PRINT October 1963

Sculpture as Cliché

COMPARED TO THE RECORD of painters in the last twenty years, how do the sculptors look?

There are two main motives for praising recent sculpture, one negative and one optimistic. (1) It is lauded by critics who, for one reason or another, have become dissatisfied with painting. By eulogizing work in three dimensions, they can put down, or obliquely instruct, painters without seeming to be merely de­structive. (2) The wonderful world of three dimensions is celebrated, too, by critics who relish the fine state of painting, and who cannot believe that sculpture should not be swinging, too.

In fact, it seems to me that the state of sculpture, despite any number of so-called revivals and renais­sances from Battersea Park to Tenth Street, is far from the equal of painting. Habits of imagination and operational customs make a formative contribution to sculpture in a way to which painting is most cer­tainly not subject. What follows are notes on the clichés that shape a mass of recent sculpture (with­out names).

Typical of the quiet state of sculpture esthetics is the simple assumption of plasticity usual in the literature on the art. The three-dimensionality of sculpture has been identified with continuous vol­umes, so that an unstoppable flow (forever turning away from the aspect the spectator could see at any one moment) characterized the work of art. This handling of form, so that it is always running off into the next view, was identified with the nature of sculp­ture; in fact, the use of rotund and continuous vol­umes was the taste of a particular generation. The counterpart of the fully three-dimensional object was the linear object, so open that there was no hidden aspect. The plastic nature of the object was delivered in one view. Only recently has the discreteness of the different views of sculpture (including relief effects) been recognized, again, as a legitimate sculptural re­source.

Callistratus records: “Daedelus, if one is to place credence in the Cretan marvel, had the power to construct stat­ues endowed with motion and to compel gold to feel human sen­sations.” (Descriptions, No. 18). Variants on the theme of metal or stone come alive recur through all his descriptions of ancient statues: bronze gets like flesh, hair seems to wave, bodies to run. (The idea of empathy, by which the spectator projects his own body-experiences into classical or Renaissance nudes is a late rationalization of this animistic game.) Na­turalistic sculpture is no longer expected to simulate fleshy or temporal aspects of ourselves, but the no­tion of magic vitality persists in sculpture in another form.

The idea of metamorphosis has become, in 20th­-century sculpture, the cliché that magical identifi­cation with the human body was for Callistratus. Far more than painters, who largely freed themselves from dramas of metamorphic form in the early ’50s, sculp­tors persist in displaying compounds of human and insect (or animal or bird) form. Partly these hybrids are post-surrealist progeny, derived both from sur­realist conflations and from bizarre effects of the wider tradition of the fantastic in art, of which Sur­realism is a specialized phase. This wider tradition includes, of course, the heritage of grotesque orna­ment and romantic fantasists like Germain Richier. In addition to intentional composites, however, there is the technical fact that certain current usages in metal just naturally produce monsters.

The agglomeration of bits of metal, the extension of narrow iron members, the brazing of solid planes and terminals, and all the other habits of the torch, spon­taneously, and undemandingly, create forms like claws, antennae, carapaces, and what have you. Pray­ing mantises look like pieces of wood; the monster­-makers turn any piece of inorganic material into pray­ing mantises, lobsters, bats, giant ants, etc. The result is a cross between Capek’s old Insect Play and not­-so-old horror movies like Them and Attack of the Crab People. Rough and smooth effects are obtain­able in the style: it runs from chrysalis-violating, birth-­debris-draped single pieces to well-behaved groups of bats who seem to be politely posing for a formal photograph.

In Surrealism the Personnage was a partially metamorphosed human image human image; or a human image implemented (by wens, breasts, bones, and entrails) or fragmented, and the departures from the human canon were what was significant. Person­nages were people-plus; they figured as ancestral presence or Oedipal memory; totems for (once-) young moderns. The human image, however ornamented or curtailed, was represented as an image with high sub­jective affect, unconscious power, emotional kicks. Actually a deliberate iconography was set up (with literary sources) which equated evocative, but not too rigorously obtained, figurative contours with interest­ing states of mind. The personnage is the descendant of allegorical figures such as Dejection, Melancholy, America, Birmingham, Greece, Poetry, but given a Freudian twist. The original tradition persisted until the end of the 19th century as a system of legible symbols, and its rhetoric has been covertly, and unin­tentionally, continued. The stately postures and range of set gestures of these figures (as well as the arti­facts by which they were often identified, loom or walled city, etc.) are echoed exactly in the three­-dimensional personnage with its hackneyed vertical stance, and small variations of posture. This parade of muses, totems, queens, “pale kings and princes, too,” are commanding symbols of almost nothing.

Other forms which confer reliable and ready-made human content on sculpture are wombs, breasts, and wounds. Concavities, because, largely, of the folk­-experience of psychoanalysis, are equatable with wombs; convexities, by the same process, become breasts, bulging beyond vital statistics. The biologi­cal, rather than sexual, content occurs also in tin botanical sculpture, where giant calixes and folding or unfolding buds are also (shudder) anatomical metaphors. By means of easily occurring technical effects, either in plaster or in welding, textural patches are obtainable which not only “delight the eye” as they used to say, by contrasting with smooth bits or empty areas, but also introduce momentous content, or its semblance, by looking like wounds. Frayed edges, layered openings, and mangled projections, resemble mutilations and injuries, but, since they occur separately from a figur­ative human image, are not disturbing. One is pre­sented with a mild image of man’s estate, or the human condition, without any stirring of repugnance or anxiety. These marks, of texture or wounds, occur easily in the physical process of working and are, presumably, enjoyable and attractive at the time. If sculpture had a more rigorous, or more restless, esthetic, comparable to painting, their preservation in the final state would be subject to greater criti­cism. (Related to the monster-imagery is the Big Jewelry school, in which melting grids and softened­-up lattices, frilly edges and perforated surfaces, look like a cache of the ornaments worn by the monster’s women-folk.)

One reason that 20th century sculptors rely so heavily, and placidly, on the human image, is that if they don’t, their work may look like furniture and hardware. Because sculp­ture has a more substantial literal physical exis­tence than paint on a canvas (which has an inveterate sign-making capacity and an unquenchable potential for illusion––and these are the medium’s main car­riers of meaning) it is prone to object-status. The craft aspects of sculpture (the operational lore of working wood and stone, for example, the know-how in welding, and so on) obtrude, in the absence of painting’s saving dimension of illusion. Instead of the sick (or avenging) birds of the ’40s and ’50s, now it’s bird-baths; instead of symbols of the sun (spiky and centrifugal solar myths), it’s sun dials. Some objects that non-figurative sculptures look like are, arches, tables, desks, printing presses, fences, plinths, winches, control boards, wiring circuits, candelabra, adobe TV sets, Froebel toys, and so on. In addition, the spread of sculpture into environmental displays relies on the furniture analogy, shored-up attics and piers, same-size as life; or rococo sketch-models of theater decor and corners of a mad scientist’s bench (miniaturized).

This is, perhaps, the point at which to record the popularity of the tip-toe pose in sculpture. The carrying strength of iron (as well as modifications in the weight of bronze) make it pos­sible for sculpture to shrink as it approaches the ground so that it rests on the slender­est points or point. In this respect it can be associated with a contemporary design style, which includes Eames and Jacobsen chairs, spike heels, and piloti. Tip-toe poses are operational clichés, which masquer­ade as engineering skill and the “lightness of ef­fect” proper to post-Victorian or post-Renaissance moderns no longer ground-bound, as in Giedion’s praise for 19th-century engineering. One of the great problems (i.e. opportunity) in sculpture, which paint­ing does not have in the same way, is the relation of the object to our physical space. Only Brancusi and Giacometti have consistently tackled the prob­lem of how sculpture should contact our space, the threshold where it and we meet. The placing of tip­toe personnages and hybrids on little iron platforms that can go anywhere, like a lamp or a chair, ignores this problem of space.

––Lawrence Alloway