Building a Legacy: Harry Geffert at Cris Worley Fine Arts

The essence of Harry Geffert’s art is relationships. While certain artists of his generation were concerned with the monolithic, Geffert’s impulse seemed to run in the other direction, asking how to simultaneously capture both ephemera and the monumentality of interconnectedness. It’s a theme you can see in Geffert’s sculpture and in the way he lived his life. Dallas-ites will be able to appreciate it in Geffert’s upcoming posthumous retrospective A Place Beside the Road, on view Oct. 14-Dec. 16 at Cris Worley Fine Arts. I spoke to Geffert’s longtime partner, artist and writer Linda Ridgway, about the upcoming exhibition and how he built his legacy, delicately and enduringly, both through his artwork and his immeasurable impact on generations of Texas artists.

Geffert established and taught in the sculpture department at TCU for 27 years, though he never really stopped teaching or learning. Although he worked in many media over the decades, everything from paper to neon, Geffert’s primary mode of expression was bronze, which he experimented with at his Green Mountain Foundry in Crowley, Texas. In the 1980s Geffert “devised different systems for direct burnout, it became so much more natural,” Ridgway says. “Harry could make bronze alive. It felt like it was still growing.”

These experiments drew artists to Geffert’s foundry, from James Surls to Joe Havel, to Ken Little, to Ridgway herself. “I’ll never forget the first time I met Harry (through Frances Bagley). I had taken some ideas to a local foundry, and they didn’t know what to do with me,” she remembers. But when she brought her ideas for diaphanous bronze to Geffert, he said. “We can do that.” She says, “I never would have completed my ideas without him.” Their enduring “intellectual art exchange” pushed both of them to innovate. “You want me to cast frog hairs,” Geffert once joked to Ridgway.

The artwork for which the exhibition is named, A Place Beside the Road, from 2002, is an example of Geffert’s unique combination of confidence, delicacy, and audacity. It’s a free-standing circle drawn in space by a thin ripple of bronze and cast rope and pierced through at its apex by a bronze tree. This work grounds the exhibition, but it’s one of more than a dozen which will fill the entire gallery footprint. “We’re doing works that are more sculptural and less on the wall,” Ridgway says. “[Cris] is going to keep it up a little longer, like a mini-museum show.”

The span of sculptural works in A Place Beside the Road (the exhibition) reveals the breadth of Geffert’s career, his constant experimentation with materials and iconography. The earliest work in the show is a “special” piece called Kingdom, from 1996, in which Geffert spins his own cosmology on the axis of an orb overtaken by a tree and its roots. Human figures and animals interact all over this realm, with varying degrees of peacefulness. In the exhibition’s latest work, from 2013, titled Longstanding, a ghostly tangle of branches is enough to communicate both complexity, resiliency, and the windswept quiet of a North Texas prairie, another realm encapsulated in a single gesture. You get the sense that over the decades, Geffert honed his skill for editing.

In the years just before Geffert’s 2017 passing, he was producing artwork at a steady clip, thanks in part to his fruitful relationship with dealer Cris Worley. “You know how you meet someone, and you just know it’s going to work?” Ridgway says of their partnership. “[Cris] would always ask him ‘Ok, Harry, what’s coming up?” encouraging him to produce more work. “It was marvelous to see that,” she says. “We were working in the studio on the day he passed away.”

These days, Ridgway continues to cast bronze artworks with Ken King, a protégé of Geffert’s. “Working with him is like an extension of Harry,” she says. After so many years of making art together, Geffert’s voice still seems very present in Ridgway’s mind. “I ask…OK, Harry. What do you think? It’s a joy but it’s also a sadness.” She says, “It’s not just the artwork…it’s all of these people that he influenced, good or bad.”

It can hardly be an accident that the tree was so central to Geffert’s iconography. It is itself a complex system, drawing inspiration from the world in the form of sunlight and rain, nourished by the spot in which it grows. But its connection to the entire forest is what expands its impact down the centuries. “We are creatures that need each other,” Ridgway says. “I think the gift that we’re given is that the artist will let us participate.”