Born 1887, Eurburg, Lithuania
Died 1966, Bath, Maine
William Zorach emigrated from Lithuania in 1891 and studied painting in Cleveland, Ohio, while training in lithography. He moved to New York in 1907 to study painting at the National Academy of Design, going on to exhibit at the Armory Show of 1913, then at the Whitney Studio Club and the Society of Independent Artists. Without any training, Zorach began carving wood in 1917 and definitively gave up painting by 1922. With his 1929 appointment as an instructor at the Art Students League, he became a prominent advocate of “direct carving.” This technique found a special resonance at the Downtown Gallery, where Zorach’s longtime gallerist, Edith Halpert, promoted vernacular art to collectors and artists alike.
Zorach’s early wood sculptures, carved with a jackknife, drew on the aesthetics of cubism as well as such folk objects as ships’ figureheads. In contrast to the academic practice of making a clay model to be executed in another medium, often scaled up, direct carving foregrounded the qualities and resistances of particular materials, from the radical simplifications demanded by the hardness of granite to the open compositions permitted by the softness of marble. Beginning with Brancusi’s pioneering example, this approach was closely associated with primitivism. Like so-called primitive art, direct carving was positioned as closer to the source of human creativity: Zorach greatly admired African sculpture for what he perceived as its potent spirituality. He was also interested in archaic Greek and Egyptian aesthetics and made works similarly characterized by solidity, radical simplification, and monumentality. Guided by his chosen materials, Zorach realized animals, fragmented torsos, and heads as compact, central masses or fused together interlocking figures such as families or lovers. His style could range from naturalism and neoclassical refinement to archaic simplification and exaggeration.
Head of a Prophet is one of many heads that Zorach carved. With its solemn and stately mien, rendered in the weighty permanence of black granite, the work transcends its religious theme, yoking spiritual timelessness to more secular associations. The hieratic visage shares heavily lidded eyes and sharp textural contrasts with the limestone depiction of celebrated abolitionist John Brown by Harlem Renaissance sculptor Henry Bannarn. Zorach’s severe stylization also presages that explored in paintings by Marsden Hartley, such as his portrait of Abraham Lincoln, The Great Good Man.
Baur, John I. H. William Zorach. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, with Praeger, 1959.