The following is taken from a recent exchange of emails.
Tim Scott: Dear Robin, I thought you might like to read this by Clement Greenberg, re Abcrit discussions on “abstract content”:
“….The quality of a work of art inheres in its “content”, and vice versa. Quality is “content”, you know that a work of art has content because of its effect. The more direct denotation of effect is “quality”. Why bother to say that a Velasquez has “more content” than Salvador Rosa when you can say more simply and with direct reference to the experience you are talking about, that the Velasquez is “better” than the Salvador Rosa? You cannot say anything truly relevant about the content of either picture, but you can be specific, and relevant about the difference in their effect on you. “Effect” like “Quality” is “content”, and the closer reference to actual experience of the first two terms makes “content “virtually useless for criticism………indulge in that kind of talk about “content” myself. If I do not do so any longer is because it came to me, dismayingly, some years ago that I could always assert the opposite of whatever it was I did say about “content” and not get found out; that I could say almost anything I pleased about “content” and sound plausible……”
Robin Greenwood: Thanks Tim. We all define these things a bit differently, don’t we, but I’ve found the idea of “abstract content” quite useful recently. Time will tell if I’ve got it right or wrong.
Tim Scott: I’m interested. Are you saying that “abstract content” is different to any other sort of content? (Clem says it’s all the same but should be called “quality”; he doesn’t use the word “value”, as in value judgement.) Another point he doesn’t touch on is whether there is any difference between “sculpture content” and “painting content” in terms of definition.
Robin Greenwood: Yes, different, because no-one has done it before. But my idea of “abstract content” is a bit more prosaic than Greenberg’s idea on content. It’s something of a concoction, of course, but it’s about countering the idea that abstract art is all about simplicity and aesthetics. It’s almost a quantative thing, rather than a quality thing – and of course no guarantee of achieving painting or sculpture of value. Basically, I’m saying abstract art could put a lot more in from the beginning of actual, nitty-gritty activity – movement, physicality, spatiality, whatever, just general good-to-look-at stuff – complexity, in other words. As Alan rightly says, complexity is of no value in itself, but I’m saying it’s a better place to start than simplistic, “modernistic” ideas, tropes and formats.
For a while, the study of the body gave us something like complex content, but in the end it proved, I think, a limiting factor for abstract sculpture. Abstract sculpture should be amazingly unlimited in what it can do, particularly spatially. Hard to achieve, though!
In the end, the achievement of profound simplicity, such as you find in great art, is a complex matter. I don’t think you can fake that, you have to start from a complex position, putting in as much inventive abstract content as possible, see where it goes… What exactly “abstract content” is, well, that’s indefinable, of course, until it’s invented and specific, and the individual product of each artist.
Tim Scott: Yes Robin, re your last sentence, I have been asking that question for a long time! It’s not just being able to bugger about with forges and hammers either! I agree with virtually everything you have said; I find myself in exactly that position, struggling to put physicality, real three-dimensionality, movement, complex but meaningful relationships et al into my work.
It occurred to me that a useful parallel could be Music’s “content’ being ‘abstract’, whilst Literature’s being, well, literary – referential, i.e. NOT abstract.
Robin Greenwood: Yes, music is abstract, and it’s an analogy Tony Smart likes a lot. The thing is, music IS a language, albeit one that evolves. I’m not convinced sculpture is a language at all. If it is, it’s lost in translation! Or rather, it’s untranslatable.
Yes, we have to avoid the literary, and the literal and the figurative, but we don’t really know what exactly “abstract” means for sculpture. And over the last thirty years or so we have all talked a lot about physicality, and almost taken it for granted that that is central to sculpture. Mark Skilton, who has done some great work in the past few years, is really into physicality. Now I’m not so sure, because I’m not sure that it is really an abstract thing. Spatiality seems more abstract. Physicality seems a bit metaphorical, alluding to things happening in the material that relate to the body (?), against gravity etc. What do you think about this now? Personally, I want the thing to get more abstract.
Tim Scott: To take your last sentence first; I totally agree that we are aiming for greater abstraction as a means of making sculpture more original and more significant in the way it “works”.
I’m glad to know that Tony shares my enthusiasm for musical analogy. I have always found it a useful way of explaining sculptural intentions, though I am in agreement that, as always, explanations are fraught with dangers.
No, sculpture in my view also is not a language, but it is a unique mode of human expression with its own identity and essential characteristics, which are specific to it. Defining what these are is, of course, the major problem for all of us.
I have been fully aware of what the Brancaster sculptors have been doing, albeit only from photographs (the limitations of which I have been suffering for the last sixty years!), including what Mark has shown. If I have a criticism (general), it is not to do with spatiality or physicality (which I will come to), it is more to do with what I perceive as a continuing (retrograde) dependence on “manufactured” or what I have always called “given” form (which I know only too well is an immense problem with steel). How and with what methods this can be overcome, is an open question; but I am convinced that addressing it will further abstraction.
As regards your comments on spatiality and physicality as parts of essential abstract sculptural thinking, I am in total agreement that the former is vital.
The awareness of physicality became, for me, an essential part of my history in my attempts to escape the confines of “pictorialism”, and thus is probably of greater significance in my works as a liberating factor. I do agree, though, that if it is conceived as a characteristic that one tries to inject into sculptural form, there is a danger of being too associative, too attached to evocations of the natural world (though I wouldn’t have thought of it as anti-gravitational).
One of the most exciting aspects of ‘spatiality’ that I see as possible (in abstract sculpture of course), is to pinpoint the huge (physical) difference between “architectural” space and “sculptural” space as presently understood.
Robin Greenwood: Yes, I see the absolute liberating necessity in sculpture of asserting its physicality, as against the pictorialism of much of the sixties work. I wouldn’t for a moment argue against that, and “Sculpture from the Body” and your forging work etc. were absolutely necessary antidotes to that flatness and frontality. Be assured, I don’t want to do away with physicality in sculpture, it is after all very closely tied to three-dimensionality and spatiality, and in some ways those three things are inseparable. I just don’t want the “physicality” thing to be the focus of the content of my own work.
As to the point about manufactured or “given” form, I agree; and I think that is part of my thinking about increasing the complexity of the content. I’m involved in a large amount of gas cutting as a starting-point for my current work, in an attempt to get the steel and the space to be totally engaged – in other words, for the movement of the space and the movement of the steel to be unified, rather than the steel being thought of as the sculpture “proper”, which divides up the space, or merely occupies it. I’m no longer trying to put suggestions of physical attributes into the steel, only to open it right up to all sorts of very different ways of fully entwining with and engaging with and moving the space.
I’m also in agreement with you about the huge difference between architectural space and sculptural space – and that has taken me so long to work out. That’s very interesting coming from you, a trained architect. One very important aspect of this, as you pointed out once in a comment about Tony Smart’s work, is how the sculpture relates to the floor. So, combined with what I have said about not making the physicality allusive, the thing for me at the moment is how to make the SPACE of the sculpture exist naturally, from top to bottom. So, no feet, no legs, no props, just immediately into the spatial content of the work…
Tim Scott: Re the first paragraph, complete agreement; and of course we all as individual sculptors have to find our own routes (roots too!); in fact it would become boring and unproductive unless we all differed.
I sympathise (and empathise) with your steel problems; it is much the same with me; (I am chopping up plywood sheets into small parts to try to rearticulate them into meaningful configurations). As I have said before, the material has to obtain its own “nobility”, by which I mean that it ceases to be merely material, but becomes “live”. The “nature” of most materials is so strong that it becomes a battle.
I’ll have a stab at “spatial” definition for what it is worth.
Many have pointed to Architecture being akin to Music, i.e. its essence being “musical” in its construction, (abstract?).
I would surmise that “architectural space” is “distanced” space. It is perceived by the eye but can go beyond the eye, (towns, cities, the Acropolis!) If we hazard a small definition: of Architecture being “what the body DOES” and Sculpture being “what the body IS”, we arrive at the idea that Architecture operates by the occupation, (and displacement), of space, (according to human and structural need), whereas Sculpture operates by “extension”. The body does this in sport (high jump, long jump), dance, both anti-gravitational (Ballet) or gravitational (Bharata Natyam), or even simply reaching out, extending to a limit of the physically possible (Rodin)… I would suggest that this “limit” is exactly what differentiates “sculptural” space; The “possible” in architecture is different to the “possible” in sculpture, in that in sculpture it is contained, restrained, reined in by comparison, but of its own internal necessity, created by a non-functional structure embodying physicality, movement, the constraints of gravity, and of course “content”.
So, if we desire, as an ideal for an abstract sculpture, giving physical space and physical form equal weight and sculptural function, these two major constituents (albeit maybe not the only constituents), will in turn be constrained by the limitations of “concept”; of what they can do successfully, or not, as the case may be. (I learned a lot about this with “Cathedral”). Indeed, in my opinion, one of the debilitating factors in a great deal of modern sculpture, has been the total confusion over what constitutes sculptural form (and space), over that which constitutes the architectural since it has been assumed that they are synonymous or interchangeable, pace Constructivism, Minimalism, Caro et al.
I don’t know whether any of this rings any bells with you, but obviously it touches on areas that we are all concerned with in the battle to get an abstract sculpture flourishing from the roots that already exist… As (I think) you have said, it is quite possibly the case that abstract sculpture will occupy some sort of new territory that was not really conceived of previously; the question, of course, as always, how to go about it!
Robin Greenwood: Yes, I think abstract sculpture is going to occupy some brand new territory. Maybe it does already. And for that reason, I slightly disagree with your contrasting definitions of architectural and sculptural space, because I think that maybe the limitations you set for sculptural space are actually the natural limitations of figurative sculpture. I’ve always thought this is the main difference between abstract and figurative sculpture – that the latter is constrained by the limitations of the singular figure/body. All extension returns to the torso etc. Figurative sculpture is not and never has been really spatial. Physical, yes, but not really spatial.
With abstract sculpture, all bets are off as regards the spatial limitations. Who knows what they are? However, we agree that the early attempts (mine included) to make abstract sculpture more spatial than figurative sculpture ever had been were mired in the exact confusion you indicate, between what is architectural space and what is rightfully sculptural space. I think the big point to make here is that I don’t think abstract sculpture can be defined by the body any more than it can be defined by architecture. Abstract sculpture has to deal with sculptural space, without reference to anything else. And because figurative sculpture didn’t deal really with spatiality, it means abstract sculpture is in unexplored territory, entirely of its own invention – how exciting!
Tim Scott: Robin, I think you slightly misunderstand me; or maybe I haven’t explained myself clearly enough (in the past or now).
I do NOT intend for one moment anybody to think that my references to’ body’ characteristics in perception is to do with figuration, or any reference to appearances. On the contrary, what I hoped I had described was the fact that all our sensations, physical, optical, sensory, psychological, spatial, and so on, stem from our being ‘in’ human bodies; that is how our experiences happen. It is our biology, if you like, that conditions everything we need to create or enjoy the facts of what we call ‘sculpture’ or’ architecture’.
The point I was trying to put across was that the ‘biological’ conditions needed to create and perceive ‘architecture’ differ from those essential to sculpture; thus effecting, in practice, the resulting two separate art forms whatever the underlying purposes may or may not be.
I agree with you that a truly abstract sculpture can only operate in and incorporate ‘sculptural space’ (however we define that), and that is one of the great distinguishing factors setting it apart from past forms of sculpture, and that the pursuit of its inclusion into the very stuff of sculpture-making will produce something new and exciting.
To return to ‘spatial’ definition as ‘architectural space’, and ‘sculptural space’; their characteristics and differences; I would add a few more thoughts:
I would hazard a guess (only proven by practice of course) that if ‘sculptural’ space is extended beyond undefined real spatial limits, it automatically will become ‘architectural, thus destroying the very essence of what is being attempted spatially (i.e. something specific, particular, and unique to abstract sculpture). There is also the important matter of scale. The ‘fabric’ of the sculpture (whatever the materials may be) will diminish in visual proportion to the ‘distances’ travelled. Architects have encountered this for thousands of years, the oft quoted example of ‘entasis’ usually being cited. I would suggest that for abstract sculpture not to become’ architecture through its spatial occupation, it must never lose sight of its core (or it is in danger of becoming a sort of sculptural ‘forest’ ). This is a condition which I DON’T think applies to architectural space, and, therefore, is one of the key differentiating factors.
I would also say that the ‘foresting’ of sculptural space through unlimited extension, is in danger of sabotaging the essential physical factor of gravity and its key subliminal part of sculpture’s essence (whatever forms are invented to express it). I cannot think of a great sculpture that is not ‘subject to gravity”.(I suppose we could argue this one for hours).
There is also the factor of the reception, by the spectator, of whatever the sculpture is physically doing in ITS space. ‘Physicality’ (which we have all spent so much effort in injecting into a sculptural concept, and which is now more often referred to as three-dimensionality), will become the more unreadable the further it ceases to be the outcome of physical form, rather than of a supposed spatial generation. A spatial concept can only generate’ ‘sculptural’ ‘physicality, by collusion with form. The form can be minimal, but must condition the space within which and extending which it exists. I suppose the only sphere in which your quest for ‘abstract content’ could totally succeed would be ‘virtual’ reality (perish the thought !!!)
Another aspect of ‘architectural’ space that defines it as separate from the needs of a ‘sculptural’ one is the matter of ‘time’; of a peripatetic and displacing discovery and assimilation of what happens. This ‘exploration’ in time of an architectural world (allying it once more to music as many have pointed out) does not of course mean that you ‘discover’ sculpture at one go and then move on; and of course one can spend as much real time exploring a sculpture’s effect as a piece of architecture’s. But I would suggest that the concentration of this ‘effect’ spatially, and its intensity, especially its intensity, makes for a distinctive identity as abstract sculpture.
I am sure that there are plenty of other notable aspects to this subject that we haven’t yet unearthed as being noteworthy; but there again writing it is not doing it and making it happen!
Robin Greenwood: Tim, Thanks for that… it’s a good analysis, yes. You are probably right. But I just have a sneaking feeling about the “gravity” thing, and the “core” thing, and even physicality itself – that they may be not so central to abstract sculpture. I repeat, maybe. Or perhaps we just have to come at them differently.
But to start, I want to relate the experience I had the last time I looked at a Degas sculpture in depth, about 6 months ago. That was at the Courtauld, “Dancer Looking at the Sole of her Right Foot”. http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/gallery/f6623fc5.html I think it’s a great little figurative sculpture, and you probably agree. It is, in parts, quite physical – in the twist and compression of the torso and the opposing crooked arm. But even here, I thing we are looking at something that has overcome gravity, because the content of the work is NOT about how the sculpture holds itself up against gravity, or reacts to the floor. It’s true content is not to be found in the standing leg, which is almost describable as being passive, or at least being pulled up, away from the ground, by the whole of the rest of the sculpture. It’s true, it has a core, and yes, it is physical; but it is already a rather strongly spatial thing, because the intent of the sculpture is to BE in space. In fact, after looking at it a good while, I was struck by a kind of unphysicality about it, in its seeming desire to get up and articulate itself in space…
I’m in trouble now because I can’t articulate this better. But Tucker said: “In Degas’ sculpture, the figure is articulated not as in Rodin from the ground upwards, but from the pelvis outward, in every direction, thrusting and probing with volumes and axes until a balance is achieved”. This gets near what I think, even though it’s an exaggeration for the Degas; but it is a kind of “proto-spatiality”; a more three-dimensional state, I think, than Rodin achieved. But it’s as far as you can go with the spatiality of the figure (though I always thought Kathy Gili’s first forged figure was VERY spatial, for a figure). Surely the way to go with abstract sculpture is more of this, no?
The troubles with the figure – for sculpture – is in fact “the core”, and perhaps too the symmetry. We have to keep returning to the torso. Can’t go anywhere else. Rodin even tried chopping it up to get over that one. Not sure that worked, really. Sculpture had to go abstract, to do something different.
The sculptural “forest” sounds bad, but I don’t know. Can’t rule it out. I think there are lots of things we haven’t tried yet. And I definitely want to – tentatively – explore a kind of anti-gravity. I know – dangerous. And I know that the worst excesses of figurative sculpture, like Bernini etc, have gone down the “unreal”, smoke-and-mirrors route. But I’m not interested in the Tony Caro “weightlessness” thing, of steel floating horizontally either. Nor am I interested in the Calder thing of floating suspension on a wire. What interests me most is exploring the idea of spatiality in any and all three-dimensional directions, and discovering spontaneously what the restraints on that are. That would be my abstract content.
Tim Scott: Taking your last paragraph first, Robin:
I’m all for trying anything, and incidentally it is great that there is a group of sculptors willing to do just that (I hope !).
The trouble with ‘anti gravity’ is that it is totally dependent on material .Even the old stone sculptors could only do what it would allow them to; and of course the ‘liberation’ of steel has introduced its own quagmires of repetitiveness and mere acrobatics… Sculpture, by definition, must be a dialogue between material and intent.
I have always thought the Michael Fried ‘weightless’ idea misplaced; what he really meant, probably, was ‘deceptive’ or something similar. Calder has never impressed me very much since his ‘big idea’ is so literal and the results, though charming, hardly breaking any ice.
I hope very much to see your ‘spatiality ideas’ come to fruition (Don’t take too long !).
Some time ago, I saw the whole collection of Degas figures in a German museum on loan from America, and I share the sorts of feelings one of them generated in you. Likewise I think that Tucker’s oft quoted description is a little bit over the top, possibly because it could not remotely have been part of Degas own intentions; which Tucker might well have contrasted with his own observations and interpretations… Again, with Rodin, to my knowledge, his obsession with movement as a vital sculptural force does not really tally with a ‘grounded’ articulation; many of Rodin’s figures are articulated from various body points almost completely ignoring the ‘ground’.
It has always intrigued me to imagine what either Rodin or Degas, or even Matisse, would have made of our ‘abstract’ definitions, particularly if we abandon such terms as ‘physicality’ and introduce ‘spatiality’ as the key concept!
Be that as it may, I agree with you that sculpture HAD to go abstract, and that pushing the limits of abstraction is the task ahead.
Robin Greenwood: Thanks for that, Tim.