The Beauty of a Henry Moore Sculpture

Working model for Henry Moore’s, Three Piece No. 3: Vertebrae (1968)


I have long admired Henry Moore’s sculptures. Through his willingness to explore various ways of representing the human form, as well as his less representational considerations of abstract shapes, Moore has left a huge legacy. His exploration of aspects of the human body is compelling. I especially like an example that can perhaps be described as a hybrid between those works and his interest in more abstract contours. I am referring to his Three Piece No. 3: Vertebrae, shown above. I first came to see and interact with this sculpture while in college, when visiting a scaled up larger version of it on the Safeco Plaza in Seattle (depicted below).

Moore’s Three Piece No. 3 involves a sculptural adaptation of a basic element of both human and animal anatomy, spinal vertebrae. It clearly suggests its biological source while also providing a dynamic interplay between three objects inspired by the same bones.

The top photo above is of the bronze casting of the preliminary plaster model for the sculpture, with roughly the dimensions of 3′ x 8′ x 4′. It is evocative in that scale, where we find it sitting on a plinth for viewers in a gallery. Moore, in the following year, then created a significantly larger version of the same, measuring roughly 9′ x 24′ x 10.5′, of which the Seattle plaza installation is an example. About ten years later, in 1978, the sculptor was commissioned to scale up the work for an even larger placement in the City Center Park Plaza outside the Dallas City Hall. The photos below depict the artist’s own copy of the the Seattle version of the work, as seen in the rather different setting of the Henry Moore Foundation Studio and Gardens, in Hertfordshire, England.


There is something compelling about Moore’s discernment regarding shape, form, and the dynamic interplay that we can see among otherwise static masses of beautifully aged bronze. These are not arbitrary shapes, and I think something within us recognizes the intrinsic connection between these abstract-looking forms and our own physical embodiment. Why do we find such sculptural elements attractive and compelling? Possible answers to this question might lead to a book length response. But I think we can say this: with sculptures like his Vertebrae, as well as with his representational exploration of the overall human form, Moore has shared with us recognizable instantiations of physical beauty with which we have a real connection, and one that is spiritual as well as aesthetic.

For when we recognize beauty in art, and or in nature, we recognize our disposition toward finding beauty. In finding beauty, we are able to discern something profound about ourselves as well as about the imprint within us of the love of our Creator, who is found within all beauty.


The Beauty of a Horse


Arthur Kern, Silent Myth (2006)

Those who know Grand Rapids, Michigan, and who appreciate sculpture, will be familiar with Meijer Gardens. A principal monument among their collection of sculptures is the impressively large rendering of Leonardo DaVinci’s horse, by the artist Nina Akamu. As remarkable in size as that sculpture is, it is a fine example of how so many artists have been fascinated by the equine form. Consider among others, the ancient Etruscan horses; the ceramic figurines from the Chinese Ming dynasty; as well as Degas’ rendering of lithe race horses, or the roughly contemporary western bronzes of Frederick Remington and Charles Russell. In all these, this historically important animal companion to both our human community and our many activities has so often received sculptural tribute through artistic imagination.

Recently, I had the wholly unexpected opportunity to discover the powerful work of a 90 year old Louisiana sculptor, whose output until 2016 had largely been out of the public eye for over 30+ years. The Callan Contemporary Gallery in New Orleans has until late April an impressive show of 18 cast resin sculptures almost all featuring horses with riders, or with some representation of a human form. Two of the works are at a stunning life size, while the rest are roughly around twelve inches in height and width. I was not previously familiar with the artist’s work, and was bowled over by its beauty. Here is an example of a smaller work:

Here is another:

And another:

Wherein does that beauty lie? I think it is found in Kern’s studied sensitivity to the anatomic beauty of horses, while he also takes obvious liberty in moving beyond literalistic portrayal of particular equine breeds. Though some observers use the term ‘surrealist’ to describe his approach, I prefer the admittedly cumbersome phrase, ‘representationally explorative.’ Further, Kern’s employment of a lost wax process for producing the molds has given him an opportunity to play with the plasticity of the resin in those molds, as well as to manipulate the coloring of the results. And because of his employment of this casting process, originally used for bronze sculptures, each of the pieces in this show is one of a kind, and not an example of a numbered series.

Just as compelling is the knowledge that after a successful career as a painter and professor of art, Kern then burned his remaining paintings, and moved to a largely hermit life as a sculptor, working privately without any assistants while casting in several cases significantly large works at his home or in his garage. The series of horse sculptures, among other works, is the fruit of several decades of dedicated work, outside the notice of the commercial art world.

It is not evident whether Kern’s loving regard for the human and animal form reflects a religious or spiritual appreciation for the source of the beauty they represent. Yet, his sensitivity to these forms evidences a spirit of positive regard for the world around us that parallels voices of praise that we hear in the Psalms and in many other passages of Scripture. Men and women, throughout history, have loved and admired the form and structure of so many examples of ‘flora and fauna,’ and that of the horse in particular. To me that is surely due to the way that our appreciation for what enriches our lives reflects the transcending and loving regard of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for both us and all of Creation.


Photographs are by the author (all rights reserved) with permission from the gallery. Arthur Kern, Horses, at the Callan Contemporary Gallery in New Orleans until April 23. I encourage you to seek images of and reflections upon his work on the internet. Here is a link to the exhibit:

The Beauty of Balance



Recently, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) featured a show of the work of Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. The two were exact contemporaries and were acquainted with one another.

Like Picasso, Calder became famous for the wide range of his artistic expression. Most memorable are his ‘mobiles,’ beloved by many. These floating sculptures are the beautifully balanced hanging assemblies of wire and pieces of sheet metal. Unlike the example above, they are usually covered in bright colors or flat black paint.

His ‘stabiles‘ are floor-based sculptures that incorporate flat surfaces arranged in three-dimensional relationships, both vertical and horizontal. Some are wonderfully fluid given the curved shape of their panels, while others are geometric, more linear, and ‘edgy.’

The above photo features what I think was the final study model for La Grande Vitesse, his huge lyrical stabile which now sits on a principal downtown plaza in Grand Rapids, Michigan (which I have featured before.)

Obviously, Calder’s mobiles -especially the most successful ones- depend upon an engineer’s sensitivity for balance, while featuring his not-easily-imitable sense of proportion, shape, and color. He also blessed his mobiles with a capacity to drift quietly with the slightest breezes.

Less obvious is how the element of balance features in his stabiles. This involves the balance between vertical and horizontal elements; it also includes the balance between curved edges and flat surfaces. And finally, his stabiles incorporate the most subtle balance of all. This is the balance achieved by the artist when providing a cohesive experience of visual excitement for the viewer who sees each aspect of a stabile sculpture while walking around it.

Calder has been quoted as saying this: “The admission of approximation is necessary, for one cannot hope to be absolute in his precision. He cannot see, or even conceive of a thing from all possible points of view, simultaneously. While he perfects the front, the side, or rear may be weak; then while he strengthens the other facade he may be weakening that [one which was] originally the best. There is no end to this. To finish the work he must approximate.”

Surely, this is equally true of the spiritual life. Many of us are tempted toward the ideal of some kind of ‘perfection,’ surely never attainable by fallen humans such as ourselves. Yet, that pursuit of a kind of absoluteness and or precision, however attractive, is not true to our lives as pilgrims on an unfolding journey. Such a journey is an ancient and compelling metaphor for our lives, in Scripture and in our tradition.

So, yes, in the abstract, there are some things that are absolutely true in principle. But we so often seek and pursue them while ‘walking in circles,’ admiring the beauty, goodness and truth of what is before us. And yet, our grasp of, and appreciation for, the whole is often based on a single, or a limited number of perspectives. We then are kept from seeing the fullness of the many marvelous gifts given to us by and through our Creator’s grace-filled pursuit of us. Seeking and then finding a balance between sometimes competing perspectives and concerns can be an important step toward perceiving beauty when otherwise it may be hard to see.

I can think of no finer balanced-juxtaposition of these several elements within Calder’s extensive portfolio than the one depicted above, temporarily exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. A mobile gently moves above you, while you stand. You gently move around a stabile while it stands.


{my photograph; copyright reserved} / Regarding the above quote from Calder, remember that while his choice of pronouns may not be what we prefer, they were characteristic of what was considered ‘proper English’ and assumed to be fully inclusive at that time.

To See Spiritual Light


I first learned about the monumental sculptures and the suspended mobiles of Alexander Calder during high school in the early 1970’s. My school was in western Massachusetts, and I remember some weekend trips when I saw a couple of his large outdoor sculptures being built at a metal foundry in Connecticut. To me, Calder’s work continues to suggest a delight with the world and a generous appreciation for the beauty within it.

Calder approached the creation of public sculpture in a unique way. His largest pieces are often set in the center of cities, placed on plazas between modern office buildings. We have a beautiful example here in Grand Rapids, with another large one in the same bright red color nearby in Chicago. Many of Calder’s large outdoor “stabile” sculptures provide a lyrical counterpoint to the linear and grid-like facades of the surrounding office buildings.

We know that monumental sculptures from earlier times often portray honored heroes, sometimes on horseback. Perhaps the most dramatic and newsworthy examples in our own day are some Civil War legacy moments in the deep South. I think of the one in Lee Square, New Orleans, and the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument in Memphis, both recently removed. In these cases, major post-Civil War statuary has been an object of contention because of negative historical associations.

By contrast, Calder’s large works are not tethered to historical occasions. Instead, they are abstract, and point to transcendental ideas rather than to memorialized national events. They don’t simply draw attention to themselves as objects of regard. Calder’s plaza sculptures do more. They lead the observer’s eyes to notice the interplay between his work and the spaces around them, as well as their contrast with nearby buildings. One doesn’t just view these sculptures; one interacts with them, and with the larger context of their placement.

Here, we must note a paradoxical aspect of all public sculpture, which indicates something more about us than it does about the art. Many people work everyday in buildings adjacent to where sculptural works are situated. But these workers are just as capable of being inattentive to these pieces of art as they are to their parking spaces, or to the doors of their offices. With the soaring heights and reaching curves of his public monuments, Calder’s sculptures are expressively shaped and tremendously uplifting. But our focus on our work and our worries, and on the practical things we need to do, blinds us! And it diverts our attention from something truly beautiful, right there in front of us.

I note all this because the same thing can happen when we encounter the first verses of John’s Gospel. In what is often called the ‘prologue’ to his Gospel, John has written a passage shaped by poetic beauty and filled with lofty theology. Yet, we have a tendency to focus on what is immediate and practical, and on what seems narrowly relevant to our everyday concerns. And so, we can ‘pass by’ this Gospel ‘work of art’ just as people hurry past the great Calder downtown, absorbed with getting to our ‘work.’ In both cases, something sublime lies before us, ready for us to engage with. But sometimes we don’t see the sublime because we aren’t really looking for it!


The image above is of Alexander Calder’s stabile, Le Grande Vitesse. This post is based on my homily for the first Sunday after Christmas Day, December 29, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.