Curators sometimes joke that sculpture is the thing to avoid when stepping back in an art gallery to get a better look at a painting. It always seems to be in the way.

Not so this summer at the Portland Museum of Art, where curators have organized a sculpture exhibition that is both easy to appreciate and navigate, and revealing in its beauty and scope. “A New American Sculpture, 1914-1945: Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach” explores the relationships among the artists and the work they created between the two world wars, and how their art influenced the country’s cultural aesthetic during the rise of Modernism.

All four artists were born in Europe and emigrated to America, and all helped define the visual language of sculpture in the 20th century. Two of them – the French-born Robert Laurent and Lithuanian William Zorach – ended up in Maine and became integral members of the Maine’s emerging art scene in early 20th century.

This is not ancient history. Grandchildren of three of the four artists attended the opening of the exhibition in May, and many remembered seeing some of the art that is on display in Portland in their grandparents’ homes.

“It makes you feel very special that we grew up with this work,” said Holly Laurent of Boston, who spent many summers with her grandparents at Perkins Cove in Ogunquit. “All of grand-père’s grandchildren knew it was something special. It wasn’t something you could articulate, but you knew you grew up with something special. And when you see it in another setting like the Portland Museum of Art, you realize how special it was.”

William Zorach was the father of painter and illustrator Dahlov Ipcar, who lived in Georgetown and died earlier this year at age 99. She was a frequent model for her father, and her likeness shows up in several of the works on view in Portland. Laurent, who died in 1970, was instrumental in the early days of the Ogunquit art colony.

This exhibition includes many of the most recognized and significant works of each artist, including Zorach’s monumental “Spirit of Dance,” an aluminum version of which is on permanent view at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The one on display at Portland, in bronze, is the show-stopper of “A New American Sculpture.”

“Man in theOopen Air,” by Elie Nadelman.

It’s a striking nude, nearly 7 feet tall, and was situated for generations at the Zorach farm in Georgetown before coming to Portland for this show. It’s a classic image of a dancer, bowing at the end of her performance. Her nudity was controversial in 1932 when Zorach unveiled the piece, which was selected by the Rockefeller family for placement at Radio City. But it was quickly accepted, as its popularity became obvious. It’s been on view in New York since.

Portland Museum of Art curator Andrew Eschelbacher placed her so she looks toward visitors as they enter the gallery from the museum’s Great Hall, drawing them in with her gaze and alluring, athletic pose. Eschelbacher conceived the installation around this towering woman, placing key sculptures in prominent locations throughout the exhibition space.

Each artist is represented with a dozen or more sculptures and drawings that demonstrate their range and their shared concerns and ideas. Elie Nadelman’s “Dancer” is a painted wooden sculpture of a high-stepping – and clothed – female dancer that is less formal and more folk-like than Zorach’s “Spirit of the Dance,” but no less engaging.

“Tango,” by Elie Nadelman. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Laurent’s “Plant Form,” also carved in wood and stained with earth-tone colors, is not a human figure, but the graceful shaping of the wood suggests Laurent was inspired by the human body when he made it.

And Gaston Lachaise’s “Standing Woman” delivers exactly what its title promises, a robust woman of 6-feet gesturing with her hands and arms, as if calling her lover in for an embrace.

Eschelbacher and his curatorial partner, Shirley Reece-Hughes of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art of Fort Worth, Texas, picked from among the most significant works of each artist, borrowing sculptures from dozens of museums across North America. The exhibition is arranged by theme, to call attention to similarities in subject, style and materials among the quartet. “We were able to hone in on the 15 to 20 works that really tell the story of these artists, that are most significant and that are most beautiful. Many of these works are the best of the best,” he said.

He attributed the success in borrowing key pieces to the uniqueness of this exhibition. It’s the first attempt to tell the story of these four artists together, though their stories are so similar.

“They were all born in Europe and they all ended up in America, and while each had his own style, they shared an approach to art that emphasized composition and anatomy,” Eschelbacher said.

“A New American Sculpture” celebrates beauty, form and the vision of four artists who worked independently but shared life experiences and worldviews. Collectively, they also helped shaped the direction of art in America when Modernism emerged as a cultural movement.

All four artists lived or studied in Paris in the early 20th century and came to American with the lessons of Paris etched firmly in mind. While many American artists were moving toward abstraction, these four remained committed to a Modernist embrace of realism and intimate renderings of the human body. Their influence and presence is visible still today, in places like Radio City Music Hall and other prominent early-20th century buildings in New York where they were commissioned to create public art.

“Man in theOopen Air,” by Elie Nadelman.

The idea for this exhibition began two years ago when the Portland museum hosted “Director’s Cut,” which included art from museums across Maine. In that show, sculptures by Laurent, Zorach and Lachaise were situated in close proximity. That began a conversation about their similarities and harmonics, and the conversation expanded to include the Polish artist Nadelman.

The exhibition feels interactive. Viewers move among the pieces as if walking among tall trees, experiencing the art from 360 degrees, instead of walking around the perimeter of a gallery while looking at art on a wall.

“Sculpture shows are hard to do,” Eschelbacher said. “You have to deal with sculpture in a different way than how you deal with a painting. We’re used to seeing paintings on a wall and sculpture in a painting gallery.”

For this show, Eschelbacher and his installation team converted what is a traditional painting gallery into a sculpture gallery by creating dozens of pedestals and cases, and building them at varying heights and dimensions to create different angles, perspectives and dynamics. To experiment with the placement of works, they also created full-scale cardboard cutouts before, and placed them on pedestals around the galleries.

The exhibition includes many preparatory and finished drawings, which hang on the walls in close proximity to the final work. “A New American Sculpture” is predominantly an exhibition in three dimensions, but the drawings present an opportunity for viewers to appreciate these artists for their ability to execute their vision in pencil, ink and graphite with as much energy and passion as when they worked with marble, alabaster or wood.

Holly Laurent has traveled from Boston twice to see the exhibition and plans at least two more visits. “I thought the way they set up the space was just so breathtaking in terms of featuring all the pieces in a beautiful setting and having a flow to the whole space that felt natural,” she said. “I love how they grouped similar pieces by different artists, and how thematically they were able to weave so many pieces together.”

The exhibition comes at a time when the museum is paying closer attention to sculpture in general. There is more sculpture on view throughout the museum, integrated with paintings and other objects of art. On July 7, the museum opens a new sculpture park and garden, named after museum supporters David E. Shaw and Joan B. Burns.

The sculpture garden along High Street has evolved over the years, with pieces by Celeste Roberge, Anthony Caro and, most recently, John Bisbee. When it reopens, it will include Jonathan Borofsky’s “Human Structures (24 Figures Connected)” made from colorful interlocking steel figures. It will be similar to the piece that Borofsky, who lives in Ogunquit, installed last year at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland.

The garden will include access from High Street, and the museum will use it for more outdoor functions and to put more art on view in open spaces. The opening on July 7 will include food trucks and music, but the garden will be open to the public, for free, most of the year.

In addition to “A New American Sculpture,” the museum also is displaying tools from Lachaise, on long-term loan from the Gaston Lachaise Foundation. On view in the Sweat Galleries, the tools offer visitors a chance to explore the rendering and technical aspects of carving and sculpting.

Paula Hornbostel, director of the New York foundation, attended the opening and called the show “a four-ring circus” of surprises that requires return visits to discover all the subtleties and details.

“For the historically curious, the timeline does a great job to place the works in perspective … and remind the audience how different times were and how truly modern and striking some of these works were,” she wrote in an email. “Sometimes in today’s age it takes more and more to captivate our attention, but these works hold their own.”

She’s especially pleased with how well Lachaise is treated and how his work is placed in context with his peers. “One can see the development of the Modernist flair,” she said.

She is thrilled that Eschelbacher included the marble “Nude on the Steps,” “which is one that Nelson Rockefeller admired but could never have. … She is the beautiful goddess Lachaise sought to express in all his work.”

The show is on view in Portland through Sept. 8 and will travel to the Amon Carter in Texas and Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes


Correction: This story was revised at 9:42 a.m., June 13, 2017, to correct the location of Amon Carter Museum of American Art. It is in Fort Worth, Texas.