``A very direct, simple Yorkshireman.'' That's how the British sculptor Henry Moore struck American art collector Peggy Guggenheim when she met him 48 years ago -- and purchased a not-quite-so-simple bronze that he had brought along in a ``handbag'' to show to her. He was then ``teaching art to earn his living.''
Recently, a 1940s figure by Moore sold in New York for $1.5 million. Whatever that suggests about the art market, it does indicate Moore's phenomenal reputation.
This reputation was achieved long before his passing at age 88 on Sunday. It amounted to such a considerable international recognition that when London's Tate Gallery director, Alan Bowness, in his tribute, called Moore ``the greatest British artist of our time,'' it sounded rather like an understatement.
But Moore always came across modestly. Professor Bowness summed it up: ``He was proud of his Yorkshire roots. . . . His enormous success made little difference to his way of life. . . .''
Moore described the kind of sculpture he was moved by -- and made -- as ``full-blooded and self-supporting, . . . strong and vital, giving out something of the energy and power of great mountains.''
The human figure was his main subject, particularly the themes of ``Reclining Woman'' and ``Mother and Child,'' but he carved the figure monumentally, half transforming it into the massiveness of giant rock formations. The form and feel of bones fascinated him, inspiring tough sculptures that combine rough with smooth, and play the sharp and abrupt against the hollowed and rounded.
His work was never completely abstract and sometimes surprisingly realistic; but its roots were in the art of ``primitive'' cultures. Sometimes it looks like a cross-fertilization of Mexican sculpture with the 11th century stone carvings he knew in Yorkshire churches. This primitiveness could disquiet those more familiar with the tradition of sculpture stemming from the Italian Renaissance -- though Moore regarded himself as part of the European development of sculpture and was an admirer of Michelangelo.