“In conclusion, one might say that art, like science, is a constant probing of the unknown – a seeking. I believe an artist should make art that he feels relevant to his day, taking into account the works of artists of the past. The empty spaces within and around a sculpture post a challenge that has become for me almost an obsession.”
Harold Cousins was an African-American sculptor born in Washington DC in 1916. He frequently visited Washington museums where the cultural education he acquired imprinted him for life. He was raised in the neighborhood of U-Street N-W, Washington D.C.'s `black Broadway'. He describes this proximity to famous African-American artists and their audiences combined with his exposure to art from around the world as having slowly built in him the resolve to ignore the racism of the time and pursue an artistic career at any cost.
He served in the US Coast Guard during World War II before completing an associate’s degree at Howard University in 1947, where he was influenced by the writings of Alain Locke, then head of the Philosophy department who conveyed to Harold, his deep understanding and appreciation for African art and Dr. Bunche, who would become the first African-American appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
After his associate’s degree, he decided to further his studies by using the GI Bill, which provided support for veterans to attend approved schools in the U.S. and abroad. Denied admission to the American University in Washington, he moved to New York City in 1948 to study at the Art Students' League with sculptor William Zorach, engraver Will Barnett, and painter Reginald Marsh. It was there that he met fellow sculpture student, Peggy Thomas, who would become his partner for the next thirty years.
Sculptor Peggy Thomas
For a while, Cousins roomed across from the Empire State Building caring for sculptor William Herring in his home and studio. After Herring's death, he moved to a co-op with a group of artists on Bleeker and Cosby Streets. Among some of his associates were print maker Bill Hayter, Mike Goldberg, and painters Frank Stella and William (Charles) Sebree.
Works of that period were sculptures in stone and clay, woodcarvings, as well as drawings, prints, and paintings. A plaster cast head created at that time, Mamloi (1948), was acquired by D.C.'s Barnett-Aden gallery and is currently in the collection of the Anacostia Museum of Washington. A unique plasterwork, “Together” (1949), demonstrates the untapped talent already at work in this young artist.
Harold Cousins, Resting Gladiator
In 1949 at age 33, with funding from the GI Bill, Cousins and Peggy left the racism of the United States and became an expatriate in Paris, where he studied with Russian Cubist-Expressionist sculptor Ossip Zadkine at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière. During his apprenticeship with Zadkine, he produced figurative works, solid forms with religious and classical themes, carved out of wood or made in terra cotta that reflected the strong influence of his teacher. Examples of terra cotta pieces created in 1950 include “Salomé”, “Seated Old Man”, “A La Pensée”, and the “Resting Gladiator”. Among the woodcarvings inspired by Zadkine are “Venus de Bois” and “Orphée” (1951). Other woodcarvings, such as “Tree Spirit” and “Poisson Vert” (1951), reveal the strong influence of African art.
During these first years in Paris, Cousins was captivated by the city’s museums. He frequented the Louvre (especially the Egyptian wing) as well as the many ethnographic museums. Among these, his favorite was the Musée de l’homme, where he saw sculpture from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In 1952, introduced by Karl Appel, he was commissioned by the Kunstzaal Hamel of Amsterdam, Holland, to produce a series of masks, mostly in terra cotta and wood, for his first one-man show in Europe. These masks, inspired by the works of ancient artists, demonstrated both technical mastery and a deep understanding of the legacy of traditional African expression in modern art. A few of the works created in 1952 for that show are still part of his collection, including the “Prophet”, “Mask #36” and “Mask #58” in terra cotta; “Orphée” (Mask #34) in aluminum, brass, and wood; and “Mask #35” in woods of different colors.
Harold Cousins, Salome
The mastery of the woodworking demonstrated in the African sculptures and masks on display intrigued Cousins, but he was especially inspired by works that combined wood with an array of other materials, which Cousins had already begun to explore in his own work. As he explained, “What especially attracted me was the use of sheaths of metal, often together with nails and chains. These sculptures have a vibrancy that seems to be produced both between the metal elements themselves and between the metal elements and the overall sculptural form.”†
Cousins worked in a variety of mediums including stone, wood, metal and terra cotta, and in a variety of styles from realism to total abstraction. In the 1950s and 1960s, he expressed his political views about racial integration in America with figurative works including Political Prisoner (1954), Slave (1963), and Standing Figure (1963).
In the early 1950s, Cousins learned oxyacetylene welding from one of his peers at Zadkine's studio, sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri, and his art developed from figurative forms in terracotta and wood, to works that incorporated more and more metal, and finally, to abstractions of welded steel. He created his first welded steel sculpture in 1952, with scrap metal he bought from junkyards along the Seine, and he had his first major exhibitions of them two years later.
Harold Cousins, Prophet
His friendship with Shinkichi Tajiri changed the direction of Harold's work as Tajiri taught him the art of oxygen-acetylene welding. At first Harold uses the technique to assemble odd objects he finds at the “Marché au Fer” (Iron Market). 1951 examples of these early pieces include “Bird of Prey”, “Tete a Tete” (One on One), “La Femme” (the Woman), and the “Horseman”. When he eventually discussed this new technique with Zadkine, the latter tersely rebuffed him with the statement, “I do not teach plumbers”. This exchange led Cousins, preferring a freer artistic environment, to take his studies to L'Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where he met fellow African Americans Herbert Gentry, cartoonist Ollie Harrington, and Beauford Delaney.
In the early '50s Cousins met the daughter of Julio Gonzales and was profoundly taken by her private collection of her father's work. For many years the influence of Gonzales was evident in Cousins’ sculptures and he was recognized by art critiques as the “worthy heir” of the master. Works reminiscent of Gonzales include “l'Homme aux Mains Sales” (Man with Dirty Hands - 1952), “Végétal Vibrant Doré” (Plant Vibrant Golden - 1953), and “Apollon” (1956).
Harold Cousins, Dancing Dwarfs
In 1957, Cousins coined the term “Plaiton”—a synthesis of the English word “plate” and the French “laiton” (brass)—to describe his sculptures of repeated metal plates welded together in a predetermined order. Per his biography, as a teen, Harold carved sculptures out of sand soap and assembles objects from mixed materials. In discussing these works, Cousins once stated that a key part of the process for him involved “giving special attention to the form of the empty space between the solid elements of a sculpture as well as to the empty space surrounding the sculpture.”
Cousins moved to Brussels, Belgium in 1967, where he worked for the remainder of his life. Throughout his career, he was celebrated in Europe, completing numerous public commissions and exhibiting actively in Brussels and Antwerp as well as various cities in France and Germany. However, it was not until four years after his death that his artwork was shown in his native country, when the Studio Museum in Harlem mounted its 1996 traveling exhibition, Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-65.
Great African American sculptors brought to you by Paris-based black painter Ealy Mays
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