Albert Frey, 1903-1998, was a Swiss-born architect who lived and worked mostly in California, where he had a long career designing modernist houses and various commercial developments. He started out as a young man in Paris in 1928 on a kind of internship in the office of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, a period he regarded as highly significant to the development of his own architectural practice. He worked on parts of the design for the Villa Savoy and other projects, but didn’t stay long and soon applied for an American visa. By 1930 he was in the New York office of A. Lawrence Kocher, and together they designed Frey’s first major work, Aluminaire (1930-31), originally sited in Syosset, Long Island, a prefabricated and idealistic structure of the first order, with influences from the Villa Savoy project, but also recognised at the time as having some true originality of concept. It established Frey’s reputation as an innovator, but a serious career supported by architectural commissions had to wait until 1934 and the design, again with Kosher, of the Kosher-Samson Building in Palm Springs. In between those two projects was the extraordinary and beautiful Kosher Canvas Weekend House, of which more later. By 1940 Frey was designing his own house in Palm Springs, Frey House I, in a semi-desert environment, where the integration of the spectacular Californian landscape with the paired-down structures of modernism became perhaps the most significant characteristic of his work, as exemplified by Frey House II.
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.
Rarely does a criticism/review/comment on one’s work give one food for thought which goes to the heart of one’s aims, concerns and intentions, let alone results in the actual piece(s).
The contribution to the Abcrit debate (Discussion on Abstract Sculpture, 27th June), from Tony Smart, achieved exactly this for me in relation to the sculpture series “Bridge of Echoes’ (I) as illustrated then. As a result of Tony’s remarks I was obliged to think much more clearly about the relationship of material (choice of) to the resulting building (of the piece) and its visual and physical effect (though this is always a prime concern for sculptors). In this case I had previously experimented with the use of sheet card, both in itself and mixed with plywood. It became clear (from Tony) that the compacted, dense, movemented relationships of the cut, folded stacked and glued pieces or shards of the material made a particular visual and spatial/physical impression, quite different to that which had previously resulted in steel or other materials that I had used. This ‘impression’, that Tony termed “pressure”, delighted me; I realised it was giving me something of extreme interest in terms of contributing to the sculpture’s total wholeness in and of space; avoiding what he so aptly called: “…a gentlemanly dialogue between space and material…”
Happily, there has been a marked increase in Abcrit commentary on sculpture, largely due to Alan’s review of Gili’s exhibition and the responses to it; thank you Alan. Quite a few of the comments are of a general nature, as well as those on Gili’s individual works which, mostly, engendered the general ones. Amongst these, I noticed a recurring theme, that of what exactly creates the differences (of intention and perception) between work which is deemed ‘abstract’, and that which is ‘figurative’, but with abstract ‘qualities’, or abstract with ‘figurative’ qualities? In other words, at what point does a sculpture, which departs from the norms of the representation of appearances, become abstract? Does the recognition of the ‘likeness’ of forms in a sculpture to forms in the known visual world disqualify it from ‘abstraction’?
If we take, for example, a sculpture (an early one) by Caro and we see various elements which we ‘recognise’ as being industrially manufactured elements; imitating industrial usage; but not being ‘used functionally’; but even that functionality can be said to exist in its holding up, joining etc.; does that recognition mean that the result is not truly abstract, i.e. not describing visually anything associated with the real world? Similarly, if we take, for example, a Gonzalez, the source of which clearly testifies to a beginning in figuration, but which manifests qualities of pure plastic invention in the handling and forming of the material, does that change the result to ‘abstraction’? In other words, there is a conundrum visually and as a consequence, perceptually, between the one sculpture, ‘figurative’ (recognisable elements), but reading as ‘abstraction’; and the other ‘abstract’, but reading as based on real recognisable elements.
Surveying the numerous analyses in abstractcritical and Abcrit, it is evident that one subject has occupied the attention of many contributors: that of defining the meaning(s) of the word ‘abstract’. From technical definitions: ‘non objective’; ‘non figurative’; ‘non representational’; ’concrete’ etc., etc. to the more abstruse renderings defining the ‘break with traditional norms of painting ’; or rendering traditional material into non mimetic ‘form’, or Picasso’s projection of collage into three dimensions to create a new medium for sculpture, ‘construction’.
The term has also been widely interpreted to signify a new art form, one that eliminates mimetic illusion in favour of representing nothing but itself. Others argue that there is no such thing as representing ‘nothing’; everything must ‘represent’ something; every blob, every mark, is capable of being ‘something’ else. ‘Abstraction’ is seen as being in a continuum from the past (of painting), through periodic changes of ‘making’ that create a new pictorial vision of the world, albeit by illusion. It can also be seen as a complete break with the forms of the past in favour of new norms (usually largely derived from geometry), which are seen as representing a totally ‘abstract’ new ‘reality’, its subject not being derived from nature, but being ‘scientific’ in its new ‘truth’ (ignoring that science itself deals with ‘nature’). Yet another interpretation is seen as being the hallmark of a ‘modern’ art, an art that is of our time and synchronises with other major changes in society, living styles, engineering and technical development, all the signals that suggest that man has evolved, improved and developed in time.
Whichever semantic definition one prefers, abstraction as used to signify a new Art Form (of the 20th C.), which, though building on the foundations of the ‘old art’ (via the 19th C.), is perceived as radically different in its vision (pace all the arguments about abstract ‘content’). Much discussion, however, has been about the ‘stepping stones’ of the 19th C.; in which abstraction is viewed as having always been integral to making art (largely painting) and which in its ‘modern’ (mid 19th C. on) developments, though representational, rejected the old formulae of three dimensional illusion, spatial perspective depth etc. to evolve totally new ways of looking, seeing and describing.
The following is taken from a recent exchange of emails.
Tim Scott: Dear Robin, I thought you might like to read this by Clement Greenberg, re Abcrit discussions on “abstract content”:
“….The quality of a work of art inheres in its “content”, and vice versa. Quality is “content”, you know that a work of art has content because of its effect. The more direct denotation of effect is “quality”. Why bother to say that a Velasquez has “more content” than Salvador Rosa when you can say more simply and with direct reference to the experience you are talking about, that the Velasquez is “better” than the Salvador Rosa? You cannot say anything truly relevant about the content of either picture, but you can be specific, and relevant about the difference in their effect on you. “Effect” like “Quality” is “content”, and the closer reference to actual experience of the first two terms makes “content “virtually useless for criticism………indulge in that kind of talk about “content” myself. If I do not do so any longer is because it came to me, dismayingly, some years ago that I could always assert the opposite of whatever it was I did say about “content” and not get found out; that I could say almost anything I pleased about “content” and sound plausible……”
Robin Greenwood: Thanks Tim. We all define these things a bit differently, don’t we, but I’ve found the idea of “abstract content” quite useful recently. Time will tell if I’ve got it right or wrong.
Tim Scott: I’m interested. Are you saying that “abstract content” is different to any other sort of content? (Clem says it’s all the same but should be called “quality”; he doesn’t use the word “value”, as in value judgement.) Another point he doesn’t touch on is whether there is any difference between “sculpture content” and “painting content” in terms of definition.