Duane Hanson’s trompe l’oeil sculptures, 24 of which are now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, typically provoke a startled double take: Oh! That cop leaning against the wall is not alive. The real flesh and blood at a Hanson show often creates a similar double take. The motionless museumgoer beside you suddenly moves: Hey, that guy is actually alive… . Hanson’s best and funniest piece of witchery – alas, not included in this exhibition – is a depiction of a museum guard. This guard performs his job very well: Cost-conscious museums might wish to hire others like him.
A delight in fooling the eye is almost as old as art itself. The ancient Greek painter Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically, it was said, that birds pecked at them. But Hanson (1925-1996), an earnest artist, aspired to be more than a trickster. He wanted to convey a profound view of existence, one suggesting that, to borrow Thoreau’s words, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” This show, which was organized by the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, includes many of his archetypal figures from Middle America: a tourist in a Hawaiian shirt, a tubby shopper, a cleaning woman, a football player, a retired couple, a cowboy, a construction crew. Many have been gathered together into one large room, creating a strangely still party.
Admiring critics think Hanson “ennobles” the difficult lives of ordinary people. Actually, he diminishes them. His figures, whatever their differences of appearance, invariably have the same glum expression. They glance down, lost in dejected thoughts – wan, whipped, beaten. Even the kids appear defeated; in Children Playing Game, the boy and girl look like their dog just died. Despair is one of the great subjects of art, of course, but not in the hands of a relentless generalizer selling platitudes about “the human condition.” You would never guess from this show that despair has different notes or that even a beaten-down loser in a dreary American mall can sometimes shake a leg.