Why ABSTRACT Sculpture?
Sculpture is a minority art form. By this I do not mean only that it has a very small audience, but that it deals with a very limited range of human feeling and emotion and therefore tends to have a comparatively narrow appeal.
Sculpture is probably the earliest form of human and even sub-human expressive reactions to the physical world and its habitat. Early man found that the interaction between his physical being and capabilities and his surroundings demanded some form of visible concrete commentary, and so what we now call ‘sculpture’ was born.
Early human tribes around the world enlarged on this and many societies developed it as an expression of their identity and culture. Essentially this involved creating with materials some form of imagery based on the human (animal) body and its physical capabilities. It was the one mode of expression that was found to represent the ‘reality’ of their beliefs and being, its literal physicality being an adequate substitute for belief, sexuality, and imaginary worlds – as well as explaining the real one.
Sculpture then, became an art form which was essentially tied to the actual reality of what man, in his lifetime, experiences physically (and visually) and wishes to record accordingly. As a consequence, the art became fundamentally a representational one of describing aspects of the human (animal) body and its mechanisms; it began and remained essentially what we now call ‘figurative’. This varied between a wilful attempt at imitation, the mimetic representation of ‘Nature’, and/or various evolved plastic solutions to form-making that could visually be perceived as either recognisable, or partially or totally invented.
As sculptural cultures evolved across thousands of years, it became clear that visual physical perceptions of the human world varied enormously. Images swung from plausible imitation (verisimilitude) to barely recognisable assemblies (without insider tribal knowledge) of what we now label non-figurative forms. It is noticeable that within even the most ardently imitative styles, it was found essential to impose on them some sort of rationale, either semi-mathematical (Greek, for example) or belief code (Hindu – Buddhist), to ‘formalise’ what would otherwise be sloppy.
This ‘sloppiness’ was to be fully realised (but not recognised!) in the post Renaissance era in European sculpture, during which outrageous efforts were made to simulate ‘real’ life in plastic form, to the point of actually attempting to imitate painting’s abilities to represent a full blown scenario of ‘natural’ effects. The net result being that to this day, popular ideas of ‘sculpture’ revolve around some form of kitsch representation of ‘reality’. Both public places and domestic ones are littered with the cultural debris of misconceived and misunderstood figurative images (statues), or more intimately, sentimental renderings of the human body as the equivalent of calendar fodder.
It was only fully realised in Europe during the XIXth C. by some artists and connoisseurs that sculptural form often had, and often should, depart from attempting to reproduce ‘natural’ form closely, or at all. Any really significant achievement in sculpture’s history demonstrated that plastic invention by the sculptor was essential if the work was to have any depth of feeling and emotional content. By the end of the XIXth C. on into the XXth, three artists in France had significantly altered the entire popular understanding of what sculpture could be physically, and what it could do emotionally from a recognition of this fact.
Rodin, Degas and Matisse, between them, with their very differing artistic visions, gave to the common perceptions of what sculptural form was for, a completely revised and renewed life. Rodin, the sculptor par excellence, realised and demanded in his work that representation of the human figure was merely metaphorical putty unless the idea of a structure expressing major physical forces, tension, compression, physical elevation, was built into its forms whatever anatomical part they happened to be simulating. Degas with his painter’s concerns, furthered very differently this recognition, and added to it the absolute necessity for a spatial relationship of parts to justify the whole and the way that whole interacted with the space it displaced. Matisse brought to bear on his admitted non-sculptural skills an innocence of handling material (clay) that in turn was a ‘workshop’ for forms that in his painting version were innovative, but which in sculpture became unprecedented. Matisse the painter made sculpture which was more ‘revolutionary’ than that of the ‘revolutionary’ sculptors.
The early XXth C. heralded an acceptance of the need for sculpture’s renewal following these examples. First and foremost, Picasso with his experimental flair exemplified in his cubist experiments with collage and small made fabricated objects, arrived at a fully blown-plastic representation of an object, by creatively and inventively recreating that object in sculptural form. This was an unprecedented step towards a new sculptural vision (though Picasso himself did not call it ‘sculpture’). It has subsequently been labelled ‘construction’ (the word derived from the movement Constructivism?), and is today considered as a branch of sculpture-making alongside the older traditions of modelling and carving. Construction now occupies a large area of sculptural effort, though does not, in itself, delineate any particular quality of vision. This can be amply seen in the work of another major branch of XXth C.art, ‘alternative sculpture’, which sets out to demonstrate that any object could be a ‘sculpture’ and therefore that any ‘intention’ infused into anything would equally make it ‘sculpture’.
This philosophical conundrum, masquerading as a new sculptural vision of our time, took up the ideas of ‘construction’ initiated by Picasso, and transformed them into a form of three-dimensional journalism. Any subject, however inappropriate to a sculptural interpretation, was now open to being valid on the grounds of its being ‘of now’, ‘of our time and mores’, despite the indisputable fact that our time has produced any number of alternative media far more suited to this approach, and, incidentally, far more able to achieve memorable results. Nothing bores more than the endless repetition of ‘anything can be art’ in its actual practice.
The XXth C. also heralded and fostered an avenue of sculptural thinking which declared that, in effect, the figure was still a valid subject and model for form-making, provided it also demonstrated at the same time a perceived effort by the individual sculptor to charge it with a ‘modern’ abstracted analysis.. This would involve the habitual distortion of the proportions and parts of the human anatomy to the point at which any naturalistic reference was no longer a fundamental part of the vision. It has been summarised, quite succinctly as ‘form for form’s sake’. Reference to many well-known XXth. C. sculptor’s works will confirm this idea of a ‘modern’ sculpture as perceived as a continuum of the past.
If a renewed conception of sculptural form and intent is to avoid the pitfalls of the above-mentioned obeisance to either alternative norms or quasi-figurative ones, it must have its footings in a well-thought-through and positive analysis of meaning and purpose.
It has been already stated above that all really positive sculptural excitement in past times has involved inventing forms which carry an emotional charge created by the forms themselves, rather than what they may refer to, or symbolically be intended to represent. This self-substantiation must, in turn, be derived from an adequate input of physical law: structure, movement, spatial and three-dimensional fulfilment, a sense of continuity towards an aspired-for whole; in short, an abstract rather than a descriptive purpose which is intense enough to sustain a viewer’s interest and involvement.
There is one other essential factor in this search for an adequate justification for abstract form than the need to avoid reference to other sources than the figure, or the ‘alternative’ artist’s reliance on confusing sculpture with modes that could be far better dealt with by other media. Abstract form has frequently been confused in sculptor’s minds with three-dimensional architectural or engineering forms and those of the manufactured materials of the modern world on which ‘constructed’ sculpture depends. This tendency can easily disqualify any result from an adequate projection of its image as ‘sculpture’. Despite arguments for this type of sculpture’s validity, I would agree to that disqualification by referring to another great art form, music.
Music does not have to describe anything. it is what it is, organised sound. It is not confusable in its nature with other norms. Its quality depends on the organiser (composer and players). It is simply a collection of sounds that are infused (or not) with human emotions and feeling. Unlike the case with sculpture, it is not to be confused with other sounds stemming from other sources of sound production; when its organisation succeeds, it is totally distinguishable – as music.
I am not suggesting that musical form, musical structure, musical space, musical composition, are in any significant way identifiable with sculptural norms. They are not. However, I see a strong association, and illustration in the creation of music, with that which would underlie an achieved abstract sculpture. The journey of a musical idea from the creative mind to the performance is virtually uninterrupted and untrammelled by alternative or rival creative modes. It is this ‘purity’ of transposition that I am calling ‘abstract’, an adherence to which would relieve sculpture of its historic ‘subject’ burdens and free its making from inappropriate models.
I commenced by posing the question: Why ABSTRACT sculpture? The concept of a ‘purity’ of intention, of a specific-to-sculpture structural evolution, of non-referential, non-descriptive form for sculpture, of making a sculpture only answerable to its own laws, totally distinguishable from those of other art forms, seems to me to be the path ahead.
Tim Scott, 2020