#121. Tim Scott writes on Abstract Sculpture

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

18 comments

  1. Hi Tim

    What your piece of writing reminds me of, and it has been in my mind for some years now, is how ‘ idea based ‘ abstract sculpture has been, in order to have involved itself in the ” issues” thought to be pertinent.
    I hope, that what started as an unravelling of these ” ideas ” , is today developing in the name of each artist into a more evolving and re-focussing of ALL the elements of sculpture; and so it is that ‘abstract’ has become one of those elements.
    I guess I am saying, that perhaps today ‘ abstract ‘ is not a category, but something more akin to a partnership with all of its other elements, with more or less emphasis depending on who is doing it and where they are trying to take their own sculpture.
    And, I think this is there,to be seen.
    Much has been made of the great works of Matisse, Picasso,Smith and Caro , but far from being overwhelmed by those achievements, the sculpture of today IS trying to match their quality and originality in relevant and all embracing ways.
    If it is not, what would be the point ?

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  2. Tony – I am glad that the piece served at least as some sort of ‘reminder’.

    “…today ‘abstract’ is not a category but something more akin to a partnership with all of its other elements…”
    My aim in the essay was to emphasise that abstract (sculpture) has become (instead of an aspect of historical style) something that the MAKING itself DEMANDS if it is to convey deep human emotion.
    Of course, this depends on the personality, talent and vision of the individual sculptor.
    Past masters are there for us to learn from initially, and then demonstrate the necessity for fresh paths.

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  3. Tim

    I think we are very close here, although our work will be going off in different directions.

    Obviously the involvement of ” making ” is central to what we would regard as sculpture.

    My wanting to suggest that abstract was not a category,was to see how people interpret what it might mean to them in the terms of creating with new purpose.
    So, you Tim ask the question “Why abstract sculpture ?” ………
    I am saying that I think when the filter embodied in the old understanding of the word , and the desire to be abstract, had rid sculpture of figures and objects etc., a new FREEDOM was released which could of itself, be the abstract !

    Abstract has now ceased being a filter and is starting to mean new things and different things to different people. of course what those things are does depend on each individual sculptor. If that new world of abstract combined with all the other elements of sculpture that would be exciting in a different way.
    in being on the same page the only real way to move forward would be to talk more about the sculpture that is being made now that has benefited from this development of what abstract could mean.

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    1. Perhaps I should clarify my phrase “making – demands”.
      We are used to seeing in the making of sculptural form, that it visually RECALLS something ,a reference, an aspect of the known world.
      By ‘abstract’ I mean that making recalls nothing except what it DOES: in terms of a previously unknown structure stating: physicality, spatial occupation, direction, and the simulation of movement This in order to, hopefully, release a ‘pure’ aesthetic sensation in the viewer. Hence my music analogy.
      I agree with you that all the ‘differences’ are going to be exciting.

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      1. Tim
        A question.
        How did the whole business of object making ,literalness etc. present itself to you as a young sculptor?
        How did you feel about it then and when was that?
        What was the language used then?
        I suppose what I am saying is that it has always seemed to me a natural evolution.
        How did it strike you ?

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  4. Tony – Firstly you have no idea how different it was when I was a student (’54 – ’59) to your day.
    Sculpture then was pretty thin on the ground, and other than the ‘modern masters’, Picasso, Brancusi, Russian Constructivists, etc.nothing ‘advanced’ to swoon over.
    ‘Object making’ was THE alternative to the daiiy chore of life modelling (despite Caro’s efforts to rethink it).
    Incorporating ‘literal’ bits and pieces into one’s work was fresh and exciting ( a la Picasso).
    The language was conditioned by traditional materials (clay and plaster, wood and stone), with the ‘new’ addition of found objects (a huge art fashion then).
    Despite ‘British Sculpture’ (Moore down to Butler & co.), the Ecole de Paris still dominated; I went to Paris for a couple of years and was shocked at the levels in the galleries.
    I knew it had to happen here and came back to St.M’s.

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  5. Incidentally, your question prompted me to think that perhaps the whole Fifties fashion for ‘objets trouves’ in sculpture led directly to the assumption that when steel took over as a prime medium it was perfectly natural to treat it as a ‘found object’ and rely on the ready made ‘given’ nature of scrap yard material as the prime source of inspiration.
    It is interesting to look back at the earlier efforts – Gonzalez, early Smith – even Constructivist and Cubist work in iron, was primarily ‘crafted’ rather than ‘found’.
    From today’s perspective, looking back at the aesthetic problems relying on ‘given form’ in material has created for sculpture, it is surprising that this idea hasn’t cropped up before; or maybe it has and I have missed it !
    Any comments ?

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    1. Tim

      I think it has come up before but in the sculpture made in the last 15 years say, and the reactions to that sculpture, not directly in conversations such as this.
      Somebody correct me if I am wrong.
      Its a great point that you make and it’s great because it goes to the heart of sculpture today and what sort of reality may emerge for sculpture and what feelings it can express.
      Ignoring all of the permutations of the steel, sheet, plate, [ as all are complications/ re-configurings of the plate at whatever thickness ] the plate is still, I think, an object and left in that form is just such, and fits your comment.
      The response to this, the last object, has been to chop it up into ever smaller pieces, to choose more malleable thicknesses and bend it, weld the small units together etc. ,but whatever is done without some re-think of the elements of sculpture, the new formations of these cut up pieces will turn them into an object and a grouping will create relationships and strengthen the objectness further.
      Experimenting with ‘ non-relational ‘ is currently an option. But the real means of moving away from the ‘ flower arranging ‘ and grouping of things etc., which court a ‘ figurative’ version of being ‘ abstract ‘, seems to be a complete re-think of the elements of sculpture in that their purpose is to make ‘ real ‘the material, whilst being abstract, in whatever new form it emerges.
      This is happening and has been a part of sculpture for a while now.
      The found object is just another grid, space frame or picture plane etc. that points to an anti object based sculpture.
      As you say….”a making that RECALLS something. a reference, an aspect of the known world”.

      I think where we are at the moment is where in the world does this super real ,super three dimensional , fully abstract, super physical live, and create a super connectivity of expression ?
      There may be no answer that is ever truly right but I cannot see us settling for moving sculpture again into the arena of an other art form [ theatre, dance, painting, architecture, furniture etc. ] .

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      1. Tony – To begin with your final comment : “…moving sculpture again into the arena of another art form: theatre, dance, painting, architedture, furniture etc., ” Certainly NOT !

        The problem with words such as “non referential ” or “real” (though we are forced to use them), is that everything in the physical world has to ‘refer’ to something, and has a ‘reality’ of some sort.
        “…ignoring all of the permutations of steel plate, as all are complications, re-configurings ….the plate is still an object…”
        I agree – and therein lies the difficulty of the ‘real(ness) and the non-relation(ness); for, however it is worked, it will remain in need of a thought out physical structure to become sculpture.
        The key,I think, is this phrase “purity of inspiration”,because unless and until the invention of sculptural form is devoid of anything other than ‘being’, but being with meaning and purpose infused by the sculptor’s intentions, it will remain something which ‘recalls’;
        I suppose one can say this about any form in art and that that is what distinguishes the achieved from the trivial; but it does seem to be a particularly hard nut to crack in sculpture.

        To achieve ‘ being’ in our sense of the physicality of material being transformed through sculptural feeling, the question remains how ? of course. As I mentioned above, the one example of this process which serves as a model for truly abstract transference of feeling and emotion is music. Can we, as sculptors, emulate this to make a truly ABSTRACT sculpture ?

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  6. I am thinking about your “RECALL”

    Maybe we are all fascinated by full three dimensionality because we ourselves are not.
    We are only frontal.
    When we turn to see behind ourselves it reveals another frontal, partial view.
    So we are building in our minds an imaginary three dimensionality.
    Objects and buildings [ as large objects ] are made up of fronts, backs and sides ,tops and bottoms and are inviting/anticipating our involvement with them [ entering,climbing sitting etc. ] Walking through woodland is a very different experience, and much more checking ‘behind you’ is required. Its three dimensionality is threatening our limited three dimensionality because it is only made of views.
    I think that what sculpture offers against this weird ‘ real’ world around us is ‘ illusion ‘ which allows for seeing the ‘other side ‘ and ‘ behind ‘ at the same time.
    We are deliberately trying to make this ‘ sculpture ‘ that has everything. it is maybe in the search for everything, including all the necessary contradictions/opposites that constructs in our minds the super three dimensional. And being made in the mind is an illusion, which can go/disappear as fast as it came. [ An illusion of movement and space etc. etc. and on and on.]
    Fluid !
    This approach could with material is create a ‘ reality ‘ which is sculptural, giving us what we ourselves walking about in the world are blocked from seeing by our own physicality.
    Sculptures reality is founded on our bodies own shortcomings; but it tries to take full advantage of our imagination and natural inquisitiveness ,in that being presented with ‘difference’ will try to understand; and that could be a way in.
    You are not being given something you don’t know something about , but more, have not encountered before in partnership with other elements.
    it is about combinations !

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  7. That is a very interesting observation, that “we ourselves are not” (three dimensional),”we are only frontal”.
    I agree that “we are building in our minds (imaginary) ideas of what three dimensionality actually is from experience of the object world and our limited knowledge of our own. Though I would mention also that it is THROUGH our bodies that we understand physicality and movement and by transference, an understanding of them as part of sculpture’s core condition as well.
    I had not thought about the ‘woodland’ experience as other than a spatial one; but it might well have ‘three dimensional’ implications as you say.

    So the mental experiences which combine to create ideas for the actual making of sculpture,are ‘illusory’ and ‘imaginary’, but the reality (of the making) is not; therefore the transfer of the one to the other successfully would require what i am calling ‘abstract’ purity’ to eliminate recall.
    Recall (in the making) is what this reality now imposes. Overcoming it is the task of the individual sculptor’s depth of feeling engendered by those mental experiences you have cited The “difference”‘ you mention (to the body’s shortcomings) gives you “more” (than what was known).; This surely is what the aim of sculpture is, or should be ?

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    1. In Applied Art. ‘ recall ‘ is the gold standard of the art form. It is the benchmark that all the objects aim for if their makers adhere to that ambition and tradition.
      ‘Recall , for sculpture , can be seen almost as just that, at its worst.
      In an accidental approach , an accidental ‘recall’ would undermine the ” ABSTRACT purity ‘ of which you speak. In other words I think you could be referring to originality. A very contentious ambition ! Yet i am thinking that what we are saying so far points to it being essential.

      The physicality, in the ‘making’, has also to avoid symbolism of this ‘ subject area ‘ via some deeper involvement with the material. One that maybe precludes the stepping back, the constant rationalising of what is happening. The ‘making’ being less fractured and more continuous but not obviously ruling out alteration as part of this ‘making.
      Mark said, in a recent debate about building a sculpture ,he was thinking of something which wrapped around you , something you could be inside. This raises the question of sculpture size for such an ambition. also a contentious point !
      Certainly, this idea of Marks, errs against stepping back, and could be achieved ,however differently at a small size,with perhaps the advantage of being able to reconfigure all of it , quite quickly.
      Somewhere in here is where we are at the moment. But the big question must be the specific form the sculpture would take to be all of these things.
      The wish list is long and to achieve your notion of an ‘ABSTRACT purity’ , hints at the radical !

      …and….
      In re-reading this …..
      the idea of yours regarding ‘recall’ is massive …
      in the pursuit of this ‘ABSTRACT purity ‘ !

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  8. Re your quote of Mark’s ‘surrounding’ sculpture: I fear that this might lead straight back into architecture; I am also reminded of the debate on ‘where does sculpture stop in space if it is not to become a ‘forest’ ?’ I think this is to do with scale. Sculpture can be very large, even huge, but to distinguish its identity as sculpture it must retain a relationship of parts, and them to the whole in turn, which is visually ‘intimate’. An ‘enclosure’ would, I fear, defeat this.
    One of the chief joys of a ‘pure’ abstract sculpture as an aim is that the resulting spatial relationships are intimate in the sense that you enter into them visually and follow them visually rather than be enveloped in them literally.

    Re ‘Recall’: If it, as you suggest, evokes the designed structures and physical objects of applied art, that is precisely its danger for a new sculpture aiming to present to the eye and brain nothing other than what it does, how it does it and with what power and intensity.
    That indeed is a massive task that requires original thinking; but one that could induce a form of sculptural aesthetic pleasure as yet dimly perceived !

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  9. PS: We have now had a century of ‘Modern Sculpture”. Despite all the efforts in the last half of the XXth to unseat it as a plastic art form with its own unique aesthertic function, efforts which merely sowed the seeds of their own misplaced results; and despite the encumbrances from its own past history; it nonetheless still stands as an art with an essential future role in the artistic creation of today if it succeeds in its own renewal.

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  10. Glad to hear from you Carl. I have only just seen your comment.

    1. “Why are they abstract ?”
    If they do not intentionally (or accidentally) ILLUSTRATE the natural world including the human one; in any conscious or intentional form, I suggest they are ‘abstract’.(as we understand the words in common usage).
    2… “How are they abstract ?”
    In sculpture, by the use and manipulation of materials by the sculptor, with a specific intent;
    this being a matter of individual perception.
    In my own case, as I have said, in order to attempt to achieve the ethos of ‘music’, i.e. to create (through form rather than sound) an equivalent to the emotional heights that music can convey; through the eyes rather than the ears.triggering the brain.

    I think we are probably headed for another set of contradictions !

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  11. Going back to 2. (How are they abstract), I realise that my sentence could be applied to ANY sculpture, and is therefore inadequate.
    Let me try again:
    The deliberate making of illustrative forms would exclude the term ‘abstract’ as a description.
    The making of forms to which the term COULD be applied, therefore, has to be the result of an intentional avoidance of such an interpretation, indeed attempting making it impossible.
    Such an avoidance, I assume, would have to be the result of a strong enough imaginative input, by the sculptor, of INTENTION to make form which, as little as possible, recalls anything visually known.
    It is probably impossible not to recall anything visual at all; but nevertheless an essential creative effort for abstract sculpture to succeed (in my view).
    I cited music as the obvious parallel medium of ‘form’ being totally non illuistrative. that abstract sculpture could aspire to emulate emotionally.

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