Essays on Sy
Introduction: Discovering Sy Gresser
by Bruce Payne
In the late fall of 1963 I saw “Torso of a Woman,” a mango wood sculpture by Sy Gresser, at the Athena Gallery on Orange Street in New Haven. Something about that work and two others at the gallery seemed to me quite powerful, and I took the opportunity to meet Sy at his home in Riverdale, Maryland, in January, 1964.
Sy was in those days working as a technical writer for a defense contractor, translating the jargon of scientists and engineers into plain English for training manuals and reports. The rest of his time, as nearly as I could tell, was spent carving. In daylight hours he usually worked outdoors on the concrete patio, often in the midst of his family – his wife, their four kids and a cat named Bandito. Most of the more solitary long night hours were spent in the make-shift studio of the half-finished basement.
To get a proper look that first day, we lifted each piece on to an outdoor work table. Touching their variously rough and polished surfaces and feeling their weight (limestone so much lighter than marble; tropical hardwoods so much heavier than cedar), each work had its own surprising impact. In museums and galleries I had paid more attention to shapes than to textures and more to outlines than to forms, never thinking of a sculpture’s heft or of what its shaping might have needed. That January day I began to see works like his not just as images and ideas, but as objects fashioned over time – ponderable works with stories of their own.
From that hands-on beginning day a steady friendship and an intermittent inquiry grew.
Getting to know an artist well has some notable advantages for seeing, and so does living with works one has watched develop over time. Now and again, often when we least expect it, aspects of a piece appear that we hadn’t grasped before – the work gives us something new. Sometimes we are touched more sharply, reminded of values, hopes and feelings that reach beyond our daily occupations and preoccupations. Then these works of art become talismans, clues about dimensions of our lives we have not fully found or plumbed.
Such encounters with art can make us more conscious of where and who we are. And if we are open to the multiple dimensions of what we see in them, these works of art can sometimes even change the paths we follow. For most of us, however, finding a way to that kind of openness is more a matter of luck than of intention.
Right from the start, Sy’s work offered that kind of luck for me. And the first clue, not surprisingly, was passion. A fair number of his works have their origins in women’s bodies, and it was easy enough to take in the erotic charge they carried. But I soon saw there were in fact connections to animal and human forms in almost everything he made. This accounted in large measure for the presence, the power, I felt them to contain: full of animal strength, they were at once both brutal and full of tenderness.
Sy himself embodied this kind of mixture. Though he worked most of the time and rarely socialized away from home, he was warm and generous to the friends who came to see him. His comments about the defense industry in which he worked, however, were full of anarchic rage, and so were his comments about the thieves and tyrants in the daily papers and about some similarly corrupted characters among the people that he knew.
From the beginning Sy encouraged questions about his works, and soon I admitted being puzzled most by the several works called “Family.” He explained that they were composite figures, mixing love and hate with gentle and murderous impulses – and he pointed to a piece of cedar in which one figure, he said, was nurturing another and “cannibalizing” a third. “Family?” I asked. “Yes, family!” The answer came with unexpected weight and harshness.
Out of the blue I thought to myself: The Oresteia and King Lear are family dramas. This is hardly news for anyone else, I suppose. But I had spent many of my early years not quite paying full attention, not noticing, among other things, the dramas inherent in the families nearest to my own life.
Others among my denials were more subtle, though similarly habitual. I tended in those days to keep my own needs and hurts and joys at some distance from the purposes and principles that shaped my daily life. Sy’s work gave me another way of breaking through the defenses I had built, regularly reminding me of my own emotional and tactile involvements with work and play and people, and at the same time, my own existence in the natural world, my too-occasional presence among the trees and streams and stones.
Sy’s works and his presence spoke of harmony on the one hand and of hurts, and rage, and animal longings on the other. I was drawn to both.
One can see that Sy had been influenced by sculptors like Brancusi, Barlach, Moore, and Zorach (and more immediately by their heirs in direct carving who worked in the Washington area – Jose DeCreeft, Robert Storrs, and his teacher, Bill Taylor.) But it is clear that the painters he liked best had at least as big an impact, Max Beckmann and Franz Kline among them. For Sy’s works, like those of Matisse, the German expressionists, or the abstract expressionists, are partly about the process of their making.
A direct carver working by hand, Sy has found his way differently into each piece of wood or stone, and those material and particular encounters have often changed the forms. Such changes owe more than a little to the imperfect materials he favors, tree-stumps from construction sites, steatite rejected by builders because of blemishes, travertine with irregular and often unexpected cavities. The defects and discolorations he encounters, the surprising knots or grains, are, most often, built into the works.
Yet it seems to me the changes that occur in the process of carving come even more often from inside -- Sy’s interior life working its way, consciously or unconsciously, into his hands and tools.
The most remarkable thing about this sculptor’s work may be the anger that is present in so much of it. I’ve often heard him say regretfully of a work in progress that there is less tenderness in it and more rage than he had hoped. Yet those powerful feelings of fury or indignation (or of grief) are hardly ever the whole story. For if the hammering is in some way sounding out the anger, or tolling the losses, it is also moving these pieces toward some kind of completeness, some sort of resolution.
Ori Soltes, in his essay for this show, says persuasively that Sy’s medium, his “intermediary” is memory, and that these memories are most often connected with Jewish scriptural and mystical traditions. But it is also right to say that Sy’s great theme is reconciliation. All the sorrows and grief in his works, all the angers and all the loving passions, move urgently toward the hope that what is broken can once again be whole, that what is lost will somehow, somewhere, be found.
We know such reconciliation does not come easily in our world. We suspect it may not come at all without some recognition of the rightness of our anger against the world’s huge cruelties and the rightness of our grieving the terrible losses we accumulate in living. Singing, after all, can only sing because it knows what crying is.
The audience for Sy’s work is made up of people who respond to its strengths. The fans of the poetry he has published steadily over the past sixty years are mostly different people, but they find similar tensions and similar power in the words he writes. The few poems included here may offer other pathways to the thinking that informs the carving. But I hope they will be heard and valued for their own sake as poetry – another side of the tireless and generous efforts of a man who for eight decades now has never stopped imagining.
The Artist as Mentor
by Michael Winger
I first met Sy at Mt. Rushmore in July of 1980. Sy was 54 and I was 20. I was chosen as Sy’s apprentice in the first year of the sculptor-in-residence program. We worked side by side for two months in Gutzon Borglum’s studio answering questions for tourists and carving small stone sculptures. Sy often pointed out “models” among the visitors, inviting me to look closely at body types and facial features.
During the first week of working with Sy, he brought in a huge stack of books for me to look through and read if I was interested. Most of the books were of sculptors and painters, but scattered among these were the writings of Albert Camus and Martin Buber, among others. I learned the basic elements of stone carving that summer, but more importantly, as I describe it, “Sy cracked my head open.” He taught me to think.
I had no plans for attending college when I first met Sy. After a month of working, listening, and engaging dialogue with Sy, I was ripe for school. Sy has a way of gently offering possibilities and options that are available. As an apprentice, he critiqued my work in the same manner which was much different than some of the caustic, nail-biting critiques I was to have in college.
In my second summer studying art and philosophy at the University of South Dakota, I couldn’t find a job for the summer. Sy invited me to come to his home/studio in Silver Spring, MD to live and work for the summer. He said all I needed was roundtrip airfare and he would take care of the rest. Sy fed me, provided carving stone and tools, took me to museums without asking any compensation whatsoever. This speaks to the essence of Sy. He is one of the most generous people I have met.
Sy and I have been close friends for the past 29 years. We live about 5 miles apart and see each other at least a few times a week and speak almost daily. I am always amazed at the amount of work he has completed on a sculpture since my last visit. Sy works every day, and I mean EVERY day. His most recent works have been high relief wood panels with intertwining images of figures and faces.
I believe Sy’s work stems from his immediate surroundings, interactions with people, the faces and figures he sees coupled with ancient Hebrew text and myth. On so many occasions, I have been with Sy as he pointed out a wonderfully shaped face or a “sculptor’s model.” Sy never stops looking, seeing, feeling – and always intensely.
Sy Gresser, the Bible and Jewishly Universal Thought and Art
by Ori Z. Soltes
I. Biblical Faces and Figures
Sy Gresser was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1926 and, except for a year spent on an OAS fellowship in Mexico (1959-60), he has lived his entire life in the Baltimore-Washington DC area. His first extended artistic endeavors were verbal—poetry and novels—from which he subsequently turned to visual explorations of the rhythms of life, in pencil drawings and paint on paper, and most profoundly, in stone and wood sculpture.
Gresser’s artistic intensity has always connected to the sweep of tensions—love and strife, play and seriousness, joy and despair carried to their furthest extremity — that appear and reappear across the diverse geography and history of civilizations. Human figurative content shapes even the most abstract of his forms. “I still feel that content from human form is basic to the way I see; I can’t leave out human bodies, even in my abstract work,” he commented nearly thirty years ago.
He might have added: human faces, for they multiply within even the simplest and most singularly-focused statuary that has emerged from his chisel over the past half century. For Gresser, abstraction is both sibling to and offspring of figuration. His figurative imagery often includes avian and animal shapes, but always interwoven with human elements. And the style of engaging those elements reflects a range of influences, from Central America—Olmec and Mayan breadth of face, narrowness of eyes, angularity of nose—to Cycladic statuary and Inuit soapstone carving—to Henry Moore and above all, William Zorach, seminal American sculptor in direct carving.
All of these we may observe in the roundness which defines so much of Gresser’s work, and particularly in his tendency to shape the inner lines of a block of stone in curves which gently contradict the box-like rectangle of its basic structure. At the same time, his tendency to carve within the stone while leaving the block strongly present often places his works between relief and full-dimensional sculpture—in this he recalls the interest in a dialogue between two- and three-dimensional thought pioneered by the fifth-century BCE Athenians—as if he were painting as much as carving. “Painting is what really inspires me, particularly Beckmann and early Franz Kline,” he observed in a conversation back in 1995, regarding the two German expressionists, one figurative and the other abstract, both of whose work is marked by thick and aggressive dark lines.
Gresser’s works turn in all directions — both subject and style-wise — as if to deny inherent limits to up and down, left and right, in and out — engendering a sense of spacelessness within the stones’ confining frame. His art reflects an ongoing devotion to literature and philosophy — in the intensity of his carving into the depths of human experience, he digs exploratory trenches across the breadth of the literary landscape. “These images are meant to be reminders,” he said in 1995, “hopefully specific enough to render to the present what may have been pushed aside, or worse, unrecognized.”
No text has been more richly mined by him than the Bible, as for example. His 1987 “Creation V (Genesis)” hovers between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic and between the abstract and the figurative. What appears as a face within a curved womb-like setting is at the same time a galactic swirl among galactic swirls, one of a series of circular coalescence shapes that represent the elements of the universe.
A series of five diagonal lines from the opposite side of the work extends like the fingers of God, echoed and repeated to make a series of ten: are these the Ten Commandments, verbal extensions of God’s moral fingers—brought to humans at Sinai—engaged in bringing order to the universe? Such extensions encompass us with the responsibility to act in a certain manner both vis-à-vis God and vis-à-vis each other. In the Jewish tradition the Ten Commandments/Statements are the core of no less than 613 commandments suffusing the Torah — and in the Christian and Muslim traditions they are the stepping off point for further ethical articulations within the New Testament and Qur’an respectively.
Or are they the ten spherot emanating from God, through which the rest of the cosmos receives its life’s breath, according to the Jewish mystical tradition?
Or are these rectilinear elements, contrasting with the curved forms of this work, simply part of the contrastive rhythms of the universe that are being set in motion at the moment of creation? They combine along the bottom of the sculpture in the curved (below) and straight (above) structure that looks simultaneously like a vertebral column and the hull of a ship. Creation is simultaneously the human figure in formation, swirling within amniotic fluid—and Noah’s ark, bearing upon it the beings with which the world will be re-created after the destructive flood ended its primordial sinfulness. Gresser’s hands have yielded a work of simultaneous alternative and yet interwoven concepts.
II. Inclusive Celebrations
So “Creation V” may be seen to wed a Jewish sensibility regarding Divinity—that God is not seen, except perhaps in the form of an abstract hand in action—to the specifics of Jewish mysticism suggested by kabbalah.
“Last Seder” (or “Last Supper”), on the other hand, weaves together essential moments from within the Jewish and Christian traditions. Against the rectangular block of stone, the curved faces of Jesus and the Apostles press in, as they press out from the surface in low carved relief. One discerns a diversity of facial “types,” though: the Apostles have become the diverse visages of humanity—Egyptian, Israelite, Canaanite, or Cushite.
So the Last Supper is returned to what it was, celebrated by Jesus and his disciples on the eve of Passover: a seder; a festive meal in which every detail follows a prescribed symbolic order (“seder” in Hebrew) at the beginning of which, the leader recites a litany in Aramaic summarizing the gastronomic centerpiece (matzah—unleavened bread) as “the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt” and inviting “all who are hungry [to] come and eat.”
At Gresser’s Texas limestone table they have materialized from all over the region. His vision of inclusiveness includes a face that—as he has pointed out—recalls the artist’s fearsome grandfather, remembered from childhood. The faces turn and twist, swirling in all directions and in varied levels and depths of carved relief. Their closed eyes suggest blindness to the critical moment (of betrayal) or perhaps a kind of dream-state from which they will momentarily awaken, like the world that awakens at creation.
That awakening, physically accomplished by God in six days, is a continuous moral process in which humans are expected to join in partnership with God. For Christians it arrives at a new level with the arrival onto the stage of history of Jesus as Messiah, host and centerpiece of the Last Supper. For Jews it arrives when the messianic era brought about by our actions at tikkun olam—repairing the world—causes all peoples to sit together in harmony at the same table and to break bread together.
Gresser carries the mental and visual microscope into a world of sleep and dreams, where biblical narrative yields spiritual struggle. His large 2003 carved wood relief, “Jonah’s Return,” wraps a semi-abstract fish around a figure sinking into the sea, crying out, his arms thrown upward: this Jonah resembles a small boy, proclaiming his innocence when accused of some petty crime. Breaching from the waters of his mother’s womb, the small child is a self-portrait of sorts, as the artist has noted. He is enveloped in the fish, in the waters that stretch from land to land and connect all human beings. He is eager to get out, to come forth and speak—ironically, since the prophet was eager to get out of the fish but reluctant to speak—to help fix the world with his words and his wordless images. “Fixing/Repairing the World” is certainly a concept expressed in many traditions, but nowhere is that turn of phrase—that translates the Hebrew tikkun olam—more emphatically offered than in the Jewish rabbinic and mystical traditions as they arrive to and pass through the thinking of the sixteenth-century kabbalist, Isaac Luria. Gresser draws repeatedly from that tradition.
In the head of the fish, just above Jonah himself is a pair of faces that represent good and evil and thus the possibilities to break or repair the endless corners of the world in which humans of all kinds reside—and not only a possibility for both willing and reluctant prophets. The belly of the fish is stuffed with figures and faces—not merely of those who might be there as Jonah’s contemporaries but as his ancestors and descendants. Indeed, the dominant figure within the belly is a woman—she is the mother who will bring forth Jonah, contained within the fish’s womb from which he will be spat out to complete the repair work assigned to him by God in his corner of the world.
Jonah is the consummately reluctant prophet, unhappy to be called upon to bring God’s word to the enemy: the Assyrians—today’s northern Iraq—whose capital city, Nineveh, was the geographic focus of the prophet’s assignment. In his attempt to flee God’s command by sailing across the sea, he is swallowed by the fish; in being spit up onto the shore, he returns from the dead and is reborn. He reluctantly prophesies—and the Ninevans repent! He sleeps and dreams, protected from the sun by a gourd that soon withers, leaving him exposed; in his anger he is confronted by a God who demands that he consider: if he has “pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not labored… should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city…?” Thus Jonah’s book is the most universalist of the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic works, articulating God’s love for all of humanity, even the enemies of Israel. And in Gresser’s re-vision, faces of men and women and children of diverse ethnic and racial types dwell within the swollen fish.
His work expresses a sensibility that addresses humanity at its most far-flung and diverse, mediated by both a cultural and spiritual—as opposed to formal, ritual or ceremonial (the term that he is wont to use is “tribal”)—sense of Judaism, from deep familial and personal sources. This carries beyond the bible. The imposing faces that appear in the swelling 1996-7 circle of steatite—“Tribal Faces (Menorah)”—are portraits of family and friends over the years. But they represent various races and ethnic types, an angular cacophony of visages held together by a stylized rendering of the most continuous of symbols in two millennia of Jewish art, the seven-branched candelabrum.
Its seven branches are a reminder of the Temple in Jerusalem where a large menorah once stood— and in traditional terms, of hope for the restoration of the Temple in the messianic future. More than that, it recalls that same menorah as it stood still earlier in the tabernacle in the wilderness constructed under divine guidance. In that tabernacle the Tablets of the Law were housed—that include within their text the commandment to keep the seventh day as a day of rest, a Sabbath, separate from the other days of the week. In turn that reminder, conveyed by the “sevenness” of the menorah, is associated with emulating God’s model— who created the world in six days and rested (in Hebrew: “shavat”) on the seventh—and with all of the hopes and ethical responsibilities symbolized by the passage from Egypt and servitude to freedom and the Promised Land, and the central moment of receiving of the covenantal commandments at Sinai.
These hopes and responsibilities are encompassed in the annual retelling of that narrative during the Passover Seder. For Gresser, the obligations, responsibilities and hopes derived from the narrative pertain not as much to Jewish as to universal human aspiration. The command is less directed to the People Israel to be a priestly people than to humanity to be in relation—in Martin Buber’s turn of phrase—with each other (hence the diversity of facial “types”), and with nature, for “nature, like the human heart, can make no compromises. While we destroy, we are in turn being destroyed by a severance from linkages that first defined us as ‘human,’ and too, from the word that gave us love and the mystery of God,” as the artist has commented in a conversation in the late 1990s.
Gresser’s faces on his “Tribal Faces (Menorah)” and elsewhere also recall the portraits painted by Amadeo Modigliani, the early twentieth-century Italian Jewish artist of the “Paris School”: one eye open, the other closed or blinded—not unseeing as much as seeing inwardly, as a mystic does. These tribal portrait heads have both outer and inner vision, for whom the word of being in relation to each other, of connecting, defines a circle of completeness. And at the same time, the steatite circle shaped by the artist is not complete: the broken circle, imperfect, implies the necessity of continuing to work to repair the world— the Hebrew phrase, again, tikkun olam—until it is perfectly complete.
III. Relationships: Divine and Human, Creative and Destructive
Unanswerable questions of divine creation and destruction are interwoven with those that pertain to human actions as creative or destructive. Why are we what we are and why do we act as we act? How do we exult in the engendering of art and revel in the destruction of each other? The artist repeatedly addresses these issues through biblical allusions and beyond them. For hat text is an extended narrative not only of divine action and divine-human interaction, but of human relationships. Parent and child, sibling and sibling, husband and wife, generation to generation, and gender to gender are all encompassed in the stories that Gresser engages with the zeal of a visual midrashist.
Again and again the characters of Abraham and Sara, Abraham and Hagar, Sara and Hagar succumb to the artist’s carving instruments. The limestone becomes his text, the shapes that reveal the relationships are his midrash. In Genesis, Hagar is Sarah’s Egyptian handmaiden who is given by her to Abraham to produce an heir when Sarah is barren. The hope is that Hagar’s fertility will transfer to Sarah though her bearing Abraham’s child across Sarah’s thighs. Whether the strategy worked—or whether God simply intervened in response to Sarah’s longing—Abraham and Sarah subsequently produced a child in extreme old age (Gen. 16-18, 21).
The plot of human relationships thickens: the tension between the two women in relation to Abraham, the relationship between their sons (Ishmael and Isaac), and the passing on of the primary covenantal relationship with God—this entire web of complications is concisely tightened in the biblical story. But concision offers a minimum of explanation: midrash seeks to understand what underlies the unadorned storyline.
In a series of sculptures Gresser has explored the story -- offers the passionate embrace of Abraham and Hagar in the presence of Sarah as an evocation of love, and as brutal heir-yielding necessity. And in “Hagar and the Witnesses,” others standing by, doing nothing that might help or hurt. Abraham’s Hagar is Sara, as his Sara is Hagar. Gresser has written, in one section—“Conception”—of his long 1989 poem, “Hagar and Her Elders,” that
Already space has a tightened noose at the edge of his tent, threefold where there were only two, fourfold in the season’s tremble.
Abraham and Sara beget Abraham and Hagar who beget Ishmael, the aftermath of which is the miraculous begetting of Isaac by Abraham and Sarah. Hagar is not the mother of Ishmael and the consort of Abraham without Sarah; Sarah is not the mother of Isaac without Hagar—and does any of it transpire without God?
The artist addresses this verbally as well as visually, in his poem, “The Household”:
From this season of acrid scent and sight of man, Sarai and I now bequeath to first born tribes a newborn way of knowing one another.
We, truly firstborn to all foreign lands, will change how far the tethering of summer reaches, what sacred meanings when a flower dies.
We might well also think of the end of the poem’s last section, “Machpelah”— the cave in which Abraham buried Sarah, purchased for that purpose from Ephron the Hittite (Gen 23). There Hagar speaks to her erstwhile mistress and sharer of Abraham’s bed:
I beg, Sarai, to be buried with you mother to my life…
Now I am come to be with you, sharer of my womb, hearer of my love. He wanders with the dead, now and our lips who know him well. You had the best of him and I his soul.
What the artist’s “Last Seder” may be seen to do for Judaism and Christianity—subsume them both into a broad framework of mutuality—his Sara and Hagar series does for Judaism and Islam (as Hagar and her son Ishmael are seen as the ancestors of Muhammad and of Islam). He depicts a biblical description fraught, on its surface, with enmity, and transforms it into a narrative of loving reconciliation.
The characters who are bigger than life, the heroes and heroines who populate epic literature, often express the positives and negatives of human experience succinctly and intensely. A millennium after the time of Abraham and Sara and Hagar, another series of figures held together by family dysfunctionality dominates the biblical narrative. Saul and David and Jonathan, Amnon, Tamar and Absalom step onto the stage of biblical history to focus Gresser’s carving.
“Harp’s Music (Saul and David)” reflects on the poignant story of King Saul and the young shepherd-boy David who would eventuate as Saul’s successor—the divinely anointed usurper from the tribe of Judah who would inhabit the Israelite throne first occupied by a scion of the tribe of Benjamin (I Sam 15-31). The biblical text, fraught with pathos, offers a narrative of an aging king abandoned by the spirit of divine support, as a consequence of Saul’s failure to be what he could not: a man of perfect faith in God, and thus in himself as the one chosen by God to be king. Saul is soothed, for a time at least, by the gentle harp-music of the shepherd boy, for whom the king develops a father’s love. Yet the threat of David’s youthful power, the ease with which he moves from art to athletics— from the harp to the slingshot—the smooth manner in which the (unwitting?) pretender absorbs the love of Saul’s son, Jonathan, of his daughter, Michal, of the people Israel; drives Saul’s love onto the rocks of jealousy and frustration.
Gresser pulls the soothing harp out of the stone. The upper face of Saul emerges, its mouth still hidden—with its father’s kisses and protestations of love, with its king’s curses and exhortations to hunt the youth down—within the thick hair of David’s head. Saul’s hand wraps lovingly around the lower part of David’s face—at precisely the level of the throat—as David’s hand reaches around his first weapon of love, the many-stringed lyre that the artist has shaped as a mesmerizing pattern of leathered stone thongs. Their pattern is echoed by David’s hair—the tight-curled hair of an African, even as his eyes and those of Saul are those of a Far Eastern Asian—the music, one might say, reaches Saul through more than just the sense of hearing. It rises into his nostrils and hidden mouth by the taste and smell of the child’s love and ambition.
The two are interlocked in a complex pattern of abstract linear echoes, from which, encased in the same block of stone, they cannot emerge as separate, until eternity has run its course. The intense, if ambiguous, pain of this particular moment of love will someday be felt by David in turn, when he hears of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan on Mount Gilboa. In the opening chapter of II Samuel he will utter one of the most beautiful laments in the Hebrew Bible— or anywhere—regarding those “mighty [who] have fallen… who soared as eagles…”
And he will feel that pain again, even more intensely, from the opposite side of the family relationship, when, many years later, he receives the news of the death of his rebellious son, Absalom, caught in the terebinth tree’s branches by the rich thickness of hair which perhaps he inherited from his father David.
More visually simple is an earlier work in ash wood of “David’s Childhood,” in which the strings of the harp wrap around nearly the entire right-hand side of the sculpture, and the left hand side offers a round head toward its lower part. The head is all mouth, wide open, in a cry of terror or torment. The Israelite king made of a rough-hewn shepherd is captured in a moment of youthful anguish. “I imagine David as a child filled with fear. Later he had courage, but it was tainted. He did wonderful things but also horrible things. I imagine him somehow anticipating the conflicts that would twist around his glorious future fate.” So the artist commented in his studio in summer, 2009.
“David’s Music” explodes like a flower—or like the outspread strings of a stone slab that has become a harp, as stone becomes lucid tone and visual rhythms become articulate aural rhythms and melody and harmony. What is abstract is immediately accessible as if it were simple figuration. David repeats and repeats as a subject for Gresser because he was the consummate Israelite king and hero who was yet so distinctly flawed. Not only did he seduce another man’s wife—a Hittite mercenary serving in David’s army. But when that Hittite, Uriah, refused to spend a night of comfort with his wife while his fellow soldiers were enduring the hardships of the battlefield (a night that would have covered David’s sin by letting people believe that Bathsheba had been made pregnant by her husband, and not by the king), David arranged for Uriah’s death.
The magnificent King of Israel, who slew Goliath and would be privileged to select the site for the future Temple, was morally outdone by a Hittite mercenary. The biblical text never offers its heroes without their flaws, and it is this that draws Gresser to the story of this particular hero: like all heroes he is you and me, but on a grander scale—with and in spite of a more direct relationship to God—with respect to both virtues and vices.
IV. Diverse Sources and Storylines
Gresser explores the ongoing wrestling match between humanity and its diverse concepts of divinity from varied angles. Drawing from biblical and Jewish sources, he is by no means limited to them or by them
Christ himself is captured in a moving “Crucifixion” of cedar wood. It offers a marriage between the Christian representations of Jesus on the cross by simply depicting the cross and those that offer a figurative portrayal of the sufferer on behalf of humankind. It also offers a marriage between the figurative and abstract inclinations of the artist: the extending upward of the two arms of the cross strongly suggest the upward extension of two human arms, the arms of a man hanging by the wrists, the weight of his body in the act of being pulled downward by gravity.
There is more, of course. The wood of the tree from which the sculpture was made offered an inherent form that the artist recognized, adopted, adapted, adjusted and finalized to suggest those upraised arms, but the cross—and more fundamentally, the Christ—is the Tree of Eternal Life in Christian thought. It and he are seen as the solution to the problem created by Adam and Eve when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge and were spirited out of the Garden of Eden before they could eat from the Tree of Life. So the tree which, in Gresser’s hands, is both cross and man (who is both man and God), is also the source and the symbol of Christian spirituality.
Gresser’s sense of broad spiritual encompassment as subject is suggested by his stylistic wedding between figurative and abstract elements. We may observe both far beyond the ambit of biblical or Jewish and Christian thought. His travertine “Sleeping Etruscan”—an undulating horizontal work that culminates, on its right side, with a face and head held in an arm, resting, elbow bent, on the earth—is reminiscent of and a tribute to Henry Moore’s “Etruscan Sleeping.” On the other hand, it recalls Hellenistic Greek art, in which for the first time in Western statuary, the visual possibilities of sleeping figures—a baby Eros, or a sleeping faun, for example—were explored.
Reminders of what we have been, what we are not ,and what we can be are engaged from a different and conceptually abstract angle, informed by both his lyrical aesthetic and broad humanistic sensibility, in the surging faces of “Gathering of Angels.” The work’s bulging forms turn about each other in a cacophony of textures and lines: the ethereal conduits of divine inspiration to humanity—messengers between heaven and earth—paradoxically soar as they draw humanity to the solid stony earth that is our physical existence. This gathering of angels is ourselves, made of earthen dust and experiencing the process of coming to life through the animating soul-spirit breathed into us by God.
There is more, both to the lyrical narrative of the carving and to the interwoven possibilities of conceptual narrative that it offers. For this “Gathering of Angels” has been conceived by the artist and by the patron who eventually acquired it as a Holocaust Memorial—the gathered angels are the souls of the innocent who perished, their ashes ascending from the ovens to the heavens through the stone chimneys of Auschwitz and elsewhere. It was acquired in memory of the patron’s husband, wedding a personal statement of connection between life and death, body and soul, to the communal expression shaped by the artist.
Storylines interweave each other along the interwoven striations of the artist’s carved and shaped patterns. His enormous relief-carved wooden triptych, “And They Shall Sing” is a memorial to the children slaughtered both during the Holocaust and in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. The array of faces that dominates the central section is a choir of children—a choir of angels—whose voices rise as they are consumed in the ovens and the ash pits.
The right-hand panel offers part of a biblical frame for the cruelty we humans inflict on each other, in a semi-abstract rendition of the Rape of Dinah. The daughter of Jacob is either seduced or raped (the biblical text in Genesis 34 does not use a specific verb or noun) by the Canaanite Prince, Shehem, while she is visiting his city. But he falls in love with her, and asks his father to ask Jacob for her hand in marriage. Shehem’s father, Hamor, does more than that: he proposes an extended inter-family alliance to the patriarch, who ostensibly accepts the proposal. But at his sons’ urging, he insists that the Canaanite men be circumcised as part of the pre-nuptial agreement.
While the Canaanite men lie weak, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, murder them all and plunder their city—on the ugly and specious grounds that Shehem’s act had turned their sister into a harlot. This sort of story of vengeance has resonances, not only from Cambodia to Auschwitz, one or three generations ago, but it still echoes today in many parts of the world, particularly across parts of the region where that biblical drama was set nearly four millennia ago. Gresser’s intention is to tie this all together with the web of his carving.
And indeed there is the other side—of both the triptych and the human story, also explored and expressed in the bible. In Gresser’s left-hand panel we discern the figure of King David (yet again!), his fingers clasping his harp that surges up along the slab of wood, its strings a series of horizontal striations that recall the rib-cages of the starving victims of the Nazis, given enough food to allow them to die slow deaths, too weak to sing—unlike the children envisioned by the artist harkening to the Israelite king’s music, the music that soothed the maddened heart of Saul in the years before his death on Mount Gilboa so many eons ago.
Aesthetic and human relationships are part of what follow us from generation to generation and culture to culture through the millennia. The artist’s “Family I” and “Family II” suggest the struggles that define the family construct, of which the biblical narrative that so captures him is merely an intense instance. His moving “A Canticle for Tina,” (the artist’s daughter), with its sweet, soft faces—hers and those of her children, his grandchildren—was carved at desperate speed while his daughter lay in the embrace of a terminal illness, to finish it before she was gone.
Family here is not an abstraction nor a literary, biblical exemplar, but personal and painful in the most direct of concrete modes.
V. Between Personal and Universal
Gresser does what great artists do: he invests the universal with personal elements—think of Michelangelo’s fierce face as Saint Bartholomew, holding his own carapace of skin, on the Last Judgment wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome—and invests the personal with universal resonance. For Michelangelo, the prime intermediary between himself and the universal was the Church and its teachings. For Gresser the intermediary is Judaism and the extended and diversely secular Jewish family in which he grew up. “The Jews who were my role models were shape-shifters, who could seem to do anything—but had flaws. There were my fierce grandfather and my doting grandmother, and my Uncle Lou, who gave me an allowance of 5 cents a week to spend as I pleased. My grandmother said to me just before she died—who had warned me off movies throughout my childhood, for she believed they were the work of the devil!—that ‘if I had it to do again, I’d see a movie.’ They were always rethinking things, and arriving at later conclusions antithetical to their earlier conclusions, right up to the end.”
So Gresser’s intermediary is ultimately memory—one of his works is called “Where Memory Dwells”— which is both a universal human property and one that is emphasized again and again within the Jewish tradition. “Remember!” is implied in the first of the 10 Commandments, regarding what God did on behalf of the Israelites. It is reiterated in every festival and life-cycle event, made more emphatic by the symbols that reinforce that commandment during the Passover Seder. And it has become codified by a Day of Remembrance marked on the calendar of the modern State of Israel with reference to the Holocaust and to those who perished in birthing and maintaining the State.
So Gresser’s intermediary is Jewish thought from its primary text to its twenty-first century explorations. He turns the narratives of that text in the direction of his own midrash, sharpened by his twentieth- and twenty-first-century humanistic sensibility, shaped by his own struggle to shape the hard material of relationships with both chisel and pen—and honed most distinctly by his reading of the Bible against the background of the universalist Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (and in particular the1927 I and Thou).
Buber’s long essay articulates a two-fold vocabulary to describe how we engage the world. “I-It” summarizes the approach to other beings as distinct from one’s self—an experiencing of them as emphatically other. “I-Thou” describes a mode of being in relationship with the world, of approaching all of it inhabitants—from rocks and trees to horses and humans—as a part of one’s self; of recognizing the “I” in each of them.
Buber offers a religious existentialism, whereby we are guided to utilize the free and untrammeled existentialist will that enables us to determine the shape of the world around us, not only to be in relationship to others but, by paradox, to the ultimate Other. The paradox is that we can use our will to suspend our disbelief in a God for a moment long enough to find God at the other side of the encounter. Gresser’s works offer visual reverberations of Buber’s emphasis on relationship at all levels.
For Sy Gresser, visual patterns are the passionately formed analogues of the rhythmic patterns of Being-in-the-world (to use Buber’s phraseology). The alternations of solids and voids, of sun-trapping and shadow-sheltering spaces, of staccato lines and broad planes, are all visual analogues of inter-human and human-divine relationships. The paradox of stone-solid fluidity echoes the universal paradoxes of human encounters with each other and with the world around us, reflected in the varied visual and verbal expressions—reflected and in the myriad faces—that stretch across the geography and mytho-history of human experience.
by Tracy Causey-Jeffery
Sy Gresser and I first met fourteen years ago, when an artist I was working with produced a folio and convinced \me to review the series of badly photographed stone sculptures inside. The poor photography was no deterrent to the soul shining through in each sculpture; I was captivated. Shortly thereafter, I journeyed to Sy’s studio in Silver Spring, Maryland and was moved nearly speechless by the strength and passion the sculptures revealed as we strolled between the plants and stones in his outdoor studio/garden.
Whether abstracted human forms or exactly delineated faces, Sy Gresser’s sculptures convey emotion — be it bliss, anger or sadness. The multiple figures within each piece appear by turns to caress and repel each other. No simple depictions of human interactions nor biblical or mythological tales for Sy. Instead each sculpture forces the viewer to engage with the carved figures, study their varied stances, embraces and confrontations and ultimately conclude for themselves the success or failure of those interactions. Often the viewer must search their own memories for reference points, and in so doing may then re-experience the emotions portrayed.
This forced contemplation makes sense for just as smoothly as Sy sculpts, he writes poetry. Indeed the two art forms are often paired in both his mind and his chapbooks. As anyone who reads poetry knows, contemplation is key. He himself believes that art should celebrate human existence on a spiritual level, while transcending ideas of religion or race. Contemplation of a sculpture or a poem can produce that transcendence, that celebration especially if the work is one created by Sy Gresser.
But what of Sy’s sculptures from a less esoteric, more mechanical view? His works in stone or wood are carefully hand-hewn with traditional carving tools. No chainsaws or diamond cutting blades for him. Surfaces are full of wonderful texture marks that can only be created by the simplest of repeated gestures using chisels, rasps and riffles. The stokes and stippling in Sy’s work brings to mind such sculptors as Gustav Vigeland, Francis Renaud, or Claus Sluter, while his crowded compositions often have the feel of Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” or the bas relief sculptures of gothic church panels.
Sy has worked alternately in wood, marble, steatite or limestone for over fifty years, never losing sight of his goal to convey the shared heritage of who we are and who we have become through our complex and evolving interactions - asking each of us to seek contemplation and inspiration in the sculpture or in the verse.
Tracy Causey-Jefferey is director of Causey Contemporary in Brooklyn, NY, which represents Sy Gresser among its artists.