In the past twenty years, Thomas Schütte – a prolific and wide-ranging German artist – has found many different ways to confront and awaken the figural tradition in art. “In Medias Res” at Dia Center for the Arts contains, among other things, four large bronze sculptures of reclining women. They invoke the past without apology – the past of modernist art and sculpture found in Maillol and Matisse, and the past of monumental ancient sculpture. In both cases, the figure is used to express an earthy, almost brutal sense of grandeur, idealism, and timelessness. In contrast to many postmodernists, who engage in easy forms of parody when addressing the high-flown art of the past, Schütte has actually had the courage to work from inside the tradition – and risk the comparisons. None of his figures is just an idea. Each appears handmade, pushed into shape, discovered in the making.
The poses are strong. In one, a seated woman assumes a yogalike position with her arms flung back and her head touching the earth between her legs. Yet her pose does not liberate her: Her body is locked in place. Schütte’s figures evoke the transcendent aspirations of the past but cannot escape from the heaviness of the present – which is the heaviness of the earth itself. They are rusting or melting back into their metal, like Henry Moores without the uplift. In Schütte’s small ceramic sculptures, many of them gaily colored, the bodies also cannot quite escape from their clay. This is a melancholy but not an arid or wishy-washy art. Schütte’s rooted figures take the form of a powerful memory. They are not easily let go.