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Compress Worker, 1941

Artist: Leon Koury, American, 1919-1993
Foundry: Cellini Bronze Works, American (Brooklyn, New York)

Medium: Bronze

Object: 44 x 23 x 11 1/4 in. (111.8 x 58.4 x 28.6 cm)

Credit Line: Gift of Brooks Art Gallery League

Object Number: 41.6

Copyright: © Estate of the artist

On View

The Brooks League, Memphis, Tennessee, 1941

Compress workers move bales of cotton weighing between 500 and 600 pounds. As a result, they are physically fit with superb muscle definition. For Leon Koury, who sculpted the human figure, they provided a perfect model of a heroic male body. Rejecting abstraction in favor of naturalism, Koury sought to update the classical tradition. Conceived in the form of a Greek kouros, with weight thrown back on his right hip and his left leg bent, the Compress Worker is celebrated as an industrial laborer rather than as an athlete or a god.

 

Although the Compress Worker is captured at a moment of rest, the figure is anything but static, with his arms akimbo, head turned down at an angle, and torso arced back slightly. Every limb is subtly jutting, bending, or turning—emphasizing the three-dimensionality of the figure while conveying, even though checked at this moment, his energy and strength. Not merely an exercise in anatomy, the various surfaces are beautifully differentiated, from the smooth skin to the rough fabric of the pants and the texture of the hair. Attention is lavished also on small details that individualize the figure, such as the worn right shoe that exposes his toes. The pose and details combine to create a sympathetic portrait of a dignified person whose job is physical and challenging.

 

After high school, Koury moved to New York City and became a studio assistant to sculptor Malvina Hoffman. He learned how to cast clay working for New Jersey ceramic companies. When his mother died, he returned to Greenville, Mississippi, to take care of his father and did not leave again. Opening first a nightclub in his father’s defunct grocery store, he later installed a studio, taught art classes, and completed portraits of his Delta neighbors, as well as commissioned busts of local luminaries William Faulkner and Hodding Carter. Although little known today, Koury exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and both New York and West Coast galleries.