1 Sculpture in Collection
(1909-1997) United States
Works in Public Collections
Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, CO; Butler Art Institute, Youngstown, OH; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Retrospective, Riverside Museum, NY, 1961 (Merged in 1971 with Brandeis University and the Rose Art Museum, Waltham, MA)
Contemporary Sculpture and Drawings, Annual Exhibition, Whitney Museum NY, 1961, 1956, 1954, 1953 and 1941.
The Unknown Political Prisoner, International Sculpture competition, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1953
Rhys Caparn: The Eloquence of Form, by Robin Longman, American Artist, 8/1/1981, Volume 45, Issue 469.
Rhys Caparn, by Robert Beverly Hale, Retrospective Press, Danbury, CT, 1972
Born 1909 Onteora Park, New York
Died 1997 Danbury, CT
Rhys Caparn is an American sculptor recognized for her animal and landscape subjects. Figurative forms are reduced to spare, curvilinear abstractions that contain both movement and an emotional resonance. Caparn worked on an intimate scale and made both free standing and relief pieces.
Caparn’s father was an Englishman who was trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1898 and worked as a landscape architect executing major projects including the design for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and the steps at the Bronx Zoo. He Instilled in his children a love of nature and an appreciation for designed space. Caparn’s mother had a successful career as a music teacher. The family lived on five acres in the Catskills resort town of Onteora Park.
In 1926, during Rhys senior year in high school, her mother took her to the Louvre where Rhys saw an ancient Greek sculpture that had a distinct effect on her. When Rhys went Bryn Mawr College that piece prompted her to enroll in a course on Greek art which cemented her love of sculptural form. In college Caparn began to sketch and draw from live models. After two years at Bryn Mawr she and her sister returned to Paris for a year. Rhys was determined to make sculptures and transferred to Ecole des Animaux in Paris. The small school was led by sculptor Edouard Navellier, a traditionalist and a realist, he encouraged his students to focus on anatomy, bringing live animals to the studio. Rhys commuted to Paris where she spent long hours at her study. Her life was fairly narrow and she was isolated from the avant-garde ideas that were consuming other artists in Europe at the time.
Caparn returned to New York in 1930 and continued her schooling at the Archipenko School of Art. Following a dictum of pure sculpture which sought out abstract and symbolic forms rather than realistic representation, Alexander Archipenko used a cubist approach to construction. A Russian born sculptor who came of age in Paris in the 1910s and 20s, Archipenko was Caparn’s first encounter with modernist thinking. She took to the new ideas which not only embraced abstraction but cultivated a respect for material and the need to respond to its inherent qualities. Encouraging expression in sculpture rather than imitation made sense to Caparn’s sensibility.
Caparn’s early interest in portraiture and her knowledge of anatomy combined with Archipenko’s teachings allowed her to simplify her forms but still capture an animal’s essence. Modeling in clay or plaster, Caparn made many sculptures of animals and birds, exploring different poses, showing them in motion and at rest. She made frequent trips to the Bronx Zoo to observe and sketch the animals.
Rhys Caparn’s first exhibition was at Delphic Studios in New York in 1933. She showed human and animal figures in marble, clay, and terracotta. Archipenko wrote the introduction to the catalog and the critical response was very positive. In 1935 Caparn married Herbert Johannes Steel who she met when he arrived at her studio to see a portrait of a mutual friend. Steel was a journalist, author and lecturer who was an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime. Caparn was also engaged in politics. In 1940 she helped found the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, serving as its President in 1944. In that capacity she led efforts to criticize New York museums, in particular the Museum of Modern Art, for their policies that were reactionary against American artists. That same year she had a one person exhibition at Wildenstein Gallery of her animal sculptures and drawings. Reviewing the show, a critic for the New York Times said, "The true spirit of all these animals has been caught.”
During this time Caparn began a series of what she called landscapes. They were free-standing cast, dimensional carvings of cows which she stated “are like landscape forms. They stand between the animal and the landscape.” In Animal Landscape (1947) three separate bronze forms are placed in proximity to one another. While one is identifiable as a bovine with legs and a head, the two other rounded forms could be sleeping animals or rocks. In 1948/49 Animal Form 1 presents the bovines further abstracted where forelegs and hind legs become singular triangle forms that support an oblong body. There is no distinction of head or musculature or specific anatomy articulated. Caparn described these pieces as the animal “retreating into the stone.”
Animal Form 1 was subject of some controversy in 1951 when it was included in the exhibition American Sculpture 1951 at the Metropolitan Museum which was intended to show a spectrum of work from traditional to more modern. Caparn’s piece was awarded second prize by the jury, but the conservative National Sculpture Society protested, complaining that the jurors favored a modernist style over the classically realist style. A letter called the award-winning pieces "work not only of extreme modernistic and negative tendencies but mediocre left-wing work at that." The Met stood by its decisions and issued a statement defending the neutrality of its award policies.
Caparn’s work continued to gain attention and in 1956 she began a relationship with Meltzer Gallery in New York. Her exhibitions often presented both drawings and sculpture. In a 1967 interview she said, "I've drawn all my life. You draw for a vocabulary; it feeds your eye." Of a 1959 solo exhibition New York Times critic Stuart Preston reported that Caparn’s sculpture was expressive and abstract with "acute individual characterization." Further commenting that she discarded the "trivia of realism in order to concentrate on her subject's ultimate shapes.”
Birds were an important subject matter for Caparn. She did many interpretations over three decades (1930-1960s). The bronze Terrestial Bird in the Jeri L Wolfson collection is from the early 1950s. As was true for much of her sculptural work, her lifelong practice of observation allowed her to identify and communicate the essence of a species postures. In this bronze, the curved form and negative space suggest the arch of a bird’s body rising and then bending down, its beak exploring the earth. Simple, clean and evocative, the curved form suggests both grace and rest.
During the 1950s and 60s Caparn participated in exhibitions held by the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors and the National Association of Women Artists. She did a number of works in the 1960s and 70s that were architectural in nature, exploring the relationship between walls and lintels and various house shapes.
Caparn’s husband died in 1988. Caparn was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease later in her life. She died in 1997 at the age of 87. While Caparn actively sold and exhibited her work from her early twenties through her fifties she has not been widely exhibited since the 1970s.