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Headache or Masterwork? Either Way, Albert Einstein Was Robert Berks' Most Monumental

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He has sculpted John and Robert Kennedy, Pope Paul VI, Harry Truman, Pablo Casals and Ernest Hemingway, but the monumental subject—and headache—of Robert Berks’ career has been physicist Albert Einstein. When the $1.8 million bronze is finally unveiled at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. this April (the year of Einstein’s 100th birthday), it will mark the end of a controversy that began a quarter century ago—or, just possibly, the real beginning of it.

The first objection to Berks’ concept came in the late 1950s from physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who insisted that his mentor was “too big for just a sculpture.” He also complained about the rather unassuming posture in which Berks depicts the father of the atomic age. “Einstein was the most audacious man I’ve ever met, and you’ve made him a humble old man,” Oppenheimer told Berks, who shot back, “This is not a humble old man, this is a mountain that’s weathered many storms.”

Berks, at 56, has taken a buffeting or two himself. His work is in Washington’s Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Institution, among many public places, but his style offends some critics. The Washington Post’s Paul Richard has called the Einstein monument “a gigantic, ill-advised chunk of public piety. The faces of Berks’ subjects call to mind the underside of movie seats, as if their skin were made of half-chewed gum.” Others might object to Berks’ fees; in the case of Einstein, he will pocket $350,000 after expenses. But Berks feels that, under the circumstances, he has been grossly underpaid. As for his technique, he claims to be in the line of Dürer and Rembrandt. “My texture is a system of telling several things in counterplay—a combination of painting and sculpture that renders correct form under all kinds of light.”

Berks began his Einstein in 1953, when the physicist was the shaggy-haired sage of Princeton. Though he knew the scientist would sit for only two days, Berks used the first just to get to know Einstein. “Why do you allow me to steal your time?” the artist asked. Replied the fugitive from Nazi Germany: “I realized a long time ago that people need heroes, and it is better to have someone as harmless as I than Hitlers and Mussolinis.”

On the second day Berks took clay in hand as Einstein, who was wearing a sloppy sweatshirt and sandals, began to work. “Suddenly his hair went wild,” recounts Berks. “He was completely unaware of me. I had the impression that he was on a journey through space and time.” A year and hundreds of sketches later, Berks completed an eight-inch model, the original head of which he claims Einstein “loved.” Finding a home for the enlarged final version, however, took 24 years. Israel’s Chaim Weizmann Institute of Science rejected the work, writing Berks with advice from Scripture: “Thou shalt not worship graven images.” West Germany made a generous offer, but the artist declined, recalling Einstein’s feelings about his native land. “I felt I had the greatest masterpiece of my life, of all eternity,” exudes Berks. But it was doomed never to be executed until the Academy of Sciences finally came along.

Construction of the Einstein monument began on Berks’ seven-acre Orient, N.Y. property last June. At times 25 assistants were putting in 15-hour days, and 1,000 people were involved at one time or another. “The piece required space-age engineering,” says Berks. “Building a monument is different from sculpture. We needed engineers and machinery.” It is usually necessary for a sculptor to make four models, each larger than the preceding one, to complete such a sizable monument in correct proportion. To save time, Berks used only three—the eight-inch original grew to a six-foot model and the final rendering was 12 feet high. Then, while the speakers played Bach, Berks labored, often high aboveground in a yellow cherry picker, as Einstein rose outside the sculptor’s 20-room Victorian farmhouse. Berks applied 6,000 pounds of clay to a steel-and-aluminum-mesh skeleton. The final weight of the monument, including a semicircular white granite bench from which Einstein gazes down on a black granite map of the universe, will be 300 tons when the casting is completed in New York’s Modern Art Foundry.

The sculptor was born of Jewish parentage in a Catholic neighborhood in Boston. His father and mother were restorers of Americana (oils and glass portraiture). By the time he was 4, Robert’s artistic abilities had been discovered and encouraged, and at 14 he audited an anatomy course at Harvard Medical School. Three years later he won a scholarship to the Boston Museum School, but left after a year to learn skills “which didn’t exist in art school.” He traveled around New England apprenticing in plaster shops, shipyards and foundries. During World War II he did scientific research at Harvard involving high-octane gas and synthetic rubber. Then, a couple of years later, he taught sculpture to orthodontists.

In 1948 a brief first marriage crumbled, and Berks decided to burn his bridges—literally. He put the torch to 300 of his paintings, then moved to New York and started anew. In 1953 he met his second wife, Tod Martin, 50, a science editor who also coordinates his assignments. It happened on a Greenwich Village street, as they refereed a fight between his collie and her Doberman. They were married four months later. The couple has two daughters, Victoria, 21, and Alexandra, 18. (Berks has another daughter, Barbara, 35, by his first wife.) His hobbies are boating (he owns a flotilla of eight, counting kayaks) and reading. He likes to keep 15 books going at once.

Berks does abstractions and industrial design when he is not launched on more heroic projects. “I still have 10 or 15 monuments in me,” he maintains. “I’d like to do artists, musicians, the wealthy and extraordinary people who, despite all odds, have found a way of making a mark in the world.”

Currently, Berks is comforting himself while awaiting the day the draping is removed from his masterwork. “Einstein was always annoyed at the press he got,” the sculptor says. “But deep down, if he really hadn’t wanted any publicity, he would have gotten his hair cut and worn ordinary suits. I think he would have been very proud of this project.”