Joseph Havel, American, born 1954
Two bronze reliefs, each: 120 × 116 × 14 1/4 in. (304.8 × 294.6 × 36.2 cm)
Museum commission, funded by Ethel G. Carruth in memory of Allen H. Carruth
Habits of Mind
- DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Born in 1954 in Minnesota, Joseph Havel received a degree in fine arts from the University of Minnesota, and a master’s degree in ceramics from Pennsylvania State University. In 1979, Havel joined the faculty of Austin College in Sherman, Texas, where he began producing works combining sculpted pieces and found objects, such as tools, furniture, and kitchen implements. He first began to bronze-cast his sculptures in 1986.
Havel moved to Houston to become associate director of the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1991, becoming director in 1996. In his work of the 1990s, he increasingly focused on urban and industrial subjects and producing large scale bronzes using a range of materials, from ship channel rope to Japanese paper lanterns. Today, Havel continues to work in bronze, but he has turned his attention to fabrics as well, using curtain, shirts, and clothing labels as his points of departure.
Havel is known for sculptures that transform ordinary objects into poetic, flowing compositions. This example, Curtain, is a bronze relief that was commissioned in 1998 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to frame the entrance to the newly constructed Audrey Jones Beck Building. In keeping with his tradition of utilizing commonplace objects as catalysts for his works of art, Havel selected muslin fabric to transform into two large, draping bronze panels—each weighing 900 pounds— to flank the building’s doors.
Curtain seems to cascade from the top of the building’s entrance, defying gravity as the panels stop a tense inch above the pavement. The fluidity with which Curtain falls and its ashen, pale green color give the bronze relief the appearance of actual aged cloth. Its deep folds and creased, imperfect surfaces also make these panels appear to be real drapes. Details such as raveled threads and worn edges are critical elements to the finished work, with the texture of the original muslin fabric still visible.
Though Curtain is monumental in size and evokes a sense of ceremony to the entrance of a grand space, the two panels have an unimposing appearance. The pallid hue of the bronze blends with the soft-tone gray stone of the museum building, while the familiar intimacy of domestic drapery quietly connects with the visitor.
A laborious process called lost-wax or direct casting is required for bronze-casting a work of this size. Several assistants skilled in bronze-casting help Havel manufacture his pieces. For this sculpture, created in a studio workroom in which humidity and temperature are controlled, Havel coated muslin fabric with wax and shaped into luxurious folds. The wax-stiffened draperies were then cut into pieces and covered in silica or plaster to make a mold. Curtain required 177 molds, followed by 177 separate castings.
When the molds are heated, the wax-saturated fabric burns out, giving the process the name “lost-wax casting.” Liquid bronze heated to approximately 2,200 degrees is poured into the mold to replace the space the wax-coated fabric occupied. After the bronze cools, the molds are removed from the cast segments. For Curtain, the bronze pieces were welded back together and buffed to remove evidence of seams. Havel gave the bronze a patina, a discoloration caused by a thin layer of corrosion, by acid-finishing the surface to an aged, whitish color.
- Look at the curtains and figure out their materials. Make a list of words that could describe them, and then a list of materials that could fit those words. Compare with other members of your group. Do you agree?
- Are these curtains half empty or half closed? Why do you think so?
- How do these curtains interact with the entryway of the building? Picture people walking through the doors and about the covered plaza. What is their relationship to the curtains?
- Where else do you typically see curtains? What symbolism do they hold? What do you think Havel was trying to say by placing them here?
- These curtains were designed specially for this entryway, and are permanent and immobile. Is that typical for curtains? Why do you think Havel made them that way?
- Though these curtains look soft and draping, and have a woven texture, they are in fact cast bronze. Are there any visual clues to that fact? What associations do you have with bronze? Think of other artworks made and bronze. What mood to they have, what do they evoke?
- Do you think you would have noticed these curtains if you were entering the museum?
- Picture these curtains somewhere else, and imagine how that would change their effect. Why do you think Havel wanted them to be attached to the Museum?
• Coat sections of muslin fabric in plaster of Paris. Mold the fabric into a shape of your choosing. Notice how the plaster stiffens the fabric so you can create different forms. Each student’s section of plastered fabric could be combined to make a large, class sculpture.
• Think of an everyday item in your house that you use or see daily—such as a clock, spoon, teapot, or pillow. What metaphors can you associate with it? Write a poem, or list similes and metaphors, about everyday items. For example: My mother was a nervous teapot beginning to boil.
• Design a sculpture that you might put in a doorway or a window’s recessed space. What would be the dimensions of your sculpture? Measure height, width, and depth. Calculate the volume and weight of your sculpture based on estimations of the mass of materials you would use. Draw a diagram showing how many pieces you would have to cut your sculpture into if you were to cast it in bronze.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.