Jan de Swart
About The Artist
Born in the Netherlands in 1908, sculptor Jan de Swart began his practice at a young age by apprenticing to a liturgical carver. Through his training in traditional treatments of precious woods, de Swart gained a deep appreciation for the character and subtleties of his materials. In 1928, he immigrated to the United States and was one of the first artists to take up residence at the Park Moderne in Calabasas, California.
After pursuing colorful jobs such as gold prospecting and furniture making, de Swart found remarkable financial success designing commercial and industrial accessories. Despite his lack of technical training, de Swart had an intuitive understanding of engineering principles and could flawlessly eyeball the hefty calculations that burdened other inventors. With a knack for discovering new applications of plastic technologies, de Swart designed a wide spectrum of products, from attachments for warcraft machinery to pharmaceutical and cosmetic packaging. By the end of World War II, de Swart had registered over one hundred technical patents, many of which are still used today.
According to de Swart’s wife, Ursula, he "kind of [played] with" his new materials "along the way" and discovered aesthetically fascinating new forms in the process. Wartime demand for his inventions offered de Swart the necessary financial security to invest more time in his art and he thus began using new plastics to articulate his signature abstract forms. In 1944, the artist was featured in his first solo exhibition, and the following year his works were shown at the Pasadena Art Museum. His rise to prominence was fueled in part by his visibility in Arts & Architecture magazine and his close relationship to the magazine’s editor and publisher, John Entenza. De Swart swiftly became recognized within artistic circles as a technical virtuoso and a creative hero.
Praised by Entenza for his "quickened awareness in a world of discovery," de Swart cultivated a research-heavy practice that even led him to synthesize the "invisible world of molecular biology." His work explored the structural building blocks of living organisms, and, through his use of cutting-edge materials, his pieces replicated previously untapped sources of physical strength, malleability, and simplicity found in nature.
In addition to his passion for modern materials, de Swart maintained a fondness for the medium of his youth, wood. According to him, moving beyond the tedious hand-carving methods of his early education and instead adopting the bandsaw allowed him to quickly and easily "reveal [the] inner structure" of his wood and "indulge in a rich diversity" of its inherent design.
While de Swart’s works were conceptually dense and helped significantly advance the period’s language of design, they strayed from many other modernist trends within sculpture. Instead of assuming self-importance or preciousness, de Swart’s objects were intended to be integrated directly into their architectural settings, accommodating not only their environment but its inhabitants as well.
"Biography." Jan De Swart, The Jan De Swart Foundation , www.jandeswart.com/about-jan-deswart/jan-de-swart-bio/.
Folkart, Burt A. "Known for Works in Wood : L.A. Inventor, Sculptor Jan De Swart Dies at 79." Los Angeles Times, 25 Apr. 1987.
McGee, Mike. "First Interview with Jan De Swart." Laguna Art Museum, Internet Archive, 1985.
Meares, Hadley. "Park Moderne: LA's Lost Oz." Curbed LA, 15 Sept. 2016, la.curbed.com/2016/9/15/12922422/calabasas-park-moderne.
"The Pure Research of Jan de Swart." Craft Horizons (Archive : 1941-1978), vol. 1, no. 18, 1958, pp. 10-18.