Isaac Witkin and the Prospect Mountain Sculpture Show
By Anthony F. Hall
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Sculptor Isaac Witkin (1936-2005) is a Lake George artist by virtue of his participation in the “The Prospect Mountain Sculpture Show – An homage to David Smith,” which the Lake George Arts Project mounted in 1979.
Composed of nearly a score of welded-metal sculptures by artists influenced by Smith, the famed sculptor who lived and worked in nearby Bolton Landing until his death in 1965, the show was organized by Beth Rowe, the Arts Project’s executive director.
“A Sculpture exhibition honoring David Smith was a dream and hope of mine since I first visited Smith’s studio in Bolton Landing,” she wrote in the exhibition catalog. “Prospect Mountain provided space for siting an exhibition of large sculpture within the dramatic Adirondack landscape that had inspired David Smith.”
To select the artists and curate the show, Rowe turned to Irving Sandler, a well-known art critic and one of the first historians of the School of New York painters.
“Prospect Mountain was a perfect venue for a show of sculpture in landscape,” Sandler wrote in his 2003 memoir, A Sweeper Up After Artists. “The work was highly visible and easily accessible to people, who could park their cars at various places, get out, walk around and look.”
At the time, Isaac Witkin was among the most prominent sculptors in the United States, so there was little question that he would be invited to contribute a piece to the exhibition.
The British-born sculptor submitted a 1975 work titled Taurus. John Ashbery, the poet who was New York magazine’s art critic at the time, described it as a “terrra-cotta-painted cluster of drums and broken planes,” whose source of inspiration was “Smith’s baroque side.”
Installing Taurus on Prospect Mountain provided “the most dramatic moment of collaboration” between the artist and the local construction workers who were hired to move the sculptures into place, Sandler wrote.
“Taurus had been mangled in transport to Lake George and Witkin dejectedly told us to remove it from the show. Examining the piece, the foreman said that he saw how it might be fixed. Witkin shook his head but agreed to the foreman’s proposal that we give it a try. We met on the site at day break, hours before the opening. The foreman had his man on the crane lift the piece weighing tons as high as it could go and let it drop. As it hit the ground with a heart stopping crash, two workers wielding sledgehammers banged it into shape while Witkin and his assistant bolted it together. It succeeded. But Isaac’s nerves were so jangled that he left immediately, leaving Beth Rowe to repaint the sculpture as best she could,” wrote Sandler.
Fortunately, the Lake George Arts Project’s archives include photographs of what Dan George, the Lake George native whose work was also shown in the exhibition, referred to recently as “Isaac’s incident.”
Irving Sandler can be seen in one of them, obviously anxious himself, as Witkin, a large bearded man, approaches the sculpture. Beth Rowe stands near the pick up truck, incongruously, inexplicably, laughing.
At the time, Witkin was teaching at Bennington College, another link between himself and Smith, who had taught there before his death.
According to Witkin’s obituary in the New York Times, in the 1960s Bennington College was “a magnet for modernist artists like Anthony Caro, Kenneth Noland, Paul Feeley and Jules Olitski, who, along with the critic Clement Greenberg, collectively came to be known in the art world as ‘the Green Mountain boys.’”
Witkin came to Bennington from London at the invitation of Anthony Caro, with whom he had studied at St. Martin’s School of Art (now Central St. Martins College of Art and Design). After leaving Bennington, Wikin ceased making welded-metal sculptures and began working with bronze. He died at his farm in New Jersey.
In a monograph about Witkin’s work published before his death, the critic Karen Wilkin writes, “If Witkin had continued to make only steel constructions like the ones that evolved after his move to the United States, his place in the history of recent sculpture would be assured, as an artist who expanded the possibilities of the inherited language of Picasso and Gonzalez…Since younger artists constructing in steel in the 1970s and 1980s frequently found themselves overshadowed, in terms of public attention, by sculptors exploring alternative materials and methods, Witkin’s seriousness, deep engagement and substantial reputation served as important examples.”
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