In 1954, Milton Hebald of New York City, a rising young American sculptor, got a commission for the Isla Verde airport in Puerto Rico. Sensibly, he decided to have it cast in Italy and went there with his wife, Cecille, to supervise the casting and to see the country. It was love at first sight.
All it takes to love Italy at first sight is the brains God gave you, but Hebald also responded to that motherland of us all with his powerful artistic sensibility. He loved Rome particularly, seeing the city as a collective work of art by some of the greatest artists and architects who ever lived. For the Rome Hebald loved, one artist emerged as of prime responsibility for so much of what there was to love: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the giant of Baroque, architect and sculptor as well as painter, decorator, dramatist, choreographer and theatrical producer, who gave us among so much else, the Piazza Navona, the Colonnade of St. Peter's and that church's astounding Baldocchino over the main altar, San Andrea al Quirinale and that supreme demonstration of sex as religious faith, the Ecstasy of St. Teresa.
Despite the difference in their ages - 319 years - Bernini became Hebald's model as an artist and Hebald became a Baroque sculptor, despite the unmistakable 20th century look to every work he has ever made. That quality was most pronounced in the sculpture he produced early in his life in Rome, with its virtuoso use of draperies over figures, of twisting tresses and twisting torsos, of intertwined limbs. But the Baroque has remained part of the essential Hebald even in such playful small pieces as Ratto d' Italia, a classical theme from mythology here applied to the rape of Italian peace and quiet by the noisy little motor scooters that proliferated in the streets during the Hebald's early years in Rome. The shorthand of the girl's drapery and her hair, the arrangement of both figures, even the "billowing" effect of the machine itself, all express the exuberance of Baroque in the supremely Baroque city. The Tempest
The art history reference of the Rape of Italy to the Rape of Europa by several artists is repeated in Hebald's Rape of the Sabines, a profoundly Roman subject, which the American sculptor here reclaims for Roman Baroque from the austere chilliness of the Frenchman, David, and his famous painting.
As a deeply literate artist and, in his work, an interpreter of myth, it was natural for Hebald to be drawn to the towering literary remaker of myth in our time and our language, James Joyce. From the Irish giant's Ulysses come four pieces in this exhibition; Calypso, the housecat to whom Leopold Bloom gives a saucer of milk and finds attractive; Sirens, not only singing their irresistible song but adding to it the promise of forbidden fruit held on high, the whole making an upward swirl perceptibly related to the upward swirl of Bernini's columns on that Baldocchino; Nausicaa, the royal laundry woman here placed in Dublin's Phoenix Park, giving Hebald the chance, rare in sculpture, to create figures in a landscape; and Penelope, Molly Bloom herself sleeping during that great final soliloquy of the book and clearly showing, in Hebald's vision, the origins of her erotic dream-recollections, as her body seems to move into and out of sleep itself, an extraordinary sculptural conception.
The Great Fortune is extraordinary, too, a Baroque homage to a non-Baroque artist, Albrecht Durer. In the posture of the body and the look of the face, Hebald has captured the basic Germanic awkwardness of Durer's figure, but surrounded it and softened it with the billowing Baroque draperies.Life Time And Fortune
The Hebalds, after tripling their original planned three weeks in Italy, got back there as soon as they could. Milton won the Prix-de-Rome, which carries with it a year's residence at the American Academy on the Janiculum and they planned to stay perhaps two years. They've been there ever since.
They get home to America with some regularity, singly or together; for one thing, their daughter, Margo, subject of Hebald sculptures from and early age, now lives and practices architecture in this country.
Frank Getlein, Art critic