PORTLAND, Maine — “Stout” is not the word for Gaston Lachaise’s sculptures of women. Each is a paragon of roundness, a consonance of curves. Each is dignity, ebulliently rendered.
His commanding bronze “Standing Woman,” the finale of “A New American Sculpture, 1914-1945: Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach,” at the Portland Museum of Art, through Sept. 8, rises on her toes, lifts her arms. Her fingers, perhaps, flutter. Her chin is high. For all her mass — she is 6 feet tall — she floats.
The pleasing lines, curves, and volumes of “Standing Woman” exemplify American modernist sculpture during the interwar period. “A New American Sculpture” brings together four of its leading proponents, Lachaise, Robert Laurent, Elie Nadelman, and William Zorach.
These four artists defined a lyrical style that cohered with Art Deco — Laurent and Zorach have works at Radio City Music Hall — and with the clean lines and planes and pared down realism of modernist painters such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley.
For Lachaise and Nadelman, this style took flight. Zorach and Laurent prioritized volume and material, and sometimes got stuck there.
In content, the show is merry, filled with acrobatics, family fondness, and Lachaise’s buoyant women, modeled after his wife and muse, Isabel. At a time when Cubism was breaking figures and faces apart, Lachaise, Nadelman, Laurent, and Zorach committed to harmony.
All four, born in Europe, spent time in Paris during that city’s crackling period of artistic fertility before World War I. Like many, they lapped up non-Western art, praising its presumed primitivism as essential and direct. One early Laurent, “Head (or Mask),” has the frontality of an African carving, the striated hair of a Japanese woodblock print, and the winsome features of a kittenish Renoir.
They contended with Auguste Rodin, their behemoth of a forefather, steering away from his emotional drama, his ropy musculature, his fingered surfaces. Instead, they sought calm and balance.
They rejected, too, Rodin’s near-industrial workshop model — the artist had up to 50 assistants — and opted for an organic, hands-on relationship with material.
Once in America, these sculptors collected and took inspiration from American folk art and popular entertainment, such as burlesque, where they studied the lines and gestures of dancers.
Three of Nadelman’s jaunty sculptures — “Dancer,” “Chef d’Orchestre,” and “Tango” — feature weathered wood and sparingly applied gesso, evoking folk art. The terrific “Tango,” pregnant with implied movement, captures the dancers just before their bodies meet. The woman swivels; the viewer’s eye cavorts.
Nadelman was a wizard with negative space. The tubular limbs of his subjects fly and curl. Where Lachaise’s round women often defy gravity (“Two Floating Nude Acrobats”!), Nadelman’s figures might spin in the wind.
Zorach and Laurent carved into wood or stone, seeking what it had to tell them. Their work is bulkier, of a piece, recalling pre-classical Greek or Egyptian sculpture. Their romance with direct carving leaves some of their art half-baked — chrysalises not fully emerged from their cocoons.
This approach can work with the right subject. Laurent carved into a long chunk of mahogany and found “Daphne,” transforming herself into a tree as she flees Apollo. The lecherous god’s hand grasps her ankle as she rises and begins to leap, in a piece charged with momentum and intrigue. But Laurent’s “The Wave,” an alabaster nude, feels trapped by the stone’s shape.
Zorach’s blocky style could be imposing, or thudding and congested. His mahogany “Mother and Child,” less than 3 feet tall, feels monumental, daunting in the force of the figures’ embrace. With more definition, more air, it might be tender. As it is, it’s suffocating.
Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach helped awaken the American public to modernism’s attention to form. Complete abstraction nipped at their heels.
All four were contemporaries of German painter Hans Hofmann. Like them, he sojourned in Paris as the century’s art was born, and later immigrated to the United States. But the harmonious objects in “A New American Sculpture” make a stunning contrast to the art in the taut, explosive “Hans Hofmann: Works on Paper,” on view through Sept. 3. Here came Abstract Expressionism, like a tsunami.
Hofmann’s first wife, Maria, called him “the embodiment of contradiction,” and contradiction drove his art. He cranked up tensions between representation and abstraction, between geometric forms and organic ones, between color as surface and color as form.
The artist, a venerable teacher, can be a tetchy painter to get your arms around, always changing. He’s best known for his late “slab” paintings of the 1960s, in which panes of color drift over active grounds, but he was always aggressively inventive, often theatrically colorful.
This show provides a remarkable primer. As works on paper — all relatively small drawings and paintings — it’s a record of the artist in the act of seeing. It isn’t all resolved. Much of it is on the fly: early sketches in ink of St. Tropez and California, or fleet, muscular, abstractions of Provincetown, studded with simple rooftops.
In an untitled work from 1943, blades of brilliant blue curve against heaving, yellow-red ones — they might be dunes, or sails. They contain those rooftops, sketched in black ink, as if sand, sun, and water are lifting and engulfing them. He uses tempera, watercolor, crayon, and ink — knowing the lush matte effect of the tempera, the slurry ramifications of watercolor. More tensions.
The show follows him through more than 50 years, from an early, soft landscape to his late airier, still-assertive works. A painting made in 1965, the year before he died, features vibrant blue blots against a ground warmed with breaths of yellow. Like his youthful landscape, it’s quiet, but in its rhythms and contrasts, it holds so much more.
A NEW AMERICAN SCULPTURE, 1914-1945: Lachaise, Laurent, Nadelman, and Zorach
HANS HOFMANN: Works on Paper
At Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through Sept. 8 and Sept. 3, respectively. 202-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.org
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.