Duane Hanson
Biography of American Superrealist Sculptor.

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Duane Hanson (1925-96)

One of the most famous American sculptors, Duane Hanson is best known for his superrealist figurative sculpture of everyday middle-class American people. Created through a complex process of casting from live models, recreated in fiberglass resin, vinyl or bronze, his finished figures are hugely popular and associated with Pop Art. He dressed them in real clothes and supplemented them with props like chairs, trolleys and prams. Hanson produced many well-recognised works, including Tourists (1970, National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh); Queenie II (1988, Saatchi Gallery, London), and Homeless Person (1991, Kunsthalle, Hamburg).

Also associated with the Verism School of Art, Hanson - along with his younger contemporaries John De Andrea (b.1941) and Carole Feuerman (b.1945) - is regarded as the greatest of all 20th century sculptors working in the style of photorealism or hyperrealism. Other artists who helped to popularize the photorealist movement in America, include: the street scene painter Richard Estes (1932) and the portraitist Chuck Close (b.1940).

For a list of sculptors like
Duane Hanson, see:
Modern Artists.

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
Anthony Caro (1924-2013)
Jean Tinguely (1925-1991)
Donald Judd (1928-94)
Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)
Claes Oldenburg (b.1929)
Mark Di Suvero (b.1933)
Richard Serra (b.1939)
Bruce Naumann (b.1941)
Antony Gormley (b.1950)
Rowan Gillespie (b.1953)
Anish Kapoor (b.1954)
Jeff Koons (b.1955)
Damien Hirst (b.1965)

See: History of Sculpture.

See: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For a list of the world's top
3-D artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

Early Life

Hanson was born in Alexandria, Minnesota in 1925, his father was a dairy farmer. Hanson showed an early interest in art, in particular the human form. His first attempt at plastic art was a wood figure based on Gainsborough's famous portrait of Blue Boy (1770). Hanson was 13 at the time, and living in a small town. The library had only one art book, and within that book was Gainsborough's portrait. Hanson also sculpted human forms from his mother's broomsticks. In 1943 he attended Macalaster Art College, although few sculptures survive from this period. In 1951 he graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan. No doubt he was introduced to art movements in college, including the movement towards abstraction. Throughout the 1950s Duane would struggle between realism and abstraction. He later wrote: 'I went to school and heard you had to be modern... I didn't really warm up until Pop Art made Realism legitimate again'.

First Sculptures

In the 1950s Hanson taught art in Germany, and it was here that he began to experiment with synthetic media, in particular polyester resin and fiberglass. He moved back to Atlanta in 1960, and finally settled in Miami in 1965. During the 1960s, Pop Art was the fashionable art style in both Britain and America. Most importantly, it challenged convention by asserting that an artist's use of mass produced commodities such as soup cans was a valid form of fine art. Pop art was a reaction to the more elitist style of Abstract Expressionism, preferring instead to celebrate the banal but instantly recognizable aspects of everyday life.


Around the mid 60s, Hanson started making figurative casts using fiberglass and vinyl. His initial figures were somewhat brutal and violent, and were influenced by the work of American installation artist Edward Kienholz (1927-94) - notorious for Back Seat Dodge 38 (1964, Los Angeles County Museum of Art). An example was Abortion (1966), a 2 foot long mixed media rendering of a dead pregnant woman sprawled on a table and covered with a sheet. It demonstrated his horror at the backstreet procedure, but more importantly showed his growing interest in contemporary life. His first version was small, and provoked a public reaction in the South Florida art scene. He later created a life-size version, which he later destroyed. In 1967, he created Accident, which showed a motorcycle crash and Race Riot (1969) which included among its seven figures, a white policeman terrorising an African-American male. Other violent works included Riot (1967), Football Players (1969) and Vietnam Scene (1969). By 1967, Hanson was creating his sculptures directly from the bodies of human models, this became his standard working method for the rest of his career.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate contemporary figurative sculptors like Duane Hanson, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Mature Style

In the early 1970s, Hanson abandoned his terror-tactic subjects for a more subtle one. Young Shopper (1973, Saatchi Gallery) was a polyester and fibreglass statue of a plump woman, wearing real clothes, polychromed in oil, and carrying real life accessories. When describing his sculpture, Hanson said: 'I like the physical burdens this woman carries. She is weighed down by all her shopping bags, and she has become almost a bag herself. She carries physical burdens – the burdens of life, of everyday living. But initially, it's quite a funny sculpture'. Other works from this period include Supermarket Shopper (1970, Padiglione d'arte Contemporanea, Milan) and Museum Guard (1975, Padiglione d'arte, Milan). Although art critics often compare his work to figures in a wax museum, the content of his sculptures may be considered more expressive and complex. The works are cast from real people, replicated in fiberglass and reinforced with fiber resin. The skin is even painted with realistic veins and blemishes. The clothes come from second hand stores. Like the French Realists he admired, such as Jean-Francois Millet and Honore Daumier, Hanson tried to make social parallels between life and art. He was also influenced by trompe l'oeil painters like John Frederick Peto, and the intense realism of Edward Hopper.


It is often assumed that Hanson used a different model for each sculpture, but this is not true. When he found a shape of person he liked, he would often recast him/her in different settings. His Queen II (1988, Saatchi Gallery, London) and Tourists II (1988, Saatchi Gallery, London), although possessing different heads and different skin tones, are the same model. In addition, he sometimes preferred the 'ideal' to the 'real'. For instance, when searching for a model for Cowboy (1995, Joslyn Art Museum), he met several cowboys and rodeo hands, but all lacked the macho image he required. He eventually found a Florida carpenter who matched his criteria! All in all, it could be a long process. As he said: 'Most of my time involves casting, repairing, assembling, painting, correcting it until it pleases me. That takes some doing as I'm rarely satisfied'.

Process for Making a Sculpture

The process for making a sculpture from a model took about 6 months. First Hanson took a Polaroid picture of his model, coaxing them into a position which would make them look relaxed and credible. The model, who was asked to shave off their body hair, was greased with petroleum jelly to ensure the easy removal of the casting material. A fast setting silicone rubber was applied to the model's skin, limb by limb. When the mould dried, it was cut up the back and removed from the model. Hanson poured liquid polyester resin reinforced with fiberglass into the mould, working from the feet up. Hanson's goal was to create a figure that look natural, un-posed and authentic. When painting the sculpture, he had to exaggerate the shading and light, particularly around the eyes to get a natural effect. He used acrylic paint, followed by oil paint to get the correct skin tone. He experimented with crayons and nail polish over oil paint on the fingernails. For those sculptures made from hard polyester resin, he bought wigs, while those made from softer vinyl materials allowed hairs to be poked through the skull with a needle, for a more realistic illusion.


A favourite of the celebrated contemporary art collector Charles Saatchi, from 1969 onwards Hanson exhibited in many of the best art museums in North America, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Brown University Art Museum, Eve Mannes Gallery Atlanta, and Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, as well as international venues like the Galerie Neuendorf Frankfurt, Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art, Diamaru Museum of Art Tokyo and the Saatchi Gallery London. His inclusion in Documenta 5, in 1972 in Kassel, Germany brought him international fame. He died in 1996, established as a major American artist of the 20th century, whose work bridges both the modern and contemporary eras.

• For more about the history of pop art sculpture, see: Homepage.
• For more about contemporary sculpture, see: Contemporary Art.

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