A Very Long Engagement: Nineteenth-Century Sculpture and Its Afterlives

Dimitri Hadzi's Floating Helmets

by Charlotte Young

Throughout his lifetime, Dimitri Hadzi wore many metaphorical hats. He was simultaneously many disparate things at once, whether this pertained to cultural affiliation or profession. As a sculptor, he created works that reflected this amalgamative existence, producing pieces that drew upon the many diverse experiences of his life. His sculpture Floating Helmets is an example of this approach, its ambiguous forms resembling and representing not just one image or idea, but several. There were at least two iterations of this piece. One, standing at 136 inches in height and created in 1965, is the best-known version, a part of the Yale University collection. The second, the one investigated by this paper, was its much smaller predecessor, created in 1961 and measuring 22 ¾ inches. Both are cast bronze sculptures atop unassuming, off-white pedestals, and while their differences in scale are great, the latter retains all the impact of the former. Looking at this work, it is clear that its creator was highly skilled. However, though a well-crafted object, Floating Helmets [Figure 1] is not merely the product of an artist’s hands—it is a force all its own, drawing upon the strength of many traditions and histories and becoming something altogether new, a mysterious and enthralling being that seems to exist somewhere between our known realm and another.

Dimitri Hadzi was born and raised in New York City’s Greenwhich Village. A product of immigrant parents, he grew up with a myriad of cultural influences. His parents were Greek, and this heritage played a very important role in Hadzi’s upbringing as well as the formation of his perspective on the world. Greek mythological traditions were an integral part of how he digested and reacted to everything, though were not the only factor in this process. Hadzi considered himself to be thoroughly American, specifically a New Yorker, which came with its own set of guiding principles and histories (Oral History Interview with Dimitri Hadzi). As a friend would write retrospectively of him, “there is a…highly motivated and imaginatively disposed schoolboy in Brooklyn, coming into consciousness with a domestic scene where the Greek inheritance was inhaled as birthright, and within an urban scene where modernity and opportunity were the positive sides of the immigrants’ insecurity and displacement” (Heaney 127). Hadzi went on to study at Cooper Union in New York, after which he moved to Italy, where he studied and practiced sculpture for the next twenty-five years. This significant period in his life exposed him to an entirely new culture and tradition of thinking, living, and practicing art. He lived in Rome, which had a rich history of art ranging from ancient civilizations to modern sculptors such as himself. The artist would later describe lasting influences of the museums and sites he visited during his time there, including the Pergamom sculptures in Britain and remains of ancient civilizations in Greece (Oral History Interview with Dimitri Hadzi). Exposure to a vast array of art and architecture during such formative years for Hadzi act now as a kind of foreshadowing for the essence of the work he would produce later in his career. Following his time abroad, Hadzi served as a member of the Air Force during World War II. This too would have a lasting and significant impression upon the influences and imagery that can be seen in his work.

Much of Hadzi’s sculptural work carries heavy themes. Death, destruction, nuclear warfare, the grueling existence of an active soldier, and of masculinity and the male experience are all communicated in many of his pieces. As one source describes these references, “Many of Hadzi’s works feature shield-like shapes or…hemispheric helmet forms, which recall the caps of ancient warriors and pay tribute to the artist’s Greek heritage.” (Hanna) This symbolism and invoked meaning can be seen in Floating Helmets, as well as in other works such as Elmo [Figure 2], which “was intended to communicate brutality and strength.” (MIT List) The artist was quoted as saying, “I served in the Pacific theater in World War II, and have long been a student of the history and strategy of the War. It therefore was a natural step to move…to an exploration of the related Helmet and Shield images. In these sculptures I intend to evoke a complicated and often paradoxical range of meanings. The curving upper form of [Floating Helmets] is thus protective as well as threatening—helmet, turtle shell, mushroom, atom bomb” (Acquisition of Works of Art by Museums and Galleries: Supplement).

Hadzi’s work, however, is simultaneously playful, and doesn’t seem to take itself entirely seriously. The artist himself was a lighthearted character, who laughed through interviews and clearly had a bright outlook on life. This tendency enters into an interesting paradox with the dark themes he chooses to explore in his works, ensuring that they could never be or represent any one means of understanding an idea alone. As multi-faceted as its maker, Floating Helmets pushes the boundaries of object-hood, of the concepts it embodies, and of our expectations and interpretations as viewers. Based on the title alone, we are given some clue as to the subject of the work, but cannot help but see many other images emerging from the work—a turtle shell, a jellyfish, a human figure, or a mushroom perhaps, each with its own separate associations and meanings. His sculptures are not simply statements or distinct portraits of any singular ideas, but 

rather a collection of ambiguous forms that play together physically as they do with our understanding of their collective meaning. And, although Hadzi had strong ties to history, tradition, and mythology, and though he draws heavily upon these, his work is entirely modern. Its complete abstraction, its ambiguity, the unfinished quality of its surface, and its references to both the historical and the contemporary serve to distance it from any one particular means of interpretation and place it into a category all its own.

Floating Helmets is a curious piece. In photographs, it looks as though it might be rather large, perhaps human scale. In actuality it stands around two feet in height, atop a table or pedestal to bring it closer to the viewer’s eye level. It looks, but for the physical weight it must carry, like it could be picked up and held rather easily by an individual. The surface of the piece is an undulating one, with many curves, angles, and moments revealing the artist’s hand. For instance, there are several discrepancies on the topmost form that seem as if they might be drips, left intentionally by the artist, perhaps to provide insight to the production process of the piece [Figure 3]. As a result of these dripping textural incidents and the reflective quality of the bronze, the sculpture itself seems almost to be made of or covered in some kind of oozing liquid. It appears as though the work could be in the process either of solidifying or melting, and this suggestion of movement, of a frozen moment in time, contributes to the sense that the piece has a life of its own. Every individual element of the sculpture and its textural qualities are made evident by the way it interacts with light. Negative spaces are accentuated by darkness, whereas already prominent elements are pronounced further by their reflected glow. This serves to make the piece more dynamic, and to give the illusion of more weight in some areas—the topmost form casts the most shadows upon the other forms, and thus contains much of the object’s perceived mass. The object’s interaction with light also creates a sense of space and dimension [Figure 4]. It again reinforces the viewer’s sense that the work transcends the inanimate nature of the piece as an object and enters the realm of a being. As Hadzi himself described the work, “Compositionally, Floating Helmets is an experimental work. It is the first of a group of large sculptures in which I have been concerned with interior as well as exterior space. The sculpture here becomes a sort of architectural structure, having an interior, or at least an underneath, that provides an essential part of the spectators’ experience” (Acquisition of Works of Art by Museums and Galleries: Supplement). Though the artist was referring to the larger version of the sculpture in this quote, his descriptions remain true on a smaller scale. The smaller sculpture gives the same sense of being built from within, with spaces and forms not immediately discernable, and which require movement and multiple perspectives on the part of the viewer to observe. In this way, the sculpture commands the viewer’s physical being, holding power over them despite its more diminutive size. Viewing the work firsthand, rather than through photographic representations, is crucial if the viewer wishes to fully experience it. These underneath spaces described by the artist are just as important to the overall impression given by the sculpture, as are its surfaces and exterior form and profile [Figure 5]. To be able to circumambulate the piece, to peer at it from below and observe its innards, is to more completely know its form and essence.

Floating Helmets carries with it many inherent references pertaining to material and historical context. Bronze is a material used by sculptors for centuries, and recalls many classical and neo-classical figures and narratives. Depictions of ancient heroes from the classical period were often cast in bronze, and modern sculptors such as Rodin 

furthered this tradition in newfangled ways. World War II and the period during which it was fought certainly contribute to the piece as well, and perhaps more intentionally than does its materiality. But somehow, Floating Helmets transcends these potentially limiting associations and becomes something more. The artist himself considered his objects to take on lives of their own, to become beings independent of him, their maker, and for his intent to thus become almost secondary to the “life” of the piece itself. The way that the sculpture seems to defy gravity, a heavy form balanced atop spindly, vertical supports, the lightness in color of the pedestal compared with the darkness of the object itself, making it appear as though it really were floating in space, and the movement suggested by the piece’s surface and the arrangement of its forms all contribute to this sense of vitality that radiates from the piece. Of his work, curator Harry Cooper writes, “They are also articulate in the sense that they speak, or make light and air speak. Dimitri’s works will continue to breathe and speak for a very long time.” (Cooper) Through the intersections of form, surface quality, ambiguity created by abstraction, and references to very powerful subject matter, Floating Helmets is able to not only fulfill but also exceed Hadzi’s artistic vision.

As is the nature of an abstract work, Floating Helmets conjures many questions from its viewers, not all of them answerable by the piece itself. What is the piece meant specifically to represent? Are we meant to supplement our understanding of it with our own associations with its forms? Its ambiguity leaves it in part open to interpretation, and these can be vastly different. What is undeniable in this and other works by Hadzi is the life essence of the piece. It’s dynamic physical presence as well as the mysteries of its form and subsequent command over the viewer give instill in it vital power. In a poem written on the subject of Hadzi’s work, David Ferry says, “Their flowering is being true/ To their own nature; not being/ A glory, a victory; being a record/ Of the way things are in war./ In the nature of things the flowers grow/ With the authority of telling the truth;/ Their brightness is dark with it” (Sculptures by Dimitri Hadzi). This poem beautifully describes the symbolism and significance of Hadzi’s work. In Floating Helmets, images of war and destruction are conjured, yet by a piece that is itself simultaneously and paradoxically alive. In speaking about death through life, Hadzi has created a being imbibed with the powers of both, becoming seemingly more powerful than either. 

Works Cited

"Acquisition of Works of Art by Museums and Galleries: Supplement." Burlington Magazine 107.753 (1965): 651-4. Print.

Cooper, Harry. "Statements." Dimitri Hadzi. 2016. Web. <http://dimitrihadzi.com/about/statements/>.

Ferry, David. "Sculptures by Dimitri Hadzi." Ploughshares 5.2 (1979): 173. Print.

Hadzi, Dimitri, and Richard Gray Gallery. Dimitri Hadzi: April 4-29, 1972. Chicago: Richard Gray Gallery, 1972. Print.

Hadzi, Dimitri, and Stephen Radich Gallery. Dimitri Hadzi Sculpture. New York: Stephen Radich Gallery, 1961. Print.

Heaney, Seamus. "On the Art of Dimitri Hadzi." Harvard Review 32.12 (1997): 126-8. Print.

Hanna, Leonard C. "Public Art at Yale: Floating Helmets, 1965." Yale University Vistor Center. 2016. Web. <http://visitorcenter.yale.edu/tours/public-art-yale>.

Oral history interview with Dimitri Hadzi, 1981 Jan. 2-1990 Mar. 9, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

MIT List. "Elmo--MIT: Dimitri Hadzi." MIT List Visual Arts Center. 2016. Web. <https://listart-mit-edu.silk.library.umass.edu/public-art-map/elmo-mit>.


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