“In conclusion, one might say that art, like science, is a constant probing of the unknown – a seeking. I believe an artist should make art that he feels relevant to his day, taking into account the works of artists of the past. The empty spaces within and around a sculpture post a challenge that has become for me almost an obsession.” *
Born in Washington, DC in 1916, Harold Cousins served in the US Coast Guard during World War II before completing an associate’s degree at Howard University in 1947, where he was influenced by the writings of Alain Locke, then head of the Philosophy department. In 1948, he moved to New York City and studied at the Art Students League with William Zorach and Will Barnett. In 1949, with funding from the GI Bill, Cousins left the United States and made his home in Paris, where he studied with the modernist sculptor Ossip Zadkine at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière.
In Paris, Cousins was captivated by the city’s museums; he frequented the Louvre (especially the Egyptian wing) as well as the many ethnographic museums. Among these, his favorite was the Musée de l’homme, where he saw sculpture from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The mastery of woodworking demonstrated in the African sculptures and masks on display intrigued Cousins, but he was especially inspired by works that combined wood with an array of other materials, which Cousins had already begun to explore in his own work. As he explained, “What especially attracted me was the use of sheaths of metal, often together with nails and chains. These sculptures have a vibrancy that seems to be produced both between the metal elements themselves and between the metal elements and the overall sculptural form.”†
In the early 1950s, Cousins learned oxyacetylene welding from sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri, and his art developed from figurative forms in terracotta and wood, to works that incorporated more and more metal, and finally, to abstractions of welded steel. He created his first welded steel sculpture in 1952, with scrap metal he bought from junkyards along the Seine, and he had his first major exhibitions of them two years later. In 1957, Cousins coined the term plaiton—a synthesis of the English word “plate” and the French “laiton” (brass)—to describe his sculptures of repeated metal plates welded together in a predetermined order. In discussing these works, Cousins once stated that a key part of the process for him involved “giving special attention to the form of the empty space between the solid elements of a sculpture as well as to the empty space surrounding the sculpture.”‡
Cousins moved to Brussels, Belgium in 1967, where he worked for the remainder of his life. Throughout his career, he was celebrated in Europe, completing numerous public commissions and exhibiting actively in Brussels and Antwerp as well as various cities in France and Germany. However, it was not until four years after his death that his artwork was shown in his native country, when the Studio Museum in Harlem mounted its 1996 traveling exhibition, Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-65.
* Harold Cousins, “‘Plaiton’ Sculpture: Its Origin and Developments,” Leonardo, v.4 n.4 (Fall 1971), 353.
† Cousins, 351.
‡ Cousins, 351.
SELECTED MUSEUM COLLECTIONS
Bibliotheque Royale, Brussels, Belgium
Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Paris, France
Cogi France, Paris, France
Etat Belge, Nederland Culture, Belgium
Howard University Gallery of Art, Howard University, Washington, DC
Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, Germany
Maison de la Culture, Wolusé-st-Pierre, Belgium
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Middelheim Museum, Antwerp, Belgium
Modern Museum of Art, Kassel, Germany
Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, France
Musée de St. Etienne, Paris, France
Musée Internation, Germany
Museum Haus Lange, Germany
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, CT