The upcoming sale of Regency Square that began the trend of ever-bigger commercial centers on western Henrico inspired this re-visit to a Flashback column of Sept. 1996 about one of its notable art works, the Family at Play by Stanley Bleifeld. His last major sculptures was the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Capitol Square. A reproduction of the Regency Square statue may be viewed here.
The mall has eclipsed the public square as our culture’s meeting place. Commerce and entertainment are essentially the same, but intersecting this double-woven strand is art. When Regency Square opened on Oct. 16, 1975, the mall contained several representatives of public art. One of these is a particular standout, an exuberant piece by Stanley Bleifeld titled Family At Play.
The work of high relief bronze possesses a zestful quality that could portray a scene on a pleasant Sunday afternoon in Maymont Park. [Neither Deep Run or Three Lakes parks existed when Regency Square broke ground].
If an enterprising newspaper photographer captured this scene it might’ve run with the caption, “Fun Sun Sunday,” and you might barely register the image as you turned the page. But as sculpture, an ephemeral moment takes on a monumentality without collapsing under its own weight. It’s a memory for those involved, “That day when all of us were together.”
Family At Play depicts two youthful parents. The mother, her body arched, and arms raised, his playfully swinging up her daughter. The father balances the son on his legs and lifts him, see-saw style. This is an expression of the sheer joy in life and the love between parents and children. In 1975, the sculpture was installed on a slow revolving motorized plate that gave the piece a sense of motion. The kinetics stalled about a decade later.
Richmonders of a certain vintage may recall a few raised eyebrows about the statute that looked, to some, like hippies at play rather than a usual Richmond style family. This is a city accustomed to booted and bearded men on rearing horses or asexual Neo Classical figures on government buildings. Here were two identifiable young people in casual clothes, jeans even, and the woman apparently isn’t wearing anything under her tank top. It was the ‘70s.
Stanley Bleifeld was in his 50s when Regency opened, and if his name didn’t bring household name recognition, he was getting commissions. From Booklyn, N.Y., he served in the navy during 1944-45 and then attended the historic Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pa., (Dr. Barnes amassed a wide collection of art, and only until recently was his request honored forbidding any explanatory guide or catalogue. Students were supposed to learn by observing and sketching.)
Bleifeld completed his formal training in 1950 with a Masters of Fine Art from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art.
At this point in his artistic endeavor, Bleifeld painted abstracts, but a 1959 visit to Italy where his life and work were changed by his first hand experienced of the great bronzes by Michelangelo and Donatello. He returned to the human form and stories, events and moments. In June 1963, Life magazine gave the artist three big pages entitled, “A Sculptor Hails The Bible.” Of the 38-year-old Bleifeld’s exhibition at he Peridot Gallery in New York, the Life writer Vivian Campbell wrote that the show attracted “a stream of skeptical spectators whose doubts about the reivial of such old-time anecdotal art were dissipated by the sculpture’s unpretentious drama and humanity.”
Bleifeld got an early start on the Bible. As a boy he studied the Old Testament in Hebrew. Though he insisted, “I’m not in the least religious,” he said for inspiration he’d open the book at random.
His sculpture contains a crackling life energy and resembles sketches made concrete, or, in this case, bronzed. In 1967, Esquire magazine used Bleifeld’s art to make a point.
A New York judge had found 28-year-old performance artist Charlotte Moorman guilty of performing a lewd act at a theater because she played the cello while topless.
The judge’s long quote recognized how through the ages the female figure had been immortalized in art but how nowhere had he ever seen “a picture of a nude or topless artist in the act of playing the instrument. I wonder if anyone has.” There, on page 117 of Esquire’s November issue, is a Bleifeld bust of a woman holding a cello to her bosom. Well, man, it was the ‘60s.
On Aug. 11, 1976, a small dedication ceremony was held by Family At Play. A plaque was placed on its pedestal honoring Daniel J. O’Connor, a firm vice-president for design at the Farber development company. O’Connor was struck and killed by a land grader. It read, “Devoted Husband, Father, Friend An Engineer Dedicated To The Highest Traiditons An Standards Of Integrity In His Profession.”
The mall’s builder, Leonard L. Farber, Bronx, New York, raised and World War II combat veteran, came up that week form his Pompano Beach, Fla., headquarters to attend the opening of J.C. Penney and check on his other mall, Cloverleaf, in Chesterfield County. [A mammoth Kroger now occupies the site.]
Farber was no stranger to art appreciation. In August 1974, to commemorate Cloverleaf’s second year, he unveiled three 2-foot statutes by Auguste Rodin that were model casts to control details in larger works. These maquettes were of The Burghers of Calais and Torso Of An Average Man. “He sculpted not just heroes but human beings,” said Farber. He owned seven pieces of the late 19th-century sculptor and didn’t collect any other art.
Bleifeld, who lives in upstate New York and summers in Italy, has maintained a career in art, earning fellowships, exhibiting and teaching. In 1990, his Lone Sailor won the National Sculptor Society’s Henry Hering Memorial Award.
The seven-foot figure forms the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. There is a Winslow Homer melancholy – of being at sea and a long way from home – a stalwart sailor, shoulders hunched, peers into a storm, coat collar turned up and pants legs pressed by a stiff breeze.
Developer Leonard Farber died in 2005. Stanley Bleifeld died March 26, 2011. Family At Play is currently in storage. The plaque memorializing Daniel J. O'Connor went missing some years ago.
The above article was originally published in September 1996.