#126. Robin Greenwood writes on the Possibilities of Abstract Sculpture

If, on the way towards constructing a sculpture, perhaps starting with two or three pieces of cut and/or shaped steel or wood, joined together in a way that suggests some physical pressure or activity or structure; then is that, in itself, unchangeably and definitely either figurative or abstract, one or the other? Or is it mutable? Is it, after the making of it, an act that can have clarity only once, or can it be expedited in either form, and at different times? Does it need the context of the larger organisation that will include its identity in the whole sculpture?

What about joining these parts together without physicality, just “putting” them together, offering them as spatially conjoined in some way, just fixed together by what is between them (with a weld or a nail?), but nothing further in terms of physicality? Does abstract sculpture need a physical “context” for its content? Is it, perhaps in any case, not a question that can be answered before a great majority of the whole sculpture is built?

There seems here lots of ambiguity; but then again, if you exactly specify the joining together of the parts of the sculpture in order to avoid figuration, there is the likelihood of losing any degree of fluid spatiality… something which seems essential for abstract sculpture to be alive and flourishing.

Fluid spatiality offers possibilities for varied interpretations of the work in the act of the onlooker moving around and observing the possibilities of “everything” in the work, or as much as is available, from different directions. And this can continue coherently on each new viewing occasion, provided that the content is complex enough to “hold and accumulate” that variety of experiences; and provided that there is available a recognition of at least some degree of wholeness – though this may need to be open-mindedly worked on. One person’s wholeness may be another man’s muddle; but one person’s suggested or “gambled-upon” wholeness is also a possibility of fluidity.

Let’s say the more diverse, complex, and demanding the experiences of abstract sculpture, the better, though it increases the difficulty in both making and viewing. Can we just say that making abstract art is and should be difficult and complex, at least until such time as we understand more about it? The more we put in, the more we are going to get out, perhaps even when failing.

Abstract sculpture cannot continue to develop without seeking to build upon complexity in its most fluid and fully three-dimensional state. What does that mean? Probably something beyond our current ability to define it. To say that we understand what three-dimensionality entails in abstract sculpture at this moment is hugely presumptuous.

Look at these two photographs; there seems no outright connection. But they are in fact two views of the same sculpture, turned so it stands differently. As I write this, I’m trying to decide which is the best way (I like them both). What is the meaning of this indecision, if that is what it is? Does this sculpture have the possibility of more than one – maybe several – meanings? Did I put the meaning in both ways of looking at it? I don’t think so.

48 comments

  1. Robin – The answer to your questions is, quite probably, that there are no answers other than in the individual perceptions of those answering.
    These are a few of my reactions, which no doubt will differ from yours, or others. In the order that you have put them.

    Junctions, whether conceived in a ‘pictorial ‘ fashion, as simply joining in some way, or conceived as the transmission of physical forces from one part to another, as I think most of us would aim for, are neither ‘abstract’ nor ‘figurative’ in themselves, I would have thought. They may well contribute to and become part of either an abstract or a figurative conception and thereby BECOME abstract or figurative.

    If you leave a space between parts, you are thereby giving as much prominence to that space as to the parts it divides; the ‘space’ becomes equally part of the physical whole.

    Decisions in building seem to me to be entirely a matter of the builder’s temperament. They presumably can be made at any chosen stage and altered at any chosen stage.

    Your descriptions of “fluid spatiality” which follow, seem (to me) to pose very much the same idea of cause and effect that I was describing as “within and without” (movements and sequences of parts) in order to arrive at a whole by generating peripatetically multiple visual avenues, physically and spatially, in order to avoid the fatal preconceived ‘image’

    I too, and I am sure others, spend a lot of time, in making , turning things around, sideways, upside down and so on, since there is no ‘top’ nor ‘bottom’. Usually (for me), this mostly happens in early stages, and less so in later ones when some idea of ‘totality’ has been dimly perceived. But even this can change as you point out with your examples.

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  2. ‘Fluid spatially’ seems to be a key ingredient in abstract sculpture and perhaps painting also.
    I have been reading ‘Matisse in Tahiti’ and there was a description of him creating ‘an immaterial abstract space’ referring to his use of decorative forms inspired by the vegetation in Tahiti.
    ‘Immaterial abstract space’, space without a specific figurative form, something that is not descriptive, nothing to do with perspective or distance, something fluid and not fixed.
    I think I understand what abstract space could be (in painting) and how in sculpture it feels like a natural and necessary part of the process in order to express the abstract.

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  3. Tim,
    Yes, of course, we all do these things of turning things round or over or putting things sideways instead of vertical… I can’t imagine not doing all of that, over and again. Abstract painters probably do it more that sculptors.

    The difference here is that I had absolutely finished this work for sure, with no intention of further exploration, and was only turning is over to weld it better. At that point, I realised there was a quite different sculpture from the one I had spent many weeks on (including previous turning, etc.). It is a new sculpture at least as good as the previous version, very different in how the content is put together, and utterly changed – without making any changes.

    My purpose here is not to ask opinions about the quality of the work, or how it looks (impossible to do any of that in pictures), but to try to understand what is happening in this extreme version of a regular abstract sculptural activity, with the creation, out of apparently nothing beforehand, of a new reality with its own new meaning, all quite convincing.

    And very abstract? Noela, I have no idea what “expressing the abstract” might mean.

    The other thing worth mentioning is that I have absolutely no recollection of how the sculpture started. I find this all fantastically amazing.

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    1. Yes that was a little clumsily put, I suppose I meant in order to be abstract, rather than expressing the abstract.

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  4. Also the amazing and surprising thing about your sculptures is that they can have several meanings and expressions from different angles, hard for painting to compete with that.

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  5. “…but to try to understand what is happening in this extreme version of a regular sculptural activity with the creation, of apparently nothing beforehand, of a new reality with its own meaning,,,”
    Possible suggestions:
    Firstly, did it only occur in this particular piece, or does it happen in other sculptures of yours ?
    If it is unique to this piece, it could be a ‘one off”, an accident of construction that just happened to have the effect you describe, and the ‘accident’ is, in fact, a happy one.
    If it occurs in other pieces, I suppose that there is some element in your perceptions of non referential, non referral parts and they are made in order to to build a whole, that bears repetition in ‘alternative’ structural positions ?
    In this case the “beforehand” would in fact be what you had already envisaged for the original whole, but finds itself capable of alternative wholes without loss of power or ‘meaning’.
    Repetition in construction can lead to boredom obviously, but on occasion could perhaps be a positive element.
    Secondly, it is visibly a phenomenon of the desire for a totally abstract conception. Any referential or figurative element would immediately make a nonsense of ‘alternative structural positions’.
    To return to our musical analogies, if you play the same piece on the piano or with the flute, you get completely ‘alternative’ structures from one source.

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    1. And Noela, when you say my sculptures “have several meanings and expressions from different angles”, can that be a serious way to engage with abstract sculpture?

      I feel I need to understand this better!

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      1. I feel that as one looks round a sculpture and sees different aspects and configurations, that can add to the complexity of experience.
        I should probably think more specifically.
        I don’t mean that the expression and meaning is completely different within your work, it is just that there are shifts and extra dimensions to it as one walks round, which add richness to the whole engagement.

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      1. A rabbi, a priest, and a Lutheran minister walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “Is this some kind of joke?”

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  6. Last one: We are approaching New York – Bolt on landing

    Yes, my l;atest lockdown (three dimensionsl)piece is called : Choose Booze -Wooze Snooze

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  7. ” Abstract art today is the only stream that flows towards an ocean:

    Clement Greenberg 1944

    Seventy six years later is this still true ?
    If it is, why are the art audience and indeed the general public (audience), not convinced ?
    If it is not true, why not ?

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    1. A tiny stream that empties into a huge ocean.
      Why does it matter what anybody else thinks if the Artist is convinced?
      Why does Art need an audience, got some kind of message?

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  8. Is music really so abstract? Isn’t it an abstraction of the human voice?

    Other people will know much more about this than I do, but I can imagine that one of the few reliable associations to be experienced by a newborn baby between its raw, intense and unfamiliar emotions and its sensual perceptions would be that with the human voice – its own and those of its carers.

    Frightened, angry, soothing, playful, delighted… sounds are intimately bound up with emotions at the very moment when they are new and overwhelming.

    Music might be thought to be using those powerful associations by abstraction from the original sounds.

    It’s not even always a particularly distant abstraction. The sounds and rhythms of some music played on a clarinet are not further removed from the sound of a mother talking to her baby than the shapes and colours of one of Ivon Hitchens’ more figurative paintings are removed from the look of the landscape that inspired them.

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  9. Saul – I think Greenberg’s metaphor “ocean” was intended to represent the GREAT art that is there already.
    The ONLY stream (then), aspiring to join it was abstract. Is it Now ?

    The “message”, surely, of any worthwhile art is to convey aesthetic emotion and feeling ?

    Richard – I am sure what you say concerning the origins of music is factual.
    In my essay, however, I was referring to the music of adults, created by adults and absorbed by adult “mind / ears”. It is this I was specifying as being, in essence, ‘abstract’.

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    1. I agree – for an adult, the kind of “figuration” that music indulges in probably lies buried in the unconscious.

      For an adult, sounds are comparatively uninteresting as long as they are not speech or signs of imminent danger. There is no compulsion (or great ability) to „make something“ of everything we hear. If we are not blind, then our world is structured visually rather than aurally.
      So music has the double whammy of intimate, developmental associations with specific emotions and a lack of any strong habitual pressure towards figurative interpretation.

      I would argue though, that these properties are independent of each other.
      Music is not emotionally powerful because it is abstract or has only a weak tendency to figuration, but rather it is emotionally powerful for those other, developmental reasons and almost in spite of its abstraction, which might also be characterized as our comparative indifference to its medium in everyday life.

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  10. Richard – Your knowledge of the psychology of sound I defer to.

    “…So music has the double whammy of intimate, developmental associations with specific emotions and a lack of any strong habitual pressure towards figurative interpretation…”
    You go on to say that it is emotionally powerful for these “developmental” reasons rather than its abstraction.
    This paragraph seems to disclaim my thesis of music’s ‘abstractNESS’, being relevant to sculpture, that is the attempt at making a sculpture free of all figuration, reference, recall, borrowings from other art forms, physical structures and so on, the emotional impact of which would be akin to music’s.
    Disclaim because (you say) its emotional power does NOT come from its abstraction, (abstractness).This is disappointing (for my argument) .

    However, on reflection, I feel that perhaps there is a confusion of ‘types’ here. Is not the ‘music’ you are referring to as generated by ‘developmental associations” a GENERAL description of musical sound as a whole category of human experience, rather than the composed music as art forms of very specific character that I am referring to ?
    “… sounds and rythms…” that you mentioned can indeed be categorised as a bi-product of infant and childhood imbibing; but the sophisticated sounds and rythms of (for want of a better term) ‘classical musical traditions’ are, I suggest, abstract by NATURE, the nature of human thought

    Deep psychological reasons may well have given rise to those thoughts in the first place; but they then take on a life of their own in the human mind and to the human ear, as ABSTRACT sound.
    IF this is accurate, my proposal was that for new sculpture to be original, it would have to be conceived with a similar abstractness, in visual terms, to music’s in aural ones, IF it was to compare in emotional power
    It may well have ‘developmental associations’ parallel to the aural ones you mention, but requires an abstract projection visually resulting from being equally ‘thought’ based.

    For sculpture, the question of HOW this is to be achieved physically which has been discussed at length on Abcrit, then, of course, diverges totally from the concerns of ‘how’ in musical structures.

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  11. Tim – it’s kind of you to say so but I don’t have any special knowledge about these things. I’m speculating rather than explaining.

    I agree with your summary of my argument. I don’t think that music proves that abstraction in itself has any special power to move us. I do think that this is unfortunate – that figuration on the whole is a distraction that can hinder us in looking beyond narrative/illustration.

    My feeling at the moment is that abstract painting (I really can’t speak for sculpture) probably has to come to some kind of arrangement with figuration. Rather than fighting it with extreme simplification and visual blandness (which is what Greenberg seems to have ended up with), or mute all-overness, or chaos and incoherence, I think it has to accept a degree of figuration as an inevitable consequence of complexity and visual interest but at the same time ensure that the figuration taken alone for itself is simple and bland.
    I think that this is a tendency already present in a „humble“ still-life or an empty, undramatic landscape. Cézanne comes to mind.

    I may have misunderstood the point you are making but I‘m not convinced that the sophistication of classical musical traditions influences the argument in any way. With a basic palette of hard-wired associations I can imagine any amount of subtlety and variation.
    Isn’t the boast of the artist’s palette in „Las Meninas“ that it was all done just with black, white and red?

    For me, the advantage of abstract painting over explicit figuration is the absolute freedom it gives you to combine shapes, colours and textures, without any need for subterfuges like El Greco‘s robes or Matisse‘s wallpaper. I don’t see it as seriously problematic if the so-discovered image, resolution, synthesis or whatever else one wants to call it is open to a coherent but bland and non-intrusive figurative interpretation.

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  12. Richard – You say that, the example of music does NOT prove that “.. abstraction in itself has any special power to move us…”, implying that some other quality must be apparent within it (music) to achieve such a power.? Is this quality your “developmental associations” ?

    I was not (I hope) suggesting that only sophisticated music can move us powerfully.. It seems to me simply to be a much more profound illustration of music’s ‘abstractness’ that I was claiming for it, but that you are questioning.

    In turn, like you with sculpture, I don’t feel qualified to say much about painting practice. You have though, I think, raised an interesting point as to whether a new path to originality in painting (I assume you agree on the word originality?), is as potentially clear cut as it seems more to be in sculpture at the moment.
    In sculpture today, it seems (arguably) clear that to achieve any sort of renewed vitality and originality it requires:
    1. The abandonment of figuration, representation, illustration, imitation, revivalism.,social commentary, symbolism; etc., in favour of resolving a fully abstract alternative, (along with the means to achieving it ).
    No other mode in modern sculpture has shown itself capable of the above mentioned renewal of vitality and originality, despite all claims to the contrary.
    2… Whether or not this ‘abstractness’ is paralleled in music, as you are questioning, I cannot think of a better comparative form that could be called abstract in the manner of its projection , (aural as compared to visual). to the human mind (eye / ear).
    3. I am not at all certain that abstract painting finds itself in such a position. as you point out with your examples . Your “degree of figuration” would seem to require a very different route to originality to that of sculpture’s (at least as I have outlined it)
    4. There does NOT seem to be the “advantage in abstract painting” that I have been implying IS the advantage in abstract sculpture ?
    I am sure that one could proffer many historical reasons for this (if true), but a major one would seem to be the comparative overloading of modern painting’s achievements (a surplus of riches) compared to that of modern sculpture’s; with the consequent far greater freedom of movement within the art form’s possibilities.for artists today.

    there

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  13. Tim – First paragraph: Yes, that is what I‘m suggesting.

    On the rest: Agreement/white flag.
    Especially regarding painting being in a different place to sculpture and sculpture much more able to be interesting, complex and specific yet still abstract.

    Best wishes.

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  14. Patrick, Emyr, EC, John, et al. ::

    Richard says that sculpture seems to be at an advantage over painting as regards being abstract. (He even recommends some sort of figuration).

    Like the stream, is that so ?

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