Happily, there has been a marked increase in Abcrit commentary on sculpture, largely due to Alan’s review of Gili’s exhibition and the responses to it; thank you Alan. Quite a few of the comments are of a general nature, as well as those on Gili’s individual works which, mostly, engendered the general ones. Amongst these, I noticed a recurring theme, that of what exactly creates the differences (of intention and perception) between work which is deemed ‘abstract’, and that which is ‘figurative’, but with abstract ‘qualities’, or abstract with ‘figurative’ qualities? In other words, at what point does a sculpture, which departs from the norms of the representation of appearances, become abstract? Does the recognition of the ‘likeness’ of forms in a sculpture to forms in the known visual world disqualify it from ‘abstraction’?
If we take, for example, a sculpture (an early one) by Caro and we see various elements which we ‘recognise’ as being industrially manufactured elements; imitating industrial usage; but not being ‘used functionally’; but even that functionality can be said to exist in its holding up, joining etc.; does that recognition mean that the result is not truly abstract, i.e. not describing visually anything associated with the real world? Similarly, if we take, for example, a Gonzalez, the source of which clearly testifies to a beginning in figuration, but which manifests qualities of pure plastic invention in the handling and forming of the material, does that change the result to ‘abstraction’? In other words, there is a conundrum visually and as a consequence, perceptually, between the one sculpture, ‘figurative’ (recognisable elements), but reading as ‘abstraction’; and the other ‘abstract’, but reading as based on real recognisable elements.
Obviously, it is a truism that the vast majority of the world’s sculptures have been ‘figurative’, depending entirely on recognition for their effect; indeed, it would have been impossible for the sculptor to think otherwise (it would be devoid of ‘meaning’); his ‘job’ was the representation of recognisable elements of life and the world. However, it is equally clear from the history of sculpture that the interpretations of subject matter vary hugely in perception, style, method, raison d’être, and indeed purpose to such an extent, that to the modern mind, conditioned by the art of the last century or so, they may appear very often to have very little relationship to visual reality, to the point where they are actually ‘unrecognisable’. The modern taste for ‘primitive’ art forms in sculpture initiated by early twentieth century masters (Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi), gave an authentication to this sort of thinking, and African artefacts in particular became seen as an ‘alternative’ to the western view of sculpture, along with Asian, South American and other cultures. The realisation of this factor in historical sculpture has given huge intellectual support to the idea that recognition of any tangible relationship to appearances can be dispensed with, and the notion of ‘abstraction’ replace it. Indeed, critics and writers on art now frequently use the word to describe characteristics which, in origin, stem from recognisable sources but are seen as quasi independent factors of the work(s) in question, requiring an alternative definition. Thus, an alphabet of sculptural form emerged in the early twentieth century which, broadly speaking divides itself into ‘organic’ form (nature derived) and ‘technological ‘ form (man-made, industrial etc. derived).
‘Organic’ form (ex: Laurens, Lipchitz, Arp, Moore et al) generally has its origins in Nature: hills, clouds, female form, waves etc., all suitably modified to defy any particular reference or origin, but importing into sculpture a continuing attachment to ‘life’. ‘Technological’ form is more to do with the actual material(s) from which the sculpture is being fabricated, and includes ‘new’ materials adding to or superseding the traditional stone, wood, clay and plaster. The importance of this approach in the hands of Picasso, the Russian Constructivists, and on to Picasso/Gonzalez and the use of iron / steel, gave the word ‘abstraction’ i.e. no nature reference, no recognition, a newly vital existence in that it did not always derive initially, from ‘natural’ sources, but mostly from ‘object’ ones or the ‘given’ forms of a material. The term ‘constructed’ came eventually to be used to describe this drive towards abstraction. In the late twenties and thirties, painters forged ahead on this front and produced much which was as radically abstract as anything that had yet been seen. It must be noted however, that sculptors lagged behind, staying content with the organic look or the initial efforts at construction, (deriving from Cubist ‘collage’); notably Picasso, who nonetheless often referred directly to recognisable sources, guitars, still lives etc. It must also be noted that none of the pioneering sculptors of the early to mid XXth C. referred to themselves as ‘abstract’ sculptors. Immediate ‘recognition’ of a sculptural subject was nonetheless not being seen anymore as essential, more incidental, and mostly fairly timid. Nevertheless, with the concept of ‘abstraction’ becoming more accepted and commonplace, it was the constructed work in steel that was to lead, eventually, to abstraction being seen as vital to the renewal of a sculptural ‘language’, though it too depended initially on ‘sources ‘(of course, every piece of sculpture must have some sort of source even if only imaginary); the work of Gonzalez on to David Smith and Chillida producing a ‘derived’ abstraction from recognisable subject matter, albeit heavily disguised. Constructed work claimed to have abandoned ‘Nature’ as a source and much emphasis was now laid at the door of materials and their characteristics, the material itself, especially of the manufactured kind, being considered as having a sculptural ‘message’ of its own in the shape of its ‘neutral’ form. ‘Concepts’ such as architectural form and detail, musical analogies, tools and practical forms were all now subject matter.
Matisse, not included in the canon of ‘sculptors’, had as early as the first years of the XXth C. taken the reconstruction of sculptural form from nature several steps up the ladder towards ‘abstraction’. He, for example in the ‘Tetes de Jeannette’ series of five portrait heads, showed how, even within the limited range of traditional modelled clay, he could take the forms of his observation: eyes, nose, cheeks, ears, jaw etc., deconstruct them and re-form and re-invent them outside appearances, and arrive at a more radical sculptural assembly than had been seen before. It is noteworthy that Matisse, though not a sculptor as such, took his cue from Rodin, the most radical inventor of sculptural form in the previous generation, and in my view surpassed the similar efforts of, say, a Laurens or a Lipchitz working later. Again, there is no evidence that Matisse thought of himself as being ‘abstract’, merely using sculpture to further his observational visual experiences. He certainly would not have acknowledged the concept of ‘lack of recognition’.
The years up to and around the mid XXth C. saw the most advanced sculptors (in ambition), increasingly experiment with ‘abstract’ form, i.e. form that had no immediate recognisable source, but nevertheless still clinging to its derivation from one sort or another of chosen subject matter. It is noteworthy that painters in this period had taken much more radical steps in this direction (abstraction). An exception must be the Spanish sculptor Chillida, who had pioneered a series of forged steel (and other material) sculptures, paralleled by Smith in America, that could be cited as an early essay in truly abstract sculpture (though both artists used drawings from ‘nature’ as source material); and Smith in particular often remained wedded to the ‘totemic’ monolith format of the figurative ‘statue’. As with Arp, for instance, with his ‘organic’ abstraction, it is difficult to completely empty the mind of referential recognition in their work (and indeed that was mostly not the intention).
Another aspect of this period in modern sculpture was the advent, probably stimulated initially by Cubist collage, of the Duchamp/Dada advocacy of the ‘objet trouve’, incorporated into a sculpture’s formulation, as a substitute for artist invented form. This idea got such a hold on sculptor’s imaginations that it resulted in a whole school of work. Unfortunately for abstraction, it encouraged even more recognition by the beholder than even the ‘abstracting from natural sources as subject’ had done. Even at a later date, into the latter half of the XXth C., the use of ‘found’ material for incorporation into a sculptural composition, melded into a recognisable, but out of context, format, held sway amongst many sculptors.
The attempts to achieve ‘abstraction’ in sculpture had always run into one of the basic and unalterable facts of the art form, that sculpture is a ‘thing’, formed from ‘things’, and that means that it associates directly with the ‘real’ world (of things), and, as a consequence, is instantly recognisable as a part of that world, and by definition, descriptive, realistic, not abstract.
Architecture, at least, has the advantage of domination, of being able to hold the observer in awe, and affect his vision and perceptions accordingly. Sculpture has no such advantage, but has to hold on tightly to its own little world created around it, and achieve domination through self conviction alone. So, if sculpture attempts to abolish reference, abolish its dependence on subject matter that induces recognition, but is made from the very stuff of recognition, material, that we ‘know’ in advance, what hope is there to achieve a totally abstract norm?
That hope began to become a crisis issue around the middle of the (XXth) century. It began to be realised that the old norms of sculpture’s raison d’être, figurative, semi-figurative, or a non-figurative (melange), would no longer suffice to make sculpture an imperative art form with its own unique area of expression. The word ‘sculpture’ began to be used more and more frequently to describe ‘art’ activities which, in fact, had little or nothing to do with true plastic expression; sculpture no longer had to be sculpture in any tradition or norm of sculptural or historical sense; ‘sculpture’ could be anything – and, of course, that anything would be instantly recognisable since there would be no attempt to disguise its references (in the thrall of plastic invention) or any other aspect of its making; its ‘meaning’ would be freely advertised by any means other than what it simply was. It seemed that the entire thrust of sculpture’s efforts at a renewal of its power as an art form since the beginning of the century was to be jettisoned in favour of a populist agenda. To counter this tide of miscomprehension of what sculpture was ‘for’, the stream of ‘development’ of XXth C. ‘abstraction’ began to look like the real alternative that sculpture needed if it was to become once more vital, distinct and separate from attempts to amalgamate it into a ‘populist’ culture.
The line of sculptural experiment from Rodin down to mid century still had only come up with partial solutions to the will to ‘abstract’; to eliminate recognition. There had been, as mentioned above, experiments in organic form; experiments in the use of ‘alternative’ materials (construction); experiments in a geometrical basis for compositional organisation (Constructivism); experiments with the distortion and realignment of forms in nature (Picasso, Matisse and many others); in other words a drive towards a goal (unclear) of non-recognition, non-reference in sculpture. All of these ‘experiments’ of forging a path onwards from referential norms were considered (to quote Gideon Welcker) ‘an evolution in time and space’; seen as constituting a new era in sculpture – modern sculpture’.
Unfortunately, bound as all sculpture is by the restraints of craft, manufacture, and position in space as an ‘object’, it was not able to manage the panache of modern painting; the great French school and eventually the Americans. Moreover sculpture did not have a recent radical tradition to look to; with the exception of Rodin; no Cezanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, no van Gogh, no Mondrian; in short no self confidence. By the fifties and sixties, sculptors who were seeking a way out for sculpture to assume a far more radical and inspired route to producing a ‘new’ sculpture free of the restraints of past assumptions, had realised that pictorial art had left them with much to be desired and to emulate. It was left to Caro to make use of this realisation to the full. He produced the series of steel sculptures (1960 +) which straightforwardly attempted to emulate the ‘abstractness’ of (American) painting, and by doing so set a course for new (British) sculpture which soon became international. Its essential characteristics are by now common knowledge, but as far as ‘recognition’ of its elements is concerned it posed questions about what sculpture ‘did’ in a more forceful manner than ever before. Its ‘pictorialism’ set out a broad format for a new sculpture – imaginary planes across which elements were free to connect and disconnect, controlled only by technical fixation – acceptance of ‘found’ material parts only conditioned by ‘graphic’ i.e. two dimensional cutting and shaping with minimum interference to rely entirely upon their (given) ‘relationships’ for effect in space – all of these things were had existed in various forms previously, but it was Caro who took them onto a higher plane.
Recognition, direct association with the real world, was minimised and consisted entirely of any direct experience the spectator may have had with the materials and elements used. The composition of these elements into a whole could produce metaphors for real things in the real world (often architectural), but this was seen as incidental and unintentional; they were not ‘subject matter’. The artist had produced an ‘object’ which appeared to relate to nothing of any specific nature except itself and the mind and originality of the artist. It relied entirely on its own reality to carry emotion. So here, after all the struggles, was a truly abstract sculptural format. But, like all solutions it started to pose as many sculptural questions as answers.
As Caro’s own work progressed and that of many other sculptors besides, it became apparent that the dependency on the fluid qualities of working in steel (mostly, the chosen material to pursue new goals) led frequently to a too rapid and ill considered acceptance of the ‘given’ nature of the manufactured forms of the material; indeed, these forms in themselves, prior to integration into the sculpture, often introduced, unwittingly, direct recognition and associative reference into the work. From the primitive experience of straight-forward steel parts from the mill, the ransacking of the steel yard for ‘form’ became commonplace, lowering the level of abstract attainment. Another bi-product, laying open to question the authenticity of sculptural feeling, was the tendency of the sculpture produced to wallow in a quasi two-dimensional space which ignored or overrode the physical feeling for three-dimensions, sculpture’s basic premise and raison d’être. Again, a tendency to emulate an architectural or engineering organisation of parts created a danger of sculptures starting to look as if they were part of some industrial landscape, rather than creating and occupying a world of their own making; a different sort of recognition, but recognition nonetheless. There is, and remains, the unfortunate impression from many abstract steel sculptures that they are practically indistinguishable from some designed industrial object, totally belying the idea and intention that their abstractness (which makes the impression possible) will overcome any sort of association.
We are now at the outset of the XXIst C., and sculpture has to move on from what it had achieved at the end on the nineties. It has become clear that though during the entire last century sculpture underwent huge and radical changes, aimed at shedding old norms and inventing new ones, its character as an art form totally dependent on the reality of its immutable ‘thereness’, has not changed and is indeed unchangeable if it is to remain something called ‘sculpture’, a totally distinct and, dare I say it, recognisable category of objects in the world of many categories.
Recognition for today’s ambitious new sculpture can no longer be ambiguous. It cannot be or remain neither this nor that or something in between. What is sculpture and what is not must be demonstrated in its entire fabrication; a total conviction in what it IS; not confusable with physical things of any other sort or type. What sculpture does must be distinguishable from what painting, or architecture or engineering or design do, if it is to retain any distinct identity or power in the translation of physical sensation and emotion to the human eye and mind. In order to do this fully and successfully, we are now at a point in developing means that cannot simply retrace old ground. NOT being able to recognise anything, no reference, no metaphor, no copying, no reading into, has become the imperative of creating new, original and relevant sculpture for today.
Does this imply that any sculpture made from now on that has any referential subject matter, any recognisable elements that refer to other things, any association with non sculptural contexts, anything that would bring back the past, is to be dismissed ? Of course not, it would indeed be foolhardy to assume the future as predictable, as a given. We can only deal intelligently with the present.
Clement Greenberg said that all other things being equal he would prefer that great art remained figurative. At the outset of today’s era, it would seem that, of historical necessity, we have totally reversed this perception, and that great art will be abstract, and that nothing within itself but its own uniqueness as a mover of the human spirit, be recognisable.