Maureen O’Brien’s essay on The Work of Merlin Szasz
An essay for the exhibition catalogue The Work of Merlin Szasz
Providence Art Club, 2008
“I bring you my passionate rhyme.”
(William Butler Yeats, A Poet to his Beloved, 1899)
The well of inspiration is filled with songs and myths. Artists who shun them forfeit the elixir of shared experience. To those who return often and drink deep, new paths of expression are made visible. It comes as no surprise, then, that a man whose name recalls an Arthurian sage should have embarked on a journey to that source, or that his works would wend their way through Norse legend, the Old Testament, and symbols of peace and redemption. Merlin Szasz found his ability to conjure nature from clay at the end of a maze of youthful abstraction. From its recesses, goddesses, shades, and strains of melodies first emerged in his medallic reliefs. Their circumscribed theatres became independent studios for the development of traditional sculptural techniques. Scaled up to the size of architectural decoration, these discs served as wide plains of narrative and figural experimentation. Reduced to the format of princely pendants and cast in precious metals, they revealed their refinements only to the eyes of private viewers. Szasz’s poems of classical imagery and harmonious text have become his stepping stones across five decades of artistic growth, leading variously to commemorative plaques, ceremonial jewelry, and to three-dimensional sculptures. His art rarely finds itself in commercial galleries, but instead adorns privileged friends, parish churches, and war memorials, reaffirming human aspirations of love, devotion, and valor.
Szasz’s work evolved after graduate studies at Cranbrook Academy in the 1950s and during a career devoted to teaching young artists. At Rhode Island School of Design, generations of students in Foundation Studies learned from his insistence on full communion of all elements of a work of art, extending in his own work to every aspect of moldings, frames, and finishes. To early 21st century art school sensibilities, modeling the figure may seem an antediluvian pursuit, but for Szasz the primordial sculptor’s ancient deities and biblical characters were essential prototypes. While teaching helped him clarify his objectives, it also freed him to continue learning. His innate sympathy for classical form attracted numerous commissions including monuments whose public function rewarded him with complementary anonymity. It was not recognition of his hand that he sought, but rather symphonic resolution of the composition and the intuitive understanding of viewers.
An autodidact, Szasz absorbed the history of art from personal encounters with Greek vases, Renaissance sculpture, and architecture. He breathed spirit into portrait busts of the living (Greek Orthodox Bishop Iakovos), the dead (historian and liberal philosopher Lord Acton) and the divine (the crucified Christ). He teased air and mass from fine strata of low relief and propelled figures forward from flat surfaces. In a major work of the 1960s the reluctant prophet Jonah was made to fly out of the belly of the whale in a fantastical tri-form monstrance set in a handcrafted altar. When Szasz encountered Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, Donatello’s Cantoria, Michelangelo’s tondi, he took mental impressions of their physical uniqueness, unraveling their secrets later, in the studio, and acknowledging their brilliant techniques in his own work. Some of his finest solutions evoke those forms: his Penelope brooch and Presidents’ chains, his plaque for the Rhode Island Philharmonic, his monumental rondel for the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Warwick, RI.
Compelled to combine his interests in architecture, sculpture, surface decoration and calligraphy, Szasz persistently invents complex programs. Regardless of a project’s scale or destination, he stubbornly refines its smallest details, often reverting to nature for solutions. His Vietnam Memorial, which sits on gentle knoll in Albany’s historic LafayettePark, is ringed by bronze lampposts whose lanterns reflect his constant recourse to plant motifs. Leaves pierce their quatrefoil caps as reminders to visitors that in light there is also regeneration. In a funerary urn, the most moving and private of all his sculptural forms, life’s mystery is implied in a lotus that rises above a sacred container. Crowned by an exuberant blossom, the vessel is shaded by the flower’s spreading pads and connected to a floating platform by protective cylindrical stalks. Lines of poetry lap its curved sides like eddies of water on the surface of a familiar pond. Visitors to this exhibition will unquestionably respond to Merlin Szasz’s skill and invention, but it is his ability to share human experiences that infuses his work with meaning and causes it to resonate in the imagination.
Maureen C. O’Brien
Curator of Painting and Sculpture
Museum of Art, Rhode IslandSchool of Design