Duane Hanson

The American sculptor Duane Hanson (1925-1996) was one of the leading sculptors working in a superrealist, or Verist, style. His work is highly illusionistic, but also has a social content. While his early works dealt with physical violence or social issues, his later work seems to portray passive, isolated figures as victims of society and negative values.

Duane Hanson was born January 17, 1925, in Alexandria, Minnesota. After attendance at Luther College and the University of Washington, he graduated from Macalaster College in 1946. Following a period teaching high school art, he received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Cranbrook Academy in 1951.

Around 1966 Hanson began making figural casts using fiberglass and vinyl. Works that first brought him notice were of figures grouped in tableaux, usually of brutal and violent subjects, somewhat similar to the work of Edward Keinholz. Hanson's Abortion (1966) was inspired by the horrors of a backroom procedure; Accident (1967) showed a motorcycle crash; and Race Riot (1969-1971) included among its seven figures a white policeman terrorizing a African American man as well as a African American rioter attacking the policeman. Other works which dealt with physical violence or other explosive social issues of the 1960s were Riot (1967), Football Players (1969), and Vietnam Scene (1969). These works, cast from actual people, were made of fiberglass reinforced with fiber resin, then painted to make the revealed skin look realistic with veins and blemishes. Hanson then clothed the figures with garments from second-hand clothing stores and then theatrically arranged the action. Clearly these works contained strong social comment and can be seen as modern parallels to the concerns of 19th-century French Realists such as Honore Daumier and Jean Francois Millet, artists Hanson admired.

Around 1970 Hanson abandoned such gut-wrenching subjects for more subtle though no less vivid ones. In that year he made the Supermarket Shopper, Hardhat, and Tourists; Woman Eating was completed in 1971. These were also life-sized, clothed, fiberglass figures. Unlike the earlier works, however, these were single or paired figures, not overtly in a violent activity. Furthermore, whereas the earlier works tended to be more contained spatially, the later figures had no boundaries from the viewer. They quite literally inhabited the viewer's space—with amusing results at times, as in the cases of Reading Man (1977) or the Photographer (1978). Although detractors may liken his work to figures in a wax museum, the content of his sculptures is more complex and expressive than that normally found in waxworks.

The momentary confusion that Hanson's sculptures were real people sometimes shocked the viewer and put too much attention on the technique, although Hanson argued that the technique was a means to an end. That end is an intense look at less exalted aspects of the world around the viewer. Couple with Shopping Bags (1976) shows two over-weight people, wearing mismatched polyester clothes, carrying full bags. The woman's hairdo is complicated and her nails are painted. These certainly are not "beautiful" human figures in the traditional artistic sense, but they are without question typical of how many "average" middle-or lower-class Americans looked in the 1970s. Although for most sophisticated art viewers a work such as Couple with Shopping Bags has a pointed humor to it, poking fun at the poor taste so many Americans show in their dress and grooming, these works also have a more somber quality. The particularities make the figures vivid archetypes of American consumers and remind viewers that all people possess some unusual characteristics.

Individual works are made even more realistic because of the eccentricities Hanson chose to show, and his output may be seen as paying homage to common humanity. Queenie (1980) shows a dignified African American cleaning lady pushing a cart filled with mops, buckets, and cleaning compounds. Hanson, as is typical, searched for the right model, so that the figure is both distinctive but "average." This work, Hardhat (1971), and Delivery Man (1980) are especially good examples of Hanson's sympathy with workers, whose loss of independence to societal and governmental pressures is captured in their faces, postures, and clothing. Other examples of Hanson's work include The Jogger (1983-84), Camper (1987), and Salesman (1992).

Like his contemporary John de Andrea, Hanson's work is highly illusionistic, in the tradition of trompe d'oeil painting and sculpture. However, unlike Andrea, who stressed pose and attitude in his real-looking nude figures, or George Segal, who relied on surface expressiveness in his cast figures, Hanson placed much emphasis on paraphernalia and clothing and on body types. His work of the 1960s clearly had a social content, and, though it is more subtle, this interest in content continued in the work of the 1970s and 1980s. American greed, materialism, tastelessness, and narrow-mindedness seem to be a part of the later work. The characters within the art are passive, isolated beings, presented as victims of American society and negative values as much as the cause of them. In the 1990s Hanson created figures that challenged people's ideas about prejudice and social class.

Hanson experienced both criticism and praise during his lifetime. In addition to receiving numerous awards, Duane Hanson was honored with the proclamation of Duane Hanson day, by Broward County Florida in 1987, and in 1992 he was inducted into the Florida Hall of Fame.

Encountering a Hanson piece in a museum can be a shock because of the high degree of illusionism. That shock is in part due to the artist's impressive technique, but is also based on the recognition that the figure accurately mirrors us and the society of which we are a part. It reflects and informs. As Hanson once said, "Realism is best suited to convey the frightening idiosyncrasies of our time" (Art News, March 1996).

Hanson was 70 when he died in Boca Raton, Florida, on January 6, 1996, of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.


Further Reading on Duane Hanson

Monographs on Duane Hanson include M. H. Bush, Duane Hanson (1976); and K. Varnadoe, Duane Hanson (1985); A brief 1972 interview for Art in America is reprinted in E. H. Johnson, editor, American Artists on Art from 1940 to 1980 (1982); An excellent essay is J. Masheck, "Verist Sculpture: Hanson and de Andrea, " reprinted in G. Battcock, editor, Super Realism (1975); Another study of super realism is F. H. Goodyear, Contemporary American Realism Since 1960 (1981); For an excellent broader discussion of various art movements, including super realism, see C. Robins, The Pluralist Era (1984); Other more general studies of this period are S. Hunter and J. Jacobus, Modern Art (1985); E. Lucie-Smith, Art in the Seventies (1980); and E. Lucie-Smith, Movements in Art Since 1945 (1985). See also Art in America (January 1993); Art News (March 1996); and Who's Who in America (1996); Two more books about Hanson are Robert Carleson Hobbs, Duane Hanson: The New Objectivity (1991); and Kirk Varnedoe, Duane Hanson (1985).