“The Embrace” is the work of Hank Willis Thomas, who based his sculpture on a photograph of the couple hugging after King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Thomas, 46, is the son of Deborah Willis, herself an artist and one of this country’s most esteemed photography historians and curators. He has been thinking about public monuments, race and history for many years. In much of his work, he has proved adept at using simple, symbolic language, often borrowed from sports or advertising, to punchy, powerful effect. But his latest sculpture — all arms and elbows — has provoked massive public reaction, some of it critical.
I wanted to love “The Embrace.” But sadly, some of its critics are onto something. Although the work succeeds as a moving commemoration and as a tribute to love, it fails artistically.
That’s not the end of the world. Boston is filled with bronze monuments, and they are often overblown, ugly and kitsch. For some reason, the city has never been able to get past the idea that public sculpture needs to commemorate dead people.
“The Embrace’s” credentials are impeccable. The work, which was chosen from a field of five candidates by King Boston, the memorial’s sponsor, is by a young and talented African American artist. It commemorates a truly great man. It celebrates love instead of triumphalism. And it valorizes a couple, not just a singular male hero. But none of this alters the fact that, as a sculptural form, it doesn’t quite work.
“The Embrace” is a fragment taken from a whole that is nonetheless trying to present itself as a whole. It’s a difficult trick that Thomas tries valiantly but fails to pull off.
Specifically, he has chosen to represent only the arms, shoulders and hands of the Kings as they embrace. He has left out the rest of their bodies, including their heads. Removing these parts and then forcing the rest to stand as a heavy, monumental form that must balance on three legs (or, in this case, elbows) creates confusion. The result is arresting — there’s no question about that — but it’s inherently awkward.
If you’re going to make a figurative sculpture that amputates parts of the human body, you have to decide what to do about the transitions — the parts where the shoulder, for instance, once connected to the head. The only solution is to perform the sculptural equivalent of a skin graft. That’s ugly. And it’s the main problem with “The Embrace.” It’s not really a realist sculpture, but it has been executed in a realist language.
I honestly don’t see the same thing as those who have found something phallic in the sculpture from certain angles. But I do see that the shape closely resembles a heart from one perspective. I also recognize that the sculpture’s central conceit — transposing a fragment of a photograph into three dimensions — requires parts of its form to be fudged, approximated, grafted. That’s why, to many people, it looks kitsch.
It would have been different if Thomas had abstracted the figures in the manner of, say, Henry Moore or Constantin Brancusi. Once you change the language, you are working in your own key and can take more liberties. But if the language is realism — right down to buttons and wedding rings and wrinkles at the finger joints — you will run into trouble if you try to finesse amputated fragments into a whole.
Thomas has said that he likes the work of Claes Oldenburg, the pop artist who died last year. Oldenburg was famous for his giant, inflated sculptures of amusingly common, everyday objects. His conceit was to make prosaic, cheap and unimportant things monumental and (ironically) prestigious.
Unfortunately, it’s not always enough to take one element of the work of someone you like and transpose it into a different context. If you take away the humor, softness and prosaic quality of Oldenburg’s work and translate it into heavy bronze commemorating a human subject at once profound, joyous, politically charged and tragic, you are opening your art to a totally different set of criteria. The things that made the original inspiration artistically successful no longer apply.
I think using a photograph as inspiration also creates problems. Photographs have their own enigmatic and paradoxical aesthetic. They have the authority of evidence but they capture transience. They are fleeting and friable. They speak to us of times that can never be recovered. Transposing something captured in a photograph into a massive bronze sculpture — something weighty, permanent and expensive — is like driving a car on railway tracks. It’s possible, if you’re James Bond, but your passengers are always going to feel nervous. The fact that the Kings’ marriage, like all marriages, was complicated makes the transformation of a fleeting moment of joy into 40,000 pounds of steel and bronze feel all the more like rhetoric, or propaganda.
There are so many ways in which art can trip up. Unfortunately, good intentions have nothing to do with it. Art that doesn’t try for much is guaranteed innocuousness. It is neither good nor bad, since those judgments are a function of people caring. Art that is ambitious, like Thomas’s, is more likely to disappoint because we can’t help but see it in relationship to its ambitions. It’s the level of ambition that makes people care.
Thomas is not just an ambitious artist — he’s also talented. I’ve seen enough of his work to care. I don’t love this particular sculpture (I rarely like committee-approved public sculpture), and I’ve tried to explain why. But “The Embrace” will do his career no harm at all. Watch what he does next. You’ll likely be rewarded.