John Cavanaugh is by far the 20th century's master in hammered lead. Possessing an intensity that is hard to match in the lexicon of American Artists, Cavanaugh produced close to five hundred finished pieces in the lead medium. Numerous other artists experimented and produced in "hammered", "beaten" or "pounded" lead, but none took their empiricism to the extent Cavanaugh is known to have. Saul Bazierman, Nina Winkle, Jose de Creeft, Ellie Nadleman, and Dorothea Greenbaum, among numerous others, were known to produce lead sculpture. These artists, indeed superlative in their accomplishments in hammering metals, choosing material such as copper, inspired Cavanaugh in his pursuits, but could not match him in his prolific life's body of work in the lead medium. John Cavanaugh's work in sculpture, be it ceramics, plaster, wood, wax, bronze and specifically lead, is unquestionably an inspiration to artists, and a valuable resource for art historians and collectors.
The history of lead in art begins in Greece with statues and relief sculpture. As an early cast metal, lead has been found as votive figures in Sparta in the 6th Century B.C. It was also a significant medium during the 12th century, in English and French Romanesque art and architecture. Considered through the centuries as a non-pretentious medium, able to handle the elements of weather without damage, lead sculpture most recently reached its height during the 18th century, experienced a decline during the 19th Century, and then again saw a resurgence in the Arts and Crafts movement. In the first half of the 20th Century, lead was considered appropriate especially for architectural details and garden sculpture, such as relief panels or fountains.
The soft effect and delicate appearance of lead was felt to harmonize with architecture and landscape, and was ideal in suffering outdoor elements. Lead's availability, during and after WWII, in contrast to other metals, played a role in its application by numerous artists during the war years. Barbara Lekberg, renowned sculptor, remembers that it was not possible to cast during the war and welding was not yet an option, but lead pipe, available at a plumbing supply store, could be cut, flattened and used in small sheets.
Pb, Leads chemical symbol, refers to the plumber - who formed, ran and fixed the lead piping for water and waste systems in early Roman communities. From the Latin word plumbum, meaning lead.
Early on, Cavanaugh's experimentation with materials such as clay, cast stone, direct cement, cast and direct epoxy, anodized aluminum, sheet copper, and a kind of scratch coat used for plastering walls, reveals the extent of his search for a medium best suited for his extreme physicality and artistic expression. An unpublished manuscript of Cavanaugh's focuses mainly on ceramics techniques covering topics such as clay body, types of grog, drying techniques, the kiln, glazes, slips, and methods of finishing a piece.
Another early mention of Cavanaugh's ceramic techniques and expertise is given in his 1955 Antioch College exhibition. Here air bubble construction is listed, a method in which the artist traps enough air in to the hollow interior of a clay piece, to keep it from collapsing while paddling and working on the exterior. More over his unpublished manuscript also discusses clay construction, including slab, coil and thrown models. The artist Ann Grifalconi observed Cavanaugh working in clay and relates that his hands were "very alive, and the clay pieces were like living creatures" in his hands. Clay was a medium Cavanaugh used for quick sketches, bringing instantaneous results while also being kept wet for further working. Grifalconi saw Cavanaugh "model exterior planes" while at the same time "feeling the interior surfaces." His early pieces were probably fired at the Ohio State University, and later at the Columbus Museum Art School at the time he taught there. During his New York period, beginning in 1957, Cavanaugh modeled and fired at the Sculpture Center. Later on in his career Cavanaugh would use clay to transfer certain thematic ideas to his metal works, retaining his practice in clay while augmenting his command of metal.
John Cavanaugh's early and classic education in art, which was firmly incorporated into his daily life, from elementary school through graduate study, and then his jobs in industry - anodizing metal, and doing mock ups of war planes - gave Cavanaugh all the formal, technical, and manual skills needed to master any technique or materials in the province of sculpture. Cavanaugh himself, drawn to experimentation, saw in lead an endless source of challenge and accomplishment, proudly proclaiming, "sheet lead discovered the sculptor John Cavanaugh in 1962." And while his technical methods and innovations in clay, bronze, and wax proved cutting edge, continued to be a source of inspiration and production throughout his life, it was the work in lead that provided his most teeming results. His first show of lead pieces at the Sculpture Center in 1963 consisted of twelve pieces, produced in approximately a year, or slightly longer.
Lead is soft and easily worked compared to other metals. Lead of high purity does not require annealing, although it can be annealed at relatively low temperatures from 158 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit. It does not immediately become brittle and break when hammered, so there is no need to heat and temper it as other metals require. Further, the body of lead is stable and resistant to corrosion, once a light atmospheric corrosion has coated its surface. However, lead's properties of extreme elasticity, a challenge to the artist, require considerable care when hammering, not to stretch it too much, rendering it thin and breakable.
This tendency of lead to thin out and break when hammered prompted Cavanaugh's discovery of hammering from front to back, verses the usual method of hammering from the back to push out the metal relief. Cavanaugh started at the front, outside edges of the lead sheet and worked toward the center to create low and high relief as well as three-dimensional figures in the round, which he formed by gradually hammering to bring the sheet around and soldering the piece closed. Another innovation, related by Barbara Lekberg, who saw Cavanaugh's hammered lead demonstration at the Sculpture Center, was to drop or strike the edges of the metal before starting the design. Lekberg marveled at Cavanaugh's notion of thickening and compacting the molecules of lead, as a solution to its tendency to thin and split, a problem that caused her to give up on the medium ten years earlier.
"Harmful effects do not occur if an organism is isolated from a metal or if the metal is not bio-available. For example, picking up a lead sculpture causes exposure but provides no adverse effects unless, unhappily, one drops the sculpture on one's foot. In contrast, drinking wine from a lead cup can provide adverse effects, because the acid wine makes the lead bio-available to the person drinking the wine. Even if a human, an animal or a plant is exposed to the bio-available form of the metal, it will not be harmful if the concentration is not high enough and if exposure does not last long enough." From the Australian Mineral Council
The John Cavanaugh Foundation strictly promotes the safe use of lead in art. Artists are advised to protect themselves by working in well-ventilated spaces, using gloves, wearing masks and protective clothing (long sleeve shirts, etc.) when hammering, beating, pounding, or cutting lead. Artists are advised to take extra caution when soldering, machine cutting and applying bonding materials to lead, by using professional aero masks - molten lead fumes are harmful - as are the results of applying bonding materials and or paint products to leads surface.
In years past artists did not understand or even know about the harmful effects of the materials they used - that is not the case in today's world. Volumes are now known about the harmful effects of artist's materials and the care that should be taken in their usage. Numerous artist materials are unstable, demanding cautious usage by the artist, - lead is no different. Volume exposure to most any artists materials carries with them the artist's responsibility for proper practices - diminishing any harmful effects a material may have on themselves, and/or others coming in contact with their work and work areas.
Cavanaugh approached the lead sheet as a thin slab of clay, feeling its thickness and forming its volumes through the interior hollow and exterior surface at once. He would place a sheet of lead on the floor, leaning it against a pallet, or propped up with sand cushions or a mattress, giving him a flexible surface to hammer against. In creating larger pieces he would pivot the lead, lie on the floor under the piece, dropping stones from above and work with additional tools beneath, working from both sides. Cavanaugh struck the lead with a baseball bat, chisel, hatchet, file, screwdriver, stone or anything that came into his hand. Ruth Jacobsen shared that he would collect stones for tools on Gin Beach in Montauk, near her summer house and studio. He would come to the beach with a mental list of certain roundedness and sizes of stones he needed, in order to form specific ridges and folds or to smooth unwanted wrinkles in the lead.
In several demonstrations, taking place in a time frame of three hours and requiring intense concentration and tremendous physical strength, Cavanaugh would transform a dull sheet of lead into a fully alive sculpture in the round. According to Janak Khendry, an artist, and director at the Sculpture Center, Cavanaugh appeared like a primitive creature using whatever tool was in reach, striking the lead with "large flying strokes."
Cavanaugh would expose a finished piece to different oxidation's to achieve subtle shades in the natural lead patina. A critic once noted that Cavanaugh's lead pieces, which were "weathered in his garden, had a rich patina and a shimmering whiteness." He was also known to electroplate pieces with copper and silver, achieving a beautiful and unique patina.
Like Jose de Creeft, John felt that direct involvement with materials was essential for meaningfulness in his artistic expression. Early on in his work with lead Cavanaugh's techniques, level of artistic activity and method gave him notoriety, which continued throughout his professional career. In addition to relief sculpture and freestanding figures, Cavanaugh created many pieces for architectural use, such as a series of relief panels for the building on Swann Street NW, in Washington DC, where he had his studio. Taken from Proust's, Remembrance of Things Past they revolve around the theme of planting and romantic love. Cavanaugh's design of these pieces for the building niches, his exploitation of rippled edges and other accidental and abstract forms show his enrichment of the expressive possibilities of lead in its historical architectural context.
Cavanaugh's inspiration throughout his life can be found in a myriad of subjects. Questions of existence and a way to express the animate nature of man characterized Cavanaugh's early and mature work. His central themes during his lifelong search focused on the subjects of women, men, animals, and children. He often did work representative of his friends, his family, and those national and international social and cultural happenings of the day. In the later years his series of dancers brought critical acclaim, but while he was working on them the Iran Hostage Crisis was in full swing. With his mind burdened with the hostages kidnapping he was compelled to create a bust called 'The Hostage' in order to get his mind clear, and then continued with his series of dancers. No matter the medium or the subject, John Cavanaugh worked in a wholesome, honest and fluid ways, evident in his work. He felt that if the formal abstract elements of a sculpture were well considered, if the process of creation flowed freely and uninhibited, the criteria, rather than any predisposition to style was most important. That along with a great respect and knowledge of materials, a sculpture would reach the heights the artist intended. Cavanaugh's fierce imagination and physical strength made the pounded lead medium a perfect fit for his unbounded strength and creativity.
Just as Saul Baizerman developed lung disease through his work with lead, so John Cavanaugh was stricken with lung illness in the early 1980's. At this point unable to express the physical strength pounding lead required, he turned to working in wax. Just as he had transferred his skills and aesthetic goals from clay to lead, he moved on to a new wax technique. In 1983 he stated: "Now I have been working in wax successfully for the first time in my life…. For 40 years I have tried to work in wax and now with a new method I have invented, I can work faster and with more control than I do in clay or lead."
Cavanaugh's new technique used a combination of waxes, which he experimented with until he came up with a recipe that would achieve his end of continuing a prolific sculptural output, while easing the physical stress of working in pounded metal. Eventually getting the perfect combinations of wax, Cavanaugh would dip thin sheets of plastic into a shallow pan of his wax mixture, coat it on one side, and then put another piece of plastic over it. The sheets of warm encased wax could then be molded into a roughly shaped figure. The molded sheet becomes a strong, tissue-thin armature which could be shaped, cut or joined with added wax. More wax would be brushed on or applied with tools, modeling the sculpture and building the thickness of the piece, from 3/16" to 5/32".
Cavanaugh was pleased that he had discovered a technique to form a strong wax figure of the required thick-ness which was not too brittle, but strong enough to hold up during hot Washington summers while being worked or stored. This method saved him the physical work, added steps and expense of putting out a clay piece to create a mold for casting. These large wax models, which supported themselves, could be built without the need of an interior armature or a cumbersome outside armature for support. An example of this process as a finished piece is seen in Youth, was built from a freestanding wax model. A tireless need to create kept him working till the last days of his life in the genre of sculpture.
Even closer to the end of this life, Cavanaugh devised a system of wax painting. Placing colored wax between pieces of thick glass, he produced many of these 'wax paintings'. He would then create freestanding stands for them so natural or electric light could shine through the piece.
Never one to dwell in the negative aspects of his life, John Cavanaugh continued to create and show his work until he was literally unable to get out of bed. Only stopping his work a month and a half prior to his death. His unfettered motivation to express himself in art never left him. Cavanaugh believed the "art that rises above the ordinary has nothing to do with style; it has to do with message." The message he leaves us is one of power - unstoppable, authentic and permanent.
While we now know that lead, the pounding of it, and the soldering of it, can be dangerous business, it is artists like John Cavanaugh and Saul Baizerman, and surely many other people, including laborers, working in lead prior to now known health hazards, who paved the way for the safety methods and innovations used today. Literally they gave their lives for their art/work. While there are few artists using the medium currently, it is the hope of the Cavanaugh Foundation and Sculpture Fund that this beautiful metal will see an awakening in the coming years, finding new expression in new artists, using proper safety techniques.