In the 1997 film “The Devil’s Advocate,” Al Pacino chews up the scenery as a contemporary Lucifer. During one of his frequent monologues he stands in front of a white relief sculpture composed of twisted nude bodies, partially submerged in a whirling torrent. The figures come to life, writhing erotically, at the cinematic climax.
That piece was based on “Ex Nihilo” by Frederick Hart (1943-1999), located at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It was Hart’s first great work, illustrating God’s creation of all out of the chaos of nothingness, with an attached “rags to riches” story (he was an apprentice stone carver at the Cathedral when he won the commission in 1974).
Hart was a spiritual man and was not amused to see his work featured in the film. He and the National Cathedral jointly sued the movie’s production company, resulting in alterations to the video/DVD versions. The exhibition guide for “Frederick Hart: Giving Form to Spirit” at the University of Louisville explains that Hart’s “artistic practice was a form of worship for him, a method of taking the mundane materiality of the physical universe to a transcendent spiritual level.”
I appreciate “Ex Nihilo” in general but not in specifics. Hart specializes in a female standard personified by his wife, Lindy Lain Hart, a lithe woman with perky breasts. His male figures are muscular and broad of shoulder. Occasionally this reads more Hollywood than spiritual, and, for many reasons, the sculpture was a perfect fit for the film.
Many segments of “Ex Nihilo” are included in the retrospective, most notably at Schneider Hall’s Belknap
Gallery and the Cressman Center. With more than 100 works, it is Hart’s largest exhibition, offering the perfect opportunity to alter my perceptions. To that end, it was partially successful, as I now understand more about his high level of technical skill and mastery of detail. Hart preferred figurative representational art to the abstract. The catalogue raisonné, “Frederick Hart: The Complete Works” (available at the exhibition), opens with his quote: “If art is to flourish in the 21st century, it must renew its moral authority by rededicating itself to life. It must be an enriching, ennobling and vital partner in the public pursuit of civilization.”
That quest got him embroiled in a battle in the early 1980s. Maya Ying Lin’s abstract design for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial consists of a stone wall with the names of the deceased etched into it. The wall seems to rise up from the ground. Today it is the most visited memorial in the United States, but it was not entirely well received at its unveiling. Hart was commissioned to create a supplemental realist statue, “The Three Soldiers,” which is near the wall. Photographs and a bronze study of it are in Grawemeyer Hall.
Another Hart signature is sculpture created in acrylic resin, a process he patented. While the Covi Gallery in Schneider Hall houses many of his acrylics, the Cressman Center has the spectacular “The Cross of the Millennium” (Grawemeyer Hall has a smaller version). The result resembles a hologram, with Jesus floating within the cross design. Cressman also has photographs of Hart’s sculptural process.
U of L has many excellent accompaniments to the show. Audio and printed guides are available. There is a lecture series (see sidebar), and U of L and Jefferson County Public Schools are offering projects and classes related to the exhibition. The Louisville Ballet will perform a world premiere based on “Ex Nihilo” as part of its American Vanguards series (Feb. 29- March 1; visit www.louisvilleballet.org for more info).
BY JO ANNE TRIPLETT