The sculpture park at the Portland Museum of Art keeps getting better.
The PMA recently installed William Zorach’s “Spirit of the Dance,” a bronze version of the aluminum cast of the sculpture that has been at Radio City Music Hall at Rockefeller Center since 1932. This bronze version had been at the Zorach farm in Georgetown for generations, until it came to the PMA last year as part of the exhibition “A New American Sculpture.” After traveling to other cities with that show, the 7-foot nude, strikingly posed in the classic image of a dancer bowing at the end of her performance, came to her final rest in the sculpture garden this summer.
The PMA acquired the piece as a combination of a purchase, with funds from a donor, and a gift of the Zorach family. It joins other large-scale sculpture in the park by Sir Anthony Caro, Jonathan Borofsky, John Bisbee and Celeste Roberge, creating a visually engaging collection of modernist sculpture by artists, most from Maine, whose works are known regionally, nationally and internationally, and there’s at least one more on the way.
Curator Andrew Eschelbacher said the museum will add a sixth piece to the park when it acquires a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, whose work will be on view inside the museum in an exhibition opening in October.
In addition to the sculpture in the park, Robert Indiana’s “Seven” anchors the plaza in front of the museum, giving the PMA a growing array of contemporary sculpture.
“We’re not just putting sculpture outside,” Eschelbacher said. “It’s some of the best sculpture you can see in the country.”
And it’s free. The sculpture park off High Street is open during the museum’s public hours. There are benches for sitting, and people often bring their lunch. Better still, all the sculpture is easily seen from the sidewalk along High Street, a visual respite for pedestrians or motorists waiting for the light to change.
To accommodate Zorach’s “Spirit of the Dance,” the museum relocated Roberge’s “Rising Cairn,” a steel and rock form of a human body rising from a crouch. It’s the original piece in the sculpture park, dating to 1999. Roberge, who lives in South Portland, installed it in what was then a closed courtyard, and the piece was visible from the street and from stairwell windows from inside the museum. It’s become an iconic image and part of the museum’s visual identity in the nearly two decades its been on view.
In its new location, “Rising Cairn” greets visitors as they enter the sculpture garden from High Street. It has less visibility in its new location, especially from within the museum, but is the first artwork people see when they enter the garden, anchoring them to the Maine landscape with Roberge’s use of pink granite beach stones. “We hope the community can see the sculpture they know so well in a new way,” Eschelbacher said.
If only by recognition, “Spirit of the Dance” is one of the best-known sculptures in American art history, and Zorach remains a monumental figure more than a half-century after his death in Bath.
Born in Lithuania in 1889, he came to the United States as a child, settling first in Ohio and then in New York City, where he met his wife, Marguerite, also an artist. He and his wife bought land in Georgetown in 1920s, and they spent their summers in Maine before moving here year-round in the early 1960s. They were the parents of painter Dahlov Ipcar, who spent most of her life on the farm in Georgetown and died at age 99 in 2017.
Both William and Marguerite Zorach succeeded in art. Both were part of the Armory Show in New York in 1913, the first major exhibition of modern art in America. He was a painter before he found his most comfortable expression in sculpture, and he is best known for his figure sculptures. “Spirit of the Dance” may be the best example of it.
Zorach unveiled an aluminum version of “Spirit of the Dance” at Rockefeller Center in 1932. The nudity of the figure was controversial, but it was quickly accepted, and it’s been on view in New York since. Zorach cast six large bronze versions of the piece and kept this one for himself. The others are in public and private collections. He also cast six smaller bronze versions and one smaller aluminum version.
The full shapes and simplified forms that are common in Zorach’s work are evident in the piece. A companion piece, the water fountain “Spirit of the Sea,” is on permanent view at the Patten Free Library in Bath. “Spirit of the Dance” was a precursor to the Bath sculpture.
“Spirit of the Dance” also can be appreciated from within the museum. In the first-floor glass rotunda, Eschelbacher has arranged a trio of figurative pieces in a classical tradition: “Garden Figure” by Gaston Lachaise, “Hero and Leander” by Robert Laurent and Zorach’s “New Horizons.”
They are the sisters of the “Spirit of the Dance,” who beckons from outside just beyond the glass.
IF YOU GO
David E. Shaw and Family Sculpture Park is free and open during the museum’s public hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday through Wednesday, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday.