Is quality a question of character? The thought has occurred to me in the past few days, precipitated by the work of the sculptor John Storrs, the subject of a small retrospective closing at the Grey Art Gallery in New York at the end of the week. Storrs—who although he died in 1956 is best known for work evoking machine-age forms mostly done by the end of the 1920s—is an artist whose achievement is so much more than the sum of its formal powers that I find myself somewhat mystified. On first glance, these relatively small-sized works, which echo the shapes of soaring skyscrapers and intricate machinery, can feel rather predictable, like expensive Art Deco cigarette lighters or cocktail shakers. Look again, though, and I find that Storrs’s curious objects—despite all their sleek, fashionable, Roaring Twenties trappings—have a steadiness and a centeredness that gives his timeliest allusions a timeless charm. What appears to count is not the form but the artist’s attitude toward the form, an enigmatic matter indeed.
In the Storrs exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery—it was organized by Debra Bricker Balken for the Boston Athenaeum and has also been seen at the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, Florida—these machine-age totems look stronger than I ever imagined they could. When they are exhibited in museum galleries with a wide range of other work from the early twentieth century, Storrs’s rather modest monuments tend to register as modernistic thing-a-ma-jigs, charming but maybe a trifle trite. Balken, by gathering together a first-rate selection of Storrs’s stone columns and architectural structures in varicolored metals, focuses us on their delicate internal scale. In Storrs’s art the overwhelming feeling of the modern metropolis—with its booming power generators and commercial spaces stacked sky high—is reimagined as toy-like and fantastical. There is a marvelous, storybook aura about the finest of this work, a dreaminess in the way that Storrs concocts his miniature edifices. The zigzag patterns he carves in stone give his austere forms a talismanic power. And his intricate vertical metal capriccios, meditations on the iconography of the skyscraper, have the jewel-like precision of modernist Faberge eggs.
When Storrs works in a combination of stainless steel, copper, and brass, the effect can suggest the visual pagentry of gold and silver Romanesque reliquaries. The geometry and the mingling of richness and asceticism bring to mind Brancusi and Lipchitz and other Parisian sculptors of those years when Storrs was himself living the expatriate life, but there is an incisiveness about the work that is Storrs’s alone. And he is by no means a one-note artist, presenting challenging geometricizations of the figure in the Cézannesque L’Homme Nu and Figurative Abstraction and, with My Daughter in Winter Costume, a childish presence that has some of the power of an ancient Egyptian statue of a scribe. All through the Storrs show, there is a sense of forces that have been compressed and contained, the chaotic wonders of modern urban life squeezed until they yield this fine visual perfume.
Storrs himself, at least as he emerges in Balken’s catalogue essay, is an elusive figure. Perhaps only an elusive figure could have produced work with this kind of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t power—which brings us back to the question of character. Storrs was born in Chicago in 1885. In Paris he got to know some of the central figures of his time, including Rodin, Brancusi, Duchamp, and Man Ray. Early photographs reveal a dark-eyed, smiling, romantic youth, and although his work attracted attention in the United States and France in the 1920s, one is left with the impression that he was too much of a dreamer to ever quite make it in a world increasingly preoccupied with hard economic and political realities. Could this apparent disconnect between the man and an era that he in so many respects obviously adored provide a key to the understated magic of his work? Storrs’s father had made a good deal of money in Chicago real estate in the years when the great office buildings were going up in that Midwestern metropolis. And Storrs’s sculpture—with its matte stone and glistening metal finishes and towers and spires and window-like openings—suggests an intimate, almost a private recapitulation of the modern dream of the metropolis as symbol of unending growth and progress. Storrs brings to these forms—forms already pretty well established when he began using them around the time of World War I—a quietism, a childish possessiveness. There is something here that suggests Erik Satie’s kind of elegant obscurantism, the trickster sitting at the sidelines as he contemplates life’s grand parade.
John Storrs has assembled a magnificent urban caprice, full of machines that can do nothing and edifices that cannot be occupied, and it is all compact enough to be hidden away in a couple of steamer trucks, like Calder’s Circus or Duchamp’s Box in a Valise. I now think that what I was experiencing the other day at the Grey Art Gallery was not so much the potency of Storrs’s forms but the glimpse of utopian modernity that those forms represented for this American dreamer. No one else has given hard-edged machine-age imagery such a gentle, romantic shimmer.
Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.