Results for Auk

Bernard Langlais
Auk, 1976-77
Painted wood
49 1/2 in. x 13 1/2 in. x 28 in. (125.73 cm x 34.29 cm x 71.12 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Bernard Langlais

Accession Number: 1985.009 IIIF

Bernard Langlais was born in Old Town, Maine, “a rural area “where timber, logging lumber, lumber mills, [and] woodworking factories are as common as steel and cement in New York.” Langlais’s career embodies an almost analogous disparity, between that of a backwoods, “outsider” artist and a dynamic, commercially dogged alter ego, moving in the cutting-edge circles of the New York art world.

From language difficulties in school and nine younger siblings, Langlais found respite in drawing and whittling in the loft of his grandparent’s barn. He left Maine at the age of 19 to study art, and although he returned in the summers of 1949, ’50, and ’51 to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Langlais spent the majority of the next two decades studying and working in Washington, DC, Paris, and New York. Painting was his primary medium, and under the tutelage of Max Beckmann and William Kienbusch, Langlais developed an abstract, structural style, devoid of narrative but infused with the sense of physicality implicit to his medium: a concept championed by Jackson Pollock in the preceding years.
In 1956, with his wife Helen, Langlais purchased a summer cottage in Cushing, Maine. While renovating it, he was captivated by the intuitive quality of woodworking, as if returned in a reverie to the barn loft of his youth. His focus abruptly shifted, and a series of abstract wood reliefs incorporating elements of intarsia and found objects dominated his energies into the early 1960s. He described his technique as “painting with wood,” and his fresh approach, with its parallels to the tony movements of the moment—Abstract Expressionism, Assemblage, even Pop Art—earned Langlais attention from some of New York’s most notable dealers, including a solo exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1961.
By this time and despite such attention, Langlais retreated both artistically and psychologically from the axis of the art world. He grew more interested in the craftsmanship of woodworking and in the relationship of his materials to the landscape. Found objects were replaced by carved birds and horses, as his vision shifted from the urban consumerism of New York to the bucolic back roads of his native state. After a prolific summer in Maine in 1961, Langlais returned to the City to poor reviews of the Castelli exhibition. “You finally get accepted by doing certain kinds of work,” Langlais spouted, “people expect you to keep right on doing it. But you can’t. You have to take up the next thing and go on. This is how you grow.”
In 1966, Langlais moved permanently to Cushing. His hair grew long and wild, and he worked furiously in his barn studio, producing a fantastic menagerie of exotic creatures and barnyard friends, reverently carved, whittled, and painted. He populated the fields around his house with circus elephants and acrobatic dogs, dancing bears, grazing cattle, whimsically embellished horses, and myriad species from the Amazon jungle and the African savannah.
Auk exemplifies Langlais’s interest in symbolically depicting his animal subjects through the basic shapes and structures of woodworking. He conjured up the great auk, a flightless piscivore extinct in the mid-19th century but preserved in memory through legends of its enigmatic, witchlike appearance. The paunch of Langlais’s Auk, constructed of laminated sculpted wood and sloshed with bright white paint, appears angular from the front, while a side view reveals a charming rotundity. Rutty, crosshatched saw kerfs suggest the bird’s thick black feathers and webbed feet. Yet this woodworker’s manifest markings give way to a beguiling anthropomorphism. With its burlesque eyes and exaggerated razorlike bill, this auk seems drawn from a fable, a story in which animals are the teachers of valuable lessons.

Hannah Blunt