During the nearly 40 years Harvey Fite was carving, lifting and layering bluestone to create his monumental earth-sculpture Opus 40, he was also in his studio making sculptures. Let the Stone Tell the Story: An Inside Look at Sculptor Harvey Fite and His Studio Work, an exhibition held at the Lamb Center and Emerge Galley, located in Saugerties, displays a sampling of Fite’s carved wood and stone sculptures along with a few cast bronze works and plaster models. Besides showcasing, for the first time in decades, these artworks, Let the Stone Tell the Story,which was organized by ShoutOut Saugerties and Emerge Gallery, also provides insights into Fife’s life and multifaceted artistic career through informative text labels, numerous photos and clippings of articles and reviews of exhibitions of work. Rounding out the exhibition are a series of events that further celebrate and cast light on Fite’s art and life. The exhibition runs through July 10.
On July 8 there will be readings and a discussion about Fite featuring his friends and families, followed July 9 by a square dance on the lawn behind the Lamb Center with The Mapletones.
Most of the sculptures are displayed in the historic Lamb Center, 41 Market Street, whose elegant rooms suggest a home setting, as if we were peeking at a private collection. Most depict human or animal figures in carved wood, their sinuous curves recalling the rounded, simplified forms of preColumbian art as well as theundulating, symmetrical geometries of art deco; in his blog entry about Fite on his Learning Art Woodstock blog, art historian Bruce Weber also notes the sculptures’ link tomodernists Chaim Gross and William Zorach. To a certain degree, the works, which span the period from the mid 1930s to the mid 1970s and rangefrom a rather academic bronze bust to a freestanding abstract piece in which curved voids animate the block of black walnut with flamelike forms, defy stylistic categorization. Two of the strongest pieces, both from a series on modern dance carved in black walnut in the mid 1950s, are themselves stylistically distinct: Modern Dance V depicts a woman with thrown-back head and arms raised akimbo behind her head whose forward knee protrudes suggestively from her long skirt; the solid curve of the skirt forms the base of the sculpture, with the classical-style naked torso anchoring the two counter motions of the head-arms and knee-leg. It’s a work of stunning sensuality, caught in mid motion. Modern Dance IV, a hooded figure whose only features are the flatteneddisc of the face and protruding shoulder, conveys a brooding reticence in its stark simplicity.
One of the most inventive sculptures is And His Anger Waxed, Hot, from 1948, in which a single piece of black walnut is carved to represent the narrative of Moses’ rage at confronting the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf upon coming off the mountain with the tabernacles. Extending from the back of an enormous, totemic-like head is a stylized large hand holding the tabernacles above which is the head of a calf; the human head is positioned as a kind of figurehead gracing a ship. Fitesometimes made sculptures from found objects, such as a piano leg into which he carved the head of Orpheus and a pair of farm implements he made into two swans. Two metal sculptures depicting a pair of outstretched handsentitedPlease, moves in their gestures of need, while a Workingman’s Arm, carved in ebony, he claimed to be a self-portrait, according to his step-son, Tad Richards. Fite also made some charming, folk-style sculptures of animals, one of which is a rotund sleeping cat out of yellow pine and another a sitting cat out of semi-translucent alabaster.
Weber, who was one of three panelists discussing Fite’s sculpture at JJ Newberry, in Saugerties, on June 12—the others were John P. Murphy, curator of prints and drawings at The Loeb Art Center, at Vassar, and Tom Wolf, professor of art history and visual culture at Bard; William Colemen, director of collections and exhibitions at Olana, moderated—commented that “there needs to be a lot more written about Fite, to figure out his development as an artist from the 1930s.” From an art historical point of view, the panelists agreed Fitefitted into the “direct carving” movement, which began in 1910 before petering out around 1950. Direct carving “was interested in African pre-Columbian art, and the ‘limitations of the material’ was a driving force,” Murphy said, explaining that the type of wood or stone was an essential ingredient in the work’s form and expressive force. Other local practitioners of direct carving were John Flannagan and Tomas Penning, who was a close friend of Fite and whose bluestone house, studio and patio inspired Fite to buy an abandoned bluestone quarry in 1938, which is located only a mile or so from Penning’s property in the High Woods section of Saugerties.
Fite, a strikingly handsome, dashing fellow who was often photographed shirtless heroically raising a chisel in his quarry, was a latecomer to visual art. In his piece on Fite for his Learning Woodstock Art Colony blog, Weber lays out his biography, to wit: Raised in Texas on a hardscrabble farm, Fite studied law in Houston before switching to the cloth at St. Stephen’s College, which later dropped its religious affiliation to become Bard College. At St. Stephen’s he got into acting and in 1929 joined the Maverick Theatre Company and performed restoration plays as part of the Jitney Players. He then did theater in New York City and while presumably bored waiting backstage began carving bits and pieces of wood and discovered a passion. He studied painting in Woodstock, was hired by newly formed Bard College to teach drama, and helped start the art department, which he headed and taught at until his retirement in 1969.
In the mid 1930s Fite studied sculpture in Italy with a Florentine sculptor and spent the summer of 1938 at the ancient Mayan site of Copan, in Honduras, working as a technical advisor on the reconstruction of the grand plaza; although his reputation is that of an outsider artist, he was a world traveler and his wife, Barbara Richards, had been previously married to a foreign diplomat and was the daughter of the head of the school of fine arts at the American Academy in Rome. Fite was a talented square dancer—as a young man he was accepted as a student at the Denishawn Dance Studio but didn’t attend because of lack of money. He as an active member of the local arts community, and his 60-foot-long quarry pool was a popular social spot in summer.
After the clearing his abandoned quarry with a machete and building a home out of discarded timbers on the property, Fite began working on Opus 40 in 1940 (the name reflected the 40-year time period he estimated the earthwork would take to be completed, which was cut short—only by four years—by Fite’s tragic death in a tractor accident in 1976). He had originally conceived the work as pedestals for sculpture and initially installed an assemblage of fourfigures that reflected a kind of “family of man” theme before deciding they didn’t do justice to the scale and elemental power of the carved and layered bluestone labyrinth (eventually, he installed an upended nine-ton stone on one of the pedestals, a monolith with neolithic associations).
While the almost super-human task of creating Opus 40 obviously absorbed much of Fite’s energies, as mentioned he continued working in the studio throughout his life and had exhibitions in New York City, Cleveland, Paris, and Rome, besides his hometown of Woodstock. In their subject matter, graceful, dramatic poses, and bold execution, the figurative works on display at the Lamb Center and Emerge Gallery clearly are influenced by his work in the theater, his love for dance, and interest in ancient cultures and archetypes, specifically as explored in the works of Joseph Campbell. “There’s a lot of big ideas he jumps in on,” said Weber at the panel discussion, indicating “how big a mind he had, rather than just being eclectic.” Let the Stone Tell the Storythrows down the gauntlet, with much more to be learned about this unique and fascinating artist.
“Let the Stone Tell the Story: An Inside Look at Sculptor Harvey Fite and His Studio Work,” at the Lamb Center,41 Market Street, Saugerties,and Emerge Galley 228 Main St, Saugerties,through July 10.“Who Was Harvey Fite? Readings and Discussion,” held July 8, venue to be announced, and Square Dance and Concert with The Mapletones, held July 9 from 7-8:30 pm on lawn behind Lamb Center, tickets $10. Visit www.shoutoutsaugerties.org for details