Elizabeth Doering

Elizabeth Doering

I’m trying to put myself back into the mental place I inhabited when I made the sculpture, “the portrait,” as I called it then, of Anne d’Harnoncourt. It was the early nineties; I was studying figure sculpture under the late Walter Erlebacher at the University of the Arts, and just beginning to know the ways of the city. I am happy thinking about this time. The art world as I remember it had not yet been thinned out by AIDS, and there seemed to be a vulnerable establishment to push against. There was something to be proved by being an artist. I am surely not living in that time anymore, and I think that’s why my tears surprised me when a friend wrote me that Anne d’Harnoncourt had died.

Sometimes, in sculpture class, Walter would notice a characteristic skeletal feature of a nude model, and say something like, “That is an anomaly. It can be fixed with surgery, but…” This line had us all seeking specific personal anatomies on the streets, at home, all the time. I wanted to notice those physical, personal traits that make people cherish and fall in love with others. I thought a lot about proportion and scale and their visual relationship to character.

Of course I observed Anne d’Harnoncourt, and I could, because for a while in art school I served as personal assistant to the Executive Director of the William Penn Foundation, with whom she sometimes met. I saw Mrs. d’Harnoncourt’s proportions, and as a young artist I sensed her scale, her grace. I noticed the way she put her soft hair up, and how she might push it aside. Robert Montgomery Scott, who then served as President of the museum, used to be quite visible then also. They represented what I would have called “The Establishment,” and as a result I associated her with the decency that I perceived to be the property of well-bred, well-educated people in important institutions. That perception, however, was countered by my youthful desire to play against “The Establishment,” and perhaps to play with it, and near it.

My studio was at the corner of 21st and Walnut, in a one-room apartment with a claw-foot bathtub, a secret staircase, and brawny roaches. I used all the floor space for work, sleeping in a loft. While studying anatomy in clay, I worked through the nights, propagating my own series of anatomically specific life-sized sculptures from found linear materials. The tidiest one I did in that series was made from new copper tubing joined with silver soldering. The tubing could only bend so much before it crimped, so the size of the figure necessarily became slightly larger than myself, and I began referring back to my day-job’s mental notes on Anne d’Harnoncourt. The figure stands in slight contra posto, one hand on the stand-leg’s hip, and the other arm raised, hand behind the neck as if pushing the fine hairs up with a forward gaze; elbow out, opening the ribcage out, and the pelvis as well. The hair is implicitly up in a knot. The pink copper loops playfully like a quick single-line drawing. It is a happy sculpture.

The piece was exhibited in the early 1990s, both at the University of the Arts and at a gallery in Philadelphia, but I gave it a cryptic name so that only insiders would know that it was really “A Portrait of Anne d’Harnoncourt.” All the years that passed I never told her, even when I worked at the Museum, even when I stood in line with her at my local gourmet take-out. I never told her. I gradually became concerned about how she would understand it.

No vital place stays the same over a score of years, and so before the city could knock down my then-studio for a new Convention Center, I thought it was time for me to leave. By contrast, sculptures usually stay. After seventeen years of snow and sun the copper has turned chocolate brown and green but the Portrait of A. d’ stands in the dappled light of the leafy backyard in Wayne where I grew up.

The truly challenging component of the work would have been the performance of telling Mrs. d’Harnoncourt. That I could never actually play it out, never tell her, meant that by the time I knew what I was doing in sculpture I had a different relationship to “The Establishment.” I may have been afraid that she would not remember me the next time I saw her; that she would not, given the chance, recognize me, even though I’d studied her.

Today, sitting in this stark Eastern Mediterranean light of my home in Cyprus – light that would cast linear shadows right through that “portrait” – I wish I had just really laughed with her about it, just once.
Published 6/2008

In memory of Anne d’Harnoncourt 1943-2008