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.