When former Art History professor Alfred Krakusin was introduced to Herbert Mayer in the 1950s, the stage was set for the development of a business venture that would come to be known as Sculptura, Inc. Mayer originally appointed Krakusin as the first director of his World House Galleries in New York City, and Krakusin aided Mayer on buying trips throughout Europe. Krakusin had developed a metal casting process which allowed metal to be cast in thin, light layers, and had even sold the rights to the process to the United States government during the Second World War in aid of the war effort. Mayer learned of this and quickly translated the casting process into an opportunity for the art world. Beginning in an age when primitivism and modern art were of high interest, Sculptura was initially very successful. However, there was not enough continued enthusiasm for the project, and by 1964 production by Sculptura, Inc. had ended.
Sculptura’s production process took place in what used to be the Hamilton Railroad Depot, a building that is now home to Ray’s Wayside, a furniture store located at 44 Milford Street. An archived interview with Bruce Powrie, a former employee of Sculptura, outlined the process that began with plaster casts acquired by Mayer. A negative cast would be made from the original positive cast to check that the reproduction would not have any holes or scratches where the original artwork, or potentially damaged plaster cast, did. This restoration part of the process involved Lee Brown Coye, a local but highly recognized artist who worked in many media including sculpture and silver, and who was an important artistic contributor in the Sculptura process. With Coye overseeing production, the workers would coat the repaired negative with shellac and let it dry, after which a brush was used to apply carbon tetrachloride and beeswax as a hot solution to the cast. This was part of the lost-wax process, where the wax creates a layer of vapor between the old cast and the new cast so that the two could be easily separated afterward. With the new positive cast, a final check would be made for flaws and damaged surfaces and only certain segments of the larger original composition would be chosen by Krakusin for reproductions, seen in the example of Amenmes and Depit, Wife of Amenmes discussed below. A perfect negative cast was made by forming a clay mold from the positive cast. The cast would then be set in a steel frame and run through a spray booth where bronze wire was melted and sprayed onto the mold; zinc was later sprayed on for reinforcement. This portion of the procedure was entirely automatic, a mechanized process built by Cash Glinecki. After the positive image had fully cooled, Krakusin or Jack Blanchard, a student at the time, would apply a patina finish which they had developed for this process. The final piece would be buffed and polished, then transported to World House Galleries to be sold by Mayer. The entire production process could take anywhere from four days to a week.
It is noteworthy that once the final negative mold was made, the pieces could be quickly reproduced, and Bruce Powrie recalled that in its lifetime, Sculptura produced over a hundred sculptures and bas relief panels, many of which were produced more than once. Therefore, the process could sometimes resemble an assembly line of mass produced artworks rather than the individual and unique creation of a single artwork.
Sculptura reproduced a variety of artworks whose origins included Nigeria, Assyria, Babylon, Palestine, Cambodia, and Egypt. Some pieces were also made by Sculptura upon special request, such as a medallion with the likeness of President Kennedy commissioned by the United States Navy after his assassination. However, these special requests were very uncommon. The reproductions ranged in size from 12 by 24 inches to 10 by 12 feet, recalls Roger Krakusin, the son of Professor Alfred Krakusin. I attempted to track down as many of the original works upon which the pieces in the 1961 Scultpura catalog were based. Due, however, to the obscure nature of many of the pieces, none of the original artworks could be identified except for Amenmes and Depit, Wife of Amenmes. Interestingly, these two pieces originally came from the same composition, entitled Amenmose and Depet, a limestone bas relief panel known to be in the collection of the Louvre’s Department of Egyptian Antiquities. It is uncertain how Mayer would have been able to obtain plaster casts of these pieces from such a high status museum, let alone the legal right to sell reproductions.
The history of Mayer’s Sculptura venture raises interesting questions regarding our reliefs. It seems that Sculptura repeatedly placed a higher value on aesthetics than on historical accuracy, as they repaired flaws in the original casts and divided single pieces into smaller, more visually pleasing compositions. Such unconcern for the physical integrity of the ancient works perhaps has a connection to a feature observed in many of his late antique Egyptian reliefs. As pointed out in a number of the catalogue entries here (e.g. 1966.1.882, 1982.47, 1928.58, and 1982.64), several of the Picker’s reliefs appear to have been deliberately extracted from larger compositions in strategic ways, so as to form coherent, balanced and aesthetically-pleasing compositions in their own right.
One also wonders whether or not our reliefs were bought for the purpose of reproduction within Sculptura, Inc. The Sculptura, Inc. catalog notes that reproductions were made from originals that could be found in either “Scultpura’s private collection” or “in the great museums of the world.” It is unknown, however, whether “Sculptura’s private collection” is actually Mayer’s private collection or whether this refers to something else. Our reliefs are Egyptian, as are the majority of pieces reproduced by Sculptura. The pieces reproduced by Sculptura, however, were primarily Pharaonic scenes that date to the 15th and 14th Centuries BC. Our reliefs are probably Late Antique, placing their origin almost 2,000 years after the Pharaonic pieces. In addition, Sculptura was reproducing very shallow bas relief castings, whereas our pieces are carved in much deeper bas relief that would have made them difficult to cast. It thus seems unlikely that our reliefs were purchased with the intention of being reproduced by Sculptura.
Ashlee Eve, Class of 2014, is an Art History major and a Psychology minor.