From the fickering snippet of old black-and-white film on the wall-mounted video monitor at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, you can tell that John Storrs lived pretty well. The pioneer American modernist sculptor (1885-1956) married a French writer, semi-expatriated to France, and set up housekeeping and a studio in a capacious-looking house in the village of Mer, near Orléans. Although he became friends with such transatlantic artist-provocateurs as Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, Storrs’s esthetic heart remained optimistically attached to the U.S., and particularly to that architectural phenomenon once unique to the States, the skyscraper. Whether his natural temperament led him to a fascination with the most vertical components of the Manhattan skyline or those great towers propelled him toward plumb sculpture is a chicken-egg question. Whatever the answer, Storrs’s affection for altitudinous architecture and his extremely pared-down figuration formed a fortuitous combination.
In the Grey survey, “John Storrs: Machine- Age Modernist,” organized by independent curator Debra Bricker Balken for the Boston Athenaeum, where it debuted last spring, the artist’s best work—sculpture from about 1920 into the early ’30s—has a wonderful “is-ness” to it. Though modest in size, it’s there in spades. A work such as Forms in Space (ca. 1926) doesn’t give the viewer any flash or fireworks. It almost totally abjures the horizontal. The sculptor also has what appears to us now as a counterintuitive knack for using the “wrong” material (stone, sometimes with black enamel paint on it), which gives much of his work a prevailing toughness that is so unselfconscious it’s almost lyrical. Along the way, Storrs mixes in influences from industrial machinery, American Indian craft (he and his wife, Marguerite Deville Chabrol, toured the American West in 1914) and plant forms. (That last is the least represented: organic curves were not a Storrs forte.) At times, Storrs veers so close to the look of a building that his sculpture resembles an architect’s maquette.
Although he ventured into painting when the Great Depression made sculpting in metal and stone too expensive, Storrs’s talent is clearly three-dimensional. Sure, he’s a “four-sided” sculptor with little of the dynamic, diagonal through-movement his teachers (Lorado Taft and, later, Auguste Rodin) must have demanded from him as a student. But when Storrs doesn’t work with actual physical volume, he’s far from his best. Storrs also made sculpture depicting (in the broadest sense of that word) the human figure, and he completed a 30-foot-tall commission of Ceres for the Chicago Board of Trade. But the two studies for it in this exhibition confirm that the skyscraper, instead, was Storrs’s wheelhouse. He is one of those artists of whom our perception changes radically with the times. Thirty years ago, he seemed quaint, 10 years ago interesting, and now, genuinely moving. But his art waxes sad. As with his chateau in the movie clip, we know we can’t go there again.
Photo: John Storrs: Forms in Space, ca. 1926, wood and mixed metals on stone base, 12 by 6 1/8 by 4 1/8 inches; at the Grey Art Gallery.