how did duane hanson create such hyper-realistic sculptures of tourists and sunbathers?

With some help from Polaroids. A new exhibition at the Aperture Foundation collects 15 years of the late artist’s process photographs, and lends insight into his view of America.

by Emily Manning
16 February 2017, 8:00pm

Tourists II, 1988. © Estate of Duane Hanson

Duane Hanson's incredibly lifelike depictions of everyday Americans — sticky sunbathers, tourists, house painters, cowboys — can be unsettling in their degrees of realism. Rounding a corner in a museum exhibition to find one sitting on a bench, shoulders slouched, gazing into the distance or listening to a WalkMan is an often jarring experience. It's always a trip watching others interact with the works, too. Little kids are at first apprehensive, as if Queenie — a female custodian — might come alive and shake her feather duster at them for gawking. Eventually, they become more comfortable and go in for a closer look. Though Hanson's work encourages thought about American class stratification and consumer culture, the question most viewers come away with is: "how did he do it?"

Fancy Dude Cowboy, 1984-88. © Estate of Duane Hanson

Duane Hanson Polaroids: 1979-1994, a new exhibition opening tonight at the Aperture Foundation in New York City, sheds a little more light on Hanson's strange magic. The artist amassed an archive of nearly 1,000 Polaroids, which he used to plot out the subtle gestures, poses, body language, and facial expressions of his wax and resin figures.

Hanson's photographs vary. Some are studies of sitters: a kid holding a surfboard, a man leaning against a car, a bodybuilder flexing. Others feature his sculptures at various stages — unpainted bodies and unassembled limbs. Often, the real and soon-to-be hyper-real interact. While creating one of his couples, Hanson positioned a female sitter next to an unfinished rendering of her waxy husband. The artist took great care to represent even the smallest details that would lend his characters their uncanny realism. 

Tourists II, 1988. © Estate of Duane Hanson

As well as being Hanson's primary tools for executing his unique vision, the photographs also serve as a historical document of the artist's work. According to Aperture, the photographs on view in the exhibition "were often pinned to the wall, or spattered with paint, so they are not pristine but scarred by the artist's hand." Much like his sculptures, Hanson's Polaroids simultaneously convey humor and sadness, as well as the line between representation and reality. Hanson wonders about who we look at, and how we see them.

'Duane Hanson Polaroids: 1979-1994' is on view through March 23, 2017. An opening reception will be held tonight from 7-8:30 pm. More information here

Fancy Dude Cowboy, 1984-88. © Estate of Duane Hanson

Self Portrait with Model, 1979. © Estate of Duane Hanson

Process photo of Mary Weisman, 1993. © Estate of Duane Hanson

Football Player, 1981. © Estate of Duane Hanson

Study of a Sunbather, 1990. © Estate of Duane Hanson


Text Emily Manning

duane hanson
duane hanson polaroids: 1979–1994