The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Casting Doubts: Cultural Overproduction at the National Sculpture Society Exhibition, San Francisco, 1929

Jennifer Jane Marshall
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities


Interpreting an art-historical episode through the lenses of social and economic history, the aim of this essay is to reveal how the critical reception of American sculpture in the late 1920s and early 30s served as a proxy for broader conversations about economic value during a period of extraordinary financial volatility. Specifically, the essay examines a moment in which discursive parallels between sculpture and the mass market became especially vexed: at the staging and reception of a comprehensive survey show of contemporary works, mostly in cast bronze, organized by the National Sculpture Society (NSS) in San Francisco during the spring of 1929. Optimistically promoted as the biggest exhibition of its kind, the show drew unanimous rebuke for that reason. The show had too many works that critics had already seen, too many monumental versions of familiar table-top bronzes, too many ornate household objets d’art, and—above all else—just too many pieces. This line of criticism was aimed squarely at what might be called “cultural overproduction,” an aesthetic problem that ran exactly parallel to perceptions of excess in the marketplace at the same time. This essay offers a thorough reception history of the exhibit, Contemporary American Sculpture, and seeks to offer a model for an economically-informed social history of interwar aesthetics.

Keywords:  sculpture, direct carving, mass production, exhibitions, National Sculpture Society

“the better we do things, the worse off we are” (Chase 642) 
 “comfort to the nth degree equals discomfort” (Littell 431)
“we eat too much and a loss of appetite follows” (“Facing” 46)

Dating to the American Great Depression, these quotations reflect on one of its most disturbing ironies: the problem of overproduction. Described in the mid-nineteenth century by Marx and Engels as “an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity” (48), overproduction can be summarized as the manufacture of goods in excess of demand. According to the theory, once producers produce too much, an economically devastating chain of events is set into motion: the market becomes saturated, demand dwindles, prices fall, and profits plummet. An elegant, but perhaps oversimplified, account of causal boom-to-bust, the concept has always carried more cultural cachet than scholarly seriousness. In 1892, Thorstein Veblen examined the “overproduction fallacy” at length; and, in 1898, John B. Clark considered the divergence between scholarly and popular perceptions of market fluctuations, acknowledging that people tend to make fetishes out of “vaguely expressed single terms” (1). “Overproduction,” in particular, he noted, was a well-worn favorite. But such intellection mattered little after 1929. By then, overproduction emerged as the most common-sensical way to account for the catastrophic downturn.

It is this popular use of “overproduction” that occupies my attention in the following essay: a cultural historical account of a “crisis” perceived in American sculpture, precisely during that tipping-point year of 1929. It was during that spring that the National Sculpture Society (NSS) held its survey show in San Francisco, a comprehensive exhibition representing the contemporary state of American sculpture. Optimistically promoted as the biggest exhibition of its kind, the show drew nearly unanimous rebuke—and for exactly the reason of scale. There were too many works that critics had already seen, too many tabletop reproductions of familiar monuments, too many ornate objets d’art, and, above all else, just too many pieces. This line of criticism was aimed squarely, if mostly tacitly, at overproduction. 

As an art historian, I do not share the concerns of Veblen and others who would interrogate the economic legitimacy of the overproduction conceit. Instead, I am interested in its cultural function as a symbolic scapegoat. I am keen to interrogate its currency, in other words, as a moral, even aesthetic explanatory device; its reprisal of a certain millenarian outlook, keeping watch for symptoms of decadence and decline; and its suitability as a rationale not just for the Great Depression, but also for its perceived attendant crises, including those in the arts. Indeed, it is its symbolic, moral, and aesthetic valences, I believe, that primed overproduction for easy transference to the art-world and its press. This essay is sustained by this very premise. So, to state it again, I maintain: symbolic appeals to overproduction in popular-press coverage of finance carried over to symbolic appeals to cultural overproduction in popular-press coverage of the arts. From this foundational premise, I argue also that this scenario yielded specific results for American sculpture, a medium especially vulnerable to marketplace comparisons (as I’ll discuss), and one I think decisively re-shaped by the overproduction critique. Looking carefully at a moment of critical failure—namely, the National Sculpture Society’s flop in San Francisco in 1929—certain discursive patterns become apparent. Examining these patterns offers an opportunity to emphasize the cultural and social contexts of American twentieth-century sculptural modernism, especially as this would develop into an aesthetic protocol of simplification and subtraction during the volatile years of the Machine Age. 

In view of the many failures they perceived in the NSS exhibition, critics repeatedly prescribed a common cure, one that would parallel those pursued by American business leaders and the U.S. government for the marketplace in the coming years. Where the latter would prosecute a strategy of scaled-back supply during the ensuing Depression—pulling goods from the shelves, leaving lettuce in the fields to rot—art-press pundits argued that American sculpture could also regain value by reducing its output, at least figuratively. Simplify and cut back: these would be the ascendant directives of sculptural discourse in these years. Critics routinely urged sculptors to simplify their practice; and, in San Francisco in 1929, they routinely praised sculptors who had achieved this goal most literally: by going back to sculpture’s rudiments through the practice of hand-carving—cutting, as one writer put it, “as primitives cut, without subterfuge or pretense” (“Wood”). Indeed carving, in the view of many critics, could allow artists to achieve artistic “honesty” (Douglas, “Fine Exhibit”): a swipe at the “counterfeit…cuteness” that academically-trained sculptors had otherwise unleashed (Jewell 658). Besides manifesting the very ideal of cutting back, hand-carving also ensured that artists would achieve the twinned goals of simplification and artistic correction—this by dint of being so laboriously difficult, thus limiting the sculptor to both a narrow expressive range and a modest number of total works. 

Hand-cutting figures from single blocks of wood or stone was only one approach in what I maintain was a pervasively subtractive sculptural attitude during the interwar period. Abstract sculpture’s preference for pared-down simplicity visually figured the turn toward subtraction, yielding restrained works void of detail, elaborations, and ornament. Indeed, these experiments often turned “void” itself into a positive term—the very center of sculpture’s significance. (Alexander Archipenko routinely pointed to negative space as the primary site of his modernist intervention. This was an established enough truism of his practice that the St. Paul Pioneer Press could snicker in 1921: “Mr. Archipenko expresses himself by the absence of things. Do you get that? Instead of painting a woman’s breast or a man’s head he paints a hole” [qtd. in Michaelsen and Kuralnik 51].) But even those avant-garde practices apparently less concerned with formal or procedural subtraction still flirted with its logic. Dada’s readymades relied on acts of selection and decontextualization: subtracting one commodity from a world of identical others. In the case of the 1929 show, where NSS officials had proudly kept abstract and absurdist variants of modernism to a minimum, carving was left to carry the day. A small selection of simple, hand-carved pieces rose again and again to the top of the critics’ esteem. In both form and process, these pieces—works by Robert Laurent, William Zorach, and others who wore the mantle of so-called “direct carving”—augured the coming shift toward planned market contraction. The exhibition is an especially useful case study, then. It illustrates, first, the critical distaste for cultural overproduction and, second, the subsequent embrace of sculptural subtraction as its solution: two issues I maintain were major vectors of modernist sculptural aesthetics in these years.
In what follows, I will recount how the National Sculpture Society put on its sprawling show of contemporary American sculpture in San Francisco; I will then examine how a tidal wave of advance excitement quickly crashed into critical rebuke; and I will conclude, finally, by investigating how and why direct-carving practices emerged as the exhibition’s only bright spot. Telling the story sequentially in this way will allow me to clarify the perceived aesthetic deficiencies that direct carving was seen to address, so that its significance in histories of twentieth-century American sculpture becomes visible not just for what it was, but more clearly for what it was not.

* * *

On a Sunday morning in 1929, thousands of San Franciscans ventured to the city’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor. [Figures 1 and 2] In 1929, just three years after its dedication, the Palace still shimmered in the dull glare of the San Francisco sun. With imposing colonnades, a triumphal arch entryway, and a series of funereal friezes, the Beaux-Arts building dutifully performed its commemorative service to the city’s World War I dead—and perfectly replicated the mood of its prototype, the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, of which the California building was a three-quarter-sized reproduction. Located west of downtown and perched on ocean cliffs, the “Palace by the Sea” (Ross) offered stunning views of Golden Gate, not yet spanned by its landmark bridge. 

But it was neither the building’s commemorative piety nor its spectacular views that had attracted so many visitors on April 28, 1929. Festooned by miles of garlands and more than a million dollars’ worth of transplanted flowers, the Legion of Honor was decked out for a special occasion. The National Sculpture Society (NSS) had chosen San Francisco as the location for its latest show, meant, as their “Final Circular of Information” explained, to “represent contemporary American sculpture of whatever school or tendency, embracing in its scope sculpture designed for the park or garden, monumental and decorative sculpture, small bronzes, medallions, [and] medals.” [Figures 3 and 4] 

The NSS had adopted the attitude of forward-looking change agent since its establishment in 1893, when it promised to usher in a new day for American sculpture. The organization was founded upon the very premise of self-improvement, a posture that signaled optimism even as it simultaneously maligned the history of the nation’s sculpture-so-far. The NSS positioned American sculpture as a cultural underdog. As a New York Times article reported on the society’s efforts to contribute to the ornamentation of the Library of Congress in 1894: sculpture had for too long been “the Cinderella of the arts” lagging behind its “two Proud Sisters,” painting and architecture. At times, NSS spokespeople even characterized the country’s plastic arts in the worst possible terms. American civic monuments were “deplorable” and a “disgrace” (“National Sculpture Society,” 1895). “Our Statues Are Bad” ran the New York Times headline the day after NSS Secretary Frederick Wellington Ruckstuhl addressed a professional meeting of architects in 1894. In response to sculpture’s lamentable condition, then, the society announced itself as an enterprising and cutting-edge band of sculptors, architects, and patrons (“including a number of ladies” [“National Sculpture Society,” 1894]), seeking to improve sculpture, by refreshing the medium’s style and by impressing its contemporary relevance upon the wider public. As founding member Charles de Kay put it in The Quarterly Illustrator: “The Meaning of the National Sculpture Society is no less than an effort . . . to drag American sculpture out of the mire” (193). 

But, thusly rescued, where was sculpture to go? Again, official opinions were explicit. “It is time,” de Kay wrote in the catalog for the society’s third exhibition in 1898, “that [sculpture] entered vestibule, hall and drawing-room, billiard and smoking gallery, breakfast-room and chamber, adapting itself as to subject and kind and color to all the varied needs of modern life” (6). In this regard, the promotional activities of the NSS may be said to have mimicked the approach taken in Britain, under the banner of the “New Sculpture” in the 1880s and ’90s. The New Sculpture not only embraced a range of styles, materials, and techniques (from the historical and traditional to the innovative and industrial), it also pursued commercial avenues for the art form, so as to expand its relevance to contemporary audiences. As sculpture historian Martina Droth has argued, artists of the New Sculpture pursued a course that would more boldly announce the medium’s modernity. This meant a highly diverse set of artistic practices, mixing not only classical references with more contemporary realisms, but also combining a variety of materials and techniques in a single work. So too, in the American context, the NSS’s goal for sculpture was nothing less than its vital integration into the course of everyday life: a goal that was advanced not only through the artistic routes of style, material, and technique, but also through commercial-friendly routes like batch production, actively courted relations with commercial foundries and galleries, and the choice of ornamental subjects and forms, readymade for the domestic interior.

The comparison to British precedent, however, runs somewhat afoul of the nationalist distinctions of the day. Indeed, American sculptors at the turn of the twentieth century did not have London on their mind (nor Rome, as would have been typical a generation prior). Instead, they aimed toward Paris, where study at the École des Beaux Arts had become de rigeur (Coles 170–79). By the 1920s, most of the major members of the Society, including Herbert Adams, James Earl Fraser, Harriet Frishmuth, and Frederick MacMonnies, practiced in the French academic mode, under the capacious banner of the Beaux Arts style. Typifying the approach, turn-of-the-century American sculptors experimented with exuberant figures, animated surfaces, and dynamic lines. Works were achieved first in wax or clay, later to be cast in bronze or other metal. In its most expressive form, French-derived sculptural modernism was irrevocably associated with Rodin. The elaborately worked surfaces of his figures, leaving plain evidence of his finger work, dramatized both personal expression and the modelling-and-casting processes that enabled it. But even in its more cautious iterations—when artistic expression was tied less idiosyncratically to personal genius, and more to high-minded morals (like Fraser’s) or light-hearted humanity (like Frishmuth’s)—the French approach (like the British) offered American sculptors the opportunity to assert their modernity. As sculpture historian Roberta Tarbell put it in 1979, “At the turn of the century, skill in sculpture paralleled virtuosity in modeling” (45). 

In order to ensure sculpture’s relevance further—to make it, according to a New York Times piece, “popular” (“National Sculpture Society,” 1895)—the NSS established a series of exhibitions. These large-scale shows came replete with well-illustrated catalogs, sumptuously decorated galleries, and a selection of domestically-scaled works, priced and available for sale (Conner and Rosenkranz 3). [Figure 5] Building on sculpture’s success at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—a galvanizing event that led to the NSS’s founding (and perhaps set it down the path of expo-sized exhibitions)—the organization opened its first show in December of 1893. Seven more exhibitions of this same comprehensive scale would follow before 1929, all originating in New York except for two (one in Baltimore in 1908 and one in Buffalo at the Albright Art Gallery in 1916); one in 1909–10 would travel to five cities, none west of St. Louis. 

The society’s exhibitions consistently met with acclaim, perhaps none more so than its especially sizable blockbuster of 1923. Praised by the New York Herald for its “pleasing effect” of “permanence” (“Five Societies”), the show included more than 730 works executed by over 250 artists. It was the largest sculpture show in the U.S. then to date, and critics responded positively to its “splendor” (“Sculptor’s”), its “fresh, unspoilt quality” (Cortissoz), and the “triumph” (Breuning) of its installation. What is important about this praise is that it extolled a show nearly identical—in both spirit and contents—to the later (failed) exhibition San Francisco. It’s a control case, in other words: a pattern for the later ’29 offering, and so all the more striking in its differences. Chiefly, and decisively, the difference between the shows was size; the later show was almost twice as big as its precedent. By 1929, size would be damning: an ill-fated “attempt,” wrote one critic, “to convince the public, in weights and numbers that American monumental sculpture is a thriving authentic art” (Millier, “Nation’s”).

* * *

In its show of 1929, the NSS perceived a pioneering opportunity to expand its practice to the country’s westernmost edge. Besides building upon its own, East Coast precedents, the NSS likely also hoped to capitalize on the successes its members had enjoyed at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. There, Anna Hyatt Huntington, whose work would be a major feature of the ’29 show, showed ten major pieces and won a silver medal. Indeed, the entire sculpture selection at the California World’s Fair, numbering in the hundreds, had proven so appealing that the NSS shipped nearly all of it to Buffalo for a show of their own the following year (Conner and Rosenkranz 3–4, 74). Unlike that earlier transcontinental effort, however (which consisted entirely of small bronzes), the 1929 show presented a heavier—and more costly—challenge. More than thirteen hundred works appeared on display at the Palace of the Legion of Honor that spring; fewer than one hundred of them originated in California studios, leaving a very large remainder to be shipped from distribution centers around the country and abroad. Shipping these works took about a month: from mid-February to mid-March, when the San Francisco Chronicle ran the headline, “Art Treasure by Ton Due in San Francisco for Show.”

Referring to the exhibit pieces as “treasure,” the Chronicle reinforced a motif that recurred through several of the show’s advance reports: one that referred to the shipments in terms of plundered booty. At this stage of the show (i.e., before it opened), the characterization flattered the exhibition through classicizing allusion. “Such a movement in art,” wrote an anonymous observer for the San Francisco Examiner, had hardly been seen “since Napoleon looted the galleries of Italy or the Roman galleys came back laden with the sculptured treasures of ancient Greece” (“Art Classics”). Shipments, indeed, became a favorite motif among writers, though some opted for a more light-hearted circus theme. The San Francisco Bulletin played the part of the barker: “From east and west, north and south, by steamship and railway, thousands of pieces of sculpture are arriving in San Francisco, to be exhibits in the greatest sculpture show America has ever had” (“17 Carloads”). A writer for the Examiner drew another comparison: the scene recalled Christmas morning for him, although he allowed that the “joy of women and children in opening parcels and packages seems almost mild in comparison with the delight of strong men when opening enormous cases . . . [of] sculptured treasures” (Douglas, “Fine Works”). (The gendered hierarchy of these statements tracked with an existing conceit, bandied about by the NSS itself: that sculpture was the more masculine art, compared to the feminine domain of painting.)  Throughout early March, newspapers continued reports of the show’s piecemeal arrival by “shipload” (about three of them [“Art Treasure”]) and “carload” (railroad freights numbering somewhere between eleven and seventeen [“San Francisco Exhibit”]). Internal reports obsessed over the effort, too; the society’s official historian Horace Moran later called it a “huge undertaking” that had taken a “heavy toll” on the society’s resources. 

Energies may have been depleted, but not coffers. The show’s shipping costs had generously been covered by Archer M. Huntington, the private philanthropist and heir to the California railroad fortune. Huntington pursued a range of cultural interests during the 1910s and ’20s, and was active in both the American Numismatic Society, a coin-collecting organization and ally to NSS efforts in medal design, and New York’s Hispanic Society, host of the 1923 NSS exhibit. Indeed, it had been in the course of planning that earlier show that Huntington’s involvement with American sculpture had deepened significantly—and quite personally. An acquaintance with Anna Hyatt, sculptor and NSS member, developed into a courtship and then a marriage (Eden 23–24). In San Francisco in 1929, her El Cid would be one of the biggest works on display: a plaster equestrian monument installed on the Legion of Honor’s front lawn. To transport that work alone had reportedly required a full railroad car (“Two New York Artists”). The associated costs were deferred by her husband’s donation: his highly-publicized contribution of $100,000 (over a million dollars in today’s money) was earmarked entirely for costs related to packing and shipping.

Stylistically, the works ran a gamut, sometimes even within single works. Indeed, the dominant Beaux Arts mode was a capacious one, accommodating a hybrid, quotational approach. Thus, Leo Friedlander’s The Three Wise Men could cross-reference classical antiquity with modern styling. [Figure 6] The group, a plaster cast of a work designed for a Berkeley chapel, redrew classicism’s penchant for kneeling figures and frozen emotional attitude in a neatly drafted, flatly planed Machine Age look. 

The academically accomplished sculptor Evelyn Longman also leveraged classicism in her seated, emotionally crumpled female nude, Destiny, this time combining the wet drapery and loose chignon of antiquity with the suppleness and specificity of American naturalism: hands and fingers flexed, facial features individualized, torso relaxed away from the ideal. [Figure 7] 

Naturalism, a mode of unidealized realism that American sculptors had long claimed as a kind of national style, was indeed fittingly well represented in the NSS show. Although by the early twentieth century, many art critics had begun to worry that the style had turned sculptors into mere “manicurists” (Cox 25), Laura Gardin Fraser’s Simplicity showed off a less obsessive and thus arguably more successful version of the trend. [Figure 8] The figure’s gentle contrapposto settled the body into a series of asymmetrical angles and folds: lifelike toes edging forward on the pedestal in a daring, Ovidian flirtation with the frame. 

A few works in San Francisco carried the Rodin torch of expressivism, including Robert P. Baker’s The Soul Struggle and Haig Patigian’s Friendship. Many more pieces, however, were in the garden and fountain genre, the latter replete with a retinue of splashing dolphins and sea horses (as in Beatrice Fenton’s Nereid Fountain and M. Earl Cummings’s Neptune’s Daughter). Finally, a handful of experimental works, executed in what the Art News characterized as a “highly modernistic style” (“National Sculpture Society Exhibition”) were also on view, though these were a distinct minority—so much so that several writers lamented that Archipenko, in particular, had so few works exhibited (Cravens; Millier, “Nation’s”). Indeed, the direct carver Robert Laurent made public his protest of the NSS’s selection efforts, voicing his opinion that a handful of modernists—like himself—had been invited to participate only in order to ward off complaint. That the modern wing of American sculpture had been silenced by the show, Laurent contended, was made clear by how thoroughly artists of this stripe had been edged out in tactics, for instance, like failing to reproduce their works in the catalogue (“Moderns”).

The exhibition pieces had been solicited through an application process, inviting American artists working both at home and overseas, and significant effort had gone into ensuring both a high quantity and wide diversity of submissions. Indeed, while it was a juried exhibition, and while the ten-person selection committee did not represent all wings of current practice (none was an abstract modernist, for instance, the source of the Laurent controversy [“Moderns”]), the exhibition meant to be modern and democratic in its sweep—and attitude. The society neither levied submission fees, nor awarded prizes: a point that appeared frequently in national press on the show. In an advance notice, the Examiner characterized the show’s “liberal … scope” as one of its best features (Douglas, “Fine Exhibit”).

Indeed, in all of the show’s pre-opening press, a major point of interest was its range: a feature that was of course central to the NSS goal to represent the breadth of American sculptural practice. Writers marveled at the breadth of styles, but also of scale, noting the contrast between one-inch bronzes and two-ton marbles, between “a carved ivory cat, four inches high” (“Carloads”) and the “wing of a plaster eagle” so massive it could barely “get in the door” (“San Francisco Exhibition”). A dizzying range of emotions also compelled writers: the gravitas of a “large brooding figure” contrasted with a “delightful fountain piece . . . with frogs” (“Carloads”). Finally, visitors taking advantage of the show’s semi-public installation (more on this later) spied sculpture made of all manner of materials. One article itemized plaster, marble, wood, terra cotta, stone, and “bronze statues in all the varying shades of green and brown patinas, and even in gold” (“U.S.A.”).

Once fully installed, each of the nineteen indoor galleries housed between fifty and one hundred works apiece (Kistler, “American”). [Figure 9] The NSS enlisted a number of marquee-worthy sculptors (and one landscaper) to help with the installation, including James Earl Fraser, who arrived from New York and was already well known to San Francisco audiences. His End of the Trail had debuted at the Panama-Pacific expo and quickly became its icon. It would appear again in the current show. Four other sculptors worked with Fraser on the installation: M. Earle Cummings, Leo Lentelli, Henry Hering, and Attillo Contini. John McLaren served as the lead on the outdoor galleries. Eighty-three years old, McLaren also enjoyed fame for his work at the 1915 Fair. For that occasion, he had transformed hundreds of acres of sand dunes into Golden Gate Park, thus providing the fair with its grounds. In McLaren’s hands—and with the infusion of “one million dollars’ worth of rhododendrons” (“Flowers”)—the Legion of Honor emerged transformed in 1929: a veritable art-in-nature idyll, with “walls and alleys” built fully out of flowers (“Large”).

As had been true with shipping, setting up the exhibit turned out to be a much more laborious task than the NSS anticipated. Although the show was meant to open on April 1, the official opening day didn’t take place until Saturday, April 27, marking the end of two full months of work. The festivities put the capstone on a very long and public process of installation. NSS President Adolph Alexander Weinman officiated and a telegram from President Hoover was read aloud (“$2,000,000”). But if “Saturday . . . belonged to high silk hats [and] Mayors,” as the Chronicle reported, then Sunday “was claimed as their own by ‘just plain folks’” (“50,000”). This news report was especially descriptive: families came from all quarters of the city, bringing both “grandmothers and the kids”; lines stretched in anticipation, reportedly for miles; and the traffic snarled so badly that “owners abandoned [their cars] and walked up the hill.” All told, the two-day unveiling brought in an estimated fifty thousand visitors. Free admission would encourage healthy attendance throughout the show’s run, with 1,067,741 counted at its closing, on New Year’s Day, 1930 (Mitchell).

It wasn’t just the free entrance that encouraged attendance. Advertising also played a major role in the show’s quantitative success. To spread the word, the NSS unleashed an aggressive publicity campaign, touting the exhibit everywhere from dinner menus on cruise ships and railroad dining cars to newsreel stories, the latter of which highlighted the herculean efforts behind the show’s installation. By the time the show opened, NSS publicity costs totaled nearly ten percent of all expenditures (excluding shipping): about $6,000 of a nearly $60,000 show (Harwood). At first, the investment proved sound. Paid publicity begat free publicity, most of which was generally optimistic and in support of NSS-expressed ideals, as the above snippets suggest. Audience interest was stoked early on by these reports, many of which included lists of the famous works visitors could expect to see, including not only Fraser’s End of the Trail, but also Daniel Chester French’s seated Lincoln, a smaller version of the monument just recently dedicated in Washington, D.C. 

* * *

In spite of early enthusiasm for the show and apparently widespread support for its contents and goals, the popular press registered a quick about-face after the exhibition finally opened. While internal NSS records don’t cop to this fact, the press on their 1929 blockbuster was uniformly unfavorable, at times almost nasty. Indeed, there’s a whiff in these reviews of something like a critical comeuppance: bursting the bubble of an event so hubristically ballyhooed. However, if we pay special attention to the objections themselves, something more than spite surfaces. What emerges are three main themes, which allow the criticism to become legible as a significant object of historical analysis, especially since each motif parallels interwar-era anxieties about modernized modes of factory production: (1) distaste for the assembly of the show’s monumental pieces (carried out in plain view of anyone who cared to look), (2) attention to the proliferation of multiples or copies in the exhibition (a concern that applied equally to the exhibition itself), and (3) discomfort at the sheer preponderance of objects housed in the show’s galleries (the most palpable display of its excesses). While the last factor is the most conspicuous theme in the critical record—and the one most obviously related to the “overproduction” bogeyman—all three themes connect the discourse of art criticism with the discourse of cultural criticism aimed at the marketplace.

As detailed above, the arrival of sculpture in San Francisco attracted considerable reportorial attention, recalling plundered booty, circus trains, and Christmas morn. In keeping with this optimistic spirit, local denizens were encouraged to go investigate. One newspaper recommended taking “your boy” down to the museum grounds (“Carven”): “He will not be permitted to go into the building,” the paper warned, “but it may be his good fortune to witness some of the unpacking.” So it was that the un-crating and reassembly of the exhibition’s hundreds of works of art itself became a spectacle—laying bare the many collaborative, even inartistic and potentially alienated, labors that went into a sculpture’s creation.

While most of the works exhibited in the indoor galleries were cast bronze, the larger-than-life monuments slated for outdoor display had been cast in plaster. These arrived at the Legion of Honor in disembodied fragments: “arm by arm, leg by leg, in separate boxes, with the head perhaps in still another crate” (“Sculptures”). Calling the scene “a place of fantasy,” local art writer Louise Landis wrote poetically of “a world suddenly taken to pieces by a pair of deft gigantic hands.” Something of the uncanny was at work here: “fantasy,” yes, but also the sense of a sideshow attraction with so many out-of-sorts body parts. (The circus theme had gone gothic.) Once uncrated, all the various fragments had to be put back together—and carefully, to avoid the potential “disaster” of joining wrong parts to wrong places (“Los Gatos”).

Workers conducted this task of reassembly outdoors, aided by photographs and exact measurements, in plain view of the public. Sure enough, the NSS took advantage of this spectacle for yet more publicity, this time a newsreel featuring scenes of sculptors and hired hands uncrating fragments and joining them back together (“Public”). Lentelli and Hering were two accomplished academicians with pieces on display in the show. In his definitive The History of American Sculpture, reissued in 1923, Lorado Taft had praised Lentelli’s “wizardy”; and he had counted Hering’s output to be sizable enough to be of “particular significance” to the development of the national arts. A plaster cast of the latter’s Indiana World War I memorial, Pro Patria, was included in the show and illustrated in its catalogue. But in the newsreel these accomplished artists were seen doing baser work: attaching arms to torsos and wings to angels. Fellow sculptor Contini, a well-known New York caster, was also in the film; he showed up working behind Lentelli and Herring, covering their tracks with a putty knife thick with plaster. 

What was on view, on the grounds and in the film, were three nationally respected artists going about the customary work of joining and finishing large pieces of sculpture—first-rate pieces, in this case, and authored by the society’s leading lights, including Fraser and Huntington. (Once installed for the temporary NSS exhibit, Huntington’s El Cid made a nice pendant to her Jeanne d’Arc, already permanently installed on the Legion of Honor’s grounds.) But while these painstaking labors were standard sculptural practice (as many of the newspaper stories dutifully reiterated), the copious amount of attention to this reassembly suggests something deeper than just a passing curiosity. In fact, the public display of this “plastic surgery,” as one writer put it (“Date”), seemed to bring to light some potentially problematic similarities between the artistic creation of cast sculpture and the mechanical reproduction of ordinary commodities.

For generations, the multiple steps and multiple people required to make a sculpture—demonstrated in San Francisco by the work of Lentelli, Herring, and Contini—had threatened the medium with something like inauthenticity by association. In short, and in the words of sculpture historian Wayne Andersen, sculpture’s “materials and processes of production could more easily [be] aligned along the lines of machine production than could those of painters.” In the view of some interwar-era artists, and as Andersen discusses, this analogy offered sculpture a unique artistic opportunity to issue timely commentary, reflection, and sometimes critique. But alignment—that is, a perceived parallel between sculptural and commercial forms of production—had been a perennial problem for sculpture for generations. It was certainly a problem in 1929, when analogies between sculpture and commercialism allowed critics to diagnose the former with ailments, like overproduction, typically attributed to the latter. This kind of cross-referencing was what allowed a critic like Junius Cravens to deride the NSS’s efforts at installation not only as an “appalling amount of repair work,” but also as symptomatic of “our contemporary decadent sculpture.” At San Francisco, as during many decades before, it appeared that sculpture’s procedural proximity to commercial trades proved to be a defining conundrum for the medium: an issue in need of answering in the age of industrialization.

Indeed, when the NSS decided to make sculpture’s assembly a feature of its exhibition, it operated squarely within an established tradition for confronting this very conundrum. As Victorian studies scholar Angela Dunstan has discussed, a number of sculptors in the nineteenth century launched something like a public awareness campaign to make the medium’s processes more widely known—and so, they hoped, more widely appreciated. Facing critical reception that Dunstan characterizes by its “remarkable hostility” (np) (to the point where even the medium’s supporters were obliged to frame their effort in terms of improvement, much as would later be the case for the NSS), several practitioners set about penning explanatory tracts. The most famous of these came from the neoclassical American sculptor, Harriet Hosmer. Issued from her Roman atelier and published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1864, “The Process of Sculpture” explained how the creative ideas of an individual sculptor come to be realized through many stages and by teams of craftsmen. This was a lesson Hosmer was obliged to offer. In her case, public ignorance of sculpture’s production had combined with sexism: some questioned whether Hosmer’s works could properly be called “hers,” since she had employed men to make them (as, she pointed out, did all of her male peers). But Hosmer was not alone in this revelatory effort, undertaken not just through essays (the eminent neoclassicist John Gibson also wrote one), but also through the widespread nineteenth-century fad of opening studios up to visiting tourists. If the goal was to impress observers with the complexity of the medium, however, the gambit would work to opposite effect: reinforcing, not dispelling, indictments of inauthenticity. The efforts “unwittingly opened sculpture to criticism,” Dunstan writes; namely, they imperiled “the Romantic notion of the individual genius artist through increasing public knowledge of collaboration between gentleman artists and working-class craftsmen” (np). (Martina Droth traces the same historical trend noting that “art-tourism” [225] encouraged the growth of commercial sculpture: a scenario from which academic sculptor carefully had to distance themselves.)

In the years immediately following 1929, this conundrum would arise rather literally for the NSS, brought on by the regulatory procedures of Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration (NRA). Introduced in 1933, in part as a reaction to the perceived scourge of overproduction, the NRA was designed to allow representatives from industry, labor, and the government to work together to regulate commodity production and distribution, establishing industry-specific norms. When the NRA sought to establish a professional labor code for the production of sculpture, an issue of no small concern to a federal government soon to employ so many sculptors in the New Deal, the NSS found a quibble or two with the terms. In October 1933, NSS secretary Brenda Putnam explained the situation to members. The proposed code would have grouped sculptors “with the Modellers and Plasterers,” for the arbitration of wages and hours: a scenario, she put plainly, “which would not be agreeable to us.” In response, the society drafted a more suitable set of parameters. Their proposed “Code of Fair Competition and Professional Practice” was explicit about what labor-acts defined the sculptor: “The term sculptor as used herein,” it began, “includes any person who is capable of creating an original work of art in plastic form.” This definition was perhaps strategically vague. It could apply capaciously to a wide array of styles and, more importantly, techniques. It emphasized creativity as the defining labor of the sculptor, a form of work that could be construed to be mostly conceptual, and it clearly spelled out the differences between the originating acts of creativity and the practical acts of manufacture. Indeed, taking the whole code together, the NSS put forward a view of sculpture that might also be viewed as managerial, given the number of workers the sculptor might have to oversee: “sculptors’ assistants, apprentices, occasionally carvers, plaster casters, models and secretaries, and sometimes unskilled laborers.” In keeping with the aims of the NRA, the NSS presented a clear schedule of hours and wages for these many types of employment. Sculptor’s assistants, “capable of assisting the sculptor in the execution of his work,” were to be the most highly paid on this scale, at $1.50 per hour. Carvers likewise did quite well at an hourly rate of $1.25. Plaster casters, apprentices, and “unskilled laborers” would be compe