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Sculpting the shape, seeing the light

Erwin Hauer’s geometric screens bring a modernist touch to the MFA’s facade

Erwin Hauer Sculptor Erwin Hauer, in his Bethany, Conn., studio in July, says of his panels, "The light's a given, the shape is not." (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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BETHANY, Conn. — Upstairs in the old red barn that has been his studio for 30 years, formalist sculptor Erwin Hauer was talking about Baroque music.

“I come from Vienna,’’ he said in an accent that lingers after more than a half-century in this country, “and out of seven nights a week I spent about four in concert halls for a number of years. But what’s driving me is pretty much what a musician does. If you’re a musician, you make music, whether you have an audience, a publisher, or anybody who you can share it with. . . . And for me, shape is the same thing.’’

In his three decades of teaching at Yale University, where Josef Albers brought him onto the faculty in 1957, few of Hauer’s students knew of the architectural screens and walls that had gained him international notice in the 1950s and ’60s.

“When I had my first few years of success, everybody jumped on the bandwagon — cinder-block manufacturers, aluminum extruders — and there was a whole glut of perforated walls. And then it went the way of the Hula-Hoop,’’ said Hauer, a gentle, blue-eyed bear of a man with giant hands. “It was just too much of a good thing.’’

But he kept making art, and in 2004, a pair of events — the publication by Princeton Architectural Press of “Continua,’’ his book about the designs, and a serendipitous encounter with Enrique Rosado, a former student who could digitize them — gave him a chance at what he called “a total restart’’ of his career.

When the Museum of Fine Arts opens its Art of the Americas Wing this week, 20 of Hauer’s light-diffusing screens will be there, not as part of the collection but as an element of the facade chosen by the wing’s architects, Foster + Partners. It was “Continua’’ that brought Hauer, 84, to the architects’ attention, and it was Rosado’s computer expertise that allowed Hauer’s modernist designs, originally realized as masonry screens he cast by hand, to be adapted to thinner, less weighty materials, scaled to fit a given space, and mass-produced.

“The big challenge is forcing the software to do what you want to do,’’ said Rosado, 43, now Hauer’s partner in a company called EHR Design Associates. “Because it doesn’t want to do what you want to do. It wants to do what the engineers have decided. And they’re not aesthetic — or they don’t know what Erwin’s aesthetic is.’’

The MFA’s multipanel screens were made of medium-density fiberboard at Hauer and Rosado’s factory in an industrial area of New Haven, their layered geometric pattern precision-cut by what look like mammoth drill bits on a massive machine conventionally used in the aerospace industry. Each 6-by-4-foot panel loses about 200 pounds of sawdust in the process.

The finished screens are white, a seemingly straightforward choice, but their color was a point of contention that took over a year to resolve as various parties lobbied for metallics, browns, rusts, and reds. Hauer — who long ago audited Albers’s color class at Yale and “struck out completely,’’ he said, on the great color theorist’s homework assignments — never wavered from his devotion to white.

“I don’t think in color,’’ Hauer said. “It’s just not my thing. I read color all right, but I don’t dream in color.’’

What does fascinate him is the ever-changing way light plays on the white of his screens’ sinuous surfaces.

“I cannot manipulate light; I manipulate shape,’’ he said. “The light’s a given, the shape is not.’’ And to Hauer, “shape is everything.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

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