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Everyman sculptor Duane Hanson dies

Published Sep. 15, 2005

Duane Hanson, whose astonishingly realistic sculptures of garish tourists and blowsy supermarket shoppers celebrated common people and fooled passersby, has died. He was 70.

Mr. Hanson, whose work was exhibited at every major Tampa Bay area art museum, died Saturday of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at Boca Raton Community Hospital. He had been in frail health for years because of extended exposure to toxic resin and fixative fumes in the studio _ the dangerous byproducts of a distinctive working process.

His work, rooted in the Pop Art movement of the 1950s and '60s, featured life-size images of men and women in natural poses, wearing real clothes. They were often gaudily dressed, overweight people seen at a discount store or tourist trap.

Mr. Hanson said his work _ with titles like Supermarket Shopper, Woman With Laundry Basket and Drug Addict _ was more than an imitation of real-life characters.

"You have to doctor it up," he said. "That's where the artistry comes in."

He explained in 1970: "Realism is best suited to convey the frightening idiosyncrasies of our time. The purpose of my work, like the flashing road signal, is to depict some of the latent and implicit terrors of our social environment."

In 1991, one Hanson sculpture fooled a Fort Lauderdale museum guard into calling firefighters to revive an unresponsive woman he found sitting in the museum window.

"You can see the veins in her hands and legs," said a police lieutenant who finally realized they were looking at a sculpture.

Mr. Hanson "was one of the most popular artists working in America, in part because his art embraced everyman as a subject," said Christina Orr-Cahall, director of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, which is exhibiting some of his work.

His work has been shown throughout the world. A one-man blockbuster show in 1978 at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art still holds an attendance record _ 186,000. A 1984 exhibit of his work in Japan drew 250,000. He had exhibitions at the Tampa Museum of Art in 1989 and at St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts on Dec. 31.

He was one of the first winners of the Florida Prize, given annually to a visual or performing artist for outstanding work over his lifetime. In 1992, he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.

The works attracted crowds to museums, and sympathetic critics praised Mr. Hanson _ finding either satire or underlying humanity in the figures.

Not all critics were enthralled, though; some saw his figures as not much more than wax museum dummies.

Said the New York Times in 1994: "The only problem is that the sculptures must eventually speak for themselves. And they haven't much to say on their own, it turns out. They're as banal and badly put together as the cliched characters they depict."

"I don't fit in," Mr. Hanson said in a 1988 interview. "I'm a maverick. It irritates the critics when you're popular. They think you're not supposed to be any good. They hate realism. They're still fighting and protecting (the) revolution of abstraction. I don't give a damn for them."

Mr. Hanson's early works were largely abstract. For a time in the 1960s, he created overtly political works, including Abortion, a figure of a dead woman, pregnant and covered with a sheet. A 1967 piece, War, showed dead and dying soldiers.

A Minnesota native, Mr. Hanson lived and worked in South Florida for 30 years. He had his first bout with cancer in the early 1970s.

Services are planned for 2 p.m. Thursday at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Miami. Additional services will be scheduled at a later date in Minnesota. Mr. Hanson is survived by his wife, Wesla, five children and four grandchildren.

_ Times art critic Mary Ann Marger contributed to this report. Some information came from the Associated Press and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.