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'We're finding things everywhere': Discover seldom-seen works of sculptor Charles Umlauf

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
A big wall of identically sized and mounted photos of Charles Umlauf's sculptures from the 1940s is the prize winner in "30 x 30 x30" at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum. It can be seen in the distance here.

The big wall of identically sized and mounted photographs takes the prize.

The vertically oriented black-and-white images taken by F. Wilbur Seiders reveal expressive, small sculptures made by Charles Umlauf during the 1940s.

"We're finding things everywhere in his house," says Graeme Durant, curatorial assistant at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum about items displayed in "30 x 30 x 30," the museum's 30th anniversary show, "in drawers, in cupboards."

"Some of these pieces are not known," says Katie Robinson Edwards, executive director and curator of the museum, regarding the photographed sculptures seen on the big wall. "We are trying to find out where they are. Umlauf kept boxes and boxes of records and was obsessive about documenting first sales. But after that first sale, some pieces were scattered, sometimes at auction, and are lost to us."

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The title of the show refers to the museum's 30 years of history, as well as to the 30 main pieces in the show and the 30 private collections from which they were drawn.

"Ninety percent have never left private homes," says Edwards, who wrote the seminal study, "Midcentury Modern Art in Texas." "Ten of them I've never seen before."

The Austin museum is best known for its garden, which now looks lush after recovering from the winter storms, thanks in part to intervening months of rain and a recently hired gardener. Among the green walks, one sees larger versions of several sculptures now exhibited in the main gallery under pandemic protocols.

Over the decades, Charles Umlauf's style evolved from the expressionistic to the classical and the sensual treatment of the human form.

Inside, we see 30 sculptures, mostly of the tabletop type, but also photographs, sketches and studies on the walls of the elegant structure designed by Lawrence Speck, which lets in just enough natural light.

It should be made clear that this exhibit focuses almost exclusively on Umlauf's work, not his life. It is not broadly biographical. He lived from 1910 to 1994 and arrived at the University of Texas to teach in the new fine arts program in 1941. He spent the next 40 years working and teaching there. 

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His look evolved over the years and included phases that reflected study of Egyptian, Greek and African, and, especially, various familiar and unfamiliar strains of modernism. 

Throughout his career, Umlauf was fascinated by humans and other animals. We see multiple iterations of hippos, horses, cats and birds. Also on view are religious figures and sinuous abstractions, including one carved from Indiana limestone almost assuredly made by Umlauf in Chicago before he ventured to Texas. It came from a collector in McKinney, so this is its first visit to Austin.

Two figures behind glass look like weathered metal, but in fact, the museum's curators confirmed that they were among Umlauf's few ceramic pieces. They were most likely made in 1949 when Umlauf worked under Texas ceramicist Harding Black while on a Guggenheim Fellowship, one of the first awarded to a Texan.

Besides the wall of photographs, the other great joy of this smartly arranged show is the small scale of the sculptures. In some cases, such as the bronze "Prometheus" from circa 1966 or the bronze "Eagle" from 1958, the tabletop editions are more refined and accessible than the larger versions. Some look almost like toys for some very lucky children.

Between the finished sculptures and the images hung on the walls, this is a visually fulfilling show, without overwhelming the viewer.

And for good reason, as Edwards points out: "He was one of the most prolific American artists."

If you go

'30 x 30 x 30'

When: Through Sept. 12

Where: Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, 605 Azie Morton Road

How much: Up to $5

More information: umlaufsculpture.org