Jerry Atkins’ perception of the mind, in combination with his thoughts about original sin and human nature, translates into an oeuvre that portrays mankind’s never-ending struggle
By Heather Zises
N ew York sculptor Jerry Atkins makes highly stylized, minimalist forms of animals, inanimate objects, and people that express fundamental states of the human condition. Working predominantly in bronze, Atkins casts simple figures and mechanistic objects that examine themes of helplessness, foolishness, inertia, immobility, and isolation. Ranging in scale and a variety of patinas, each curvilinear piece commands a solemn pause from the viewer. Atkins’ perception of the mind, in combination with his thoughts about original sin and human nature, translates into an oeuvre that portrays mankind’s never-ending struggle to make sense of the world.
Having practiced psychiatry for many years, Jerry Atkins harnesses his knowledge of psychic space to produce totemic works that function as reservoirs of pain and sadness. In some ways, the artist is his own best subject. His foray into childhood was anything but traditional. A descendant of Ashkenazi Jews who fled the Russian pogroms in 1905 for the United States, Atkins was raised by his Hungarian maternal grandparents who were both deaf-mutes. Although they were Jewish, his grandmother learned to read and write from nuns, but his grandfather remained illiterate and worked as a tailor in the sweatshops of New York’s Lower East Side. Being privy to his grandparents’ realm of almost total isolation from the world made a seismic impact on Atkins’ being. “I was very affected by their isolation from the world and their attempts to understand what was going on around them. It made me cognizant of the experience of helplessness,” Jerry Atkins recalls.
At the onset of his career, Atkins created figures and forms that did not have much of an underlying depth to them. They were rudimentary and simplistic. As his practice evolved, it became progressively more abstract over time. He made fewer attempts to make objects look bigger than they are or convey exact details. The forms became more linear and expressive, conveying feelings of helplessness, foolishness, inertia, and immobility with no avenue of escape. Lynched, 2007 depicts this mindset. “A man grappling and struggling with a frog is a metaphor for man’s never-ending struggle and attempts to understand a universe that is a mindless abyss without any understandable essence. I have arrived at forms of animals or humans but even more stylized than before and coupled with mechanistic objects that express progressively greater feelings of helplessness, grief, and immobility,” explains Atkins. “Most recently, I made a piece called Boatswain- Epitaph for a Dog, 2020. I made it after my dear dog Preacher died. The figure is shown bound in coils of rope looking both sad and hopeless – with death impending. The name Boatswain is from Byron’s poem for his dog, Epitaph for a Dog.”
Everything Atkins makes is directly autobiographical and/or represents his view of things. Each piece can be considered an investigation into the human and psychological condition. Having grown up during World War 2 and the Holocaust, there was a widespread sense of helplessness for the average person in the face of the German machine. People were living in constant fear and did not know how to protect things, including themselves. Atkins’ piece Helpless, 2016 illustrates this attitude by representing a figure who is completely bound by a mechanism, one which is going through their head and encapsulating him. Atkins points out that the eyes and mouth signal a figure in deep distress. “This is how I experienced human beings both before and after the Second World War,” he adds.
Before Atkins was casting in bronze, he made all of his work out of clay. As his pieces grew in scale, so did the potential for air pockets to be trapped in the clay. An accidental explosion of artwork in his homemade catenary kiln (due to air pockets in the clay) ruined several pieces of work, which ultimately motivated him to switch to bronze. Atkins has since fabricated many of his original clay pieces into bronze.
“We really don’t know why someone creates art,” shares Atkins when asked about the root of his ideas. “We just know it’s a calling or an impulse that comes from inside of you that pushes you towards making something.” Atkins has actively exhibited his work since 1970. During the Vietnam War, he ran a psychiatric hospital for two years at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. While he was there, he studied at the McNay Art Institute and was awarded a prize at the 1970 San Antonio artist exhibition. He has been featured in solo and group exhibitions across the United States, namely the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Kornblatt Gallery in Washington D.C., and Roko and Kraushaar Galleries in New York City. Atkins received a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry from Rutgers University and a medical degree from New York University School of Medicine. He lives with his family in Brooklyn and maintains a studio in Egg Harbor, New Jersey. His studio location, which is a stone’s throw from Atlantic City, helped groom the sculptor into one of the top poker players in the world.
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