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Jim Rennert: Tradition and Originality

December 7, 2017 - Carter Ratcliff

Jim Rennert: Tradition and Originality

By Carter Ratcliff

                On a sidewalk on the east side of Manhattan stands a bronze figure over twelve feet high.  With his feet on a narrow slab, his arms at his sides, he gazes upward.   Cast in 2013, the sculpture is entitled Think Big—an admonition its creator, Jim Rennert, has taken to heart.  Think Big is monumental, the more convincingly so because it makes no attempt to overwhelm us.  Its sheer size makes it equal to its surroundings, a neighborhood defined by tall buildings and midtown bustle.  Yet the sculpture is calm and, for all its immensity, subtle.  The texture of its surface follows the quiet energy of its form.  This is the work of a sculptor in masterful possession of his medium and its history. 

It is essential to note at the outset that art history is not a given, a static sequence that artists are under an obligation to accept if they are to become a part of it.  In fact, artists of high ambition define history for themselves; and so, to get a clear view of Rennert’s achievement, we must trace his re-creation of a series of precedents that reach back to antiquity.  This has not been an academic exercise.  In finding his own path, he is guided by intuition grounded in a lively sense of his medium’s inherent possibilities.  Before he became a sculptor, Rennert worked in the world of business—an experience that, after more than two decades, continues to provide him with diverse and often surprising subject matter.  More subtly, the years he spent in the corporate world seem to have inspired the monumental power of his work.  Whatever the actual size of his figure, their actions take place at a heightened scale.  The stakes, we understand, are high. 

Among Rennert’s early works is A Deal’s a Deal, 1996, which shows two men in business suits grappling vigorously with one another.  The deal, it would appear, has turned sour. His feet firmly on the ground, one of the men is on the verge of flipping the other over his shoulder.  Yet his victory is not certain, for the sculptor has frozen the action at a point of perfect equilibrium.  The struggle could go either way.  This precise balance of mass and energy recalls the Discobolus, a bronze figure cast by Myron, an Athenian active in the Fifth Century, B. C.  In both sculptures—the classical Greek and the contemporary American—the implication of action animates static form.  Beyond this general similarity is another, more specific one: the briefcase that provides A Deal’s a Deal with a strong formal accent is not only a realistic detail but also an allusion to the discus that Myron’s figure poises at the furthest point in his windup. 

When we turn from the Discobolus to The Wrestlers, a Greek sculpture from the Third Century, B.C., we see one figure become two as another precursor of A Deal’s a Deal emerges.  We know The Wrestlers only through a Roman copy.  Though the original is lost, along with the sculptor’s name, the work itself has been well-known ever since it was excavated, on the outskirts of Rome, late in the 16th century.  As we trace the compositional complexities of A Deal’s a Deal, we see in its dynamism visual echoes of The Wrestlers.  We see further that Rennert has found his own, distinctive uses for this and other landmark works in the long history of his medium.  However, certain aspects of his art are unprecedented.   

The nudity of sculptural figures persisted from ancient times well into the twentieth century.  Monumentally nude, Gaston Lachaise’s Standing Woman was cast in bronze in 1937; and one might argue that, as figurative sculpture evolved into modernist abstraction, a kind of nudity was preserved.  Richard Serra’s slabs of CorTen steel are, if not nude, then naked.  By contrast, Rennert’s men wear standard business attire.  This makes them unique.  Soldiers in war memorials wear military uniforms, Paul Manship’s Art Deco figures wear stylized variations of classical drapery.  Rennert dresses sculptural figures in suits and ties.  Thus, he claims for his medium a wide swath of contemporary experience—life in the corporate environment—that other artists have largely ignored.  Given that so many of us spend our working hours in offices, this neglect is puzzling.  One explanation is that, in the aftermath of Romanticism’s focus on exotic realms and extreme feelings, much figurative art has neglected the familiar range of everyday experience.  Consequently, there has been a tendency to assume that we are genuinely ourselves only when we are unconstrained by the demands of work.  Rennert’s originality begins with his rejection of this assumption.  Rather than lose themselves at work, his figures find themselves there—often through great effort and a willingness to take risks. 

Swinging for the Fences¸2005, shows a business-suited man with a baseball bat.  Having completed an all-out swing, he gazes far into the distance.  Has he hit a home run?  Or sent the ball sailing into the center fielder’s mitt?   Unable to answer that question, we know only that Rennert’s figure put everything he has into the effort of hitting the ball.  And this sculpture presents another mystery: what does the ball signify?  What will the man achieve if, swinging with all his strength, the ball clears the fences?  Contemplating these questions, we become aware of a distinctive quality of Rennert’s art: its blend of realistic imagery and symbolic meaning.  Though the invisible ball in Swinging for the Fence stands for something of paramount importance, we can’t know what it is.  Presenting us with the unknowable, Rennert awakens our speculative energies, here and throughout his oeuvre.

Realism and symbolism are dissimilar, even antithetical.  Rennert bridges the gap between them with his titles, each one of which is a familiar phrase with an air of the proverbial.  The titles of such works as Balancing Act, 2005, and Walking the Tightrope, 2005, usher his figures into the realm of the prototypical.  And he displays another facet of the wit that, as we’ve seen, equates a business man’s briefcase with the discus hurled by a Greek athlete.  Staying upright on a unicycle, the figure in Balancing Act manages at the same time to juggle a sphere representing the globe.  His counterpart in Walking the Tightrope carefully traverses the thin edge of a slab that has raised him far above ground level.  To fall would be disastrous.  Rennert’s figures hang by one hand from elevated bars (High Risk, 2005), fling themselves like pole vaulters from paradoxically springy bronze poles (Leverage, 2008), and drag stranded sail boats over wide expanses that may or may not be keeping them afloat (Making Headway, 2008).  They often do these things alone—self-reliant individuals grappling with challenges they have defined for themselves.  Slumped in an easy chair, the figure in Rough Day, 2005, reminds us that exhaustion brings its own kind of isolation. 

The configurations of Rennert’s sculptures are usually asymmetrical, with arms and legs, heads and torsos, deployed in complex patterns of thrust and counterthrust.  Business as Usual, 2004, is an exception.  In this tableau, two teams of three men play tug of war.  Because the teams are evenly matched, the left and the right sides of the piece are mirror images.  Even though slight variations in the figures’ poses prevent this mirroring from being exact in every detail, the effect of a conflict frozen into a stand-off is powerful; and the sculpture’s title suggests that stymied situations are commonplace in the corporate world.  Elsewhere, cooperation prevails—explicitly so in Teamwork, 2006.  Here, one man atop a narrow column uses a rope to help another climb up to his level.  In Manpower, 2009, the column consists of five men, one standing on the ground and each of the others sitting on the shoulders of the man below him.  Naturally enough, the uppermost figure extends his arms in what is clearly a desperate attempt to maintain his balance—a dramatic detail that enhances the sculpture’s impact.

There are two columns in Bridging the Gap, 2012, one narrow and the other a bit wider.  On the upper surface of the narrower one stand five figures, small in comparison to this structural element and rendered all the smaller by their hesitant postures.  A thin plank spans the gap between the columns; on its far side waits a sixth figure confidently encouraging the others to cross over to his side.  This is an image of leadership.  The scenario of Bridging the Gap is recapitulated in Next Generation (study for a monument), 2012, with this difference: the figures being invited across the gap to the leader’s space are now more optimistic.  Perhaps this is a sign of youth.  In any case, they stand at different levels, to symbolize differing degrees of achievement. 

Rennert gives his figures an immediate legibility.  We see at once that they are stable or unstable, confident or tentative, energetic or exhausted.  The geometric forms that shape the spare settings of such sculptures as Next Generation and Bridging the Gap are more ambiguous.  We could interpret them as severely abbreviated representations of corporate interiors, with their squared-away cubicles and office spaces—not to mention the gridded exteriors of the glass and steel towers that fill business centers the world over.  The alternative is to see them as abstract forms, self-contained and non-referential.  This reading would require us to rethink our definition of Rennert’s art.  Is he, after all, an exclusively figurative sculptor?  The question requires us to step back for a view of sculpture’s evolution over the centuries.  Only then will we be able to see exactly where Rennert stands.

The history of any medium is of course extremely complex, reaching over long stretches of time and wide expanses of geography.  An effigy of Athena in an Grecian temple stands at quite a distance from an equestrian statue in New York’s Central Park.  Nonetheless, there is a clear continuum to be traced from idealized images of ancient gods and goddesses to realistic portraits in bronze and marble.  But where in this line of development are we to place the abstract sculpture that began to appear in the early decades of the twentieth century?  There are, in fact, two continuums—one that leads representational sculpture from the ideal to the real and another that begins with figurative imagery and ends with the non-figurative forms of sculptors as different as the Dadaist Hans Arp and the Minimalists.  Rennert, as we’ll see, has a place on both continuums.

The resolved poses and refined anatomies of the Discobolus and The Wrestlers are signs of a yearning for perfection so absolute that we might call it transcendent.  Perfect proportion, perfect composition, perfect surface—these were the goals of ancient Greek sculptors, whether they were depicting gods or humans.  It is as if they didn’t consider a subject worthy of representation unless it could be given attributes suitable for the divine.  This is the idealism at the origin of Western art and, as alien as it may seem to us, with our concern for down-to-earth realities, it persists even now, if only in attenuated form—as a look at the geometry of Minimalist form will show.

During the Hellenistic period, sculptural form became more complex and classical calm gave way to the expression of violent emotion.  It was during this era that portraiture came into its own, in painting and in sculpture.  The continuum was now complete: at one end, the idealized perfection of divinities, heroes, and athletes; at the other, the closely observed appearance of individual people.  This range of aesthetic possibilities was reestablished, with variations, during the Renaissance, and again during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, under the auspices of the European academies.  Rennert occupies a place on this continuum midway between its extremes—between the transcendent generality of the ideal and realism’s specificity.  It is here that we find images of everyday life as lived not by identifiable people but by figures representing a segment of society—peasants, for instance, in the sixteenth-century paintings by Pieter Breughel. 

Though many of the figures in Vermeer’s renderings of Dutch interiors are middle class, art in this mode usually concentrates on society’s lower orders.  Gustave Courbet’s Stone Breakers, a painting from 1849-50, shows a boy and an old man performing hard labor on the margins of French society.  For the most part, sculptors in France and throughout Europe continued to produce portraits of prominent personages and to recycle exalted themes—nymphs, sphinxes, and other creatures from ancient myth as well as allegorical figures of such abstractions as Truth, Revolution, and the Republic.  Of the latter, the best known is Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty, which was installed in New York Harbor In 1886.  By then, Constantin Meunier had begun to cast in bronze heroic renderings of workers, among them a Stevedore, 1885, a Hammersmith¸1885-86, and a group of nine miners in low relief, thought to be from around 1890. 

Counterparts to Meunier’s figures appeared in the United States a bit later.  In 1915, Mahonri M. Young produced bronze statues of A Man with a Pick and A Man with a Wheelbarrow.  Abestinia St. Leger Eberle’s Windy Doorstep, a bronze cast in 1910, shows a housewife tidying up with a worn-out broom.  The crucial point about these figures is that, despite the sculptors’ accurate rendering of their outfits and tools, they are not images of individual people.  Rather, they are exemplary types.  Though figures of this kind are often called generic, it is more helpful to call them archetypal—a label that helps explain their ability to encourage empathetic responses to ways of life and even ways of being that are often overlooked.  Again, tradition associates genre painting and sculpture with lowly subject matter.  It took a powerful leap of the imagination to bring Rennert to the realization that he could find generic—or archetypal—figures in the ranks of corporate management. 

Working at an equal distance from the realism of portraiture and the idealism first promulgated by ancient Greek sculpture, Rennert shows us human figures as emblems of immediately recognizable feelings and attitudes: competitiveness and cooperation, confidence and doubt.  Moreover, he amplifies the force of his exemplary figures by casting them as actors in the dramas evoked by his titlesThat the figure teetering at the top of the ladder in Entrepreneur, 2006, does not represent a specific person makes it all the easier for us to feel the precariousness of his situation.  And there is a universal quality to the exhilaration of the buoyant figure in Leap of Faith, 2009.

Sculpture’s second continuum—the one that leads from representation to abstraction—is as complex as the first but more easily summarized.  For the possibility of abstract art did not emerge until late in the nineteenth century, when certain artists and critics began to talk of “pure art.”  Visual form, they argued, is like music, to be appreciated for its own sake, not for its references to people, objects, and the landscapes they occupy.  By the 1920s, the succession of avant-garde styles—Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism—had led to non-figurative art in great variety.  Some of it, called “biomorphic,” is filled with allusions to organic form, as in the sculpture of Alexander Archipenko, Henry Moore, and the already mentioned Hans Arp.  With their right angles and flat planes, the constructions of Vladimir Tatlin, Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian, and others are more architectural in flavor.  From this wing of the abstract tradition the Minimalists developed their stark repertory of cubes, grids, and uninflected planes, and it is here that Rennert intersects with the second continuum. For the geometric elements in certain of his sculptures—Teamwork and Manpower, for example—have an unmistakable resemblance to the Minimalist boxes and columns.  And Rennert’s large, rectilinear expanses of steel recall the metal plates that constitute many of Richard Serra’s early works.  Of course, when Rennert deploys abstract shapes he thoroughly reinvents their familiar meanings.

Downtown, 2007, is dominated by two tall slabs built from rectangular modules of steel.  As the title of this sculpture suggests, these forms represent the office buildings that crowd the financial district of lower Manhattan.  Between them stands a man with a briefcase.  Though they soar above him, he does not appear to be dwarfed.  On the contrary, he is a robust presence, at home amid congenial surroundings.  The two slabs in Corner Office, 2007, stand at right angles; one of them is stepped, to symbolize the ascent of the figure whose career has brought him to the highest level of his world.  He stands now in the opening that punctuates the upper right-hand corner of the taller slab.  With characteristic economy—and wit—Rennert uses this window to evoke the view from a corner office, an expanded vista that symbolizes the prestige that such offices bestow on their occupants.

Recalling in a stark, literalist style the clarity of Greek classicism, Minimalist art achieves the self-referential purity of forms from which representation of every kind has been thoroughly expunged—or so the Minimalist sculptors argued.  With exuberant audacity, Rennert undermines that argument, charging geometric planes and volumes with allusions to modern architecture and, more generally, to the environments that corporate buildings define.  In Steady, 2012, a man stands with legs spread, each foot planted on the upper surface of a rectangular column.  We gather from his posture that he is trying to maintain his equilibrium in the midst of uncertainty.  Form in most geometric sculpture has an aura of perfect stillness.  Here we sense that it is inhabited by the energies—the currents and crosscurrents—that make the business world so unpredictable.  Hence the man on two columns is caught up in a situation requiring moment-to-moment alertness.  Next Wave¸2008, shows a flat Minimalist plane curving into a complexity that demands from this sculpture’s solitary figure, stranded in a row boat, all the navigational finesse he can summon up.  And in Momentum, 2009, curved form becomes a set of gear wheels kept in motion by the man teetering on an upper sprocket.

Let us imagine, in closing, that Think Big stands at the vital heart of Rennert’s oeuvre. Tracing the formal and symbolic implications of this generative presence, we traveled to the ancient past and, returning to our times, we saw how fully the artist has reimagined the possibilities of the archetypal figures that stand midway between idealism and realism.  We saw, further, how daringly he has dealt with pure abstraction. In sum, we understand how firmly Rennert has grasped sculptural tradition and with what magisterial originality he has made that tradition his own.

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