I imagine that 10 years from now, we’ll be looking back at the Portland Museum of Art’s “A New American Sculpture 1914-1945” as a watershed moment of American art history.

The exhibition in the PMA’s main gallery features 55 works by sculptors Gaston Lachaise, Robert Laurent, Elie Nadelman and William Zorach. All four were born in Europe but led sculpture on this side of the pond into the modernist movement with what we can now begin to see as a distinctive American sensibility. Moreover, three of these artists had homes in and worked in Maine, a point PMA sculpture curator Andrew Eschelbacher wisely glosses over.

I say “wisely” because Eschelbacher is presenting far broader conversations and historical points than mere provincial score-keeping. It is proper and important that we Mainers follow communities of Maine art and artists – particularly key modernists such as Hartley, Marin, the Porters, the Zorachs, the Wyeths, Kuniyoshi, Kent, Abbott, Barnet, Hopper, Homer (oh, yes, this may be contentious, but I maintain American modernism follows the Romantic impulse of individual perspective of which Homer is arguably the national champion). While the term “provincial” can become a conversational powder keg, it’s hardly controversial to talk about cultural hot spots. The modernist diaspora, after all, wasn’t seeded in America. Yet by the end of World War II, Paris had passed the baton to New York City, and Maine, at the very least, was a satellite of New York. Arguably, it was a leading source of its gravity.

Eschelbacher’s presentation of Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman and Zorach as European-born artists who coalesced in Paris before they emerged as an American current is apt, from cultural, historical and intellectual perspectives. He gathers them in Portland, subtly re-distilled in Maine. There are at least 20 major cultural thrusts and threads to follow from there. Eschelbacher opens these doors as well.

“New American Sculpture” will be a surprise even to American sculpture fans. We’ve seen many of these works regularly: Zorach’s “Head of Christ” at the Museum of Modern Art, Nadelman’s “Tango” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Zorach’s “The Artist’s Daughter” (who just happens to be the late, great Dahlov Ipcar) at the Smithsonian, Nadelman’s Dolly-Madison-esque “The Hostess” at Colby College, Laurent’s “Hero and Leander” at the PMA, Laurent’s gorgeous alabaster “The Wave” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Lachaise’s monumental sandstone “The Mountain” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Zorach’s “Spirit of the Dance” at Rockefeller Center, and Lachaise’s masterpiece “Standing Woman,” not only at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which lent this version) but in other great museums, too, as well as in practically every book on modernism or 20th-century sculpture.

The Philadelphia version of “Standing Woman” – based on a model whom Lachaise later married – is identifiable just from the patina on her chest. It is effervescent, like bioluminescence on an otherwise shiny, almost black patinaed bronze form. Details like this, and the naturalistic rings on her nipples, distinguish it from other versions. A moment’s glance at what appears like a coldly obvious someone-else’s-fantasy female figure can steal into a lost hour – but what an hour. At first, the sexually majestic pose and poise of the figure distracts, but after a few delirious moments the work’s sculptural greatness comes into focus.

Zorach’s monumental nude, “Spirit of the Dance,” is rightly the centerpiece of “New American Sculpture.” The work illustrates the tensions that occur as the sculpture tradition of Western culture wanders into modernism and Art Deco figuration. The show is all about the relationship between American modernism and Art Deco, one of the several extraordinarily complex and important topics that Eschelbacher raises – and wisely refuses to settle – in this curatorial coup.

“Acrobat,” by Elie Nadelman, 1916, bronze, 17 by 6 by 9 inches. Photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

The takeaway about Zorach from the show is that he was a great direct carver, a point that’s often obscured by the iconic presence of “Spirit of the Dance” – particularly when it’s framed by Art Deco architecture. In “New American Sculpture,” we don’t see the buildings that serve to frame so much of this work, but that too is a strength of the show. What we see as Art Deco’s figurative “classicism” is, in fact, a throwback to its Archaic (yup, capital “A”) sources. In other words, the association with classicism is something being formed, not something essentialist or perfected: Like Egyptian art, it is intentionally flattened. It is like writing that announces the primacy of the pictorial.

“The Artist’s Daughter,” by William Zorach, 1930, marble, 25 by 12 by 10 inches. Photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

Painting fans may celebrate this as sculpture’s submission to the pictorial. Not me. I have always lamented the move away from sculpture in the round and wished that America’s greatest sculptors in the round – MacMonnies and St. Gaudens – had prevailed. But with the ascent of this lot, they were cast aside. Sure, I can stare daggers at Zorach and his Georgetown cronies, but they won. Art Deco – however flat and frontal – became the international pedestal for sculpture.

We can feel this loss even among this fresh new set of champions as they cast aside the 3D greatness of the Greeks for other things. Lachaise’s “Man Walking,” for example, a 1933 portrait of his elegant patron Lincoln Kirstein, has the feel of a sculpted ballet manual about how an ideal being would walk. With the most human drop in the right hip from the left, Lachaise delivers a master class in classicism – despite the flat squared shoulders and unnaturally straight posture in place of the naturalistic balance of Greek contrapposto. It’s as though Lachaise wants to be symmetrically pre-classical but, with what feels like a lover’s breathless touch, he finds a most beautiful sliver in the body – a winsome wisp that makes all the difference. We notice this same effect in the drop of Spirit of the Dance’s right shoulder when seen from the back, but these appear as almost nostalgic vestiges on the way to being forgotten. These details make clear that Lachaise and Zorach knew what they were discarding.

“The Bather,” by Robert Laurent, circa 1925, alabaster, 26 by 221/16 by 139/16 inches. Photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

Potentially the most important conversation to flow from “New American Sculpture” stems from Nadelman’s claim that he “invented the principles of Cubism.” He and the other artists on display in “New American Sculpture” were among those who surrounded Picasso and Braque while they digested and translated elements of African sculpture into the most revolutionary painting movement in Western history. Moreover, Picasso saw similar drawings that preceded Nadelman’s 1908-10 “Seated Figure,” my favorite work in the show, at Gertrude Stein’s salons in Paris. In light of seminal works like Picasso’s 1914 “Guitar,” permanently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, Nadelman’s claim not only seems possible, but it makes sense, and anyone serious about Cubism should take note. Yet until I saw this show, I mostly laughed off his claim. Moreover, Nadelman’s “Seated Nude” is the most satisfying sculpture in-the-round of the entire show. A tiny thing based on a clear classical source, it’s proof positive of sculptural genius.

With “New American Sculpture,” we see American sculpture digesting not only classicism and pre-classicism, but kitsch, craft and American primitivism as well. We see modernism and painterly frontalism take the fore. We see the broadly international movement of Art Deco swell from Europe onto the soaring, skyscraping architectural monuments of American capitalism. We see more than we could possibly talk about even in a dozen major books.

It’s a powerful show in a notoriously difficult space. (Henry Cobb is one of my favorite American architects, but the gorgeous PMA’s first floor gallery is a difficult mess.) While we are in a place long bereft of sculptural excellence, with “New American Sculpture,” Eschelbacher and the PMA have set us all to re-writing some important chapters of art.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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