Growing up in Bridgeport, Leonardo Drew began drawing as a child, mostly superheroes, as that’s what he thought art was. A school field trip in the 1970s to see a Chuck Close exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford — the first museum he visited — opened his eyes to other possibilities. Putting down his pencil in favor of tools, he turned to sculpture.
A force of nature who likens his artistic process to the weather, Drew creates emotionally charged artworks that celebrate transformation and the cycles of life from birth to death and rebirth. Drew’s artistic existence comes full circle starting in May, when his indoor-outdoor exhibition Leonardo Drew: Two Projects opens at the Wadsworth, where his creative awakening was born.
Now nearing 60, Drew has been well recognized for his art, which has been in many exhibitions and is in the collections of noteworthy museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. His upcoming show at the Wadsworth, running late May through December, is all the more special and feels a bit like giving back to Connecticut for nurturing him as an artist. “It’s great to come back to the same place where my first museum trip was and here I am — actually showing in that museum,” he says of his first time exhibiting at the Wadsworth. “It’s crazy.”
While many people think Drew’s powerful sculptures, inspired by America’s rich industrial history, are composed of found objects, they are, in fact, crafted from raw materials like wood, iron and cotton which he laboriously works in his Brooklyn, New York, studio. Through a variety of oxidation and other techniques, he “ages” them to create sculptures that are ripe for interpretation by audiences yet tell a story about the cycles of life.
The two-part Wadsworth exhibition comprises a massive outdoor, interactive sculptural landscape in the museum’s open-air central courtyard and an equally impressive, site-specific installation in the museum lobby. The outdoor piece, titled Number 81S and described as “a worn and torn rug of a dilapidated history,” invites audiences to both reflect and engage with it by resting, or playing, on it.
A common thread in Drew’s sculptures is transformation, and he repeatedly takes apart and revises his artworks. A sprawling multi-part work, City in the Grass, was his first outdoor public art installation when it was in New York City’s Madison Square Park in 2019. That work is being transformed for the Wadsworth courtyard. “Nothing is really sacred. If it is still in my territory, then I will dismantle it and realize the next realization of that piece,” he says. “It gives it a number of lives and morphs into a new self. It’s like birth, life, death and regeneration.”
His sweeping wood installation, 215, resembling an explosion frozen mid-air, earlier commanded attention in a New York City gallery, taking up the full back wall. It is also being revamped for its May debut in the Wadsworth lobby.
Describing his sculptures as “mirrors,” Drew explains that titling them with ambiguous numbers instead of names allows audiences to see what they want. “I’ve always felt that the viewer is complicit in the creative process and numbering the works allows them a perspective and realization that’s personal and not reliant on my input.”
Leonardo Drew: Two Projects
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St., Hartford
On display late May through December
Museum admission is free through June 2021