Modernist sculptor José Mariano de Creeft was a strong advocate for “direct carving” or taille directe—allowing chisel marks to remain visible—rather than being polished away—and serve as an expressive element of a finished work. In a review of the Spaniard’s oeuvre, Southern author Eudora Welty observed in the Magazine of Art that “de Creeft’s imagination, abundant and profound, generous, daring, ardent, yet always coherent, above all utilizes the material at his hand.” Later in his career, de Creeft drew praise for his assemblages of found objects, a practice that brought him much satisfaction: “From my earliest youth I have always found pleasure in giving life to old objects that have lost their usefulness . . . to deliver them from obscurity.”

Born in Guadalajara, Spain, de Creeft’s family relocated to Barcelona shortly after his birth. Because the family was poor, six-year-old José took a job moving stones at the site of Antonio Gaudi’s famed La Sagrada Familia. He later began to craft small religious figures in clay before taking an apprenticeship with a man who carved wooden figures. In his mid-teens, de Creeft went to Madrid and was employed in the workshop of Spain’s official sculptor, Don Augustin Querol Subirats.

In 1905, de Creeft moved once again, this time to Paris where he was befriended by fellow Spaniards Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso. He was encouraged by Auguste Rodin to enroll at the Académie Julian, and soon began to exhibit pieces in avant-garde venues. To support himself financially, he worked from 1911 to 1914 at a firm that repaired statues using traditional sculptural methods. World War I brought several lean years, but at its conclusion, de Creeft was commissioned to carve an eighteen-foot-tall French infantry soldier or “doughboy” in granite; Le Poilu still stands in the town center of Saugues. He spent three years during the 1920s on the island of Majorca overseeing the restoration of a friend’s castle, during which time he carved over two hundred pieces. After his marriage to an American, de Creeft immigrated to the United States in 1929 and participated in several exhibitions before the stock market crash dampened patronage for sculpture. Simultaneously, he began to suffer pulmonary difficulties as a consequence of his prolonged exposure to stone dust.

During the 1930s, de Creeft’s career was reinvigorated; he pursued direct carving as well as beaten lead in simplified figurative works that return again and again to the female form, and often reflect the influence of such non-western cultures as African and Mayan. He began teaching in 1932, first at the New School for Social Research in New York, followed by a long stint at the Art Students League. Called “Pepe” by his friends, de Creeft was recognized for his sense of humor, a quality that served him well at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina, during the summer of 1944, a term filled with shortages and internal strife. He managed to provide some comic relief by staging a mock bullfight replete with matadors, toreadors, and beautiful Spanish ladies.

According to his obituary, work by de Creeft was featured in thirty-seven one-man exhibitions, culminating in 1960 with a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art that traveled to thirteen additional venues. In 1973, he was one of three American sculptors to be chosen for inclusion at the Vatican Museum of Modern Art in Rome. His most beloved sculpture, however, is the 1959 bronze statue, Alice in Wonderland, which serves as the child-friendly centerpiece of a fountain in New York’s Central Park.