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April 18 2021

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Helaine Blumenfeld Interview

The New York-born sculptor chats with The American as her Messenger of the Spirit monumental retrospective exhibition arrives in the grounds of – and within – Salisbury Cathedral.

How did you begin with sculpting? Was it as a child, playing with clay at school, a later dalliance or an inspirational moment?

I started as a philosophy student – it was very much to do with thinking that words expressed the vision that I felt, but the more words I used, the less I felt in touch with being able to communicate what I wanted to. I gradually realised that art was the medium, that sculpture was, that through it I could begin to communicate something that I thought was really important. My husband got a job with Music magazine and he said to me what was I going to do, and I immediately said 'I want to be a sculptor. That came from having seen Attic sculpture in Naples, and its so reductive, so simple but you look at a head and you know more about that person than you would if you read a book. I was overwhelmed by the power of form to express something.

Helaine Blumenfeld's retrospective exhibition is at Salisbury Cathedral until September 8, 2013
Photo: Ash Mills
Did you become much quieter in France?

I think I did. I sat in our kitchen and got some clay and made 5 or 6 pieces, which was the easiest thing I'd ever done, it was if my hands communicated, bypassing my mind almost and going through my spirit, and I did some amazing things. I brought them to two different art academies and pretended I'd always done this, and those were what I had with me. I was accepted by Bozar [Palais des Beaux-Arts], the big arts school and the smaller atelier [Ecole de la Grande Chaumière] and I found that was much preferable because there was only a couple of students there working. Not very much after that [Ossip] Zadkine himself came by and said “I love the work of this young man” – immediately thought it must be a man. The person who was teaching me didn't say anything. He had this salon on Sundays with lots of sculptors and artists from Paris coming in, so I went, not knowing I was supposed to be a man! When I came in, he said “Who is that?” and before I left he said “Would you like to work with me?” So I came the next morning. I think he wasn't interested at all in teaching, but in somebody came who helped him keep his hours, but what you learn with a great sculptor or artist is their passion, their commitment, and that was the lesson I learned, just seeing someone who would start in the morning and hardly look at anyone else or think about anything else.

You committed to sculpture in Paris having studied philosophy - was sculpture a growing passion or were you turned on to it?

I always felt it was so hard to communicate, was so hard to say what you wanted that you couldn't express your vision. Anyone at any age, if you have a dream and you try to tell it to someone, it becomes so banal, you realize it's so far from what you experienced. I think that's because verbal language isn't large enough.

Tell me about about Europe because the passion started in Paris, your first exhibition was in Vienna, then a move towards marble in Italy. Where does Britain fit into this journey?

We came here after I had my first exhibition and we felt living in New York was very confining. It was already in the 70s more about your personality than your work, almost.

Was it an enclosed scene?

Absolutely. It was always being at openings, being young, being attractive, being lionized about your persona. I thought 'I've got to get away. My husband wanted to be a writer, not a journalist, and was more than ready to leave, I had this money from this big success and all I wanted was to get out of New York. I felt it would probably be the end of my career because I wouldn't grow. I was doing highly polished bronze pieces that everybody loved, and the next time I did a show, I didn't want to do that any more, and yet the gallery said “that's what everybody loves, you can't change your style this quickly”. So coming to England was just liberating. We lived in a little village, Grantchester, and we had one child at that point and there was a little school he could go to.

Do you think that the world of sculpture is more without borders than painting, or at least that if there is a geographical definition of style, then it is pan-European?

I don't think you have those breakdowns, but also what I do is unrelated to culture. It doesn't require translation and in a sense talking about it - you don't need to. The most exciting thing about this exhibition is how uninhibited people are in telling you about what they think and what they see. There's none of this cultural reference or being afraid of saying what they think and that's wonderful. People will look at a piece of mine which is quite abstract - though there are a lot of allusions to things that are spiritual - and they will say to the person with them “Wow, you know what I see, that's an angel.” That discovery is so exciting and it's very different than just seeing an angel where they didn't discover it. Joseph Campbell, who I admired very much, said experiencing art is having a revelation: if you open yourself up to that experience. When people come into a cathedral that's what they are, they're open to experience.

What were your first thoughts when given a space as large as Salisbury Cathedral and its surround?

I felt it was very ambitious and it was a real test that if my work would look wonderful in the Cathedral I would be very proud of it, I wasn't arrogant enough to think 'Oh, it's going to look amazing'. I didn't know until we installed it a few days ago whether it would stand up in this environment, rise to it, fill the space, because this space is voluminous, so lofty, and my work is about aspiration, transcendence, the importance of the spiritual, but will you see that or will it be hidden by the enormous overriding spirituality of the environment. We were so excited to see that it totally filled the space, that it looked large. There are ten or twelve pieces inside, but there are a number outside, and there I created most of those pieces for the space.

How closely and how early did you work with Jacquiline Creswell (visual arts advisor to Salisbury Cathedral) in planning where each sculpture would end up.

Jacquiline chose with me but had a big influence in choosing the pieces inside. The pieces outside, which I knew I was going to have to enlarge, I chose myself – Ascent Mysteries, Cleopatra, Esprit 2013, and a bronze version of The Space Within, all of these were done thinking about the cathedral and where they would be placed. Jacqui's idea in both cases was extremely important. I'd just had a very big retrospective exhibition in Pietrasanta [Italy], which was partly based on the fact that I had already done three of these big pieces for the Cathedral and some of the other pieces; it was held in an old church in the centre of Pietrasanta which hadn't been used as a church for maybe 50 years, so it wasn’t a really religious experience going into it, but when you came into this building everybody had the same experience- tears and gasps, and that was not what we wanted in Salisbury. We wanted you to come in and only very gradually discover the work and feel that it had always been there, not to feel that 'wow' factor. And it's quiet as you suddenly come on a piece, and maybe people put their hand on their heart, which is nice to see.

Did knowing that these works would be displayed in a spiritual place lead you towards or away from the figurative when you decided to add Esprit 2013?

My work is really hard to place. I don't plan it, I work intuitively, I never think this is going to be this or that. The Today Show [NBC] did a big piece on me and they wanted me to do a work in clay in front of them, and I started feeling very self conscious but after a while I didn't even know anybody was there, and suddenly I realize that it's angels, and that was what was coming out.

Was Esprit influenced by the Cathedral or its space?

No, and yet a number of people thought that Esprit looked like a nun moving forward and backward at the same time. It wasn't influenced.

How much does the sense of movement in your work contrast the Cathedral?

The most important piece for me in a certain way is the piece Taking Risks, three white figures which are very vulnerable, very precariously balanced, very much about the human condition, three pieces each of which could move and change position and your sense of the configuration. In a sense I feel that both spirituality and beauty is in danger today, hand in hand.

Are you a religious person as opposed to spiritual in the broadest sense?

In the broadest sense, I am spiritual. I was brought up Jewish, so I was steeped in the Old Testament, and the title for this show comes from the Old Testament. “Messenger of the Spirit” - Malakeh in Hebrew - was the closest humans could ever come to seeing God, and angels are in that sense the messengers of God, and the danger is that we worship the messenger rather than the message. With each piece I'm trying to communicate not the form, but the message that the form is giving and a lot of my pieces are about spiritual messages.

Helaine Blumenfeld's retrospective exhibition is at Salisbury Cathedral until September 8, 2013
Photo: Ash Mills
How often have you visited the Cathedral over the past three years in preparation?

Many, many, many. The first time was May three years ago, I've come 15-20 times, and I've been here several days at a time. Some Cathedrals pounce on you from behind other buildings, but the Cathedral Close at Salisbury offers that wide open vista, so that monumental works are visible from a great distance, as was the case in the Cathedral Square at Pietrasanta. Do you look forward to a day when you receive a commission for an aspect of Angel of the North standards? Salisbury appealed to me enormously, that sense of the pieces being in space. One of the big pieces in front is called The Space Within, the three figures which I want you to stand in the middle of and move within. It was too crowded [in Pietrasanta] and didn't get the sense of space and peace and tranquillity, and being in another place. We fill up our lives so much that we have no place for reflection. That 'space within' is the space within us that has to be empty where we've got to be able to vibrate within ourselves, not filled up with all the details of our lives. There's another piece which is called Angels: Harmony and there are two angels, each of which has one one wing facing the other direction and when you see it from any distance you feel you are looking at one angel with two wings, but as you go closer you see that the one wing is making up or the lack of wing on the other, and they look as though they've been cast asunder - the inside is almost wounded, torn apart, so there is quite a space between the two. This piece I made and I said I would never sell because my hope was to get a commission to make it enormous so that people could walk through that space and understand how much we depend on each other.

In terms of materials, do you find new materials inspire new forms, or do you turn to new materials with the strengths and weaknesses of those materials in mind.

I'm trying to describe the soul, which has no substance, through substance, and the substance is marble. I'm trying to transform that substance so that it doesn't seem substantial. The marble doesn't look like marble, you see through it, it is absolutely translucent and I work it so thin that it's dangerous. I went to Pietrasanta because a very big client who had bought some work from a gallery in New York didn't like the casting; I was recommended to go to a Pietrasanta because the foundries were so much better, they'd been there forever and they'd done religious sculpture for so long. When I went to Pietrasanta, in about 1978, I completely fell in love with Marble, and took marble back with me and started going there to carve. I just was just totally seduced by the quality of marble, and I think my work changed as a result. I almost only use white marble, I almost only use statuary marble which is translucent, so I feel the purity of marble best communicates the transcendent, spirituality, purity of what I'm trying to communicate. I like bronze as well - I've been discovering that if I use highly polished bronze that it can give it that same sense of illumination.

Sculpture can be and in your case is a matter of metaphysical and spiritual expression, which seems to go hand in hand with large scale works. Do you find yourself engaged by small gallery-bound works?

I did a show with the gallery I show at, Robert Bowman, of tiny initial models where I felt I couldn’t even go on to make them larger unless I could capture everything I had in the tiny model, because there's so much energy and volatility and pain in the small model that when I would translate it, I would lose that, so I cast directly from my initial clay which would be one foot at the largest. I love those models, I'm very attached, and only when I could totally capture them could I reinterpret them on a larger scale.

Bizarre question time: what's your house like - how much space do you need to feel comfortable?

I have a very divided life I have vast studios in Pietrasanta and very few possessions and no clutter no paperwork, very few books. I need that. In our house, we have a large house with big rooms that are filled to the brim.

A cathedral is a still place, but your sculptures add fluidity and movement. I'm sometimes reminded or dance or sports. Are you a fan of dance?

Dance, yes. If I was influenced, it was by the Futurists and Umberto Boccioni's sense of movement, and in Italy there's never a review of my work without saying I'm the only relative of futurism and Boccioni, but my movement isn't so much movement in space but more about emotional movement, and it may be expressed in a dance way but what I'm try to do is show a state of mind, of being, of grace, so pieces are never static, particularly large pieces.

Britain and America, and maybe Italy also, can lay claim to you these days. How often do you get back to the States?

One of our sons is in San Francisco, so we try to get to see him, but we haven't gone enough, but I feel passionately American. I define myself as American, even though I live in Britain, was on the Arts Council, and prefer to show in Britain than America. But you are who you are and you don't change.

What are your most American traits? And your most European?

Maybe talking too much is Italian! I'm very straight forward and say what I think. That's much more American than British. Brits sometimes are shocked that I'm willing to say exactly what I think, what offends me, what pleases me. I think I'm very direct and that's the most American trait.



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