Space in Sculpture.
I wish to return to Emyr Williams’ very interesting and thought-provoking article on ‘ Space in Painting and Sculpture’. Not being a practitioner in painting I will confine myself to comments on sculpture space.
To try to define what space in sculpture involves, it is reasonable to suppose that the primary fundamental observation to be made about all sculpture is volumetric displacement; the quantity of actual space occupied by the parts and whole of a sculpture(s); literal air translated into a physical entity. Sculpture shares this quality with all other three-dimensional objects, though we need here only be concerned with an art form such as architecture, or pottery, for example. Following assessment of the volumetric space occupied by a sculpture’s physical ‘thingness’, the means by which this displacement is effected, other than purely literally are pertinent. In pre-20th Century sculpture this was tied primarily to the physiology of the human (or animal) body; its limbs, its connections and junctions and their movements (in space). Even though sculpture is materially static (stone. wood, clay, metal etc.), if attached to this universal subject it energises variation of spatial occupation through implied movement (the liveness of the body), as against simply accepting the whole as a ‘lump’. Even the most monolithic sculptural traditions (Egyptian, Mexican, African) use implied bodily movement to suggest ‘freeing’ the monolith spatially, usually by means of cutting into or through the material. Monolithic sculpture also frequently attempts spatial extension through massing, on an ordered quasi or associational architectural basis (temples, palaces); Easter Island is a good example.
If sculptural form serves an underlying purpose as a recognisable arm or leg or back or foot or breast or buttock, it is simultaneously these things AND a piece of conceived form occupying space and displacing it in a singular fashion, deriving from the force and drive of a sculptural idea. Many old (historical) sculpture traditions were not so tied to recognition as an imperative as not to be able to depart from it when the power of plastic feeling dictated it. Within recent history Rodin, Degas, Matisse, Picasso and one or two others were heavily influenced to some degree by the discovery of these traditions. All four made significant sculpture within the roughly twenty-year period around the turn of the century when this knowledge became available, knowledge of artforms that, at least partially, abandoned the imitative character that Nature’s model would normally impose. ‘Abstraction’ (non-figuration), overturning the spatial expression of bodily gesture to replace it with an attenuated invented version involving the parts of a sculpture being shaped by ‘expressive’ plastic decisions, rather than mimetic ones, now begin to occupy the direction that sculptors in the early 20th Century were taking – penetrating and animating space in ways undirected, or only partially, by any bodily naturalistic model or norm. Rodin’s use of parts to make sculptural conglomerations serves as a pointer to the direction that progressive sculptors were taking.
Awareness of space and expanding into and occupying it, as a ‘quantity’, enabled a sculptor to turn with relief from the burden of verisimilitude. If we take, for example, Rodin’s ‘Meditation (with arms)’ in the Musée Rodin, the base of the female figure is comparatively conventionally modelled in a contrapposto pose, whereas the top part from the breasts through to the neck and head and arms is wildly distorted to the point of total reinvention of any real structure; occupying and displacing space in an extraordinary fashion, turning the body into a sort of windmill or signal. This process of seizing space in an unconventional way with conventional form can be found throughout most of Rodin’s work and is followed by similar characteristics in much of Degas’ and Matisse’s sculpture. This vision of invented physical extension into space became the harbinger of much that was to follow; with Gonzalez’, Picasso’s, Chillida’s, David Smith’s work, in metal in particular, serving as chief protagonists. Picasso’s ‘Head of a Woman’ 1929-1930 (painted colander, springs, iron and sheet metal) serves as a good illustration of the new spatial freedom. The idea that material as such, devoid of any attachment to representation, or literal illustration (other than in a quasi-humorous, suggestive way), could substitute spatial activation that previously was only achieved through reproducing Nature’s artifices, opened up a new vision of creating sculptural space as a considered part of a sculptural whole, more powerful than had ever been available in the past. Space begins to be seen as a plastic additive to the composition of a sculpture’s ideated assembly. In addition, shaped material was now not only crafted by the sculptor’s hand, but could include ‘ready-made’ manufactured form in various industrially employed materials, thereby introducing into sculpture types of spatial organization and occupation only previously associated with functional or crafted objects that had no emotional poetic content.
But what of ‘interior’ space, of that created within a sculpture by the new freedoms as well as by occupation? Undoubtedly the main progenitor of this novel path for sculpture, historically concerned primarily with mass and volume, was the advent of ‘construction’, via painterly collage and the willed efforts of Picasso to ‘make’ from his observation of ‘things’. This observation of things became the transformation of things into otherness; a sculptural otherness, that immediately distanced the ‘new’ sculpture from the old, formalized it into ‘non-figuration’, eventually ‘abstraction’, as distinct from ‘figurative’ or representational. Construction permitted the widest use of material(s) as long as it was deemed necessary to the emotional building and plastic conception of the whole sculpture and its parts. This led to the generation of a ‘type’ of sculptural space, ‘interior space’, space entering and exiting the body of the sculpture as a willed necessity whilst at the same time being part of its space ‘occupation’ as mass.
The various experimental ‘schools’ of sculpture-making that developed from around the first world war period onward – Cubism, Constructivism, Surrealism, and so on – served to enlarge and expand on this constructed vocabulary. Picasso’s ‘Guitar’ 1912, Tatlin’s ‘Tower’ 1914(?), Giacometti’s ‘Palace at 4am.’ (193 ?) David Smith’s ‘Australia’ 1956 (?), Reg Butler’s “Unknown Political Prisoner’ 1956(?), illustrate the variety of approaches that were being explored, involving spatial direction and occupations conjoining with a sculpture’s built parts. These conjunctions remained, however, firmly conceived within a comparatively limited format that did not venture out of the bounds of an ‘image’, or accepted notion of ‘wholeness’. Eventually, sculpture began to be digested on much the same terms as any other object; and indeed, in more recent history, was often indistinguishable from one; or, alternatively, was to be confused with ‘architecture’ or ‘engineering’, ’machinery’ or some other three-dimensionally constructed ‘thing’.
American painting’s example of extending the viewers field of vision beyond what was normally possible in peripheral vision, had a profound influence on sculptors (at least in the Anglo-Saxon world) who realised that they too could attempt to generate a ‘spatial environment’ beyond the field of vision immediately available from a static viewpoint. (Obviously, sculpture had always contained the ability to present multiple viewpoints to the peripatetic stance of the viewer; though, strangely, rarely taken advantage of). And so, we come to Caro’s abandoning of his fifties concerns of a sculpture of volume and mass and limited extensions into space, to attempt a sculpture that would create a context that would dramatically affect space beyond its ‘field of vision’.as had his friends the painters.
This idea of a different spatial context to sculpture than had been explored very much in the past, became known as ‘pictorial’, for its dependence on a planar two dimensional ‘field’ of viewing that eschewed much movement around the sculpture’s literal three-dimensionality, other than to discover similar ‘fields’ where one’s eye could rest. It is also noteworthy that this new form of sculpture embraced the use of colour, whether for purely practical constructional reasons, or something more profound, must be left open to debate and opinion (I myself took it seriously). The fact is that this emphatic ‘pictorial’ context for sculpture’s spatial occupation and manipulation greatly extended the power of the interior ‘space between’ to impress itself on an almost architectural scale. Indeed, the resulting works often more resembled architectural constructions than sculptural ones. Much of this ‘architectural-ness’ (architectonic?) was of course also due to the uninhibited use of industrial material, often unformed by anything other than the manufacturing process, and relying solely on the ‘new ‘context’, into which it had been placed by re-use, to carry the ‘idea’. As already mentioned, these elements carried with them their own form of ‘space’ in the manner in which they occupied it or the manner in which the given form would carry with it a given spatial ‘design’ (‘I’ beams for example). Another aspect of ‘pictorialism’ that tended to impact greatly on the way space was ‘used’ in sculpture was the dominance of the junctions, of part to part relationships as technical connections; only being conceived for practicality, the touch and consequent attachment of one part to another being without any considered three-dimensional effect on the material being used.at that point. This tended to emphasise the ‘graphic’ quality of the spatial decisions; making the forms of the sculpture look as if they were spread out on a flat plane (canvas?) separated only by a blank and non-physically functioning space – the antithesis of the new spatial awareness that was the aim and a conundrum that the very advances that enabled unparalleled spatial extension, broadness and expansion at the same time tended to annul three-dimensional authenticity.
I have frequently pondered on the fact that in the latter half of the 20th Century, with the ubiquitous advent of Duchamp-ism as a progenitor of the future of art, that there has been so little, if any, continuing discourse among most sculptors on what used to fondly be called ‘aesthetics’, It is as if, suddenly, there was no further use for a branch of knowledge that has been confined to the Middle Ages – quaint, but irrelevant to today’s minds. To continue to discuss ‘sculptural space’ within this context seems perverse. What space? What sculpture? All those old passé ideas have little or nothing to do with current concerns; wake up – join today!
“I hate Caro “, said a world-famous sculptor recently. Well, bully for him, but I would hazard a guess that when Mr. X’s efforts are confined to being an historical curiosity, serious sculptors will still be taking Caro seriously. In fact, I suspect that in the latter half of the century, it was less the shenanigans of those purporting to be ‘sculptors’ that diverted attention from the continuing analysis and rethinking of the mechanics of sculpture making, in theory and practice, than dealing with certain major concerns, in just those same practices, overwhelming attention. ‘Pictorialism’ and the example of Caro’s extended architectural space visibly countering the physicality and three-dimensionality of a sculptural construct in favour of its visual presentation (or viewpoint) from particular chosen ‘sides’, led involved sculptors to start to question the premises on which this development depended. By the mid seventies it was apparent that the initial sweep and excitement of the ‘new’ sculpture pioneered by Caro had run its course and was failing to offer a way forward. Sculptors began to question the assumptions of ‘pictorial’ space as a basis for sculptural conception; and its lack of ‘physicality; its lack of concern for the physical expression of forces dictating structure; or the physicality of connections in relation to their function and purpose; or the physicality of the actual material used in relation to its function and position in the sculpture; or the lack of concern for gravity and its governance of physical forces in a sculpture; or the seeming lack of concern for the physical form of the parts of a sculptural whole and the dependence on ‘given’ form; all of these aspects having a direct bearing on the modelling of space in sculpture.
Where the sculpture (its literal parts) ends in literal space, remains, crucially, open to doubt as to where it is going and what for. There is suddenly a visual disjunction between space as conditioned by its relationship with physical matter as a part of the directions and movements of the sculpture, and then not conditioned at all by any control at its extremities, as if falling off a visual precipice. This is not a new problem; in fact, I suspect that one reason underlying the old grouping of sculpture in architectural settings was precisely because the spatial impact of one lone piece could be transformed by repetition and multiplicity, dulling the finiteness of gesture ending in spatial limbo (Easter Island, Karnak).
A rethink of sculpture’s direction was due, involving many developments, taking place in the seventies, eighties, nineties and into the new century, attempting to address the factors mentioned above. It became clear that outstanding issues of the uses of space and its function in sculpture were of prime importance. Re-involving sculpture with its physicality, with the richness and succulence of material, what it does and how it does it, and why; what, indeed, constitutes a ‘sculptural’ structure as compared to any other; effected the realisation that space, both within and without the work, was as vital a ‘material’ as the actual chosen physical matter in use, rather than merely being ’emptiness’ between parts of a structure. A sort of reversal of priorities was necessary, in which space (as matter) was not only what resulted between one part and another, but was also an extension into and out of the physical material of the part(s). Space could act as actual matter, pushing, pulling, stretching, expanding and contracting in like manner, and having consequently as much influence on the shaping of form as plastic decisions in themselves did. Space is no longer to be conceived of as what happens OTHER than the physical forms of the sculpture, but becomes a living, breathing part of it.
With the dead end of “Duchamp-ist’ philosophy and vast quantities of ‘referential sculpture’ ignoring any sort of serious consideration of plastic values and thus going nowhere, progressive sculpture today can refer to a century of spatial development within the art, drawing conclusions accordingly as to what can be significantly developed into new norms, and what rejected as irrelevant. The uses of space in sculpture will undoubtedly be crucial to this pursuit.
In my opinion the problem is that only the NEW sculpture can give us the ABSTRACT space that is required.
Because….THREE DIMENSIONALITY / MATERIALITY / CONSTRUCTION / SPACIALITY / CONTENT / PLASTICITY / etc. etc. etc. can be all thought of TOGETHER and in an ideal world at the same time.
In permeating with each other they could become a new truth with real meaning.
Those masters of sculpture ,to whom you refer, did not see the potential in being ABSTRACT as a state of being. That potential could one day possibly make the borrowings of Caro and the contortions of Rodin ridiculous.
Yes, alright Tony, I trust we are all attempting to push abstract sculpture in directions that it has never been before; but in order to do that you have to be aware of which directions it HAS been down before, and, hopefully, experienced a few of them first hand to really know them.
I also think that you have to BUILD on what has been before, even if it means totally rejecting it, which is often the case.
I was hoping you would add some comments on ‘space’ in sculpture as you see it and whether you agree, for example, ,that this is a crucial element in any new thinking.
As best as I can I have expressed my view at this moment as to how things like space etc. could benefit by being ‘worked up ‘ together.
I am sure you will say that we are already working like this as it does sound obvious. Maybe it is deemed easier to talk about them as separate things but I do want to think about them and work with them together.
I have put out what I think is happening in what sounds like an idea when in fact it is something which is evolving not fixed.By bringing everything together as much as that may be possible the experience of sculpture may be looser, more fluid and more free. to be clearer we would need illustrations of pieces to talk about. [ as in the Brancaster Chronicles.]
I am sorry I can’t give what I think you want.
We seem to be in a place now that demands being more specific. Can I add to that…..In terms of sculpture making the “elements’ of sculpture seem to be demanding more inter-dependancy.
“Spatiality” sounds like a neologism or a bit of jargon, but it’s much more useful than talking or thinking about generic “space” in or around a sculpture. It applies to the very specific, abstract, three-dimensional and illusionistic properties that are emergent in sculpture right now, when the material and the space are profoundly engaged together in an expressive whole. It’s not a word I feel I can apply to any figurative sculpture that I can think of, past or present – of course they occupy space, but so does a washing machine. In the Rodin, expression is not really spatial; whereas in the new abstract sculpture, spatiality must be engaged with in at least equal measure with the physicality of the material. What is crucial is the freeing of sculptural structure from the literal or metaphorical, and we are only just beginning to really understand that and put all of these things together at once. It’s very much a live project.
Caro’s sculpture seems to me to fall into two camps – the pictorial or the architectural. We can dismiss the former as unspatial without any further explanation, but in the latter, the engagement with architectural space seemed at first to offer something new. I’m sure a good architect will argue (correctly) that in great architecture, space is illusionistic and poetic; but in an “architectural” Caro space seems to me to be passive and almost entirely literal. The whole business of repeating/echoing the walls, floors, doors, whatever, of architecture, and all the associated bodily relations to human scale and physical size etc., as well as the division of space by drawing (as in a Smith) are all literal/semi-figurative/dated ways of working. They were interesting attempts to free abstract sculpture from the figure, but now look like they failed to do exactly that.
“Spatiality” has to go far beyond the occupation, delineation or primitive engagement of space. How the particular spatiality of each individual new sculpture is generated by the articulation of material is fundamental to moving sculpture forward, but it might turn out to be the very thing that truly makes a break, utterly and irrevocably, with all sculpture from the past.
Tony – I would not for one moment wish to, or seem to wish to in my article, diminish the importance of any of the ‘categories’ you mention; I agree that they should all be worked together. I singled our ‘spatiality’ (R).as of specific import as an ingredient of sculpture that has has minimum thought.
Robin – I was a little bit surprised that though I would agree that space both architectural and sculptural must be ‘”poetic” (to succeed expressively), you say that sculptural space (Caro) is literal as against architectural space. I would say that it is the opposite: that sculptural space (good or bad or indifferent sculpture) is by definition illusion i.e. non literal, and that architectural space, whether poetic or not, is by definition literal, i.e. you use it (movement) to define it as well as see it.
.In my article I tried to further the idea that sculptural space can and must become more ‘physical’ and ‘plastic’ in its role in new sculpture, but it will remain the ‘idea’ of those things depending on the intensity of the idea to turn the ‘illusion’ into a sculptural reality.
Robin’s post is a good example of someone using a lot of words, all divorced from their ordinary (and therefore meaningful) usage. Example: “Spatiality” has to go far beyond the occupation, delineation or primitive engagement of space.” This sort of nonsense isn’t new; it’s always been used by those who wish to announce in manifesto-like proclamations “a break, utterly and irrevocably, with all sculpture from the past.”
What is this “ordinary usage” which is meaningful rather than, well, what?
I get the criticism relating to believing one is breaking completely from the past but I see value in ambition and progress whether or not you agree a particular artist is ambitious, progressive, or not. Thinking through the notions of time and temporality is helpful here.
As far as I’m aware, Carl, the use of “spatiality” in discussing sculpture is new, and it has no ordinary usage. When did you last use it in conversation? In fact, my spellcheck continues to question it every time I write it.
As for having a manifesto, my aim is really to just chivvy things along a bit in how we think and talk about sculpture, and to explore the means by which we can address issues. Whether you like it or not (and it appears not) there are some new aspects to progressive sculpture that we are trying to discuss that are looking more pertinent than the stuff Fried put out fifty years ago.
Unlike yourself, my ideas are not fixed; also unlike you, I don’t subscribe to a manifesto written by someone else.
Tim; I’ll stick with my assertion about the space around a Caro being on the whole rather literal, but maybe you should give us an example of expressive space at work in one of his sculptures?
Let’s stick to the one we have ‘The Window 1966 -67’; (I am assuming we have all seen it in the flesh). I would call its space ‘referential’ rather than ‘literal’. I am not apportioning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to this, merely stating it as a fact (in my eyes). It refers to going in, coming out, going behind etc., rather than actually enabling these things as in architecture. Which is why I say that it is still ‘illusory’ space and not ‘real’ as in architecture (literal) and I would have thought that any sculptural use of space will remain ‘illusory’ in this sense. But, of course, what I wish to see in sculpture now is that ‘unreality” being challenged by new ideas about space. .
Caro’s sculpture “The Window” is not difficult to read as a photograph, as a series of elements standing, leaning, being held, weighting, fixed at strategic points , combining to form a structure that any one who has lived a life out there will understand. It’s proportions are the beautiful thing about it.As a structure and expressed as a structure it is literal, the space of the floor [ not the actual bits which the sculpture sits on but the floor described by the bits ] and the space above the sculpture are ambiguous. The drama of the work or the excitement ,and this will be felt less today than in 1966 but is still significant, is the surprise that this is in an art gallery and is a sculpture, to the viewer .But ,as a structure, this is perfectly understandable and comes in a form that is also understandable.So that brings me to the question Caro asked , “Could this be sculpture ?”
I am happy with “The Window” but I don’t understand what it is going to do for us today.
Space could be seen as a facilitator. It first allows you to have the material seen at all and then it facilitates a judgement of what the material is doing. It then can allow multiple judgements, multiple assessments , multiple feelings of multiple activity in and throughout. It is vital in allowing your eye to know where these activities are as you focus and re-focus. It is an enormous facilitator which you would not want to pin down. It is brilliant and is being explored and expanded in the new sculpture.
In my own sculpture I have brought the activity of material ever closer to its neighbours allowing a greater opportunity to control this material in this ever increasingly rich and demanding space.
“The Window” is surely not spatial, and therefore not using space expressively, because it is not even really three-dimensional, beyond the literal space of the floor that it occupies. It’s frontal too, perhaps derived from Matisse’s “Piano Lesson”, and as much an example of Caro’s pictorialism as his architecturalism. Worst of all worlds: no three-dimensionality, no plastic engagement of the space and the material, nothing really very abstract happening. I have no particular wish to criticise this work, other than to flag up the big difference with the new sculpture, but I would note in passing that a window, along with many other architectural elements, is not a particularly three-dimensional object to reference.
To press the point – and you were asking for a discussion on how spatiality is crucial to the new sculpture – I would say that the spatial illusions in new sculpture are beginning to address the imagination in exciting and real ways WITHOUT resort to metaphor. So, in an imaginative sense, the “going in, coming out, going behind etc.”, to use your example, is (seen to be) happening in the material/space of the work itself, rather than suggestions of literal actions of the viewer’s body to be projected onto the inert space and material of the sculpture.
“I would say that the spatial illusions in new sculpture are beginning to address the imagination in exciting and real ways WITHOUT resort to metaphor…”
Exactly so; I could not have phrased it better.
LikeLiked by 1 person
What a load of waffle ! My response to art is emotional. I don’t want it explained.
Yesterday morning I found an email from Love Swans and one from eHarmony (promising me a perfect partner) in my inbox. No doubt they were from the “ideal,” “abstract” world Tony dreams about. I didn’t open them, but I did, of course, open the one from Abcrit linking to Tim’s essay.
I don’t want to make a big deal about Tony’s “ideal world”—but it might be useful to note that The Authorities in New York, while being enthusiastic about “Brancaster sculpture,” do object to a kind of evenness in the work: “THREE DIMENSIONALITY / MATERIALITY / CONSTRUCTION / SPACIALITY / CONTENT / PLASTICITY / etc. etc. etc.” ARE all thought of together, all evenly balanced: nothing is out of line: nothing says, Boo!
I do want to pick up on Tony’s suggestion that the “contortions” of Rodin might one day seem ridiculous. Back in the ‘70s, when I was in Sidney Geist’s sculpture class at the Studio School, I told Sidney that Michelangelo’s figures were a joke: ridiculously muscle-bound, ridiculously contorted. Sidney gently replied that he’d never thought of Michelangelo as a joke. (I was a student.) When I brought up Bill Tucker’s book, and Tucker’s suggestion that Rodin’s The Kiss was a “monster,” Sidney was less gentle. Sidney said he thought Tucker was a monster.
When we look at Rodin’s The Meditation (with arms) in the JPEGs in Tim’s piece, seeing contortion is understandable. A photograph of Rodin’s The Kiss can be “too much.” But what are we missing when we look at photographs? We’re missing SPACE! Just space: (not spatiality). We can’t walk around the sculptures. We can’t move our heads/eyes. A photograph (even the two photographs of The Meditation that Tim generously includes in his piece) cuts off so, so much.
I’m sure Tony has walked around plenty of actual Rodins, but I wonder about whether some of you Brits can look at figure sculpture “abstractly.” Tim doesn’t seem to have any problem with figures. And Robin can, on a good day, look at paintings of figures without fainting. But, Tony, when you walk around The Meditation, do you really see contortion? Doesn’t the contortion you might see in one view somehow dissolve as you walk around the figure, as you experience the whole design? When we talk about a sculpture being “resolved”—beautifully/completely resolved—aren’t we talking about an absence of contortion, an absence of excess? Yet how different The Meditation is from The Kiss. They “say” different things even though they’re both beautifully/completely resolved.
Well, 5 paragraphs and I haven’t said much about Tim’s wonderful, joyful recapitulation of space in modern/contemporary sculpture. Reading the piece, I kept thinking about Tim’s Cathedral and ancient Egyptian relief sculpture. Tim’s Cathedral is kind of horizontal, kind of architectural—and very “simple,” very clear. Maybe to some extent ancient Egyptian relief sculpture shares these characteristics—though of course there are a couple of things different about it too. Ancient Egyptian relief sculpture is “old” (NOT “new”) for one thing. And there’s a sense in which you can think of there being constraints on the Egyptians’ engagement with space—but I wonder: were they not just as (if not more) wild and crazy (and abstract) about space us “modern”/“contemporary” folks?
I remember reading an essay of Alan Gouk’s in which he said relief sculpture is NOT something in between “3-dimensional”/in-the-round sculpture and “2-dimensional” drawing or painting. He said that was a misunderstanding of relief sculpture, but he didn’t say what was a proper way to understand it.
I was interested in Tim’s mention of Easter Island in his essay. Am hoping he might develop these thoughts. The great American novelist Joseph McElroy visited Easter Island recently. He Tweeted this (with a picture of some big Easter Island heads): “Easter Island. Seas ever leveling. Planet imagination rising. Water Book final section.” (Joe’s written a book about water. Hasn’t been published yet. Great excerpts can be found on the internet though.)
Where is the window in The Window?
Perhaps it’s the window of opportunity to see it only from the front? What does it look like from the side/back?
Tony – “Space could be seen as a facilitator…” is spot on; an inspired use of the word ! It is comments like these that make these discussions worthwhile.
Jock – As it happens, I have actually been to Easter Island. It is an extraordinary place; extraordinary because it is 5000 miles in ANY direction before landfall, and extraordinary because it is the only place I have ever experienced where sculpture was the most important thing in people’s lives. Quite why they were so obsessed is still a mystery (among many others), mostly to do with the logistics of making and moving huge sculptures around the island. The island was once fully forested and there exists along with the well known volcanic rock sculptures a tradition of small carved wood sculpture rather Melanesian like.
I was rather surprised to learn that Sydney Geist was rude about Bill Tucker; as I recall. Bill thought a great deal of Geist
One of the tests that I have always thought exposes really good sculpture from the rest is that it is impossible to photograph. We are all too familiar with dinky photographic ‘views’ of sculpture being taken for the real thing, thus losing any sense of the REALITY (and all that that implies) of sculpture.
Not sure about your take on photography re.sculpture.
Loads of sculpture gives us structure, form and space well within the range of our experience.[You only see what you know !]
Sculptures of the figure would be the obvious start point, a field day for the camera but not necessarily promoting the meaning of the sculpture.The hidden figurative associations of Caro’s sculpture slots into this for me ,and is also very at home in the cleared gallery space, inside, not outside, echoing the space of the gallery.The sculpture and the gallery are now in a self supporting relationship. In fact you are made to feel that the architecture of ‘the white cube’ is incomplete without the sculpture.So what I am suggesting is this is a big ‘assist’ to any meaning the sculpture may have.
By comparison today’s sculpture can go anywhere because it lives in its own world, in its own space.
Tony – Yes I accept your point about the bits we KNOW in a photograph being available thereby as real sculptural experience; but what about the bits we don’t know ? A photograph presents them as an image; as a two dimensional silhouette. not being capable of giving any sort of three dimensional plastic experience. I would perhaps qualify this a little by saying that it applies more the more complex the piece is; and that very simple pieces come out best in photography which automatically selects a viewpoint. (Caros are particularly prone to this). It is an interesting point as to whether figurative sculpture suffers more or less than non figurative works from photography’s presentation.?
I also think your suggestion that presentation space (galleries) can and does affect.the ‘meaning’ of a sculpture, (though I think we are into dangerous Conceptualist ground
here ?); .and I assume you do not think it is at all desirable as an aim. My own view about my aims in my own work is that photography will render them almost impossible to ‘get’, sadly..
As far as I am concerned, your last sentence – “today’s sculpture can go anywhere because it lives in its own world, in its own space” – applies to just about any good art: paintings, sculpture, novels, music. If it’s good, the content will convince as a total and believable world of its own, transcending any context. And indeed, as I’ve said many times on Abcrit, poor art relies on contextualising to gain significance and a literal or literary meaning, whether it be physical (the gallery), cultural (the interpretation) or historical.
With the advent of late modernism and Post-modernism, context has come to play a greater and greater part in the minds of both the artist and their public. An early example is installation art or site-specific art, where the context is a prime necessity. And Caro is on record as saying he was one of the first installation artists.
Tim, many thanks for your notes on Easter Island!
About Sidney and Bill. I’m sure Bill still does think highly of Sidney. Sidney had plenty of respect for Bill. BUT Bill was “rude” about Rodin (than which there is no greater sin!)—and Sidney had a very sharp tongue. I’ve heard Bill has almost completely rewritten his Language of Sculpture book for a Chinese translation. I bet the bit about The Kiss being monstrous is gone. What’s interesting to me is that I still remember that class with Sidney vividly. When I was 25, I knew EVERYTHING there was to know about sculpture. Then I went to the Studio School, to Sidney’s sculpture class. In so many ways I’ve (very happily) never left the Studio School. I first heard Tony’s quip (“You only see what you know”) in one of Garth Evans’s sculpture classes. Garth is still working hard to maintain some coherence in sculpture at the Studio School. In a crit a few months back Garth admitted he knew nothing about sculpture. What do we know about sculpture? How do we get past what we know? How do we learn? Is rudeness the only way? (I just looked up the word “rude.” It means impolite/ill-mannered, but also primitive, crude, rudimentary, rough, simple, basic.) These are questions only Carl Kandutsch can answer.
How do we get past what we know? Make abstract sculpture, mate!
Every time you start a new sculpture you have to TRY ti get past what you know already;; difficult, usually fails, but necessary.
This is what I think at the moment [ I think ]
It used to be easy to talk about sculpture with a strong ‘storyline’ ‘Window’ being a good example.
The sculpture we are now trying to talk about that desires three dimensionality and fluidity with no prescribed views, can only be worked on ‘imaginatively’. To put it all together as a whole may be beyond traditional ideas of comprehension. You do not walk around a piece to learn about the whole in quite the same way. The space is in a way everything else put together. On its own the Material is, incident. Movements come and go, rhythms evolve. The space may be the constant that gives the whole as ever changing and only ever seen as a variable in time, but imaginatively as that whole.The things that you know not being of this moment would block and disrupt this imaginative juggling.
So, because of the desire for three dimensionality, you feel the need to forget what you know, as Tim says,and replace it with invention of some kind of new continuity in time.
To give Caro his due, you did get an extemporised way of working, which perhaps was some kind of seed for this spontaneous way of looking and thinking about the totality of sculpture as being of a different order of things from ordinary objects. By contrast, some of the New Generation stuff like the Annesleys that Sam writes about are restricted to being two-dimensional designs for manufactured objects.
“Caro’s sculpture seems to me to fall into two camps – the pictorial or the architectural. We can dismiss the former as unspatial without any further explanation, but in the latter, the engagement with architectural space seemed at first to offer something new. I’m sure a good architect will argue (correctly) that in great architecture, space is illusionistic and poetic; but in an “architectural” Caro space seems to me to be passive and almost entirely literal. The whole business of repeating/echoing the walls, floors, doors, whatever, of architecture, and all the associated bodily relations to human scale and physical size etc., as well as the division of space by drawing (as in a Smith) are all literal/semi-figurative/dated ways of working. They were interesting attempts to free abstract sculpture from the figure, but now look like they failed to do exactly that.”
This entire paragraph is complete nonsense, mostly because it mistakenly assumes that “spatial” is somehow a property of objects in the world, like size or color or shape or mass, whereas in fact, spatiality refers to one component of what allows human beings to exist in a world that includes objects (that have certain properties like size, color, shape, mass, etc.) For this reason, the concept of space can never be divorced from “associated bodily relations to human scale and physical size” – unless we’re talking about physics or scientific measurement or some other realm of human activity that has nothing to do with making art.
Caro’s Deep Body Blue, for example, is a sculpture that engages with space in a most profound way, and it does so by claiming space in an abstract rather than a literal way. The sculpture does not “repeat/echo” (whatever that might mean, I have no idea) doors, but rather makes the viewer aware of his or her own spatiality, or more accurately, the spatiality of the world in which we actually live – which is a world in which we – because we are embodied beings rather than pure spirits – approach things that are near or far, bump into things (like walls and barriers), avoid things, withdraw from things, pass through things (like doors and other entrances), run away from things, encounter things, and so on, all of those being modes of being in the world that are, always have been and always will be (for as long as there are human beings) addressed in art.
To say that Deep Body Blue (an arbitrary example, since there are literally hundreds of other works by the astoundingly prolific genius Caro that illustrate the same approach) uses space in a way that is “passive and almost entirely literal” is just not to see the sculpture at all. A sculpted door, a representation of a door in sculpture, would presumably occupy space in a passive and literal way as does an ordinary door, which we can find at the home décor store. But, of course, that’s exactly what Caro did NOT do. Instead he made a work that invites the viewer to contemplate (and contemplation of art always involves feeling at least as much as intellection) human spatiality, which is the only spatiality there is, phenomenologically speaking. This required that the sculpture overcome, by suspending, our tendency to treat objects like doors as literal objects; it required him to make a sculpture that is radically unlike anything we actually encounter in the world, which is why Deep Body Blue is an exemplary abstract sculpture and a masterpiece that by its mere existence mocks puerile put-downs like this one: “They were interesting attempts to free abstract sculpture from the figure, but now look like they failed to do exactly that.”
We are obviously never going to agree on this, Carl; but the reason I proposed the word “spatiality” in the first place is to distinguish an illusionistic and imaginative property that a sculpture may aspire to which transcends the normal conditions of literal space as it engages with being properly “abstract” – which for me is a condition of three-dimensional visual wholeness and relatedness rather than a metaphysical state. It is an aspiration that I stand or fall by, just as I stand by my opinion that Caro seldom if ever got beyond first base in terms of spatial articulation of material. And whilst his jump from lumpen figuration into open “architectural” mode was startlingly fresh in the sixties, it is pretty certain that he never in his long career was able to engage his material in a close conjunction with space in a way that – rightly or wrongly – progressive sculptors are now attempting and succeeding to do. Time will be the judge of our efforts. Your strong support and love of Caro’s work and Fried’s interpretation of it is something that to some degree I can respect, even though I think it is outrageously excessive and skewed; but in any case, as things stand going forward, it is irrelevant.
“We are obviously never going to agree on this, Carl; but the reason I proposed the word “spatiality” in the first place is to distinguish an illusionistic and imaginative property that a sculpture may aspire to which transcends the normal conditions of literal space as it engages with being properly “abstract” – which for me is a condition of three-dimensional visual wholeness and relatedness rather than a metaphysical state. It is an aspiration that I stand or fall by, just as I stand by my opinion that Caro seldom if ever got beyond first base in terms of spatial articulation of material. And whilst his jump from lumpen figuration into open “architectural” mode was startlingly fresh in the sixties, it is pretty certain that he never in his long career was able to engage his material in a close conjunction with space in a way that – rightly or wrongly – progressive sculptors are now attempting and succeeding to do. Time will be the judge of our efforts. Your strong support and love of Caro’s work and Fried’s interpretation of it is something that to some degree I can respect, even though I think it is outrageously excessive and skewed; but in any case, as things stand going forward, it is irrelevant.”
The word “spatiality” has been widely and profoundly (to use spatial metaphors) explored in modern philosophy for 260 years, since Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason. He was the first to notice that “space” and “spatiality” are not qualities that can be attribute to objects, but rather ways (along with temporality) in which human experience is necessarily organized in order that there can be such a thing as a “world” that “contains” objects. Since Kant’s time, phenomenology has continued this exploration. In light of all this history, talk about “new spatiality” seems bizarre to me, like “new humanity”, etc. I always distrust this sort of rhetoric, and it seems to me that your idea of a work of art being “spatial” or “not spatial” is hopelessly retrograde and basically meaningless.
Anthony Caro’s work demonstrates a deep intuitive understanding of our contemporary understanding of space as a constituent of the human world in which we exist. To describe those works as “figurative” on the ground that they implicitly address concerns that are native to human beings (as opposed to, say, aliens from another galaxy) is just absurd. For example, to say that a sculpture that deals with “verticality” as “figurative” is idiotic. Human beings stand erect; a human being stands or walks or lies on a horizontal plane and rises up, but not very far; when a human being uses his or her eyes, he or she can survey a horizon; the horizon is distant, or it may be obstructed by barriers; we encounter things that are proximate or far away or recede or approach; we pass through entrances and we are inside or outside of enclosed spaces like rooms. If you think that the “new spatiality” can somehow “transcend” these limitations – which are also ways in which the world is revealed to and discovered by human beings – you’re deluded, and more importantly, pointlessly deluded. Would you prefer to live in a “new” kind of space that is not relevant to human beings? Feel free to do that, but it won’t be a space that is pertinent to art or life, because art that doesn’t deal with what it’s like to be a human being existing for an indescribably short instant in a limitless universe of nothingness – isn’t art at all.
This is a response to your comments on Kant further on in comment section on primordial spatiality. I wrote this piece about the famous Davos encounter between Cassirer and Heidegger in 1929. I gathered from the several books on that meeting Heidegger was trying understand the a priori of the human experience in Kant whether it is finitude or the kind of primordial space that is more important than any new kind of space based on scientific and mathematical notions of space.http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2017/12/ideas-matter-1929-davos-debate-and.html
Some commenters who were there at the meeting of the minds felt that there was no possibility of communication between the two as they used incompatible vocabularies. Maybe that is what is going on here in this discussion.
The Caro window piece seems to be a pure expression of the Humpty Dumpty effect,where once things are taken apart they can’t be put back together again.It is a modernist trope and fits in nicely with everything modern. It has no space and is just parts that don’t work as a whole. Seems to be a period piece. http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2012/01/humpty-dumpty-effectonce-veneer-of.html
Carl – good to have you commenting on sculpture rather than semantics !
“…the CONCEPT of space can never be divorced from…”
I was trying, in my essay, to comment on the USE of space (in sculpture) rather than its coincept..My point was to show that, in the past, especially in ‘modern’ sculpture, it has rather been taken for granted (as a physical attribute of sculpture), or ignored, or treated in an architectural or pictorial, rather than any specifically sculptural manner, and that this has changed in the minds of progressive sculptors) to being seen as something that can be used, be manipulated, just as material is manipulated.
Existing examples of the putting into practice of these ideas may well be thin on the ground at the moment, but undoubtedly the will is there.
Re: Caro; I would state firmly that none of us would be where we are if it was not for his example.
Thank you Tim for responding to the my article on Space. I enjoyed reading the article and agree with all your points – the references are part of my own understanding of Art so were familiar to me. I do not have the same debt to Caro being a painter, however I can acknowledge his significant contribution to the development of sculpture. He did at times lapse into making eye candy works but so what? I didn’t know him as well as you, but he was generous and encouraging about my work on a number of occasions. I wonder if the architectural element of his work – for me!- has something to do with the horizontal of the floor – only ; the sheets, flats, openings I am not that concerned with as “architectural / architectonic” – it’s just that horizontal plane and its consistency throughout a lot of the work that I ‘muse” over to myself from time to time.
I think movement is pivotal in how space works. How our eyes move. Often just the handling of a surface for me makes my eyes work, how a colour “breathes” is a form of movement-sensation. Space can occur in a painting through simple colour relationships. Though this space can be compromised or maximised dependent on how these relationships are seen. The same colours – in the same place can be totally different dependent on how they got there and their respective facture appearance. Some people can deliver a line ( no pun intended), swing a golf club, ride a horse and so on and it just looks different to the same thing done by another. Simple but incredibly complex.
In certain Japanese swimming pools there is a chemical added to the water which reacts with urine to produce a red cloud around the offending – highly shamed and embarrassed – swimmer. I wonder if there was a gas that could be added to the air around a sculpture which did the same sort of thing for the “active” space. This way we could see which work was good and which work was..piss poor!
Glad you got something from it Emyr.
Re movement in sculprure, I have often quoted the Rilke / Rodin statement on the camera lying because it only captures one moment in,time; whereas sculptural invention can through infinite changes of form suggest the reality (truth) of actual movement.
Re your point about Caro’s horizonral bias, could it be that horizontality has a more ‘abstract’ feel to it; verticality auromatically sounding echos of figuration? David Smith’s work is often a good example of this tendancy. The flat plane of the floor is less ‘suggestive’ of anything; less referential than vertical stance.
Your Japanese swimming pool is highly amusing. Given the amount of cretinous ‘sculpture’ around, I certainly wish a ‘quality’ gas was available !
“Re your point about Caro’s horizonral bias, could it be that horizontality has a more ‘abstract’ feel to it; verticality auromatically sounding echos of figuration? David Smith’s work is often a good example of this tendancy. The flat plane of the floor is less ‘suggestive’ of anything; less referential than vertical stance.”
In ordinary experience, we think of the human figure as standing up vertically or lying down on the floor or some other horizontal surface. We take that for granted, it’s an assumption that we don’t question – and that’s why the floor has the character of literalness. In a traditional figurative sculpture, the floor has no sculptural significance, which is why the pedestal was necessary, to separate the sculpture from the ordinary world in which we live.
In eliminating the pedestal, Caro challenged our assumptions about the floor. Although he wasn’t the first sculptor to dispense with the pedestal, he was the first to give sculptural significance to the horizontal plane on which the sculpture rests, most clearly and beautifully in works made in Bennington, VT, and then in works like “Prairie” and many others around that time, which deploy not only the vertical and the horizontal but the diagonal, which is both and neither. In those works, the floor loses its literal character as the ground from which everything rises, and becomes virtually incorporated into the sculpture itself, as a plane that does not itself require grounding in something else. In other words, the ground is experienced abstractly rather than literally.
I have noticed that in the tendency to disparage Caro’s work (e.g., as either “pictorial” or “architectural” – carefully and tendentiously omitting “sculptural”, as if only the “new abstract sculpture”, having cast Caro’s influence aside as retrograde, is capable of achieving the “sculptural”, or true “spatiality” and “three dimensionality”) doesn’t address his early table sculptures, where Caro’s innovations with sculptural space are almost impossible to miss (although I’m sure some here will manage to miss it as well, because for them, judgment is not based on actual experience but rather the requirements of doctrine).
In the table sculptures, Caro’s task (per Fried’s discussion) was to make sculptures that secure their scale abstractly rather than by way of their literal size (as objects). He did this primarily by incorporating handles or hand implements into the work, and by running part of the sculpture below the plane of the table on which the sculpture rests – which precluded the possibility of imaginatively transposing the sculpture to the ground. By precluding that option, precluded the possibility of seeing the sculpture’s smallness as a contingent or literal fact (e.g., as a small version of something larger, like a model), so that the scale (like the tabletop) is experienced as an essential component of the work, a qualitative rather than a quantitative fact. In so doing, the table sculptures render the idea of scale itself abstract, so that the work is seen neither as big nor as small according to our ordinary criteria, which are grounded in the human figure (being approximately 6 feet tall, etc.).
I am mindful in this debate about Space of the relationship of sculpture to the conditions of horizontal and vertical.
Both Moore and Caro tended towards horizontality. This ‘ state of being ‘ tends towards looking down on something or, at best, across it . A large part of the action is hugging the floor and often a large part of the sculpture shielded from view. So, put simply, the spatiality of the sculpture is shared with the floor. Could’ shared’ be extended as a condition to being absorbed by the floor ?
Surely the origins of the horizontal and vertical are figurative and the reclining figure has always had to battle with its structural energy being lost to the floor. The vertical on the other hand, whilst avoiding this when translated into abstract sculpture,becomes flat and veers towards the pictorial in Smith and Caro , either as something tantamount to a figure , or spreading out as flatness. In either form spatiality is diminished.
The obvious contradiction to this for me is found in David Sweet’s brilliant description of ‘ Early One Morning ” making a case for its seven floor contacts and their variety of influence on the whole.I mention this because I had previously seen ‘Early One Morning ‘ being an architectural space.
The driver to find an alternative to these conditions of horizontality and verticality is this unsatisfying spatiality which hangs around them both.
I have been wondering why Tim bringing this up a has been so difficult for me to comment on when most of the conditions of sculpture can quickly be seen as having a too dominant and restrictive hold on spatiality almost solving sculptures and bringing them to solutions too early. So which comes first, spatiality or three dimensionality ?
Recently sculpture has been referred to as a ‘ lump ‘, a suitably hideous term for a transient condition whilst reaching for a new condition and not an amalgam of horizontal and vertical.
Whist I do not have an answer for my question I think it has been a long held view that the condition of horizontal and vertical is too involved in solving `Abstract sculptures.
That then begs another question ,how Abstract are these the conditions ?
where is David Sweet’s piece on Early One Morning?
Speaking as someone who was obsessed with horizontality for quite a few years, thinking that it was the more abstract way to deal with the “spreading out” of space in sculpture, the idea is bound up in my mind with having to find literal ways to structure the work, including using the floor as structure – which is what many Caros, by necessity, do (Carl’s ideas on this notwithstanding).
It seems to me that the new kind of spatiality is now imaginatively detached from the ‘representation’ by the material of both human horizontality and verticality. It’s as though the sculptural material can now, so to speak, think for itself about what it does, and as such has no necessity to privilege references to human physicality, including our stance (vertical) and our movement in the world (horizontal). Once these kind-of-figurative pre-conditions fall away, the sculptural material can engage with space any-which-way it chooses.
I would further suggest that though spatial issues now seem axiomatic to our thinking about abstract sculpture, there will be within this new spatiality potentially a whole variety of approaches. I note with interest Tony’s previous reference to space as a ‘facilitator’, giving ‘room’ to the material to do its stuff of extreme articulation in three-dimensions. That is EXACTLY what I see happening in his new work. At the moment, in my new work, I feel I am coming at the thing from the other direction – using material to enable the organisation or ‘orchestration’ of the space. I’m sure Tim has his own take on this. Suddenly the debate about space becomes really interesting and complex, way beyond the scope of ‘architectural’ notions.
I keep on meaning to put up a proper response to Tim’s piece. For now could I point out that your hanging sculptures, which seem to me to be much freer than the floor pieces, involve a vertical – the chain – which is as straight as anything in Caro. They also spread horizontally against this vertical, and even if they don’t do this so simply and clearly, perhaps their freedom to move, and the visual strength with which they do, draws on the vertical. This is not meant as a ‘gotcha’, but I do think things are not as clear as this comment suggests.
“It seems to me that the new kind of spatiality is now imaginatively detached from the ‘representation’ by the material of both human horizontality and verticality. It’s as though the sculptural material can now, so to speak, think for itself about what it does, and as such has no necessity to privilege references to human physicality, including our stance (vertical) and our movement in the world (horizontal). Once these kind-of-figurative pre-conditions fall away, the sculptural material can engage with space any-which-way it chooses.”
This reads like a description of an animated cartoon show on TV, with cute little animals flying around, finally free of “references to human physicality, including our stance (vertical) and our movement in the world (horizontal)”, with “kind of figurative pre-conditions” like gravity “falling away” so that the little animal “can engage with space any-which-way it chooses.” (But even Wiley Coyote, after running past the edge of the cliff in pursuit of Road Runner, eventually loses his forward motion and plummets earthward, just a few seconds before he’s crushed by the boulder in a small cloud of dust.)
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks to Tim Scott for this essay which gives a clear and concise view of the story of modern sculpture, how its character was transformed by the injection of exotic influences that would differentiate it from the sculpture of the past and how a cycle of change and rejection has brought it to an exciting point where it can be argued that sculpture has demonstrably entered territory that is not reliant on the triggering of figurative or metaphorical reading of its content.
The historical problem for abstract sculptors was that unlike their figurative counterparts they had no recognisable vehicle for expressive intent. It should therefore hardly be surprising that the work of even the most highly regarded and influential of sculptors such as Caro and Smith which had radical abstract intent (at least in the context of their time), can be seen to have fallen short of 21st century abstract goals. However, in relation to Caro Tony Smart makes the really significant point that the showing of works such as ‘Early One Morning’ and ‘Window’ in the 1960’s offered a new vision for the character of sculpture as an object, a vision of clean-lined, open, imaginative structure.
Moving to the present day, the ‘use’ of space is seen as a key consideration for a new, more fully three-dimensional and abstract sculptural experience but I share Carl’s misgivings about seeing space as a commodity that can be manipulated and used as one might use tangible material. Use/manipulation suggests (at least to me) a pro-active exploitation or designing of space rather than having an intuitive and flexible response as to how the sculpture might be developed as an object that can both incorporate space and exist with strong presence IN space.
Marisse said (in relation to his drawing) that he was always conscious of the vertical and horizontal ( of the paper).
ii is a priori a condition of life that we should be thus conscious, as it is a fundamental part of our being,which, initially, is created by the force of gravity on Earth.
In (Tony’s / Robin’s) descriptions of a ‘new’ spatiality it is implied that gravitational force will no longer have any paramount role. I cannot see that this is possible since whatever physical form a spatally conditioned sculpture takes, it will be subject to this force as its physicality, three dimensionality, movement and so on, are conditioned by it unequivocally.As Matisse implies you cannot escape it and its effects.
Sculpture can only escape trom REFERENCE to those things it gets lumbered with; architecturalness, ,pictorialness, two dimensionality, figurativeness, etc., etc.but not gravity.which is inherent in its being.
Is this what we call abstract ?
To come to Terry’s point concerning his misgivings about space seen as a ‘commodity’; I would only say that it cannot of course be a literal commodity, but its EFFECTS, through imaginative illusion, on material, can be FELT with the eyes..
The issue of gravity is something that has been raised numerous times before and I agree with Tim’s take on it. We can see the reaction to and against the vertical and horizontal that other forces / spaces have. The relation to one things defines another. I come to movement as being the important driver of spaces. Our eyes constant shifting (and being shifted) from one thing to another – be it a form or a colour or any change of condition. This movement is where the expression lies. How it gets there is a moot point- as Terry remarks. Even with the most ambitious of intentions this will not guarantee that the result will provide a greater visual experience than works made with very different ambitions. However you set your stall out, you have to maximise your way of doing things first. Someone’s work may not be any influence at all on you yourself, but you must take on board the level of expressiveness that is being garnered in it. I still think abstract painting – for me -is the biggest challenge but I still respect and feel challenged by figurative art when it is really good or for that matter, abstract art that is massively different to my own. Everyone wants to make good art, I feel there is more to it that this as I said but that in itself is meaningless until the work shows it in the strongest possible terms. David Smith and Caro are often chided for their pictoriality but their work still arrests my attention for sure. What, specifically, I am getting out of their work, for example will ultimately remain a personal issue that feeds my own work – as will any number of other artworks through time. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water (even if the water is pink at times…)
The thing about drawing makes sense if you are working inside the rectangle of a piece of paper. But why should sculpture be thought of as operating inside a rectangle? Unless, that is, you take floors walls and ceilings as its context. Well, I think we have dealt with that already.
And as for gravity – yes, of course, everything we make is subject to gravity in a literal sense (including all sculpture, hanging or floor-based, and even including paintings!), but there is absolutely no need to make gravity a central focus to the imaginative content of the work. Not only does the pursuit of full three-dimensionality rule out thinking orthogonally, in verticals and horizontals, but the search for a properly abstract and sculptural structure, as against literal structure OR ITS METAPHORS, means that an emphasis on how the work makes reference to its condition under gravity might well be sidelined.
Regarding Sam’s comment – I agree, things are never clear cut, and I would concur that hanging a sculpture has its own limiting factors. Nevertheless, the direction of travel in these works is towards a freer three-dimensional content than has been attempted in sculpture before. I would maintain it is a more three-dimensional and more abstract approach than Caro. Whether it ends up being better or worse as art is not something I can answer.
I don’t see it as a limiting factor – apart from in sense that all art has limiting factors (or is that just wooly?)
“It”, the hanging, is not a limiting factor in itself, and was embarked upon to get round some of the limiting factors inherent in standing on the floor. But hanging gives rise to some limitations of its own – for example, the sculpture HAS to find a (literal) balance on the end of the hook. The important thing is thinking about sculpture differently. I’m working now back on the floor, having changed the way I think because of making hanging sculptures.
What is absolutely fundamental to me – more fundamental than gravity! – is attempting to work out what sculptural structure might be AS OPPOSED TO literal structure.
I think it is a mistake to try to hold all sculpture to account by invoking the laws of physics – or for that matter, the conditions of architecture. For a start, to say that “…whatever physical form a spatially conditioned sculpture takes, it will be subject to this force as its physicality, three dimensionality, movement and so on, are conditioned by it unequivocally” does not deal with the nature of the sculpture’s content, only (again) its literal context. It’s a bit like saying (random example) that Fra Bartolommeo cannot invoke the effects of light on an Italian hillside using pen and ink, due to his drawing consisting literally of black marks on white paper. And as surely as Bartolommeo DOES invoke those specific effects of light (without, I might rather gratuitously add, referencing the vertical and horizontal in the drawing I have in mind), surely it is right and proper that the content of sculpture has the freedom to transcend those impositions of literal gravity that attempt to limit it. Why not? If artists want to deal with gravity, fine. But if not, why not? I don’t see my work becoming esoteric and unphysical just because the content does not address gravity directly. I do see it moving into unexplored sculptural territory.
And in any case, the laws of physics are not what they were. They are no longer based upon Newtonian ideas about billiard balls bouncing off each other. New thinking in physics is wildly counter-intuitive. All is up in the air.
Re your last comment above:
No-one is going back to making stuff like Caro, not now, not ever. Despite the fact that you think he made several thousand masterpieces. Now THAT IS deluded.
Tell me Carl, as regards the fabulous “Deep Body Blue” (for example), just what am I supposed to look at in order to discover something interesting or exciting or involving or moving or “human” In this work? Point it out to me. What did Caro really put into this work? Where does the material engage with space? Where does the sculpture engage with the eye? Where does the content engage with the intelligence? I’ll tell you – nowhere at all. Describe what is happening in the sculpture – actually IN THE SCULPTURE – not literally, but as a sculpture. I know you can’t because it’s a banal arrangement of boring bits of steel. Only context, physical and cultural, can make anything out of this, because basically it is a content-free piece of vacuous minimalism. You can’t say anything real about it, and what’s more even Fried can’t say anything real about it (I’ve just re-read his paragraph on it in your Abcrit essay and it’s eyewash). You and he can only frantically contextualise and philosophise about it, nothing else – apart perhaps from the ridiculous and contradictory notion of an “abstract door”. Not so much an example of “deep intuitive understanding”, more a bit of a sad laugh.
I did not for one minute, Robin, imagine that the Matisse quote should be taken at face value for sculptors. It is interesting that a painter (not subject to gravity !?) should feel it in his blood nonetheless. Maybe it was because he was a sculptor too ?
I was wondering when the dreaded word ‘content’ would crop up again in the discussion. The problem is that we all ‘know ‘ what it means, but are unable to describe it. Of course in these discussions we are only attempting to describe the mechanics of sculpture; how this or that might or might not succeed in doing something which in our minds has been forecast, but not yet put into practice.to the point where , yes, its content blows the senses.
You don’t have to ‘deal’ with gravity – it deals with you.
Where I am
Where I am completely of like mind with your comment is on the subject of a sculptural structure. I agree, and have said many times in the recent past, that a rethink on this is absolutely crucial to the evolution of a new sculpture; All the other factors that have come up for discussion are party to this aim in my view; and by structure I mean differentiating clearly from other known structures.of the world. The theme of my essay was primarily that the use of space (your spatiality) would be crucial to this aim.
Yes, well, the word “content” is not dreaded to me, though, because in such a discussion as this it becomes a necessity to distinguish what goes on in a sculpture intrinsically, and what is extrinsic. Or, to put it another way, to distinguish between what the artist puts in (consciously or not, it doesn’t matter) and what culture, circumstances or commentators apply to it after the fact. We can have goes at describing it specifically, as we do sometimes in Brancaster, but yes it’s difficult – quite rightly, because it’s visual not literal or literary. In fact, talking about “sculptural structure” is probably the same thing as content.
So what do we mean? Can abstract content be free-form and free of metaphor, but still have human significance? It’s such a great ambition…
You say”…. you do not have to deal with gravity it deals with you”. “Gravity is inherent in sculpture’s being”.
Hilde in Brancaster Chronicle 2 says that it is important how energy coming into a sculpture resists gravity.
There have been long discussions over the five years of the Chronicles about the space of the sculpture being part of your space, for and against.
ILLUSION. Sculpture does not do anything or it would not were it not for illusion.
Sculpture that sits in our space and shares its activity with us in the same space, takes on that literalness of that space where things really happen, perhaps becoming figurative
To be Abstract somehow the sculpture must be in its own space. So the illusion of the sculpture is freed from the literalness of real space leaving the sculpture free to explore its “Own-ness’.
Its reality is not competing with the viewer, the ‘actual’ of the body is separated from the illusion of the sculpture.
Does Painting, figurative and abstract, achieves a similar condition via the picture plane?
The free standing figurative sculpture standing in our space begins to look very weird, because the illusion and the known-ness of the body facing our body are in contradiction.
Without its own space the illusion contradicts its aim for the Abstract and returns it to the real world….
I think there may be something in this.
When you have to resort to quantum mechanics you have lost the argument.
On the one hand you are exaggerating the extent to which Caro’s 1962-72 works are “pictorial”. (For a more objective assessment see my Steel Sculpture 1 on Abstractcritical). On the other you are underestimating the extent to which these works engage with and articulate spatial experience. The fact that we have legs and bodies and need to walk around these sculptures to fully take them in and “grasp” their “syntax” does not make their engagement with space “literal”.
And as long as we do have legs and bodies we will remain subject to gravity, and so will Sculpture.
The idea that sculpture is cocooned in its own illusionistic space takes it back close to the despised opticality of yore. Illusionistic elements are consonant with physicality and engendered through physical means.
Sculptural structure is indeed synonymous with content, but it is not antithetical to physical structure, but realised through it. There is a dialogue there which finally resolves itself in the constructed work.
This prejudice against Caro, and the attempt to separate yourselves from his achievement, (even allowing for his many faults in his post 1972 works) only goes to show how great an influence he once exerted on your development. But the critique has become a blindness. Deep Body Blue is easy to dismiss, but I would never single it out as an example of Caro at his best. (See Steel Sculpture 1.)
And as I have tried to show on previous occasions, even in music the articulation of sound structures has a physical dimension, is a physical reality, (See Daniel Barenboim’s masterclasses on the Beethoven piano sonatas no’s 109 And 110 on YouTube), such that its relations to structures in the real world outside music is more than mere analogy, and certainly much more than metaphorical. So if structures in music are physically real, how much more so are the articulated structures of sculpture, and painting. Three dimensionality as an aim cannot be made to override all other considerations, not least the feeling that the work has a conVincing physicality.
Yes but you miss the point. What are the “articulated structures of sculpture”? You don’t know, so don’t pretend you do. A “convincing physicality” of what, exactly?
I have no wish to make unphysical sculpture – and I am not – but the quest for greater and greater elucidation of three-dimensionality and spatiality will be the things, above all else, that will, in my opinion, unlock new ways of making such structures. Really, Alan, what other path is open to us?
I can recall for years and years, certainly with Sculpture from the Body and before, and continuing up until the first years of Brancaster, discussing the concept of “set-up” or “configuration” and how it manifests itself in specific sculptural arrangements. That sort of discussion has pretty much died out in recent Brancaster talks, as the sculpture works its way past literal or metaphoric structure and starts to really challenge what we know about objects and how sculpture might find a very different place in the world. There are still problems – and the polemic against Caro is a symptom of that difficulty – in making and in discussing it, but we ain’t going back.
“And as long as we do have legs and bodies we will remain subject to gravity, and so will Sculpture.” you say. But the body is not the whole person (nor is it abstract), and our imaginations are not subject to gravity.
An excellent response.
I would add that nothing is off limits for discussion. I know of no document that can replace these open debates.
I have a suggestion – let’s stop talking about Caro altogether. Whatever dues were owed, if any were, let’s assume they are paid. Let’s move on. He is now undoubtedly irrelevant to what is happening, and it is unquestionable that something new is afoot in sculpture. No doubt at all.
How about it, Tim? Can we leave TC behind?
I’m not being asked, but: No, Robin, you can’t leave TC behind. You can stop “talking” about him. You can declare him “irrelevant”—but you’re stuck with him. You’re stuck with gravity too. Why run away from who you are? There’s a nice “profile” of an American sculptor named Sanford Biggers in the current New Yorker. Maybe Caro is “irrelevant” to Biggers—but maybe not: maybe Biggers is saying a lot about Caro.
Well it’s Tim’s article, that’s why I’m asking him.
Biggers has nothing to do with anything. Why not say why we should stick with Caro if you want to make that point. Stop bullshitting, Jock. I’m not running from anything. Look at my work, look at my commitment, look at how I’m facing up full on to the new problems of making abstract sculpture without Caroesque cliches. Then look at your own work and tell me whose running away. Cheeky bugger.
Why do you say Biggers has nothing to do with anything? I guess because you don’t see him as an abstract sculptor facing the “new” problems. But doesn’t that to some extent call into question the “new” problems—even the idea of abstract sculpture? I’m not trying to say Biggers has this special insight that makes the “new” problems/abstract sculpture ridiculous/not worth facing/whatever. Just that Biggers/a quick read of that profile does make me look at things a little differently. Small things CAN—don’t always/don’t often, but can—make big “differences.”
My experience of Caro is pretty limited—limited mostly to what I’ve read at your websites: very exciting, very “close” “readings” of Caro’s work. But before Caro was an abstract sculptor, before this work of his “solved” this problem or didn’t solve that one—he was just a sculptor making some good things, some bad things: he was “famous” for a while in certain places: he was a teacher: he was a guy just like Biggers or you or me—only a little different. It’s that Caro that Biggers helps me think about.
When I look at my own work, I see a guy who dabbles at imitating/trying to understand the work of miscellaneous other sculptors/painters. I fail at imitating and at understanding—but I’m very, very happy when I get up in the morning. Cranach—the great, Abstract, very sculptural painter—is my latest “project.” Maybe I’ll be able to take on Biggers one day, but these days I have a lot of “trouble” with contemporary art—except, of course, (and I’m not being “cheeky”) the Brancaster work: I’m completely “at home” at Brancaster. My trouble is that I’ll go from Cranach to Biggers to somebody else. I’m constantly jumping around. I’m a dilettante, kind of a Boy Scout dilettante, but a dilettante—a happy, Boy Scout dilettante.
You Brancasterites do NOT jump around. You’ve made commitments—to Caro, to steel sculpture, to abstract sculpture. I might have trouble with/I might not understand a lot of those words/ideas (at least not the way you do), but I don’t have any trouble with your commitment. That’s your great strength. That’s why it sounds fishy when you talk about abandoning Caro.
I think it was Tony who started this. He mentioned Caro and Rodin. Very quickly “we” were talking about Caro and only Caro. I wonder why. I don’t have any explanation. Maybe I shouldn’t have talked about running away from who you are—but you were talking about an abrupt change of direction. I’m all for more talk about Rodin–or Biggers. But there’s something that tells me you’ve got to talk more about Caro before you can talk less about him.
When I think about Cranach’s work and Caro’s, I think about them as businessmen: good/talented businessmen. I think Cranach was a “better” artist, more of an “artist”—more tyrannized by the visual (I might be garbling a phrase of Matthew Collings’s here)—but his “business” somehow saved him. You Brancasterites are better artists—more fanatical, more “tyrannized” than Caro—but lesser businessmen, less men/women of the world.
What about Biggers? Is he cheeky? The lines that hooked me in the New Yorker profile were these: “I stood there looking for a while. The image was very funny, but what, exactly, was the joke?” I have seen some of Biggers’s work. It’s not cheeky. Biggers has that businessman dimension that Caro had, that engagement with/acceptance of The World. Maybe he has a deeper understanding of The World. Maybe he’s less tyrannized by the visual. He opens up the Debate though—and, as Tony says, keeping things open is important.
What should you do today? Glad you asked. Make some Adam and Eve sculptures with your chewed-up steel! Or maybe I should look harder. Maybe Adam and Eve are already in your work. There’s some of Cranach’s tense wholeness. . .
For the sake of clarity -Tony – I will try to take your points one by one :
When material is being positioned by an engineer reaches the limit of its bending, sheer, compression and tension, he has to add more – .that’s gravity
When your sculpture, doing nicely in space, reaches the ground, you have to make decisions. – that’s gravity.
Energy is what you try to put into material to give it a sculptural identity.
Sculpture’s own space, as I have tried to point out in the article,, has been limited. New sculpture (abstract) has to expand those limitations. Use of space in new ways is the key
The ‘reality’ of the sculpture lies.in what ways it stirs the emotions of the viewer. This can be called an ‘illusion’, since it only ‘appears’ to be (to the viewer).
I am not a painter, but I would have thought that the whole art of painting is based in illusion (correct me if I am wrong Alan).
I would have thought that great figurative sculpture REMINDS us of out bodies and physical sensations through suggestion (illusion ?)
New abstract sculpture (as I said above) has to expand its existing limitations to enter new territory in the real world.
Robin – I THINK I tried to only mention Caro in the context of everything else in the article; I have previously made my feelings about his work clear in previous Abcrits. I cannot be held responsible for other’s contributions..
Let us try to be clear then. You can make very clear points about something factual and understood and coming from the known world. To put a sculptural, visual occurrence into words one would struggle to be clear in an equivalent sense.
Imagination is what I relied on to connect with the imagination that had put that material into that form of your new sculpture.Not my knowledge of what I know about sculpture on its own.
The only really clear thing is the sculpture, seeing it and being prepared to admit to seeing it rests with one’s passion for sculpture and that belief that progress can be made. There is a future and any body can contribute.
The sculpture of the 60’s was itself imaginative and it too prompted much negative response but response non the less from those who wanted to see where this could lead.
I put out the word ‘illusion’ knowing it would not be seen as speculative but hoping we could discuss what it has to contribute, good or bad.
Hilde said in Chronicle 2 that “the whole sculpture knows about the floor” acknowledging that something, however small had changed, and that the change could be seen and felt. The beginning of being ‘real’ . So just in that example gravity is being seen beyond just the responsibility of that which is in contact with the floor, a more flexible fluid structure, aware of itself, and in a sense of where it is spatially.
The idea of the space itself having physicality, of other forces in combination doing different things to that which they had first thought was their role…………well that was five years ago and for me, and I know I am not on my own in thinking this, we are much further on than that now.
I would hesitate to say anything about the articulated structures of sculpture except in the presence of a particular work. I have heard all this rhetoric of unparallelled newness before. Then it was allied to a hymning of the inexhaustible bounty of the body as a source for sculptural invention. Now it is allied to something much more amorphous, a conception of Abstraction which privileges illusion over tangibility, the disembodied eye circulating round a something in its “own space” in which the abstract nouns spatiality and three dimensionality vie for consummation while structural articulation and physicality of the material are downplayed.
The danger is that this places Sculpture back on the pedestal (imaginatively if not in fact) as a kind of cerebral phantom addressed directly to the mind, the very tendency in modern psychology that sculpture is supposed to counter and oppose, or so I would have thought.
It is not about the laws of physics. It’s about a coherent man-made structure, free standing, which asserts its independence from nature, its “radical unlikeness to nature” (Greenberg on Caro), with and against the pull of gravity, — yes resistant to gravity — but a “made thing and more of a thing than any other thing” — but a thing which is open to an active and extrovert engagement with the penetration of space (I assume that’s what spatiality means), in the reciprocal pressure of the hardware of the sculpture with that space.
This is a relationship that can only be felt, not demonstrated or proven, but this does not make it an illusion. Nor proved by assertions of the sculptor, so,it should not be touted by rhetoric.
I am not talking about the sculptures. I am talking about what is being said about the sculptures, and far, far too much is being said about them.
Here’s another way of looking at it. The whole thing about flatness in painting and the dominance of the picture plane we all know now to be a bit of a bore, and if the whole content of a painting was about asserting and acknowledging that flatness, then we know – because it’s been done ad infinitum – that the results will be unimaginative and banal. Painting can do so much more than that basic stuff, which has often been pursued under the rubric of stating some kind of truth to the discipline. And even though painting might have to in some discrete way avoid abusing its flatness, and unobtrusively take it on board, it doesn’t have to privilege it, and its contents must surely strive to go beyond that simple condition – well beyond it – and do something much more ambitious AND INDEPENDENT of it. The question, in painting as in sculpture, is what is that ambitious abstract content? How do you get at it?
So, with abstract sculpture, I don’t think anyone (not me, anyway) is arguing for an abandonment of physicality or a move into some airy-fairy realm of opticality or disembodiment, but the content (or sculptural structure) of new sculpture should surely attempt far more than an acknowledgement of its literal condition as an object, or a metaphorical interpretation of that condition. I would go so far as to say that the more that condition is backgrounded in favour of some other more inventive and imaginative proposition, the better. Yes, sculpture needs to stand up, but there is no need at all to make that standing up the focus of its content. None at all. Think BEYOND that.
Again, the question arises, what is abstract sculptural structure? We are walking tightropes all the time trying to discover this, falling on the one side into literalness, the other side into unreal fantasy, but if we don’t attempt it then I see no progress being made. I think we have already seen some good results, which really deserve some support and encouragement, because the ambitious aims of this project are fantastic.
And there is no harm in talking it through!
Carl’s view of the work of Tony Caro seems to be through direct quotation from Fried and Greenberg.
I think that sits uncomfortably with the experience of others of the one to one etc. of sculptors talking about what might or might to be happening in many cases with Caro directly.
[something Caro , it seemed to me, enjoyed very much].
Conversation of this nature is naturally full of anxieties, hopes, dreams and all of that which is set against the Monday to Monday of making new work.
There were things off the list of acceptable conversation, Henry Moore being one. Passions always ran high in whatever studio or situation as the artist tried to gain traction but could not find the words which connected with the new things.
Anything written or said has to be open to debate and interpretation then as it is today.
We have, in the absence of a larger debate and exposure to a larger audience, had to ‘come out’ so to speak about what we are thinking at the moment, something Caro I suggest, was able to keep to the many private encounters with a whole range of interested parties and more often than not in front of his actual sculptures whether they were finished or not.
Today we have largely lost that impromptu debate.
In having to explain what may be behind our new sculpture seems to make some people very nervous.
Martin Mugar writes Jan 13th: “The Caro window piece… is a modernist trope and fits in nicely with everything modern. It has no space and is just parts that don’t work as a whole. Seems to be a period piece.” I think he might be a little bit right. Although it was at the time dazzlingly adventurous to make an object like this and call it sculpture, it now seems to have the barest of intrinsic sculptural qualities, if any. It becomes some kind of defiant gesture AGAINST sculpture, unapproachable by, and indifferent to, a sculptural critique; almost as much so as a Beuys or a Judd; an inviolable icon of the sixties.
Tim writes in his Jan 7th post: “Re: Caro; I would state firmly that none of us would be where we are if it was not for his example.” In some sense or another that is inevitably true, because we all knew him, but some of those senses are totally mundane. It also begs the very big question: “Where in fact, as a result of knowing Caro, are we?” – perhaps we should be blaming Caro for leaving us in the mess that Carl and Alan seem to think we are in. But no, let’s not do that. Because the mess is beginning to look fabulous…
In passing, I can’t resist replying to Carl’s comment on the table pieces of Jan 13th: How does putting actual handles or tools into a sculpture “secure their scale abstractly”? It surely does the opposite, securing it to the literal. To many observers at the time, myself included, it seemed this move by Caro was a rather belated attempt to inject a bit of haptic physicality (an idea nicked from Smith) into what were, to a very large extent (as in the floor-based work), and contra to what you state, VERY pictorial/frontal/optical arrangements of found steel shapes. The fact that some of these hung over the table edge only served to reinforce the fact that you could only look at them from one view. Again, like in much of his larger works, views from the sides or back made no sense at all, if they even existed, denying all three-dimensional thinking. This too was radical at the time, but is an aspect of Caro’s work that many people, including I think both Tim and Alan, found unacceptable, and still do. It is one of the major differences, though not the only one, between Caro’s approach and ours.
What you forget sometimes Carl (as I have already flagged up) is that almost all the people you are discussing these issues with on this site not only knew Caro but spent many an hour in front of his work, looking at them and talking about them. The reason why we are where we are now in sculpture, wherever that is, and however problematic, and however bad you think it is, is because we have moved out of the doctrines that surrounded his work (for the most part not emanating from the man himself), and that you now reiterate; and so we find ourselves, rather marvellously, in unknown territory, which has somehow, by hard work, luck, and much persistence and thought, opened up tantalisingly before us. It’s looking amazing, and I’m sorry your (Carl’s) preoccupation with Caro stops you from seeing the greater potential of a more three-dimensional approach than he, Caro, ever employed.
I really would like to stop talking about Caro! and explore this new territory. I’d like to continue a little bit with this idea about configuration or “set-up” in sculpture, and how that relates to the responses of sculpture to gravity and the kind of structures that were thus engendered; and then how that evolved into the quest for more three-dimensionality and spatiality.
I recall that at one time in the mid-eighties, as we were beginning to doubt if the study of the body and all its complexities could possibly result in coherent sculptures that were not in themselves suffering from an overload of input and “language” and a terrible confusion of “set-up”, that a few of us – certainly myself and Tony – started making sculptures that comprised of a vertical or diagonal structure raised on one single point on a (very necessary) baseplate, and having no “branching” or diversions to this extended articulation (examples here) https://twitter.com/RobinGreenwood1/status/952217033164324864. The reasons for doing this, which were absolutely compelling, I recollect, and lasted a few years or so (In my case, up to 1994 with ”AL”) were to do with believing that all the forces at work for and against gravity had to be in some way unified; and that if you were to, say, bring down another leg of some sort on to the ground, or launch the sculpture from two or more points, that ungovernable confusions of reciprocating forces would result in “knots” of activity that would become more and more figurative in how they had to be resolved (like a pelvis). The brilliant and amazing complexities of the human body, how it worked, stood up, moved, danced, were seemingly only to be assimilated into sculpture by either radical simplification of the configuration, or by an acceptance of the metaphorical/figurative language of physical structures in sculpture (which is, by the way, where I think Katherine Gili now is) which must be employed.
That point was an impasse. After that (in fact as early as 1987, so “AL” was a reversion of the reversion), I reverted to trying to make abstract sculpture without a source based in bodily structures at all. The fact is that despite a growing desire to engage with properly abstract work again, the brilliant complexities of Sculpture from the Body, and the reality that those complexities were grounded in physicality, put paid to any thoughts of a retreat to sculpture based on the modernist aesthetic decisions of Mr. C. or any other example.
Where now? Alan thinks we theorise too much about this stuff, but I would say that most of the talk is after the fact of the work, as we try to make sense of the things we have made, and try to work out just where it is we have arrived at; then go again. So, over the past few years of looking at sculpture in Brancaster, certain things have come to light – about how to return to the wonderfully rich complexities and diversities of structures like we saw in the body, whilst at the same time shedding the last few vestiges of structural metaphor. We are finding a way to be free with the material, spatially and physically – and yes, physical things can still happen, but divorced from structural necessity – to fully explore its potential in the extraordinary world of total three-dimensions. There appears to be, at last, real ways of knocking “configuration” on the head. Configuration is, after all, decidedly figurative, and we want abstract!
P.S. This is a version of a story that could be told many ways.
As I said in the essay above, serious sculptors will have to continue to take Caro seriously for many or all of the reasons already reiterated; and perhaps for some that are as yet unforeseen
There is probably a tendency.amongst younger sculptors to ignore the context of the times in which the works of Caro cited were made, (understandably they were not there). Personally I am more interested in the critique of his later works (mid 70’s onwards) which led me for one to start questioning 60’s assumptions and a lot of what followed..
The only point of looking at sculpture intensively and with exploration and exploration, is to ignite a visual and mental experience which is completely unavailable elsewhere. If that does not happen, move on.
Nice to see those sculptures of Tony’s and Robin’s from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Very “revealing:” Tony simply getting on with the project, and coming up with wonderful, anxiously pure things: Robin struggling, having doubts about his doubts, but breaking through with determined exuberance. The sculptures made me think of Bruce Gagnier’s Malone (https://twitter.com/jockireland/status/953477467041402880)—made about the same time. I, of course, see Tony’s and Robin’s work as standing figures. Bruce’s Malone is an abstract sculpture.
I just reread Tim’s essay with Bruce’s Malone in mind. Tim writes:
“‘Abstraction’ (non-figuration), overturning the spatial expression of bodily gesture to replace it with an attenuated invented version involving the parts of a sculpture being shaped by ‘expressive’ plastic decisions, rather than mimetic ones, now begin to occupy the direction that sculptors in the early 20th Century were taking – penetrating and animating space in ways undirected, or only partially, by any bodily naturalistic model or norm. Rodin’s use of parts to make sculptural conglomerations serves as a pointer to the direction that progressive sculptors were taking.”
Bruce might have started Malone working from a model in a clay class he taught at the Studio School. Bruce used to work on his own figures along with the students in his class. Bruce’s figures did not always look a whole lot like the model. He might have taken his clay figure back to his studio, worked on it some there. Then he might have made a mold and a plaster cast. Then he might have broken the cast, and reassembled the parts with “‘expressive’ plastic decisions” in mind.
Malone’s head isn’t too different from Picasso’s Head of a Woman. It’s not “devoid of any attachment to representation”—but there is a “quasi-humorous” dimension to it, and look at his long neck: his head is “spatially free.”
When Tim talks about “the bounds of an ‘image’, or an accepted notion of ‘wholeness’”, it might seem he’s talking about a “line” Bruce’s Malone hasn’t been able to get past. Certainly, this territory is not easy to talk about. Bruce used to fight with Garth Evans about “images” at sculpture crits at the Studio School. Garth didn’t like the recent Picasso sculpture show at MoMA because “images” were doing too much work. Bruce loves images. Bruce and Garth fought about pictorialism too. All sculpture’s pictorial according to Bruce. Garth: nope. But let me digress about Tim’s work (and Emyr’s Japanese gas) for a moment.
This is my favorite paragraph in Tim’s essay:
“Where the sculpture (its literal parts) ends in literal space, remains, crucially, open to doubt as to where it is going and what for. There is suddenly a visual disjunction between space as conditioned by its relationship with physical matter as a part of the directions and movements of the sculpture, and then not conditioned at all by any control at its extremities, as if falling off a visual precipice. This is not a new problem; in fact, I suspect that one reason underlying the old grouping of sculpture in architectural settings was precisely because the spatial impact of one lone piece could be transformed by repetition and multiplicity, dulling the finiteness of gesture ending in spatial limbo (Easter Island, Karnak).”
I’m not sure I really understand the paragraph, but it got me thinking about Tim’s work as sculpture that steps into space and steps out of space in one move. Of course, there are lots of “moves” even in Tim’s early Bird in Arras sculptures—but all the moves—even in the late plywood pieces, printouts of JPEGs of which I’ve had up in my studio for a while now—are continuous, somehow “one.” And when one of Tim’s sculptures steps into space, Emyr’s Japanese gas is released, and it fills the whole world—all the way up to the stars—and the gas is not red: it’s bright, fresh air. Don’t ask me what “stepping into space” means. Alan Gouk writes about what I’m trying to get at much more effectively in his catalog essay for Tim’s 1988 show in Germany. Alan talks about Matisse in his essay. I’d just like to mention a New York painting: Guercino’s Samson and Delilah: a horizontal painting: it “begins” on the left very differently from the way it “ends” on the right: things get tangled up in the middle—just like Tim’s sculptures! It’s one “song” though—one “self” singing.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is that space is not a “technical” thing associated with another “technical” thing call abstract sculpture. Space has something to do with “content.” I just started reading William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. I just started, might not finish: it’s 500 pages long! James has a bunch of interesting categories though: there are healthy-minded souls: Whitman, Caro, Gouk, Scott—and there are sick souls: Melville, Smart, Greenwood, Gagnier.
Back to Malone. Does an image really have “bounds”? What about its “wholeness”? Malone is a complete figure, but it’s also a very broken figure. Contrapposto might be “an accepted notion of ‘wholeness’”—though, as I remember, it’s a notion NOT “accepted” by Alan Gouk. Is Bruce any more “accepting” of the notion? Are Tony and Robin? And Emyr’s Japanese gas? Is it not somehow “contained” very precisely by the base Malone stands on? Step into Malone’s space, though: is it not “infinitely” big? How do the base plates in Tony’s and Robin’s sculptures relate to the Japanese gas?
It is, of course, impossible to see Malone in a photograph—or in a glance: Alan: “The sculptor’s originality now is to be measured almost by the distance between one’s first impression, and that reconstituted moment in which one feels one has grasped the logic of the piece.” Especially impossible to see that Malone is kind of not standing on the base/the ground: the feet are “moving”/“undercut:” gravity/physicality is/are questioned/challenged. Is Robin “doing” the same thing with his recent hanging sculptures?
Anyway, Tim’s essay helps me to see Bruce’s sculpture better. Thanks, Tim! Thanks, Abcrit! I guess I don’t need to remind anybody I have trouble with sculpture described as “progressive” or “new”—but out of my “trouble” comes “new” understanding. I think I see Tim’s work more clearly because of Bruce’s—and I see Robin’s recent work as “symphonies” through Tim’s “songs.” I even see Tim “motifs” (Bird in Arras “motifs” in Robin’s Rubica-Ornans, for example) emerging in Robin’s “symphonies,” and then getting swallowed up by the abstract/cosmic/sacred/order/disorder—“swallowed up” the way Robin once talked about Degas’s sculpture having “the capacity to renew itself or redefine itself in front of you.” Tony, of course, is locked in on that abstract/cosmic/sacred/order/disorder. . .
Can I explain what stepping into space means? Not quite, but this seems to be a useful way of thinking about Tim’s work
Tim’s work as sculpture that steps into space and steps out of space in one move. Of course, there are lots of “moves” even in Tim’s early Bird in Arras sculptures—but all the moves—even in the late plywood pieces, printouts of JPEGs of which I’ve had up in my studio for a while now—are continuous, somehow “one.” And when one of Tim’s sculptures steps into space, Emyr’s Japanese gas is released, and it fills the whole world—all the way up to the stars—and the gas is not red: it’s bright, fresh air. Don’t ask me what “stepping into space” means.
“In passing, I can’t resist replying to Carl’s comment on the table pieces of Jan 13th: How does putting actual handles or tools into a sculpture “secure their scale abstractly”? It surely does the opposite, securing it to the literal. To many observers at the time, myself included, it seemed this move by Caro was a rather belated attempt to inject a bit of haptic physicality (an idea nicked from Smith) into what were, to a very large extent (as in the floor-based work), and contra to what you state, VERY pictorial/frontal/optical arrangements of found steel shapes. The fact that some of these hung over the table edge only served to reinforce the fact that you could only look at them from one view.”
The reason I mentioned Caro’s table pieces is that they reveal very concretely, in terms that seem to me verifiable in one’s experience, a real innovation in how space can work in the hands of a master sculptor – unless the extraordinarily vague and (to me) hopelessly naïve and virtually meaningless yet mind-bogglingly arrogant claims about some works “having space” and others not, some “having content” and others not, and the doctrinal judgment that “pictorial” somehow nullifies “sculptural”, and so on, all without any of the precision or linguistic accuracy that is required to convey something of value to the reader of your comments. The handles incorporated into the early Caro table pieces are not “literal” because the viewer is not tempted to grab them. Grabbing the handle would not make grammatical sense because they are not functioning as handles so much as elements that separate and span but also bind together other elements. (Their contribution to the sculpture is to establish scale because something must be within a certain range of scale to be grabbed or handled, neither too large nor too small in relation to human scale. To say that any of that “secures it to the literal” is once again to miss the point; on the contrary, the use of handles in those pieces show us (concretely, comprehensibly, specifically) what abstraction can mean with regard to sculpture.
Since I never claimed or even mentioned the concepts of “pictorial/frontal/optical arrangements”, your assertion about what I “stated” is meaningless, irrelevant and pointless. I don’t assume, as a matter of doctrine, that “pictorial”, “frontal” or “optical” are not or cannot be values in sculpture because only actual sculptures, not theories formulated by you or anyone else, can possibly tell us whether they are values or not.
“The fact that some of these hung over the table edge only served to reinforce the fact that you could only look at them from one view.”
Really? You seem to have missed the entire point of the overhanging elements, which has to do with the idea of one thing resting on and rising up (vertically) from a (horizontal) ground, and nothing whatsoever with the alleged “fact that you could only look at them from one view. “As a matter of empirical fact, you can look at anything from any viewpoint you choose; all you have to do is walk around a bit.
Finally, the only reason I brought up Caro (without claiming originality for my way of seeing his stuff) is that I’m bothered by the cavalier way you have of continually dismissing the value of his work without really bothering to understand what he was doing in the first place. I will refrain in the future.
Caro’s ‘Window’ is on show now in Tate Britain as part of Rachael Whiteread’s (!) display of work chosen from the collection. Saw it this morning. Amazed at how dreary, dull and – like a lot of sixties stuff – how tacky it looked, with its shiny new coat of gold and green gloss and its rather wonky orthogonality. I’m sticking with the Martin Mugar quote – it has no space and doesn’t work as a whole. It made me a bit sad really. His “Yellow Swing” from 1965, also on display, is better, but stuck in a corner.
P.S. The photo of “Window” in Tim’s article is the most flattering view possible, because you can see all the elements arranged in some sort of pictorial composition. From just about any other direction, that composition doesn’t operate, and there is nothing else to take its place.
It must have been heaven for Caro to be producing that kind of work in the Sixties when the zeitgeist of the critical community reinforced that way of thinking. It was undoubtedly new and fresh. Now without that backup it does look a bit paltry. You mentioned Judd from that time. He needs more than Caro the intellectual framework to be understood. But putting back together what has been taken apart may be the task of artists today in painting as well as sculpture.(if we even care to do so). Somewhere, maybe on Mark Stone’s site I remember you saying that it could be centuries before some new vision of time and space would shake up the art scene. Until then we are just rearranging the puzzle parts left behind by Modernism.
I’m a lot more optimistic now! Something is certainly happening in sculpture, though the artworld may take a century to catch up.
I like “putting it back together”, but it’s going back in a very different way.
Having spent the last few days in the studio making floor-based sculpture, and rolling them about, looking for “surprise” sculptural structures or partial structures to reveal themselves in the free-floating and manifold intentionality of the content, I feel the argument for sculptural structure to be considered free of any identification with literal structure to be a very powerful one indeed for sculpture now. The discovery of “surprise” structure, i.e. structure that is new, unpremeditated, and interrupts banal expectations of objecthood, can privilege invention and imagination in a way that I don’t think is otherwise accessible. The whole process becomes one of a “turnover” of ideas and material, moment to moment, that feels very real. There are massive problems to overcome in working this way, because it’s so hard to be making this kind of content in the first place, out of nothing, to give yourself the stuff to move around; but also, it’s then really hard too not to be making pre-emptive judgements all the time, of how things go together, that can stymie the whole process and knock it back into what is already known. But I’m 100% convinced it’s a way forward, if not THE way forward.
Jock – Flattery will get you everywhere, as they say. However, I appreciate the appreciation; I am also glad the essay produced some grounds for thought.
Actually, I was hoping someone would pick up on the paragraph you mention, as I think that there is an important issue for sculptors here. We all know where a figure ends; the feet the hands, the bum etc., but where does an I beam end, or a sheet of plastic ? The answer, of course, is that it depends entirely on the intensity of sculptural intent and perception of the sculptor, in relation to the whole and its parts, of the piece in hand, to make those decisions successful. But if we are to concern ourselves more and more with the meeting of’ ‘outside’.(literal) space and ‘inside’ sculptural space and their collision and interjunction, the issue of material limitation becomes a vital one. The two photos of Caro’s ‘Window’ amply illustrate the difficulties; the one of a composed and complete whole, its dimensions sitting comfortably;,the other of a confused and unresolved set of undecided parts
Carl and Robin – re Caro’s Table Pieces, I had occasion to see a collection of them recently at the HMI Caro show, and it confirmed my previous opinion that the best ones were the ones WITHOUT found object form;, handles, scissors etc. My favourite has always been no. LXIV ‘The Clock’ as an example. The found form in the table pieces is less successful in my view because it represents the IDEA of a sculptural decision rather than BEING a sculptural decision. Found form went on to being in Caro’s later work something of a white elephant and an albatross of dependence (see my earlier article on the subject)
Robin – I distinctly remember, as a student, dellberately tipping one’s life model (clay) on the floor,in order to give it a ‘new’ – ‘structure’. Plus ca change !
Au contraire, everything has changed.
Not trying to flatter you, Tim. In fact, I think I’m able to be kind of very “objective” about your writing and your sculpture—and that of all the Abcritters really—given my physical distance from England (I’ve only seen a couple of your sculptures “live”—essentially no work by anybody else), and my “theoretical” distance from abstract art (I kind of don’t believe there is such a thing—though I think I understand what you and Alan are talking about when you talk about abstract art—(I often have just no idea what Robin and Tony are talking about when they talk about it—Sam, of course, always makes sense to me).)
“Theoretically” I should have no interest in Abcrit/Brancaster/whatnot—yet I’m really “gripped” by what’s going on here. And I must say I’m really “staggered” by your new work. I look at those JPEGs almost every day. They surprise me every time. Thanks to Robin’s posting of those ’80s/’90s sculptures of his and Tony’s, I went back to the catalog for your 1988 show. I can understand people saying the “language” of abstract art/formalist art/the “language” of modernism is old/exhausted. I think I understand Robin’s need/drive to get “past” it. But the work in that catalog looks VERY fresh to me.
Why? Does its “freshness” have anything/a lot to do with “space”—with “formalist” concerns?
There’s a terrific show of African art, The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon, up at the Met now. The young, kind of stridently politically correct, but not always moronic (he has been unforgivably moronic about Balthus) critic, Jason Farago, writing about it in the Times, contrasts the current take on the crests/faces/heads with the old formalist take by quoting James Johnson Sweeney: ““In the end,” Sweeney wrote, “it is not the tribal characteristics of Negro art nor its strangeness that are interesting. It is its plastic qualities. Picturesque or exotic features as well as historical and ethnographic considerations have a tendency to blind as to its true worth …. It is as sculpture we should approach it.”” The current “take” insists on the “multifaceted context” of the work. That’s fine with me.
I don’t want to get into a big modernism/formalism/primitivism vs post modernism thing; but I, naturally, am thinking about your recent plywood pieces and these African, (not plywood, but wood wood) things—and what you say about knowing where a figure ends, where an I-beam ends. Where do those African “heads” end? Does it not depend on “the intensity of the sculptural intent and perception of the sculptor”? Yes! What’s key/important (but NOT the only “important” thing) is this intensity/this perception of THE SCULPTOR, the individual, particular sculptor/“self.” The Africans must have had certain rules and regulations for making the masks—rules and regulations that went beyond: the nose goes in between the eyes, etc.—rules and regulations they really worried about (the way we all worry about “space”)—until they forgot why they were worrying about the rules and regulations.
Again, I’m not trying to get into a big thing about modernism. I’m just slowly trying to understand a little more about that paragraph in your essay, and about your work—about your “sculptural intent and perception.” I’m convinced by what Alan says about the connections between your sculpture and Indian sculpture and dance in his 1988 essay. I see rhythms/tensions in your work that are very much like the rhythms/tensions in Guercino’s Samson and Delilah. In other words, I see a lot of “the figure” in your work—but no concern for where a figure might end or begin: you’re in “direct” contact with the rhythms/tensions. This is great/fascinating for me. So’s what Alan says about touch in your sculpture. Please let me know if you think I’m wrong/nuts/whatever—but also don’t feel obliged to comment. I’m just “thinking” out loud.
Just one more thing: bringing in “life classes”/clay was very clever. The confidence with which you kind of dismiss that kind of trick is something to think about. I don’t think what Robin and Tony are up to is that trivial. I’m sure you don’t either. But it’s a very tempting “trick.” Maybe you could say Rauschenberg did nothing but that—and everybody’s kind of followed in Rauschenberg’s footsteps—and now Robin and Tony are joining the crowd, immersing themselves in the “flux” of “life.” But Robin and Tony are still tied to you and to Caro and to Michelangelo: they have a chance! And the life class business reminds us all of that crazy guy, Bruce Gagnier.
Trick!?! Is there nothing you cannot sully with your bromide truisms and another mention of Gagnier?
Sorry — but who is Gagnier ?
But it’s nice to have someone like you, Jock, writing in Abcrit with no axes to grind.(except totally unknown ones !!!)
Gagnier is a two-bit unreconstructed sentimental figure sculptor who Jock thinks is America’s expressionist answer to Rodin, but who really is just a guy who can’t stick a head on straight on top of a neck without calling it psychological content. (#whettingmyaxe)
Bruce gave lunchtime lectures on art history at the Studio School for many years. Expressionism, psychology, sentimentality—these things came up. I expect you and Bruce feel EXACTLY the same way about them, Robin. Bruce is a modeler. You’re a constructor. You have your differences, but you’re very close too: maybe that’s what sends you to your whetting stone. Bruce can’t put a head on straight. It takes him months of doing and undoing (just like you???), but he finally gets something that’s “right.”
Who is Bruce Gagnier? Hadn’t really thought of him this way before, but he’s a sculptor very much like you, Tim.
He’s a couple of years younger maybe, but he’s spent most of his life in a room, a studio, “horsing around with”/“shaping”/manipulating things—over and over, trying to get the things to “say” something. Bruce’s “things” might be body parts—yours, more/less “geometric” forms. For both of you, I think it’s fair to say, the “horsing around” is driven (to an important extent) by “abstract principles”/plastic values—NOT chance procedures. Bruce ends up with figure sculptures. You make abstract sculptures. You’re both kind of “neglected” today. I bet you have friends who wonder, why do you work so hard? What difference does it make if this little bit of plywood is tipped just a little bit this way or that? Go take a break. But you both keep at it, and now something marvelous seems to be happening: your work and Bruce’s seems to be getting better and better “effortlessly.” I’m sure the work is not any easier to make; but it seems neither of you make “mistakes” anymore.
Not everybody loves Bruce’s work. He doesn’t show outside of New York often, but Google him: there are lots of photos online. Jerry Saltz can’t stand Bruce’s work. My guess is it’s politics that keeps Jerry at a distance from Bruce’s work. Jerry knows he’d lose his job if he wrote about Bruce. Jerry’d probably lose his job if he wrote about you too. You and Bruce are white, male, elitist, conservative, etc. Robin’s negative response to Bruce’s work is more interesting. Lots of really smart/really good artists really hate Bruce’s work. You might. I’m not playing games though. I really think that all you (if you hate Bruce’s work at first sight) or Robin or Jerry have to do is move your left foot back a little, cock your head a bit to the right—and something marvelous will open up for you.
A lot of people see Bruce’s work as ugly. I don’t. I think it’s beautiful: the drawing is beautiful; the “abstraction” is beautiful. I can’t really go further than these “bromide truisms.” I really am just an airhead student on the sidelines, as Robin says—(a very happy airhead though). When Alan talks about your relationship with Indian sculpture and dance, I hear stuff about beauty/eros/desire—stuff that goes way beyond bromide truisms—that I think applies to Bruce’s work too (though I doubt Alan is at all familiar with Bruce’s work). It’s interesting to me that your relationship with India makes you a “special” kind of British sculptor—“philosophically” not all Brit. Bruce is an “special”/unusual American sculptor because of his closeness to Europe.
Well there you go – Gagnier has taken over Abcrit. One more mention and I’m blocking.
Obviously, the business of rolling and turning a sculpture through every-which-way during its making is not new (it happened at Stockwell Depot in the seventies, for example), but it is not a ‘trick’ and it is not a student jape. So when it is allied to the very serious AND NEW ambition for total three-dimensionality in sculpture AND the quest to discover sculptural structure as distinct from literal structure, then it becomes a very real and serious part of the studio methodology.
It doesn’t surprise me immensely that certain commentators on this site don’t get it, or want to belittle the idea, because sculptural three-dimensionality is, let’s face it, a difficult thing to get your head around unless you have moved along and kept pace with recent developments. And if you are pursuing the idea of ‘sculptural structure’, then hand-in-hand with that goes the notion of sculptural – as opposed to architectural – spatiality.
We can see now, surely, that the Caro example, with its attempt to engage architectural space as the means to organise a sculpture, is totally inadequate for the job. Making sculpture that has no privileged views, and is available to be seen in almost its totality from any angle, requires a distinct change of thinking from anything that went before. Everything in the sculpture, including its positioning and orientation, is up for questioning.
Turning a sculpture upside down, drawing with your “left” hand, Edvard Munch (there’s a great Munch show in New York now) using too much turpentine ARE tricks—very “serious” tricks to break habits, to engage with formlessness, to find something new—new form, new content. These very serious “tricks” can be dangerous though: Rauschenberg found formlessness and was happy/satisfied: he stopped there, didn’t keep looking for form.
About three-dimensionality: I think every single sculpture in the British Museum is totally three-dimensional—and I think every single sculptor whose work is in the British Museum wanted to get more “three-dimensionality” into his/her sculpture. I keep thinking of Sidney Geist, the way he would light up talking about Brancusi, about how a Brancusi reveals itself, its whole “self,” its “totality,” INSTANTLY.
When you say “new,” Robin, what I “hear” is “Laura Owens.” David Salle has a long piece in the current NY Review of Books on the Laura Owens show now at the Whitney—a really intelligent, very well written, “professional” piece that means just about nothing to me. I can’t “question” it. Every time I try to get “hold” of something—in the writing, and especially in the painting—it slips away.
The wonderful thing about Abcrit is that I can get hold of things here. I can “question” the writing. I want to question the writing: it’s a way to help me understand the sculpture, the “Brancaster” sculpture, and Tim’s sculpture, and Katherine Gili’s, and, and, and. I’ve heard the words before, but I’ve never seen the sculpture—and I CAN see it: I can get “hold” of it: it doesn’t play tricks on me. I know my “understanding” is “wrong”/incomplete/whatever—but talking opens things up.
Tim’s totally spontaneous remark about life class armatures bounced its way into the Munch show for me. How “academic”/life class some of Munch’s “solutions” are—but they’re “solutions:” he finds form for content, content for form: he doesn’t stop with “newness.” Why does Munch seem to matter to me today more than Brancusi, a sculptor, an almost “perfect” sculptor?
But now I see it’s time for Geoff’s new post.
“About three-dimensionality: I think every single sculpture in the British Museum is totally three-dimensional—and I think every single sculptor whose work is in the British Museum wanted to get more “three-dimensionality” into his/her sculpture.”
Surely neither of these assertions are true. There are plenty of quite flat sculptures in the BM, and flatness and frontality are quite common traits in the history of sculpture, all the way from the Egyptians through Gothic to Caro. In fact, in figurative sculpture, frontality is the default setting. It’s quite a shock when occasionaly someone like Pisano breaks the mold. You can argue quite reasonably, as Carl does, that the pursuit of three-dimensionality doesn’t matter, but you cannot deny that it is often surrendered to a frontal image.
Things in sculpture and in life can be thought of as three-dimensional by degrees. Every object in the world, including a sheet of paper, is literally three-dimensional – but that is not what we are talking about, is it? A Brancusi is also literally three-dimensional, and to some degree sculpturally three-dimensional, but that three-dimensionality is not very developed, even – in fact, especially – in Brancusi’s work, and nor is it central to the content of the work. It is on the whole too minimal and closed off to engage with spatiality (despite the titles, which reference metaphorical space).
Despite your resistance, we are involved in a different degree of engagement with this issue, as never before; it might be right and it might be wrong, but it is new. We are developing three-dimensionality, spatiality, as the content of the work and its meaning is bound up with it. I challenge you to show any previous sculpture that does this to anything like the degree it is now being done. I am on record, for example, for recently praising some African carvings at the Frieze Masters show; I thought they were brilliant sculpture, and they may be far greater in quality, as art, than we can ever achieve – BUT – they are not fully three-dimensional, they are limited by their necessary frontality.
No, I still think you do not understand.
Yes, I don’t understand you, Robin—and certainly, I’m very happy to say, my understanding of sculpture is far from complete.
BUT: come on: an ancient Egyptian relief is LITERALLY flat/frontal: so’s a Pisano relief—but I think it’s fair to talk about them as being “sculpturally” three-dimensional, and they—the sculptures themselves—are actively trying/pushing to be even more “sculpturally” three-dimensional: fatter/richer/whatever. An ancient Egyptian relief is different from a Pisano—it’s more still—and maybe it suffers spatially because of this stillness. In a Pisano there’s more movement and maybe some physicality dissolves. But this is kind of silly/grading-papers talk. The ancient Egyptian relief is perfectly three-dimensional in relation to its content: all three dimensions are “filled” to the brim (!) with content. So’s the Pisano.
You say, “in figurative sculpture, frontality is the default setting.” OK. I’m not going to make a big deal out of your reference to that thing you need to call “figurative sculpture,” this “enemy” you seem to need to have around—but the “default setting” business: isn’t frontality the “default setting” for all sculpture just because we can’t stand both in front of a sculpture and behind it at the same time?
I really don’t understand what you’re talking about when you talk about three-dimensionality not being central to Brancusi’s content. I’m guessing you’re bothered by its minimalism/“simplicity.” You “like” “complexity.” But you’re not Brancusi! I thought form and content were integrally related for you. Aren’t Brancusi’s nice fat forms a perfect “match” for his “joyful” content? I’m trivializing Brancusi here not because I think his work is trivial: I’m just trying to understand your objections to his work. Tim’s not Brancusi—though Karen Wilkin says he once wanted to be. I “see” (though, of course, I’ve never seen it) Tim’s Song for Chile as coming out of Brancusi, out of one of B’s Birds in Space—but Song for Chile is “Tim.” It’s rambunctious. The Birds in Space are Brancusi’s, quiet little devils. BUT both sculptures are very “spatial,” very three-dimensional—“filled” with their “content” and nothing but their “content.”
Sidney Geist loved Brancusi. Sidney thought Brancusi was “polite.” A Brancusi is NOT “disturbing.” A Giacometti IS disturbing. Sidney didn’t like being in the same room as a Giacometti. He had great respect for Giacometti, the man, though. He met him once. Had a question for him. You know those City Square sculptures Giacometti made? Sidney wanted to know (and thought he knew before he asked (and he did)) whether they were “frontal”/just one preferred view or they were to be circumambulated. Giacometti gave Sidney “a look.” What kind of a question is that? Obviously, they’re frontal!
When you say, “We are developing three-dimensionality, spatiality, as the content of the work and its meaning is bound up with it”—I don’t want to “resist.” I want to understand you better. I vaguely remember hearing about this kind of thing over the years—maybe mostly a long time ago (the ‘70s)—but I can’t think of who talked about it. The thing is: when I look at your sculpture (yours and Tony’s) (I’ve been looking at JPEGs of this stuff recently because of those things from the ‘80s and ‘90s you posted recently), I see Robin and Tony as the “content”: crazy, particular, “original” “characters.” The project you describe seems to be about “erasing” these “individuals.” That kind of “confrontation” is NOT without interest. Maybe it started with Cezanne. (See T. J. Clark’s review of the Cezanne show in the London Review of Books: T. J. talks about Cezanne painting people as if they were apples. Are you and Tony trying to turn yourselves into apples?) I wonder, can three-dimensionality erase things? Does three-dimensionality turn into “flux” when it tries? Sure did NOT for Cezanne. But I’m talking nonsense now. My job is just to point out when you’re TALKING nonsense! What’s fun for me is looking at your sculpture.
Just bought a short term subscription to NYR to see what all the “to do” was about Laura Evans.I thought your take on the piece was spot on. And that the Salle piece sort of mimics the work is so true. Getting rid of the gestalt for the sake of the freedom to keep adding more and more on as you see in Judy Pfaff’s work and of course in Rauschenberg, is the problem with so much American Art. I already left a note somewhere that Stella is the culprit as he severed painting from the optical and its connection to the soul.His early minimalist work informs Zombie Formalism and his late work exuberance is plagiarized by Laura Evans. Salle lets slip this idea that she creates the feeling that you are waiting for happiness to arrive and then says she fulfills it. I doubt he really believes it. She seems to be the soulmate of Schutz whose work I saw in Boston. No self-doubt.http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2017/11/schutz-at-ica-boston.html
sorry to go off topic but the slippery language of the Salle piece triggered something.
“…isn’t frontality the “default setting” for all sculpture just because we can’t stand both in front of a sculpture and behind it at the same time?”
No, because in the new work:
a) you will have moved around the sculpture, as it’s not in a niche or on a wall relief, and there will be a continuum of content from that experience.
b) you will have seen through the work from one side to the other, from most views, since it has degrees of transparency, and will have accessed the three-dimensionality of the whole thing from everywhere.
c) the sculpture will not privilege one view over another, as in “front” and “back”, and will allow an “open” approach to how it is addressed by the viewer.
Add those together and it’s a definite “no”.
Now we have to ask, what does “default setting” mean? I don’t think it means there’s just one “setting.” And, of course, the old favorite: what does “new” mean?
I do, of course, see, as I follow a Brancaster camera around your sculpture, something of the “continuum of content”/the Shakespearean drama of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes. I feel my eye/my shirt collar being “grabbed” and taken all the way around the sculpture in more/less the same way they’re “grabbed” by a Degas sculpture.
The degrees of transparency/the openness of approach you talk about make me think of Brancusi. Here’s Sidney: “The primary experience on seeing a sculpture by Brancusi is that of knowing it at once.”
“The intuition of instantaneous knowledge, of complete and sudden cognition, is, in short, revelation, and this would seem to be the mode in which Brancusi saw the world when he saw it significantly, and in which he wanted his work to be seen.”
I might just add that when I think of a Brancusi’s silence, its “politeness,” I think of Tony’s work more than yours, Robin.
But everything you say in your comment is great. I don’t think of it as “new”—but what you’re talking about is very real/true.
When you talk about three-dimensionality as content/the content of the new sculpture, I’m inclined to think you’re getting too “fancy”—but I was thinking about the content of an ancient Egyptian relief last night. First “answer:” the content is “eternity.” Maybe that’s what the ancient Egyptians “read” in their reliefs. What do we “read”? I think we can still pick up on the “idea” of eternity—even though it’s an idea very foreign to our “culture.” But then I thought: wait a minute: three-dimensionality is the content of those reliefs for us today. When I show pictures of/talk about those reliefs to students/friends, I talk about fullness of form as much as I talk about eternity.
What about the content of a Pisano? Maybe he was one of the first modern artists. Maybe his content is the same as yours. Pisano was a kind of madman, but a madman always trying to bring some kind of “tight control”/some kind of anti-expressionist, abstract order to his “madness.” Anne Smart has piped up about looking for/finding her “self” in recent Brancasters. It’s a messy/confusing subject—compare the completeness/the cleanness of David Salle’s “explanation” of Laura Owens’s work, the completeness of Owens’s “success”—but Anne’s is a real/substantial subject.
“Making sculpture that has no privileged views, and is available to be seen in almost its totality from any angle, requires a distinct change of thinking from anything that went before.”
No, it’s not. Tony Smith’s “Die” or any number of other minimalist sculptures, including Carl Andre’s floor plates, did exactly this 60 years ago.
Yes, quite Carl, as I have pointed out before, total three dimensionality would be a sphere, which, funnily enough, the Minimalists never came up with !
There is a continuing muddle as to what three dimensionality in sculpture means. It is not of course the literal kind.that pertains to all physical objects (as has been endlessly reiterated) It is to do with an ACHIEVED SENSE of three dimensions by sculptural (made) means; for example Indian temple sculpture is literally relief, but projects an idea of three dimensions which is believable and therefore sculpturally of the order of three dimensionality. One could say the same of many of Rodin’s pieces, and so on. If the sculptor thinks it is vital for the work undertaken to read equally from any point of view, that IS merely a point of view stemming from conviction of feeling, meaning and purpose by the sculptor; there are, of course other points of view possible.
Very nicely said.
Lost in translation Robin; it was not a “student jape” but a serious recognition of the inadequacies of ‘literal structure’ (within the context of the time – fifties).
“Yes, quite Carl, as I have pointed out before, total three dimensionality would be a sphere, which, funnily enough, the Minimalists never came up with !
There is a continuing muddle as to what three dimensionality in sculpture means. It is not of course the literal kind.that pertains to all physical objects (as has been endlessly reiterated) It is to do with an ACHIEVED SENSE of three dimensions by sculptural (made) means; for example Indian temple sculpture is literally relief, but projects an idea of three dimensions which is believable and therefore sculpturally of the order of three dimensionality. One could say the same of many of Rodin’s pieces, and so on. If the sculptor thinks it is vital for the work undertaken to read equally from any point of view, that IS merely a point of view stemming from conviction of feeling, meaning and purpose by the sculptor; there are, of course other points of view possible.”
“Three dimensionality” – meaning having three dimensions – is simply one of the conditions for a thing (any thing) existing in the world. That’s what the minimalists were after – mere existence as a thing. It is not a sculptural value at all, as the same minimalists well knew.
I agree with what you say about an “achieved sense”, I cannot see why a sculpture’s being “read equally from any point of view” is or should be more important or interesting or beautiful than any other mode of intentionality embodied in a work of art. In fact, I don’t even know what it means. A sheet of paper can be read from all points of view as much as a sphere since both are three-dimensional. It’s just doctrine, theory, that posits these sorts of distinctions and attaches importance to them apart from the experience of particular works that reveal significance.
Do you think the second view of “Window” I posted is “important or interesting or beautiful”? Surely not, because it’s destructive of any coherence one might have possibly gleaned from the standard view. That’s a clear example of why developing a fuller three-dimensionality is important – so that the sculptural values are amplified rather than destroyed.
The minimalist argument has been dealt with – it’s boring. The three-dimensionality of a sphere is not sculptural – end of argument.
And what exactly do YOU mean by “sculptural value”?
Carl and Robin – The ‘second view’ of ‘The Window’ is not flawed as a result of the sculpture not being conceived to be equally potent from any point of view, since that was not the intention (I would surmise) of the artist. In fact he would have thought the idea rather ‘archaic’, reminiscent of Michelangelo and all that. There are other reasons for which one could argue the case of the ‘views’ shortcomings some of which have been mentioned on Abcrit, but you cannot judge a work on the basis of intentions that it never had.
I might personally be in sympathy with the idea of attaining a fully three dimensional structure for abstract sculpture as an aim, but others might not for equally good reasons – it’s the results.
“Getting rid of the gestalt for the sake of the freedom to keep adding more and more on as you see in Judy Pfaff’s work and of course in Rauschenberg, is the problem with so much American Art.”
The question arises: Whose freedom are we talking about, the artist or the viewer? The quest for what you term as a ‘gestalt’ is one I agree with, if you mean a whole that is more than the sum of parts. But I’m also very much in favour of as much freedom as possible – but for the viewer, not the artist. The reverse of that principle seems to me to be at the root of the failure of much contemporary art – that the artist is free to mess about in any way they like, adding on ad nauseum, without addressing visual wholeness or visual meaning, whilst at the same time wanting perversly to limit the content of the work, as perceived by the viewer, to some thematic concept or rhetoric that is unavailable to criticism.
Abstract art needs as much if not more tight control on the part of the artist as figurative art, simply in order to pass on freedoms to the viewer, about how they choose to look and what meaning they choose to take. Those freedoms are very much part and parcel of the conditions of looking at the new sculpture in the manner I’ve just detailed in my last reply to Jock.
I have a hard time with spellings and names.It is Laura Owens not Laura Evans who is someone I know. But I agree we have to be harsh on ourselves. I do think when you let go of the self-reflection art gets easier as you just begin to play with one thing after another.But it gets really shallow and boring. But if you push the liberation narrative then it somehow is interpreted as the art of the future.One shallow artist David Salle praising another shallow artist Laura Owens. I reviewed a show she was in several years ago.http://martinmugar.blogspot.com/2015/05/topoi-of-contemporary-culturethomas.html
Robin wrote: “Do you think the second view of “Window” I posted is “important or interesting or beautiful”? Surely not, because it’s destructive of any coherence one might have possibly gleaned from the standard view. That’s a clear example of why developing a fuller three-dimensionality is important – so that the sculptural values are amplified rather than destroyed.
The minimalist argument has been dealt with – it’s boring. The three-dimensionality of a sphere is not sculptural – end of argument.”
1. I couldn’t care less if some perspective in “Window” is different from or interesting than some other perspective because there is no requirement that a successful work of sculpture be equally interesting from every possible viewpoint. After all, it’s the work that succeeds or fails, not some particular view of it. Your assertion that the perspective offered in the picture “destroys” the work’s sculptural value is doctrinal nonsense because its validity rests entirely on some imaginary rule that you’re trying to impose on the work and on one’s experience of it. Your understanding of sculpture is entirely dogmatic, based on preconceived demands and requirements that you have no right to expect others to subject themselves to, including artists like Caro and people who appreciate his work (which, taken as a whole, demonstrate as clearly as anything else the futility of dogmatism in the creation and appreciation of art).
2. You, not me, as the one insisting that “three-dimensionality” is some sort of requirement of sculptural value. I merely pointed out that Smith’s “Die” more than satisfies your criteria as formulated by you – for example, it is equally satisfying no matter the perspective from which it is viewed. In other words, according to you, “Die” ought to be a superior sculpture when compared to “Window”, but it somehow isn’t.
You are the one with the dogma, and it insists that this sculpture of Caro’s exists in some place other than where it is, in a perfect state, which differes from what I can plainly see, and which I must apparently ignore in order to appreciate Caro’s noble intentions. And that’s supposedly fine because Caro’s intentions don’t include achieving sculptural three-dimensionality. I judge the sculpture on what I see, by experience, and whether it holds itself together as I look at it. And of course it decidedly doesn’t, as you admit.
Intentions don’t count for a thing, as we have argued over a few times before. No doubt I will get no further this time either, but I’ll say again, one more time – how the hell do you know what Caro intended… or any artist? The whole argument about intentions is post-modern rubbish.
And yes I have added “sculptural” to three-dimensionality, simply to nullify your pedantic “Die” argument completely. “Die” is a box, and as such has almost no sculptural value at all. You still haven’t said what YOU mean by sculptural values. What are they? I suspect they are not that far from those of Tony Smith and other minimalists, but let’s see. Mine are pretty clear, and you call them dogma. There are certainly principles involved. It seems to me self-evident that one of those very reasonable principles is that sculpture should in some fundamental way address it’s condition of existing in three-dimensions, and indeed, have something significant to say about it.
So, I repeat, what are your sculptural values, Carl?
As for this: Tim: “…you cannot judge a work on the basis of intentions that it never had”, it’s the worst kind of contextualising ever. How are you going to judge anything unless you are on personal and intimate terms with the artist? Even that might not be enough!
This post consists of 100% evasion of my claims.
Your dogma is a requirement that a sculpture exhibit the same interest or significance from all (literal) viewing angles. That proposition is not based on experience but is an a priori rule. The Window fails to comply with your rule, and you trash it (as “non-sculptural”) on that basis alone. I merely pointed out that “Die” does comply with your rule, and yet it is by consensus an inferior work of sculpture. That implies that your rule is useless in the evaluation of artistic value.
Now you seek to evade your own formulations by insisting that “three-dimensionality” must convey “sculptural value”; but earlier, three-dimensionality WAS sculptural value, as show by your criticism of Caro’s work based on its lack of “three-dimensionality” – in other words, your prior assumption was that three-dimensionality IS sculptural value, but now you are compelled to qualify your dogmatic assertion by adding “three-dimensionality that conveys sculptural value.” In other words, you are going in circles but trying (and failing) to repudiate your own dogmatic claims.
Caro’s “intentions” don’t need to including achieving three-dimensionality because every object in the world, including the object called Window, trivially exists a three-dimensional object. Every instance of achieved abstraction in art is ALSO a literal object with height, width and depth (three dimensions). Some objects manage to achieve sculptural value by overcoming (not permanently but in our experience of them moment to moment) or suspending their literalness. The Window does this, and thus succeeds as sculpture, whereas Die does not. (That was Smith’s intention – to exhibit a literal object in a gallery space normally reserved for art objects, thus challenging the distinction between art and non-art and in effect declaring the end of sculpture.)
Since Window is unquestionably a three-dimensional object existing in space (and thus being “spatial”, like a sphere and a sheet of paper), your real critique is that some viewpoints (like the one in your photo) are less dynamic than others. But this does not imply that the sculpture is not three-dimensional; in fact, there would be no such viewpoint if it weren’t three-dimensional because you couldn’t (literally) walk around it and take photographs from various angles.
To you, this fact – that some viewpoints are (according to you) less interesting than others – implies that the sculpture fails, because it fails to comply with your dogmatic requirement, but you cannot explain why “Die”, which does comply with your requirement, is sculpturally less valuable than Window. You are therefore compelled to abandon your own dogma when faced with an aesthetic judgement rooted in experience, and ALL artistic value originates in experience or it isn’t an aesthetic judgment.
Back to Caro’s intentions. The ONLY intentions that matter artistically are those that are expressed in the work itself, not what Caro may have been thinking when he made Window. His intention may have been to make a lot of money by selling the thing but who cares? The artistic value of the thing, the kind of interest it elicits, consists entirely in the intentionality that is embodied in the work. As a work of art, it succeeds to the extent it demonstrates the almost miraculous ability of human beings to use dead material objects (pieces of metal of various kinds (sheets, screens, bars, columns)) to construct things that convey meaning (i.e. human intentions); it celebrates our ability to mean anything at all in a world dominated by literalness, by use-value alone. (Smith’s Die admits defeat in the face of such a world (declaring that art is dead), Caro refuses to submit, which means that Caro was the last of the heroic modernists.) Again, if Caro “intended” to do something other than express the intentionality that is embodied in Window – it is intentionality that renders his decisions (of one material or shape or configuration rather than any other) intelligible – then those intentions are without interest in the experience of the work itself.
As for “my sculptural values” – I don’t have any apart from those that impress themselves as valuable when I look at particular sculptures. Sometimes sculptural value is conveyed in works that are in some respects like paintings (“pictorial”) in that they are “frontal” – best experienced from some angles rather than from other angles – and in other works (like Caro’s Emma series, or his Towers or many other series he made during his long, constantly innovating career) not. Only particular sculptures can possibly tell me what is and is not “sculptural value.” Anything else is sheer dogma, mere theory.
Mea culpa, Robin. I should not of course assume the thoughts of others are mine without specific concrete evidence.
However, I would be surprised that with my personal experience of Caro’s talk about his work, and of sixties thinking in general, that my remark is not pretty near the truth.
“Your dogma is a requirement that a sculpture exhibit the same interest or significance from all (literal) viewing angles.”
No I don’t. I’ve already mentioned the frontal African sculpture as being great art. But as far as I am concerned, this discussion is about new abstract sculpture and how to progress it. Of course it is theoretical.
Tim called for a debate on ‘Space’. He could have chosen any of the things associated with Abstract sculpture today.For me, the real subject for debate is ‘Abstract’.
Is ‘The Window’ abstract is the question.Does it ‘work’ is secondary.
In answering that question the other issues would come to the debate quite naturally.
The sculpture of the ‘New Generation’ and Caro was thought of and presented as abstract and rightly will be examined as such. As someone who started his sculpture in the late 60’s I have seen and made for myself many ‘forms’ of abstract, and believed them to be so at the time.
There is too much certainty in the history and plenty of questioning of the present, both about that history, as well as what is going on in our work today. I am not aware of any opinions made that would not give way to the speculations upon the arrival of new work.
The idea that any of this is always moving forward is just a hope….nobody really knows. In that spirit there is not anything in sculpture that cannot be questioned and questioned again.
“Is ‘The Window’ abstract is the question.Does it ‘work’ is secondary.”
Why would anyone possibly care if it’s “abstract” if it doesn’t “work
“Why would anyone possibly care if it’s ‘abstract’ if it doesn’t work.”
In the real world, nobody. Here it is massively important.
To me it matters to know the difference between figurative, conceptual and abstract art.
My suggestion of ‘Abstract’ as a subject is that it could be a better place to start.I say again it matters that you know you are talking about abstract sculpture in the specific role played by space, three dimensionality, gravity etc etc etc.
Why would anyone possible care if a work of art is “abstract” if it fails to work, meaning it fails as a work of art? Abstraction is one (among others) way that a work of art can, under specific historical and experiential conditions, work, succeed, convince, elicit interest, have the sort of value that human beings have always ascribed to artworks. Apart from that, it’s merely a trite academic question.
Tony – My essay was intended primarily for sculptors, for they are the ones who have to wrestle with the issues in their actual work.It also seems not to have occupied much critical attention.in the history of sculpture. The fact that other more generalised issues arise in the course of the discussions, dies sometimes sidetrack the main points, but that is after all what Abcrit is about.
I chose to try and clarify ‘space’ in sculpture, in particular because it seems to me (in my own work as well as generally) to be pertinent at this time for abstract sculpture.in particular .I would not for one moment dismiss or diminish the importance of any other topic accordingly and I agree that all is ripe for further observation when the actual work embodying it appears.
Carl – “…why would anyone possibly care.if a work if art is abstract,….”
I totally agree.(which, of course, brings us back to ‘what is abstract ?’
“In the real world, nobody. Here it is massively important.
To me it matters to know the difference between figurative, conceptual and abstract art.”
The difference between figurative, conceptual and abstract art consists of differences in historical and cultural conditions in which artists function (like every other human being). As those conditions change, artists must (like every other human being) alter the way in which they respond, where “respond” means make expressive statements that communicate with other human beings living under the same conditions. If art doesn’t do that, art doesn’t exist.
Figurative, conceptual and abstract art each came into being in very specific historical conditions, as ways of continuing the enterprise of art-making, which human beings have been doing since the cave paintings were made at least 40,000 years ago. Figurative, conceptual and abstract art have no meaning except as human responses to their shared predicament. In other words, the difference between abstract and figurative art is not like the difference between, say, animals with backbones and those without backbones. It is not a scientific classification that can be researched or studied apart from what makes art unique and valuable in the first place.
Artists are human beings who exist in the real world, and if art doesn’t matter “in the real world”, it doesn’t matter at all, any more than idle gossip or personal fantasy.
Thinking about and defining issues of three-dimensionaity, spatiality and abstractness are immensely interesting and important to us, as sculptors; and last time I checked, we were also real peolpe in the world. We like to knock these things around, perhaps clumsily, because actually we are the least dogmatic people ever. Would you rather Abcrit was devoted entirely to paeans to Caro?
And do give the condescending philosophy a rest.
The only disagreement I would have is Art can be researched and studied in other ways than what make it unique and valuable in the first place.[ some is not unique and some will never be valuable] ….[ it not being unique is of more interest than its monetary value]….and…as for Artists existing in the real world… well I do not even live in the same world as Tim Scott and to some extent I do know him, or Robin and I know him too.
I think you underestimate how specific the specifics of Art are and sweeping generalisations will only ever be that.
Carl – “….The difference between figurative, conceptual and abstract art….”
Yes, but for the artist there is further problem of difference, which is that of quality; I assume you are a Greenberg fan, he has plenty to say on the subject.
The reason that an artist selects a moide or style of working is that he/she is convinced of its superiority over other norms to achieve the goal of ‘good’ art. Short of switching around like a pick and mix for the sake of it, CONVICTION is the supreme reason for being the sort of artist you are; and one cannot be convinced (as a maker of art) that being a conceptualist is the same as being an abstractionist, however much it may be the case in the minds of the public as consumers of art.
If I was only setting out to communicate with other human beings of the same era and culture, and their preferences and ideas of priority were tantamount, I woukl be rather foolish to choose a path as a sculptor if that path contained virtually no,or very few, acceptable means of communication with the dominant culture and its ethos. In a culture saturated by popular taste (Trumpist art ?!), survival means NOT cimmunicating with a vast majority of the public’s “human respoinses to their shared predicament”. Sad, but the case.
Tim – My emphasis on “communication” was intended to recall the fact that making art (or in my case, appreciating art) is something that human beings do, a way of responding to the world as they find it, like talking or singing or writing poems, etc. It follows that a work of art is not an artifact that is studied or classified like an object of scientific inquiry. It is an intentional object, and it communicates primarily by means of its quality.
That statement, which comes from Greenberg, it not very clear, but it suggests that a work of art elicits one’s interest, or invites me to care about it, not by way of its usefulness (like a kitchen appliance or a shop tool) or by way of its truth value (like a scientific proposition) but in a way that is, I believe, unique. There is such a thing as aesthetic value, having to do with beauty. A human made thing (as opposed to a sunset or a flower) convinces by way of its sheer quality, the force of the claim it makes on my attention.
Greenberg saw that in modernist art, the issue of quality comes to the fore, or is forced upon us. At one point he wrote that the question “is it art?” cannot be separated from the question, “is it good art?” That implies that we can no longer assume that we know what art is at all, because we don’t have any traditions or institutions that tell us. I think that abstract art lays this condition bare, so to speak. If a work of abstract art fails to convince one of its sheer quality (which is all it has to rely on), it fails, not just in some ways but in all ways. That I understand to be the challenge, the great difficulty of making and appreciating modernist art.
Unfortunately, this moment seems to have passed in our culture, so my tastes and viewpoint are surely considered to be retrograde and probably reactionary today, but I’m stuck with it. I do not wish to appear condescending or rude or disrespectful to anyone here, and if I come off that way, I apologize and will try to do better.
Carl – Your Greenberg quote which “…implies that we can no longer assume that we know what art is at all…” must be set against his also stated opinion that, all other things being equal, he would prefer ‘good’ new art to be figurative. But he found that it wasn’t, and plumped for abstraction – just as the artists had (at the time – and just as some of us are finding now)..
The zeitgeist of the times may say otherwise, but figurative or other modes have not defined with sufficient conviction or force the ambition of making ‘good’ art..That is all we have, gut instinct, based in experience of the great art we know. We can only TALK about \how’ (Abcrit) not ‘what’.
Well, it is for artists (maybe less so for connoisseurs, but in the end I doubt it), a very slender basis upon which to proceed, this very undefined “quality” thing. But hey! we can in fact talk about things like abstractness, three-dimensionality, spatiality, content and all those other slightly less vague and maybe slightly less subjective things that Carl disparages, even though we can’t often even define them, because making art is like that. And here we are, and that’s what we do. If we can’t talk these things through a bit, there is no point to Abcrit.
“we can in fact talk about things like abstractness, three-dimensionality, spatiality, content and all those other slightly less vague and maybe slightly less subjective things that Carl disparages…”
I don’t disparage those ideas, in fact I have written about them in several articles you posted here, but you know that of course. What you interpret as (or feel compelled to characterize as) “disparaging” is simply an insistence that words be used with some precision and awareness of their history because without that they lack meaning.
Regarding photography and abstraction, here is a footnote from an essay in progress on the photographs of Thomas Demand and Todd Hido:
This suggests a point of confluence between the medium of photography (as interpreted by Todd Hido) and the media of modernist painting and sculpture, which, according to Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried (writing back in the 1960s), delimit a space accessible to eyesight alone. According to this analysis, the space of a painting by Morris Louis or Kenneth Noland is available to eyesight alone because lines are freed of their traditional tactile associations and figuration is achieved solely by means of color, which implies that in these paintings color as such is made present without being the color of some object in the world. The space of a photograph is likewise accessible to eyesight alone for a different reason – because the objects (human and non-human) made present in the photograph do not exist (now) and for that reason cannot not be found within the space which we physically occupy at any moment. If the “literalness” of an object consists in the possibility of experiencing it by means of its tactile associations – associations that imply existence in the space within which we actually live and move – then the “abstractness” of an modernist painting or sculpture consists in its defeat of those tactile associations, its capacity to compel us to believe (as Fried more or less says of Anthony Caro’s Prairie) what we see notwithstanding what we know. By contrast, the abstractness of a photograph resides in the fact that we see something that we know does not exist. Whereas in modernist painting and sculpture, abstraction is something achieved, in photography abstraction is given automatically, as a condition for something to exist as a photograph. Therefore, it can be said that a photograph already exists in the condition of modernism generally, from which it follows that no particular photograph can be characterized as “modernist”. Perhaps this helps to explain why so many aggressively “experimental” photographs strike one less artistically challenging than some modestly traditional pictures.
Robin wrote: “Well, it is for artists (maybe less so for connoisseurs, but in the end I doubt it), a very slender basis upon which to proceed, this very undefined “quality” thing. But hey! we can in fact talk about things like abstractness, three-dimensionality, spatiality, content and all those other slightly less vague and maybe slightly less subjective things that Carl disparages, even though we can’t often even define them, because making art is like that. And here we are, and that’s what we do. If we can’t talk these things through a bit, there is no point to Abcrit.”
Robin I do not “disparage” concepts like abstractness, three-dimensionality, spatiality, content, etc. On the contrary, I think they are all important and vital. My problem is that I usually cannot (despite considerable efforts) make out what they mean in your writing (which I generally admire and learn from). I understand words based on my prior understanding of the same words. Something – especially in good writing – new and interesting meanings are conveyed by the world, but always against the background of its usual meaning. (An innovation always innovates something; therefore, it cannot exist in a void, without reference to past practices. The same goes for words.)
If I had to criticize your writing about art, it would because it sometimes presents the work as a kind of experiment or thing that is done for some very specialized purpose – e.g., to discover new modes of three-dimensionality, almost as if making art were scientific research. Now maybe it feels that way to an artist like you, but I am not an artist. Therefore, as far as I’m concerned, art has to do what art has always done – and that is stake a very particular type of claim on my attention and elicit a specific kind of interest, and provoke a specific kind of pleasure. This type of claim, interest and pleasure make art objects totally unique in our world. I could not live without them, because I cannot live without that kind of attention, interest and pleasure. That seems to mean that a work of art has to convey some kind of significance having to do with what it’s like to exist as a human being in the 21st century. Exploring “spatiality” for its own sake doesn’t do that, doesn’t give me what I need from art.
But you are not the one making it! I do sculpture for whatever reason feels true – what others make of it is not my business, on the whole.
My post acknowledged that the viewpoint of the maker is different from that of the viewer. But I still insist that good art must amount to communication with the viewer because art is made by human beings who need to express feelings and thoughts (all feelings and thoughts being about what it’s like to be a human being, among others) in ways that are comprehensible to other human beings. It may not be easily or conventionally comprehensible, but it must articulate in ways that are intelligible. I often wonder what kind of feeling is expressed in your recent metal sculptures. I realize that you may not be interested in what I mean by feeling but nonetheless, to me they succeed in expressing a definite kind of feeling, and therefore amount to a statement about what it feels like for you to be alive. But I don’t think you want to talk about that and it’s not my posture to ask you to. The work speaks for itself.
I do have a certain sympathy with Carl,based on his need for “Something’ indefjneable in a work of Art.Its the Art part and isn’t something I can put in.A work has it ,or not ,according to an indefinate.I might make a work,for a purpose ,like speciality/3 dimensionality etc.,but the Art part has to exist on its own.Ive seen loads of amateur shows in the west country ,where none of them have any of it.Just loads of completely unnecessary nonsense.Makes me wonder what Art really is.
Canvas and paint would not be a medium of painting unless human beings used these literal things to make art – intentional objects that carry human significance from the maker to other human beings who are interested in art. In other words, canvas and paint would not be a medium of painting in the absence of the art of painting, which is something that human beings do, like speaking, engaging in significant actions, and so on. That’s all I’m trying to say.