Albert Terris, born in 1916, was raised in the soil of the Amalgamated Housing Project, Bronx, New York. Here was a crucible of art, music, writing, social reforming ideas and, in general, an intellectualism, that became the grammar of contemporary thought. As a teenager, Terris came under the sway of the poet Rabelais Schware whose sense of mysticism and magic profoundly impacted on his perception of the world. Also there was the sculptor Aaron Goodelman; he was this stevedore-esque stone carver of cubist type figures. Under his tutelage, Terris excelled to such a degree that a fable emerged predicting that Terris would carve all the stones in Van Cortlandt Park. In 1932, while carving wood with Nelson, Terris met Van Cena, a romanesque styled wood carver. Van Cena had been a friend of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh; this connection to history and the traces of time branded Terris in a remarkable way as his work would always address the past, present and future. During the Second World War, Albert Terris served in Europe as a photographer; he often discussed with me those sobering experiences which taught him both the banality and sublimity of life and living. Upon his return home, Terris' career as a sculptor began; at first he modeled clay pieces. They were heads and also figures; sculptures of crowds and processional groups were among his interests. Soon after this, Terris became a welder of steel sculptures.
Very much a part of the Amalgamated Housing Project experience was the metaphor of music. Albert's brother Leopold was a student of Casals, and his sister Sarah had studied with Boulanger; Albert was a capable violinist; it was, however, what music meant and how it felt that found its way into his sculpture. He would often speak of form as the presence of musical experience. The rising and building up of notes as in Mozart's Exsultate Jubilate can be seen in many of the
"Anti- Gravity" works.
His early pieces in direct metal were not of the hairy-chested types one found first with David Smith, and then later with the fork lift driving imagos of Mark Di Suvero and Richard Serra. Terris was the master of the thin and the fragile. What was sustained were spider's legs, the stems of flowers and the sensitivity of Queen Anne's Lace. Standing before these pieces, one holds one's breath for fear that its velocity will undo them; the Giraffes and Nature Machine sculptures are fine examples of such delicacy. As Terris existentially posed, "how thin can matter get, what's the matter?" ; we have both the search for sublimeness through design and also the nagging inquiries into the questions of survival of life itself. For Terris, power comes not from the muscularity of form but from its grace and fondness. The stimulus was always from the knowingness of nature; in that way, while Terris is a modern man, his heart and at least one leg still reside in the nineteenth century. That, I believe, set him apart from his contemporaries and attracted the attention of the critic, Sidney Geist, who wrote that "Albert Terris is the subtlest of our welders." This group included Lassaw, Lipton, Ferber, the Smiths, Hare, Roszak, Lippold, Zogbaum, and others.
Terris always claimed to be the inventor of crushed sculpture (before Chamberlain). Hammered works whose inspiration came from crushed paper and the roadkill of industrial objects, such as beer cans and other metal objects.
Albert Terris is among the earliest, if not the first, to use words as the fundamental structure of a sculptural work. He wrote, "In the beginning there was the word," and he used words and or letters in both comprehensible (textual) and non comprehensible (abstract) manners. Works as No Yeah, Fear and Fifty Years demonstrate this thinking. He precedes graffiti art; that is, art that uses letters and words as part of visual communication; and with Such a Big Prick and Pussy Cunt, Terris anticipated Hip Hop whose vulgarity attempts to maximize the amperage of communication.
Gravity is a phenomena which occupied Terris' thinking and feeling for decades. The "Pro-Gravity" concept led to an extraordinary series of pieces such as Chains, Dumps and Stacks. Professor Terris' "Anti-Gravity" works include Nature Machine pieces which were exquisite and often delicate works based on privet hedge and other organic formations. His "Fire Harps" used flame, which is the perfect anti-gravitational and ascendant form.
In a career that has spanned more than 60 years, Terris has had many original ideas which are revealed in: "Tools", "Cosmologies", "Wands and Batons", "Giraffes", "Word Sculptures", ascending and descending form, objects with non-fixed relationships and many, many others.
How is it that Albert Terris' name has eluded the common history? How do we understand fame? What makes a person a famous artist? It's a complicated matter, however, generally two basic phenomena usually prevail. One, the artist and his work are promoted during his lifetime; and, second, the artist has "children" or "artistic progeny" that carry on the torch of style and manner as did Rodin's, Matisse's, Brahms', Hemingway's, and David Smith's students and followers. Terris, for variously complex reasons, avoided the promotion and sale of his work. He told me that after a well received show at the Duveen-Graham Gallery, he was asked to make more of one particular type of piece; there was a great deal of interest and many would be sold. Terris' impulse and romanticism, however, carried him away from commerce to other new and adventurous ideas. The business of art was not attractive to Albert Terris, and his reclusiveness from such practical matters has reduced his fame and notoriety. Additionally, Terris has had few sculpture progeny; far too few to seed the pages of history. For these reasons, the name of Albert Terris is known to only a few. This show at Queensborough Community College allows Albert Terris to take his just place among the famed masters of post World War II sculpture.
The vast originality and beauty of his work, like the effervescence in champagne, will rise up and tantalize the senses of those who will indulge. As with once buried treasure, gems have been found.