Picture Yourself with “The Humanist

Anita always insisted that people should touch her work. Her statuary work, that is. So feel free to tickle the armpits, slap the ass, and attempt a French kiss. Make the statue happy in Rochester!

In the mid-1950’s, Life had an unforgettable photo of a diminutive woman carrying a statue on her back. Trick photography was not involved, for the accompanying article described how sculptor Anita Weschler, who looked to be about 5’ 4” or shorter, had been the first to create the work from a kind of lightweight fiberglass. She called it The Humanist and, inasmuch as I was book review editor of a magazine by the same name, I telephoned to make an appointment to interview her. That interview, “The Humanist in Sculpture,” was published along with photos in The Humanist.

Anita (who lived from 1903 to 2000) was married to a Wall Street analyst, Herbert Solomon, and they lived in Greenwich Village during the bohemian 1920s, partly in MacDougall Street and later in Waverly Place. At the latter address, where they were Joseph Campbell’s neighbors, they entertained widely. At one of their parties I remember having a cocktail and sitting on a couch with a New Yorker author where, looking between the legs of Anita’s nude statue of José Limon, we could see Limon’s wife in the next room and had great fun composing journalistic sentences about who was over there between José’s legs. Told later, Anita grinned and broke out in uncontrollable laughter. She not only loved jokes but could tell them, too. Herbert was far more serious, a veritable conservative, and they rented rather than owned their one-bedroom apartment.

Anita somehow arranged tickets to the annual ceremonial of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which I attended in 1968 when The Humanist’s editor, Priscilla Robertson, received an award for her Revolutions of 1848. Priscilla arranged for a special issue of the magazine, one that focused on individuals in the arts, such as Anita and the Germany sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, who are non-believers. It had always been Anita’s hope that she would be chosen to become a member of the prestigious Academy. In fact, she introduced me to Paul Cadmus and Louise Nevelson and seemed to be known by many Academy members as a leading intellectual. But she was never chosen. “The committees preferred works by those in the junkyard-school-of-art,” she complained. Year after year the two of us, I as a visiting journalist, consulted about painters and sculptors who had been chosen, and she was always saddened at having been passed over. Anita knew well how to drown her sorrows, for the booze flowed freely at those exclusive Academy events, and year after year I found it necessary to take her home in a taxi.

Anita could discuss The Enlightenment, Nietzsche, deism, freethought, current affairs, ancient history, and she eventually became a member of FANNY, the organization of Freethinking Activist Non-believing New Yorkers that another past president of the humanist chapter—Dennis Middlebrooks—and I founded.

The statue that I had written about, she decided, should be mine. Eventually, I paid under a thousand dollars for it and also bought one of her electric paintings as well as two works she called hexes because they looked like the hex signs on Pennsylvania barns. In my Hell’s Kitchen apartment where it stood in a corner next to the windows, a thief on the building’s fire escape once broke the window, then fled when he saw the figure in the darkness. For a time it graced my apartment in Greenwich Village, not far from where Anita lived. She once visited, in fact, and helped install the two hexes as well as advise how to wash (water and a very mild soap) and place (Butcher’s) wax on the statue. “If Venus de Milo had been made of this fiberglass,” she laughed, “she’d still have her arms!”

At times I was her agent as well as her publicity person, and she only got really angry with me when I was able to find her birthdate and published it somewhere. “Never publish a woman’s birth year!” she told me in her 80s long before she died at the age of 97, long after Herbert’s death.

In 1995 I presented the statue to the Council for Secular Humanism. Before doing so, I carried it on my back and stopped the traffic on 8th Avenue by trying to stop a taxi to pick us both up. A Times photographed this, but for some reason the picture was never published. Anita would have liked me to give it to Syracuse University, where the bulk of her work had been donated (against Herbert’s and my advice, for we proposed giving individual works to museums all around the country as well as to foreign museums). But she listened to my argument and finally agreed that Buffalo would be just the place for her thoughtful work. At the Center for Inquiry’s opening, I spoke briefly about Anita and mentioned that she thought statuary should be felt, not just seen. Whereupon I borrowed a hat from someone, placed it on the work’s head, and slapped the statue on its rear, to the amusement of Steve Allen and the various other dignitaries who had assembled. In her final years, Anita wanted me to get her off the mailing lists of organizations, including the humanists, because she didn’t have time to read and had no intention of contributing to them. I explained that it would be next to impossible but that I would try. Upon reflection, I realize that Anita was a humanities humanist, not an organizational humanist. That was the basic reason she had given the title, The Humanist, to her work. She knew I was calling her a secular humanist, but she preferred to think of herself as a representational artist, one who represented the human figure much as the Ancient Greeks had done. As for liking the label of secular humanist, she once told me John Dewey had used “humanistic naturalism.” That appealed to her because she particularly liked Dewey’s outlook on a variety of subjects. She also liked the label of deism, although I told her not many people used that description for their outlook any more. “Well then,” she would say as she mixed another martini, “to deism!”

Warren Allen Smith

Note

“The Humanist” will be in Rochester until July 4, 2003. To arrange a viewing get in touch with David White (dwhite@sjfc.edu). Warren Allen Smith is expected in Rochester for the Fourth of July.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.