Sorel Etrog was an internationally renowned sculptor whose career spanned over fifty years. Born in Romania, Etrog and his family experienced antisemitism, poverty, and violence during the Second World War and Soviet rule. In 1950, the family successfully escaped Romania and emigrated to Israel. Etrog developed an interest in three-dimensional art at a young age, when he worked alongside his grandfather in his carpentry studio. He later pursued a formal education at the Institute of Painting and Sculpture in Tel Aviv where he studied painting, graphic art, and stage design. At the Institute, Etrog was immersed in the art of the European avant-garde, particularly Cubism, Dadaism, and Constructivism. Etrog’s early works were irregularly shaped canvases and objects made of wood that were meant to be hung on the wall. These sculptural paintings were called “painted constructions,” and they represent a rejection of harmony and symmetry.
In 1958, Etrog earned a scholarship to attend the Brooklyn Museum Art Institute, however he struggled to establish himself in the competitive New York art scene. A year later, a chance meeting with Canadian businessman and modernist art collector Samuel J. Zacks would launch his career. Zacks purchased an early painted construction, and he invited the young artist to establish a summer studio in his Southampton home on Lake Huron. Etrog began a productive period of work in Canada and produced his first sculptures in wood and terracotta. The biomorphic sculptures were influenced by the Zacks’ collection of African and Oceanic art, as well as the sculptures of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Constantin Brancusi.
After his initial success in Canada, Etrog committed himself to a full-time career as a sculptor, working both in New York and Canada. His sculptures from the early 1960s were inspired by natural forms of trees, flowers, and other vegetation and show his mastery of the labor-intensive bronze medium. Etrog’s modernist sculptures captured the attention of important collectors and institutions. In 1961, American art collector Joseph Hirshhorn purchased eight sculptures from an exhibition at the Walter Moos Gallery in Toronto, followed by acquisitions from the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and The Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands.
The present sculpture, Moses, is an elongated, abstracted figure that is both a tribute to Etrog’s Jewish identity, and reflects the artist’s love for Italian art. The sculpture represents the biblical Jewish prophet that Michelangelo immortalized in marble in the sixteenth century in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. Etrog used the Renaissance masterpiece as inspiration for his own work. The top of the sculpture is a group of tangled geometric forms, with a long, linear body descending towards the base. The work stands on a pedestal, with one round ball appearing to balance the entire composition. Another ball floats above it, from which the tall vertical element rises above.
In Sorel Etrog: Life and Work, Alma Mikulinksy decodes the symbolism in Moses, “The two forms protruding forward refer to the tablets of the law that the prophet holds tucked beneath his right arm in Michelangelo’s masterpiece and the symmetrical pointy accents emerging from the upper corners echo the horns crowning Moses’s head in the Renaissance piece. Even the two twisted ribbons that end in the spheres at the bottom of Etrog’s sculpture refer to the elaborate beard that Michelangelo’s Moses twirls in his fingers. The sculpture is a testament to Etrog’s deep connection to and knowledge of art history translated through his use of a modernist language of abstraction.” (Alma Mikulinsky, Sorel Etrog: Life and Work, Toronto: Art Canada Institute, 2020, p. 32)
Moses is significant in Etrog’s career because it was the first monumental work he produced. The sculpture was first cast in 1964 and purchased by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Etrog cast another monumental edition of the work in 1966 for the Canadian pavilion of the Venice Biennale, which later traveled to Montreal for Expo 67. In addition to monumental bronze sculptures, Etrog also cast domestic-sized versions of key works, like the present sculpture and Mother and Child, a large bronze exhibited alongside Moses at the Venice Biennale. Editions of these domestic sculptures were among the works purchased by Hirshhorn during the 1960s.
Moses, ca. 1964
51 x 17 x 16 3/4 inches
Signed and numbered 4/7 on base
Staempfli Gallery, New York
William and Carol Lee Markley, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, acquired from the above in 1965