The Huntington has installed a Sam Francis corten steel sculpture, on long-term loan from the Sam Francis Foundation. That will take Francis' fans aback: He's not known for 3D works. Sited just outside the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, the piece reminds visitors of the increasingly modern character of the institution's collection (exemplied by Francis' large painting, Free Floating Clouds, a gift from the Francis Foundation). Evoking calligraphy, the new sculpture nods to the Huntington's famed Japanese and Chinese gardens. The question is, is the Foundation's "Untitled Sculpture" an authentic Sam Francis?
It was created in 2003, nine years after the artist's death — and not by Francis, obviously. There are curmudgeons who turn their noses up at any posthumous sculpture. The more pragmatic simply acknowledge that a posthumous work is a shade less covetable—and marketable—than one created in the artist's lifetime.
The reality is that there are many varieties of sculpture-by-artists-who-were-already-dead. Consider Rodin's posthumous casts of The Thinker and The Burgers of Callais at the Norton Simon Museum. Rodin made bronzes of these works in his lifetime and decreed that further casts could be made after his demise. The posthumous casts were made by the same foundry, using the same molds. The artisans had a good idea of what Rodin would have wanted.
Approximately as authentic, and vastly rarer, is Tony Smith's Smoke, also on loan from an artist's estate and presently inhabiting the atrium of LACMA's Ahmanson Building. Smith conceived the work, his largest, in 1962 and constructed a full-sized wood model for the Corcoran Gallery. He never had the funds to fabricate it in painted aluminum. After Smith's death, the market value of his work rose, and his estate commissioned the work. (Michael Govan talked Renzo Piano out of an escalator in order to save room for Smoke. “My intention and hope is that we will be able to acquire it,” Govan told the New York Times in 2008. “I don’t think I could live without it.” Somebody write that man a check, already.)
More problematic are cases like the Degas bronzes. Degas showed just one sculpture, the wax original of his famous Ballerina. After his death, many less finished wax sculptures were discovered in his studio. All were cast in bronze. Many of the original waxes are at the U.S. National Gallery. The first-generation bronzes ended up at the Norton Simon Museum; the second-generation pieces are at the Metropolitan Museum, the Musee d'Orsay, and elsewhere. Because the bronzes pack in crowds at prestigious museums, few care to say they're fake. But there's no clear indication that Degas ever intended his waxes to be cast in bronze. Not in dispute: Degas wasn't on hand to make the countless small aesthetic choices of casting and patinating.
In 1964 Sam Francis visited Japan. His exposure to Japanese art inspired him to make some ceramics. Though known for paintings and prints, Francis began a peripatetic engagement with the third dimension. He sketched sculpture and, in the 1970s, made some small scale models in plaster. This phase of his work is not well known. At the time of his 1994 death, Francis had made no large sculptures. In 2003 his Foundation executed six large sculptures based on his models. The work at the Huntington is said to be the first shown in the U.S. It will command the interest of any serious follower of Francis' art. But is it authentic, or just authorized? The oft-damned Degas bronzes are the same size as the original waxes. The corten Francis sculpture is much larger than the plaster models, and thus Francis never saw his conception at this scale. It's hard to say whether Francis would have approved, made tweaks, or gone back to the drawing board.
Retired United Airlines pilot Charles C. Dent conceived the idea of realizing Leonardo da Vinci's unexecuted design for the Sforza equestrian monument. Dent used Leonardo's drawings (representing the horse only) and consulted with the greatest Renaissance scholars for the highest sort of authenticity. His house-sized bronze horse was unveiled with great fanfare and presented to the Italian people in 1999.
Q. Is it a Leonardo?
A. You're kidding, right?