Born in 1887 in Lithuania, William Zorach immigrated with his family to the United States when he was just four years old, settling in Cleveland, Ohio. Zorach displayed an exceptional artistic talent at a young age and, at the recommendation of his seventh-grade teacher, began studying lithography at night at the Cleveland School of Art. It was not long before he was apprenticing at a lithography company in Cleveland. It was there that he realized he wanted to become an artist - to escape the commercial end of the field in which he was suddenly immersed.
In 1907, Zorach saved enough money to move to New York and study art at the National Academy of Design, where he received several awards for his paintings and drawings. He continued his studies in Paris in 1910 at La Palette. This year abroad would turn out to be quite fruitful because in Paris he was greatly influenced by the Cubist and Fauvist movements and had several paintings exhibited at the Salon d'Automme. This influence and subsequent success fueled his career back in the states where he was honored with his first one-man exhibition. Due to this new-found stability, he married a young woman he met at school in Paris, and they moved to New York and set up a studio. Shortly after, their work was accepted into the famous 1913 Armory Show.
For the next nine years, Zorach continued to think of himself as a painter, although he had already begun to experiment in sculpting. He was experiencing modest success with his painting and was therefore reluctant to abandon it completely. However, he was impelled toward sculpting, and in 1922, he painted his last oil.
Zorach's involvement with sculpture began largely be accident. While he was working on a series of wood-block prints, Zorach suddenly became more interested in the butternut panel than the print and turned the panel into a carved relief. With no formal training as a sculptor, Zorach's first sculptures were of wood and his carving tools were primitive, such as a jack-knife. I n fact, his early works have a certain stylized look, suggesting the influence of various primitive arts such as African and American folk.
Zorach found his sculptural direction by instinct, but was not unaware of what other sculptors were doing, both here and abroad. He soon allied himself with a growing number of modern sculptors who believed in the esthetic necessity of carving their own designs directly in the block of stone or wood rather than modeling them in clay. From the beginning he found a deep satisfaction in the slow and patient process of freeing the image from its imprisoning block, watching the forms emerge and appear.
"The actual resistance of tough material is a wonderful guide," Zorach said in a lecture on direct sculpture in 1930. The sculptor "cannot make changes easily, there is no putting back tomorrow what was cut away today. His senses are constantly alert. If something goes wrong there is the struggle to right the rhythm. And slowly the vision grows as the work progresses." Zorach also found that the material itself had a constantly modifying effect on the artist's vision. The grain of the wood, the markings in the stone, the shape of the log or boulder all set limits and suggested possibilities. He was always sensitive to the characteristic qualities of his material and occasionally let them play a major role in determining his forms. In works such as these, the feel of the original material is preserved in the finished piece and is often heightened by leaving parts of the original surface untouched and other areas roughly marked by the sculptors tools.
In 1923 Zorach bought a farm in Maine, where he and his family would spend their summers. He continued to sculpt and was soon recognized as one of the country's premier artists, honored with multiple commissions throughout the country and exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, the McNay Art Institute, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. Today his work can be found in such prestigious museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the Los Angeles Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
In all, Zorach's sculpture is not outwardly American. It deals with the universal themes of life. He ultimately played a major role in rescuing American sculpture from the neo-classical tendencies and illustrative modeling which dominated it at the turn of the century. He helped to develop an isolated avant-garde in this country due in part to his focus not only on universal themes but on the intrinsic beauty of his material, sensuous tactile values, subtlety of modeling and a variety of imagery.
Owings-Dewey Gallery, Santa Fe, NM