Robert M. Engman, 91, of Haverford, a sculptor and professor of fine arts whose sculptures adorned city streets and museum gardens in Philadelphia and beyond, died Wednesday, July 4, of respiratory failure at Bryn Mawr Hospital.
From the early 1950s until 1992, when he retired to his workshop in Haverford, Mr. Engman was active in the art communities of New Haven, Conn., and later Philadelphia.
Most associated him with colossal soaring and twisting sculptures in blue, brown, black and green, although in recent years he experimented with sculptures small enough to fit on a table.
Mr. Engman’s best-known sculpture is Triune, a 20-foot-high web of interlocking bronze curves at 15th Street and South Penn Square across from City Hall. The piece, which took him 18 months to create, was installed in 1975. Installation was so complex that he became a bundle of nerves.
“Triune is the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” Mr. Engman told the Inquirer then. “It’s the first of its kind and the last. You pay a price. If you want to grow your reputation, you must continue to do these things. They take so much time, you say, ‘I have to start a factory.’ But I never had a team of people who worked for me. I created things by myself.”
Mr. Engman’s career took off in the 1960s and ’70s with successful New York gallery shows. But by 1978, tired of gallery owners urging him to keep producing the same work because it sold, he changed his approach to art.
“After Triune, he didn’t want to spend a year and a half on one project, so he turned to smaller sculptures and teaching. He was a purist. He did exactly what he wanted to do,” said his wife, Nancy Porter.
He never again produced a monumental work, and his artistic profile faded from public view.
“He’s one of the important voices in late 20th-century sculpture, yet many people have never heard of his work,” Kirsten Jensen, the former Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest chief curator at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, told the Inquirer last year. She has since left the museum.
Anxious to bring his work back into the limelight, his family collaborated with Jensen to organize a one-man gallery exhibit at the Doylestown museum. The show, a retrospective, opened in October 2016 and closed in February 2017. It drew 27,000 visitors, said Claire Meler, the museum’s marketing coordinator.
Born in Arlington, Mass., Mr. Engman grew up in a community of Swedish immigrants. His father died in an accident when Mr. Engman was 2. His stepfather, Conrad Olson, a blacksmith and toolmaker, taught Mr. Engman metal-working skills that paved the way for his sculpting career.
Mr. Engman struggled with dyslexia and never completed high school, but his art skills were superb. He persuaded the Rhode Island School of Design to give him a trial semester. He blossomed there, graduating and moving on to Yale University, where he received master’s degrees in painting and sculpture in the mid-1950s.
Starting in 1960, Mr. Engman was director of Yale’s sculpture program in its Graduate School of Fine Arts. In 1964, he moved to Philadelphia, where he became director of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate studies in sculpture. He held the post until retiring.
“He was a frequent visiting critic at schools of art during his teaching career,” said his wife, whom he married in 1980.
In 2016, the couple and their son, Anders, produced a book, Robert Engman Sculpture: Theme and Variations. The book was published by Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
“Robert Engman’s work over the last 50 years has ranged in size from monumental to miniature,” the publisher’s review said. “In the last 10 years, he has cast a group of 52 distinctive small sculptures whose modest scale has allowed him to realize his vast number of sculptural ideas more efficiently.”
When not in his studio, he enjoyed playing golf, his wife said.
Besides his wife and son, Mr. Engman is survived by daughters Kerstin, Allyn, Bevin, and Kelsey; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. He was divorced from Margaret Engman in 1977. She also survives.
A memorial service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 14, at Old Haverford Friends Meeting, 235 E. Eagle Rd., Havertown. Burial will be private.
Contributions in his name may be made to Main Line Health Home Care & Hospice, 240 Radnor Chester Rd., Suite 100, Radnor, Pa. 19087.