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Drawing for "Study in Form (Forms in Space)"

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Drawing for "Study in Form (Forms in Space)"

Artist: John Storrs (American, 1885 - 1956)

Date: 1923
Medium: Ink and graphite on pale cream-colored, thin wove paper
Overall: 10 1/4 × 8 1/4in. (26 × 21cm)
Inscribed: Recto, lower right (graphite): "20-12-23"; lower right (graphite): "IV"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 90.26
Text Entries

Chicago-born Storrs divided much of his adult life between the United States and France, but the architectural milieu of his hometown had an abiding impact on his work.(1) He firmly believed that verticality symbolized spirituality, while the horizontal expressed the “brutal”;(2) the skyscraper motif would become one of his most original contributions to abstract art in the 1920s.

Storrs created his first non-objective sculptures in about 1917 and had his first solo exhibition in New York in 1920. By 1923 he exhibited at the Société Anonyme. His association with Picabia, Duchamp, and others only bolstered Storrs’s own interest in the machine as inspiration for avant-garde art. In his 1922 Little Review article “Museums of Artists,” Storrs wrote, “Let the artists create for your public buildings and homes forms that will express that strength and will to power, that poise and simplicity that one begins to see in some of America’s factories, rolling-mills, elevators and bridges.”(3) The emphasis on the machine reflects Futurism’s impact on Storrs’s mature style, which was a synthesis of many modernist idioms.(4) Like his friend Marsden Hartley, Storrs also incorporated “primitive” motifs from Native American culture; the zigzag pattern in much of his work from this period is an adaptation of this influence.

The simplicity of design that Storrs admired in the machine esthetic is readily evident in the MWPI drawing. He carefully composed a balance of bold black and white interrelating planes into which he added, and then echoed, a zigzag.(5) The drawing suggests an object rendered illusionistically in three dimensions. It was made during an interesting period of architectural subjects in Storrs’s sculpture oeuvre and is, in fact, directly related to two objects of the same subject—a wooden version (1923, Richard York Gallery, New York; formerly in the collection of Edith Halpert) and a bronze (1924, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden).(6) The drawing and sculptures are very close in composition, though not identical. The drawing is somewhat simplified in its reduction of faceted planes in both the vertical and slanted components. Moreover, the vertical elements are attenuated in the sculptures. For all its suggestion of three-dimensionality, however, the MWPI drawing also flattens out into a series of decorative patterns. It is appropriate that the drawing emphasize its two- dimensionality, because the sculptures themselves are only slightly more than two inches in depth. Although they are freestanding, they are frontally oriented as if they were in high relief.(7)

In 1923, when Storrs first saw Joseph Stella’s five-panel series The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted (1920-22, Newark Museum), he was profoundly inspired by it. By 1924, he began using “modern” metals to fabricate stream-lined, abstracted skyscrapers that were often physically small but grand in scale.(8) The Institute’s own Study in Pure Form (Forms in Space No. 4) is an eminent example.(9)


1. See Frackman, John Storrs, 58, and Ann Rosenthal, “John Storrs, Eclectic Modernist,” in John Storrs and John Flannagan: Sculpture and Works on Paper (Wifliamstown, Mass.: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1980), 16.

2. Frackman, John Storrs, 70; see also 58-63, where Frackman has made a cogent argument for Wrightian influence in certain details of Storrs’s style, but Wright’s horizontal, prairie-inspired orientation would be antithetical to a skyscraper sensibility

3. As quoted in Jeffrey Wechsler, “Machine Aesthetics and Art Déco,” in Joan M. Marter, Roberta K. Tarbell, and Jeffrey Wechsler, Vanguard American Sculpture 1913- 1939 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Art Gallery, 1979), 95. In a 1917 statement, Storrs wrote,“Simplification means light so that the surface is less broken up"; quoted in Judith Russi Kirshner, John Storrs (1885-1956): A Retrospective Exhibition of Sculpture (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1976), 6.

4. Robert K. Tarbell, “Figurative Interpretations of Vanguard Concepts,” in Marter, Tarbell, and Wechsler, Vanguard American Sculpture 1913-1939, 34, described Storrs’s brand of Cubism as “more surface mannerism than a scientfic or morphological quest.” Robert Pincus-Witten, “John Storrs,” Artforum 9 (February 1971): 76, has likened Storrs’s work to that of Eric Gill in its “spare, decorative style.”

5. Frackman, John Storrs, 62, noted that the play of negative and positive space created by the zigzag is a Wrightian concept.

6. Reproduced in An American Gallery VII (New York: Richard York Gallery, 1992), no. 26, and Marter, Tarbell, and Wechsler, Vanguard American Sculpture 1913-1939, 96, respectively. Because the drawing is so precise, Paul D. Schweizer to Eric Widing of the Richard York Gallery, December 31, 1992, questioned whether it had been made after the wooden sculpture. The 20-12-23 inscription on the drawing would support that suggestion.

7. Wechsler, in Marter, Tarbell, and Wechsler, Vanguard American Sculpture 1913-1939, 96, noted the Hirshhorn sculpture “seems to be a fragment of architectural ornamentation that has been pried off a building.” From about 1917, when Storrs made his first abstract sculptures, he played with the tension between two and three dimensions in one object; see, for example, Stone Panel with Black Marble Inlay (c. 1917-20, MoMA) or Panel with Mirror Insets (c. 1920, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute).

8. See Frackman, John Storrs, especially 48-75, and Paul D. Schweizer, “Skyscraper Sculpture: John Storrs Acquired by the Museum," Bulletin, Munson-Williams- Proctor Institute (November 1983):

9. Reproduced in Frackman, John Storrs, 63, fig. 69.