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Wide Load at the Crossroads

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Think Indiana and what comes to mind? Stumped? Keep trying. Eventually thoughts of the Indy 500, old Studebakers, Dan Quayle or even Jim Mora and the Indianapolis Colts might flicker forth, and an art buff might recall Robert Indiana, the creator of the pop Love logo that came to symbolize the 1960s and has been ubiquitous ever since. In fact, a number of important 20th century sculptors including David Smith, George Rickey, Bruce Nauman, William Wyley and John Chamberlain as well as Robert Indiana were all born there, which should mean the Hoosier state is to sculpture what Louisiana is to jazz.

But their story is more complex than that, as a mere glance at the 60 sculptures and 30 drawings on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art's Crossroads of American Sculpture show suggests. So Indiana may have to settle for being more known for Dan Quayle, the Colts and the Indy 500 than it is for modern art, at least for the foreseeable future. As for those artists, they are linked not only by birthplace but also by art history: the age of high modernism. Certainly the archetypally modern work of David Smith suggests as much. Born in 1906, Smith aspired to be a painter even as he worked for years as a welder in a Studebaker factory. It wasn't until he saw some photos of whimsical Picasso welded sculptures in an art magazine in the late 1920s that a flash bulb went off in his head and he said, "Hey! I can do that." And for years Smith was an unabashed emulator of the feisty little Spaniard's convoluted metal work, at least until his own efforts finally evolved into the more austere pop-constructivism for which he is now remembered.

Though he spent most of his adult years in New York, the heft and solidity of Smith's work often resonates the grounded, four-square qualities we associate with Midwestern truss bridges and the like. It's a tendency seen in offerings such as Circle V, a heavy metal pastiche of circles and oversized angle brackets completed just before his death in 1963. Though the geometric styling reveals a lingering European influence, there's also a heartland solidity like the ghosts of old Studebakers rumbling just below the surface.

Automotive themes also appear in the equally colorful and even more bold, though less-known, work of John Chamberlain. Like many of these artists, Chamberlain did not grow up in Indiana, yet its car culture must have affected him because his crushed auto body sculptures of the 1960s are still his most striking achievements, crumpled brightly colored monuments to the pathos and exuberance of the American road. Intriguing stuff.

Superficially, George Rickey has much in common with David Smith. Also born in Indiana in 1906, he was as affected by Calder as Smith was by Picasso, but there the similarities end. Where Smith's stuff suggests heavy-metal metaphors, Rickey's work became more detached and ethereal as he progressed from his early Calder knock-offs to the attenuated efforts of his later years, constructs of spindly pointers lilting in the wind like tranquilized conductor batons, or ballet dancing TV antennas. Using industrial bearings to attain smooth, floating movements, Rickey viewed his work as being about movement and space -- but most of it took up minimal space. Precisely anorexic, Rickey's work reflects a certain high-tone mid-century zeitgeist that sometimes looks dated and effete from a present-day perspective.

One of the more surprising artists is Robert Indiana. Known for pop-art graphics like his Love logo, Indiana was occasionally dismissed as an opportunistic designer by those who overlooked his early history as an assemblage artist of found-object totems. True to form, his rough-hewn early sculptures were also highly graphic, blazoned with road-like directives such as "zig" or "eat" amid the rummage. Yet they reflect a transition from the more mystical beat-generation sensibilities of abstract expressionism to the pop-culture obsessions of today.

As it is difficult to make concise generalizations about William Wiley and Bruce Nauman, the remaining two artists, in a brief space, let us simply say that both were influential yet hard to pin down, dedicated dabblers and experimenters more concerned with creative processes than any one idiom or medium. Consequently, their work is about as diffuse, dadaistic, anarchistic and stunt-like as America in the 1960s, hence about as contrary to the spirit of Studebaker, Quayle and the Hoosier State as one could possibly imagine. As a formative influence, place of birth cuts both ways, it seems.

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