veins under fragile skin, liver spots, freckles, and beard stubble on faces. It was maniacal.
Essentially, Hanson is a maestro of props and poses. From garishly colored polyester shirts to underpants, everything matters. Look at Woman With a Dog. An elderly, overweight lady sits in a living room chair while a dog lies asleep at her feet. She reads a letter addressed to Minnie Johnson of Davie, Florida, from Lily Carlson of Minneapolis. It’s perfect; the letter’s even about the bad weather back in Minnesota. From one Scandinavian to another; from back home to down South, from Hanson’s birthplace to his adopted town, the levels of verisimilitude are stunning. As for the poses, it’s not what the sculptures look like— after all, they’re just hyperrealist objects— it’s how they occupy space in the gallery that makes them so convincing. As public sculpture, they’d be routine, mere curiosities. Here, they’re haunting.
If every art has its optimal viewing distance, then Hanson’s is close, very close. As if they were trying to sniff out the work’s aliveness, people get as near to Hanson’s sculpture as one dog will to another. Hanson was on a quest for realness and he almost attained it, but this dream is always doomed. When you do get close to these sculptures, you’ll notice something strange: they’re not real at all. You can see the painted skin, irregular folds in artificial flesh, the glassy eyes, or how the hair is all implants.
It turns out Hanson’s work is so real it’s fake. That’s why it’s wrong to make him an antecedent to younger artists who use superrealist tropes. You never look at a figure by the Chapmans or one of Charles Ray’s mannequins and think, “This is so real.” On the contrary, these works are so obviously concocted that they open onto a whole different plane of realness, and that, of course, is the imagination. Hanson’s work can’t do this. He presents people whole, as matters of fact, and unmediated. There’s not much you can do with one of his works once you’ve seen it. Locked in this loop, they are so complete they foil themselves.
But maybe not. Being in close quarters with Hanson’s work is a little like listening to a phone-in program about sex: you think, I’m not one of these people. At least that’s what I was thinking while I was looking at Woman With a Dog, when a woman, who looked like a Hanson herself, said to me, “Oh my goodness, until you moved, I thought you were a sculpture.” It turns out we may all be Duane Hansons.