John Clague, Sculptor, 1928–2004


“I have always been fascinated by nature,” John Clague once told a reporter, “and the possibility of creating something as astonishing as the very first turtle I ever saw.” The celebrated Cleveland sculptor was referring to the basketball-size spheres he began making in the early 1990s that were cut open to reveal mysterious structures of gleaming polished steel—recalling those strange rocks known as “geodes” whose interiors are hung with glittering crystals. But he might have been describing all of his work done before and after receiving the Cleveland Arts Prize in 1967.

In fact, Clague is better known for his monumental sculptures: bold, often airy abstract forms in bronze, steel or fiberglass that organize space and planes into a dynamic architecture. He typically incorporates the play of light on surfaces that are sometimes painted black and white, sometimes multicolored, and sometimes polished to a dazzling finish. These are always thoughtful constructions that are clearly meant to be walked around. Frequently the work itself moves, as in the case of the 20-foot stainless steel kinetic sculpture Auriculum (1973) that Clague was commissioned to create for Ashland University south of Cleveland. For Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren, Ohio, he conceived Astra (1988), a 14-foot sculpture that is suspended in space.

Clague is also known for his figurative work, which includes a bust of Great Lakes shipping magnate and philanthropist Samuel Mather (1994) for the Mather Pavilion of University Hospitals of Cleveland and the life-size figure of social reformer Edna Jane Hunter (1985) that welcomes the needy and the disadvantaged to the Edna Jane Hunter Social Services Building in downtown Cleveland. He subscribes to “the old fashioned idea that an artist should be able to see what he is looking at, and nothing teaches us that more cruelly than the portrait. My abstraction has flowed from a deep involvement with nature and the way nature puts forms together.”

Born in Cleveland in 1928, Clague studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art (B.F.A. with honors, 1956) under Edris Eckhardt, Walter Sinz, Walter Midner, John Bergschneider, Julius Schmidt and William McVey. As a fourth-year student he was awarded a Yale/Norfolk Fellowship and, on graduation, spent an eye-opening year in Europe as a Catherwood Foundation Traveling Fellow. He taught sculpture at Oberlin College for four years, then at CIA for 15 years, becoming chairman of the institute's department of sculpture, before retiring in 1971 to devote all of his time to his own work.

John Clague’s sculptures have been exhibited in the Whitney Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Sculpture and in 28 May Shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He is represented in the permanent collections of the CMA (six sculptures including his 1960 bronze Flower of Erebus and his 1963 plexiglass Progression in Black and White), the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, the University of Massachusetts and the Williams College Museum of Art. His work is documented in the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and represented in The Sculpture of the End of the 19th and the 20th Centuries (Éditions Rencontre, Paris, 1966/67).

—Dennis Dooley

Cleveland Arts Prize
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