March 12, 1999

Donal Hord: Transcending the Solid Exhibition Catalogue

By William H. Gerdts

Donal Hord was one of America's eminent sculptors over a period of about forty years, but since his death in 1966, he has seldom figured in accounts of the nation's sculptural development, outside of those published in his adopted state of California. This lack of national recognition was not true when the artist was at the height of his career; indeed, he figured as one of the eighteen artists selected by Dorothy C. Miller for the exhibition, American 1942, held at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where Ms. Miller was curator; five stone carvings were included in that display.

'Young Bather" by Donal Hord

Hord received international recognition when his bronze Angel of Peace, a commission he received in 1956, was installed four years later above the graves in the American Battle Cemetery in Belgium, commemorating those soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

Since then, however, those art historical surveys of America's twentieth century sculpture emanating from the East have tended to overlook Hord and, indeed, his California colleagues, almost completely.

Roberta Tarbell was the first mainstream art historian who placed Hord correctly, not only as a major exponent of the Direct Carving phenomenon, but also by acknowledging the California component of this movement, beginning with the efforts of Ralph Stackpole at the San Francisco Art Institute. She noted, too, the specific impact of Aztec sculpture on Stackpole's art during his 1926-1927 travels through Mexico, and, in turn, Stackpole's importance for the sculptural preferences both in methodology and materials, of the California sculptors, Beniamino Bufano, Gordon Newell, Robert Howard, Jacques Schnier, Peter Krasnow, and Hord.

In California, Hord has been long recognized as one of the state's preeminent sculptors, going back as far as the important show of Contemporary American Sculpture held in 1929 in San Francisco at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, where the bronze head of El Cacique, a Mayan chieftain, borrowed from the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, was on view.

Hord's involvement with Direct Carving in especially resistant materials became the central theme of many subsequent discussion, involving not only obsidian, but also such stories as jade, onyx, porphyry, basalt, granite, and especially diorite, and rosewood, mahogany, and lignum vitae in wood. On his election to the National Academy, Hord listed his Guardian of the Waters fountain for the Civic Center in San Diego, and his Aztec, at San Diego State College, both in diorite, as two of his three most important works.

Hord's greatest recognition has come, naturally enough, from his adopted home city of San Diego, where he is not only well represented both in public monuments and in various public collections, but also was a founding member in 1929 of the group of Contemporary Artists of San Diego which held annual exhibitions through 1936; he and James Tank Porter were the two sculptors in the association. Two years earlier, in a September, 1927, article in San Diego Magazine, Lyman Bryson noted Hord as a sculptor who "will help make the reputation of Southern California," and in the Fall of 1941 of Spanish Village Art Quarterly, Hord himself published his thoughts and methodology on "Hard Stone." A decade after Hord's death, the California First Bank in La Jolla published a well-illustrated catalogue of Hord's death, the California First Bank in La Jolla published a well-illustrated catalogue of Hord's sculpture, with reminiscences by Hord's stonecutter-assistant, Homer Dana. In the following decade, Bruce Kamerling, the curator of the San Diego Historical Society, became the keeper of the flame beginning in the Summer of 1985, with the single most significant article on Hord published to date. This appeared in the Society's Journal of San Diego History, which included dozens of illustrations of Hord's sculpture, a "Chronology," and a full listing of the artist's projects. Kamerling followed this up with his inclusion of Hord in his study of "Early Sculpture and Sculptors in San Diego" in the Journal in the Summer of 1989, and two years later in his catalogue of selection from the Society's collection in 100 Years of Art in San Diego.

Bram Dijkstra also discussed Hord's sculpture in the 1988 publication, San Diego Artists. Though voicing some reservations concerning some of Hord's pieces, Dijkstra held that "The emotional universality, and the psychological tension embedded in these works make them as good as anything ever done by an American sculptor." The time is past due for this to be acknowledged beyond the regional confines of San Diego and California, for Hord was, indeed, a great American artist, as the present exhibition fully establishes.

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