Hanson, Duane Elwood

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Hanson, Duane Elwood

(b. 17 January 1925 in Alexandria, Minnesota; d. 6 January 1996 in Boca Raton, Florida), internationally renowned superrealist sculptor best known for his trompe l’oeil, life-size polyvinyl casts of ordinary Americans.

Hanson, the only child of Agnes Nelson and Dewey O. Hanson, Swedish-American dairy farmers, grew up in Parkers Prairie, Minnesota. At an early age he showed an aptitude for the arts. He especially loved carving and often fashioned small figures out of candles and firewood using his mother’s kitchen knives. One such figure, The Blue Boy (1938), copied from a painting by the English portrait painter Thomas Gainsborough, carved when he was thirteen, shows Hanson’s early interest in realism. During his years at Parkers High School, Hanson also wrote poetry, acted, and studied music. He graduated in 1944.

Declared ineligible for service in World War II due to an allergic condition, Hanson enrolled briefly at Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa, and at the University of Washington, in Seattle. In 1945 he returned to Minnesota, where he received a bachelor of arts degree from Macalester College in Saint Paul in 1946. While he was in Saint Paul, he met and befriended the established figurative sculptor John Rood, with whom he studied for one year in 1947. Encouraged by this experience, Hanson decided to focus his studies on sculpture. He enrolled in the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he studied with the internationally known sculptors Bill McVcy and Carl Milles. In 1951, after receiving his master of fine arts degree from Cranbrook, he married his first wife, Janice Roche, and moved to Wilton, Connecticut, to teach junior high school. A difficult year followed, as Hanson struggled to develop a language for his work that meshed with the prevailing abstract style that characterized the New York gallery scene. Hanson had his first one-person show at the Wilton Gallery in 1952, but he was unable to secure a show in New York and found it impossible to do nonfigurative work.

Impatient with his progress, Hanson accepted an offer to teach in Munich, West Germany, in 1953 at a United States Army High School. Hanson remained in West Germany until the end of the decade, teaching in Munich until 1957 and then in Bremerhaven from 1957 to 1960. In Bremerhaven, Hanson met the sculptor George Grygo, who introduced him to a polyester resin and fiberglass casting technique. Impressed with the flexibility and lightweight nature of the material, Hanson began his own experiments with it in 1960 when he returned to the United States to teach in Atlanta, Georgia. During his years in Atlanta, Hanson began to make sculptures that addressed social issues such as war, bigotry, and poverty. But his work remained largely unnoticed, and his personal life was deteriorating. In 1965, after the birth of three children, his marriage to Janice Roche ended in divorce, and he moved again, this time to take a teaching job at Miami-Dade Community College in Florida.

In the late 1960s, Hanson abandoned abstraction. Pop art had emerged as the prevailing style, and his cast sculptures began to find a wide audience. Hanson found particular inspiration in the works of the pop artist George Segal, who made castings directly from life and incorporated everyday objects into his sculpture installations. With a newfound confidence, Hanson began creating a series of violent and confrontational sculptures. In 1967, he created several controversial pieces dealing with death. Abortion, a graphic depiction of a young woman dead from an illegal abortion procedure, attracted considerable public and critical attention, as did Welfare-2598 and the horrific battlefield scene War. With War and other grisly pieces, such as Gangland Victim (1967) and Motorcycle Victim (1967), both banned from exhibition in Florida, Hanson cast directly from life, utilizing the polyester resin technique he had learned in Germany.

In 1967, Hanson’s sculptures caught the attention of the New York gallery director Ivan Karp, who helped arrange a one-person show at the O.K. Harris Gallery in 1970. In 1969, following Karp’s suggestion, Hanson left his teaching position in Florida and moved to Greenwich Village in Manhattan with his second wife, Wesla Host, whom he had married in 1968. That marriage produced two children. Hanson remained in New York until 1973, when he returned to live permanently in Davie, Florida. During the New York years, his international reputation was firmly established. In 1972, his work was included in the Documenta 5 show in Kassel, West Germany, where it received critical acclaim.

The move to New York also brought about a major stylistic shift in Hanson’s sculpture. In 1970, he decided to move away from the expressive realism that dealt with the social implications of violence. His new work embodied a more introspective and contemplative type of realism. In such pieces as Tourists (1970) and Hard Hat (1970), Hanson’s subject became the battered and tired lives of the middle class. Painstakingly painted, sculpted, and attired in minute detail, these figures achieved such a high degree of realism that they often fooled museum visitors. Over the next two decades, Hanson’s reputation grew steadily. O.K. Harris Gallery continued to represent him into the 1980s, and, in 1978, the Whitney Museum in New York City held a major retrospective. Exhibits of his works were intensely popular with the public, and his sculptures are well represented in both public and private collections around the world.

From the 1970s until his death, Hanson worked steadily, producing three or four figures a year. He continued to portray lower-and middle-class Americans, often choosing “heavyset” people, whom he saw as having “great dignity, or overburdened with despair and fatigue due to the complexities of our time.” He continued to cast directly from life, often taking pains to find the right body type. Vastly popular in his adopted home state of Florida, he received the Ambassador of the Arts Award of the State of Florida in 1983 and was awarded the New York Times Florida Artist Award in 1985. In 1973, Hanson had been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. The condition went into remission for more than twenty years, only to resurface in 1995 and take his life the following year. At the time of his death, Hanson had completed more than 100 sculptures.

Hanson saw himself as a “true expressionist,” an artist who wanted to give meaning to the lives of the lonely and the marginalized, to the people we pass by without noticing. Despite Hanson’s wide popular appeal, his work was criticized for stereotyping and was dismissed by many critics as unsophisticated illustration. But others have found great merit in Hanson’s “monstrifications of American types,” which can arouse in the viewer alternate feelings of empathy and parody. From a historical perspective, Hanson’s superrealist figures connect with a deep interest in realistic depiction in American art that extends backward to nineteenth-century trompe l’oeil painting and forward to the virtual reality of computer-generated imagery.

Kirk Varnedoe, Duane Hanson (1985), contains a critical essay by the author, an interview with Hanson, and a section on his fabrication process. Sculptures by Duane Hanson (1985), by Martin H. Bush, has an extensive bibliography and gives a good chronological account of Hanson’s career until 1985. Marco Livingstone, Duane Hanson (1997), is a short posthumous publication surveying Hanson’s entire professional life. An essay by Joseph Masheck on the sculpture of Duane Hanson and John de Andrea appears in Super Realism: A Critical Anthology (1975). An obituary is in the New York Times (10 Jan. 1996).

Peter Suchecki

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