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Libby Ross gives Museum a Henry Moore

STORY BY ELLEN FISCHER, (Week of January 31, 2013)
Photo: Libby Ross unveils Moore's 'Spindle Piece'.

Through the generosity of a former board member, the Vero Beach Museum of Art’s collection can finally claim the addition of a Henry Moore sculpture to its permanent collection. The bronze abstract, “Spindle Piece,” standing just under a yard tall, emerged from the vision of a giant in 20th century art.

Vero Beach Museum of Art Executive Director Lucinda Gedeon calls Moore “extraordinarily significant,” and “one of the most renowned sculptors in the history of 20th century art.”

Unveiled last Thursday, “Spindle Piece” is the first artwork that visitors to the museum see when they enter the building’s north rotunda. At the reception, however, all eyes were on the slim, gracious form of Libby Ross, the art lover and former museum board member who donated the sculpture.

“I thought a lot about giving away the ‘Spindle’ because I thoroughly enjoy the different shapes. But I think I will enjoy it just as much here,” she said, adding that the sculpture needs to be viewed from all sides. In its new home, visitors have plenty of room to circumambulate the piece, which rests on a pedestal designed to present it at optimal viewing height.

Moore, born in 1898, was a man shaped by the events of the past century. Gassed as a young soldier in World War I, he became known in the U.S. during the 1940s for his drawings of Londoners sleeping in the Underground during the Blitz. Forced to move from London when bomb shrapnel hit his own home, Moore settled in the English countryside where he created enduring abstract works based on the female figure and forms found in nature.

Late in life he became known as the go-to guy for monumental public sculpture. When he died in 1986, Moore was the most lauded sculptor of his generation.

“Spindle Piece” is one of the most conceptual productions of an artist known for his radical abstractions of the human form. To view it, one has to put all preconceptions aside, especially the one that comes from hearing its title.

The piece is not spindle-like at all. Although it is only 33 inches tall, it is built like a linebacker. Cylindrical at its base, the sculpture features a couple of flaring ridges below two pointed appendages that look like small arms thrust out to stabilize a chubby prima donna’s pirouette. Atop this a tongue-like form loops up and over, crowning the piece with a lofty quiff that would put Elvis – or Justin Bieber – to shame. 

“I think that Moore conceived of the sculpture as an axis with spinning points,” says Jay Williams, the museum’s curator. “It’s like he froze the points in space and then connected them with organic shapes-- but he didn’t connect the dots with any kind of symmetry. It looks like it was created by a force of nature.”

That last note will come as no surprise to beach walkers. Anyone who has ever assembled little troves of curiously eroded shells and stones during a beach stroll will sense the familiar in “Spindle Piece.”

Libby Ross is put in mind of her great-grandchildren’s treasures from just such an outing. “They will bring little things back, and their parents will say, ‘That looks like a Henry Moore!’” she says.

No doubt even Moore would have said that those beach pebbles look like a Henry Moore. The sculptor’s imagination was similarly stimulated by bits of bone, shell and flint stones that he found on his property in a hamlet called Perry Green, which is near the village of Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, England. Today the Henry Moore Foundation manages the property that includes Moore’s house, barns, pasture, studios and sculpture gardens, and opens the grounds to tourists during the warm months of the year.

When Libby Ross and her late husband, Richard, visited Perry Green in the 1970s, it was still home to Moore and his wife Irina.

“We were his only guests that afternoon,” Ross says.“We had such a good time just talking to him, looking at all his wonderful maquettes (small models for larger sculptures). He was called to the telephone at one point, and Dick and I were left in this one studio with hundreds of maquettes, just tiny little ones. Can you imagine trusting anyone that much?”

Taking leave of their host, the Rosses returned home to Columbus, Ohio with some great photos of Moore (Richard Ross was an avid photographer). They had also decided to purchase and donate a major sculpture by Moore to the Columbus Museum of Art, which they did in 1978.  

“Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped” is situated outdoors. That sculpture, created in 1975, was purchased, says Ross, “a little bit before the ‘Spindle’ piece,” a work that dates from 1968-69. Eight feet high and 15 feet long, the “Reclining Figure” is the very model of a modern public sculpture, while “Spindle Piece” is an intimate work.

The Rosses moved to Vero Beach more than 25 years ago, “the year after the museum was started,” she says. Ross, who had been very active on the Columbus Museum of Art board for many years, says with a chuckle that she “was tired of museum work” when she arrived here. Of course, she eventually ended up on the board of directors of the Vero Beach Museum of Art.

“I have had in mind quite a while to give the piece away. I thought it just sort of belonged down here in Vero,” says Ross.

Jay Williams says that “Spindle Piece” is “an important work of art by an important artist that fills a void in our collection.” In the past 10 years the museum has acquired a number of contemporary sculptures by an international lineup of artists, including the Belgian Hanneke Beaumont, American Thomas Ostenberg and Spaniard Jaime Plensa. According to Williams, Moore’s “Spindle Piece” will help put those more recent works into historical context.

For Ross, serving on the museum board “brings you very close to a lot of the museum,” she says. “You really get to know it.”

And to know a museum is to love it, according to Ross. “It’s always good to walk into a museum and you feel at home.”