PRINT February 1965

Looking at American Sculpture

THE WHITNEY MUSEUM’S ANNUAL EXHIBITIONS OF AMERICAN ART, which show painting one year and sculpture the next, have been easy to dismiss for some time (like the Carnegie and Guggenheim Internationals) as serving up the same predictable hash of the academic and the second-rate, garnished with a few masterpieces that always seemed to have gotten in by mistake. But recently things have been looking up at the Whitney (and one can only be thankful to whomever put the burr under the old walrus). Last year’s painting Annual was relatively interesting, and the current sculpture show is certainly a fair indication of what sculptors young and old, progressive and retardataire, avant-garde and academic are doing now. This year, one hundred twenty-three sculptors, from Lipchitz to Kienholz (and all the intermediate possibilities) were represented. By selecting such a cross-section, the Whitney has made it possible to focus more clearly on what exactly seems to have been ailing American sculpture; for clearly, in contrast with post-War painting here, sculpture has looked dependent and infertile. Happily, the Whitney changes that impression. One comes away from the show feeling that what was wrong was, in the first place, that we were simply not seeing the wide variety of work being done all over the country, and in the second, that the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism was rarely translatable into a sculptural style. But best of all, one feels that a good number of younger sculptors have vitality and ideas, and that they are evolving a coherent sculptural style that has much in common with the new post-painterly painting.

Although the work on view was varied, for the purposes of a general discussion, one might break it down roughly into figurative work, assemblage, kinetic sculpture, and abstract sculpture, most of which was assembled. The figurative work was, on the whole, the poorest body of work in the show, which says something about the degeneration of the figurative tradition in general. Only Richard Miller’s series of striding nudes, arranged sequentially like Muybridge’s photographic analyses of motion, had anything to recommend them. Baskin’s unbelievably pretentious colossal wooden bird (bearing the unbelievably pretentious title “Apotheosis”) looked for all the world like a Horus figure left over from Hollywood’s last Egyptian epic. What appeals to the professional humanists in Baskin’s work is the flaunted anguish they admire in the German Expressionists as well. To me his work seems to have more in common with Marisol (whose chic little creatures are anathema to the humanists) than it does with the profound and original statement of a genuine artist such as David Smith.

But though the figure or any kind of literal anthropomorphism holds even less interest for our best artists than it did for the Cubists, anthropometric proportions and organic or anatomical relationships appear still to be a constant factor in much of their work. Smith, for example, always gives one the sense that, though he makes no reference to the figure per se, he is relating the parts of his sculptures as the parts of the human body are related. Even in his recent scored stainless steel “cubi” series, which he exhibited recently at the Marlborough gallery, there is something of a head-torso-legs ratio. In this constant reference to at least the proportions and arrangement of human anatomy, Smith is like Picasso. And like Picasso, too, he has the generosity of statement and largeness of scope of the authentic genius. Moreover, there is that same kind of soundness and sanity, a mental and emotional balance that grows rarer in our art. (And although sick art is going to be interesting because the involvement is so intense, it will never, like Smith’s art, be universal, since each sickness is a special case.) Thus, though his recent sculpture has been both geometric and monumental, Smith never loses touch with humanness. The scale and proportions, even in the monumental pieces, are never architectural, always human. I’m not noting this to praise this “humanness” as a quality, but simply to point out how close in sensibility Smith is, finally, to Picasso. (Without Picasso and Gonzalez, of course, Smith would have had no place to begin.) Like Picasso’s, his works are unintellectual, and rely finally on feeling and intuition. When this lack of intellectual rigor becomes a fault, the work looks obvious, even simple-minded, but where it is a virtue, the heights of expression reached are the very Olympian reaches of universal genius. Smith’s piece in the Whitney is out of his latest series of painted steel constructions. Some of these were seen in the Marlborough show of the “cubi” pieces. This series represents a return to the assertion of the flatness of shapes in contrast to the aggressive three-dimensionality of the stainless steel cubes that stressed volume above all. The ability to swing between two such extremes is testimony, perhaps, to the breadth of Smith’s gifts. At any rate the piece in the Whitney, “Bec-Dida Day” was clearly to be viewed only head-on; the sides and back did not offer much when inspected. The frontality we associate with archaic sculpture was its point of departure; but its emphasis on silhouette and contour, in addition to its use of color, related it to recent painting. The tripartite arrangement of angle, convex circle and straight base again related it to the figure. Proportions and contrasts of curve and angle had Smith’s usual instinctive rightness about them. Because the back of the piece didn’t really function in its own right, but was merely the concave negative of what one saw from the front, I didn’t like this piece as well as the ones at the Marlborough gallery in which individual forms, though flat, were arranged at angles to one another in space. Sculpture that offers only one satisfying view is really not much more than a relief pulled away from the wall. This means it makes fewer demands on space than those Smith is so amply capable of making.

Smith is the only sacred cow in the Whitney to hold his own with the group of younger sculptors who have learned a lot from him. The others, Lipchitz, Zorach, Lassaw, Rosati, Roszac, Rosenthal, and Nevelson, looked a little tired and faded in such energetic company. Zorach, who hasn’t even any first-rate Cubist work to fall back on when the final countdown is made, has easily the most inflated reputation of any American sculptor. The work was, from the beginning, so totally lacking in originality or meaning that it must surely have answered some deep need in the official culture for it to have received such acclaim. Lipchitz on the other hand is deservedly venerated. Though his recent “baroque” work is not up to the level of his Cubist masterpieces, the spirit of a master is still alive to animate the work of his later years, which, though it may tend to the sentimental, is never vacant or unambitious. Nevelson, who introduced mirrors into her compartmentalized wood sculptures in her recent show at the Pace gallery, rarely lives up to her reputation as far as I’m concerned. The only way her works succeed is by overpowering one; her best sculptures are the vast pieces that choked out a whole wall. Painted black, these intricately pieced together constructions cast some mysterious dark aura, creating an atmosphere of their own, a kind of palpable ominousness. But in a piece like the one in the Whitney (“Silent Music 7”) her limitations are all too obvious: the anecdotal way of relating fragments by repeating the box motif and then giving a look of unity to a set of formal relationships that have no essential or structural unity by painting the whole thing a single color are not strong solutions. Ultimately, she achieves a slight thing, hardly meriting the exaggerated praise it has received. It is elegant but not necessary; forceful but not expressive; refined but not demanding.

Comparing works in the show by older and younger artists does a lot to make clear the difference between the academic and the traditional, and perhaps to show what the relationship of current sculpture is toward a) the academy and b) tradition. Academic now has come to mean, not art made in the art schools or academies, but, loosely, that which is dry, stale, derivative, or flat. It may also imply a sense of finish so refined that it is killing, or an over-composed, self-conscious and mannered approach which is equally deadening. The traditional, on the other hand, might be defined as that which relates to the past, but in a meaningful way. In this sense, some of the “junk” sculpture looks contemporary only by virtue of its materials; when one investigates the use to which the materials are being put, one finds just those qualities we have called academic. This is as true for Stankiewicz as it is for Seley. Of the “junk” sculptors in the show, only Chamberlain is making something that can neither be learned nor taught; only his crushed metal piece, now lacquered to a high brilliance by being sprayed with commercial paint, is expressive in a way that seizes the imagination. The others are making something charming and decorative, well-planned and well put together, but ultimately insignificant on any higher spiritual plane. Academic as well is what I would call the repetitious excrescences and protuberances of William Tarr and Julius Schmidt, as well as Robert Mallary’s and David Hare’s sophisticated but spiritless draping and manipulating. On the other hand, Raoul Hague’s carved monolith and Gabriel Kohn’s laminated wood piece, while they are hardly radical, have the structural integrity that is traditionally the goal of sculptors. Other younger artists who were highly professional in approach but also seemed to me content to stay within the boundaries already charted by others were Roger Bolomey, Charles Wilson, Peter Chinni, James Wines and Charles Frazier. What they do is not in any way bad—in fact each has excellent technique—but it is never unexpected either. In a show so large and ambitious, of course, it is inevitable that some of the work be just bad. The worst of it was of the neo-Dada persuasion. I could see no reason to show Robert Watt’s rows of rye breads painted various shades of grey, or Chryssa’s cast aluminum boxes with sheets of aluminum newspapers on top, or Mike Todd’s golf club assemblage, or Claire Falkenstein’s “Chariot” (a metal shopping cart involved in wire).

Pieces by Ferber, Marca-Relli, Lipton, Agostini, and Zogbaum were good examples of work by these artists, who keep up a steady level of performance, producing works of quality which are serious, though hardly radical. Zogbaum’s steel piece was especially impressive.

Kinetic sculpture by George Rickey and Len Lye were as good as anything I’ve seen in this genre. Rickey’s delicate balances don’t usually depend on more than natural breezes to set them in motion (like a lot of the work, they were designed to be seen out of doors). “Peristyle,” an arrangement of stalk-like stainless steel rods which swayed like grass in the wind was, like the pieces Rickey showed recently at the Staempfli gallery, both delicate and severe. Rickey is like the small masters of older art; his idiom is not grand but his work has a kind of integrity and simple charm that are more than minor virtues. Len Lye’s spinning steel rods, which in the rapidity of their twirling circuit seemed to make the space they traversed almost palpable, transcended mere ingeniousness to become truly inventive sculpture. I am increasingly impressed by Lye’s work which is rather hard to see these days—a piece here, and a piece there, in group shows. Many have experimented with kinetic sculpture, but few (I can think only of the elegant black and white Arp-like reliefs Tinguely made a few years back before he turned to junk) have made anything of real substance within the genre. Almost always the idea of having a sculpture move before the static viewer instead of having the viewer move around an immobile structure has resulted in little more than a tasteful display of engineering know-how (viz., the kinetic art of the Zero group shown recently at the Howard Wise gallery) which is dazzling because it looks so hard to do. But Lye, I think, has something more. For one thing, the movements he produces have variety (he never relies on repetition for interest). From the gentle swish-swish of steel rods expanding and converging, to the lumbering roll of a metal belt heaving itself back and forth across a wooden table, there is a range of expression one doesn’t ordinarily find in art of this kind. Another of his virtues is that the movements and forms seem intimately related, another departure from the usual practice of kinetic sculptors.

So much for the academic. As to a link with tradition, that is a more complicated matter. Just a quick statistical rundown on material and technique reveals how traditional casting, carving and modeling have given way to the various methods of assembling and how the new materials—steel, aluminum, plexiglass, not to mention scraps and junk—have superseded bronze, clay, wax and plaster. If in painting the liberation was from the image, in sculpture what was needed to move ahead was apparently freedom from the laborious processes and techniques that had to be learned through long years of apprenticeship.

The basic preoccupations of sculptors seem less changed, of necessity more tradition-bound than those of painters. For one thing, innovations are harder to make in sculpture, the work being so expensive and time-consuming to make. But more important, painters have a kind of total control no sculptor can hope for: they can determine both space and light. Thus, though space in painting has radically changed, sculpture, though it can make different demands on it, must exist in an unchanging void, which is identical to the space in which the viewer stands. New ways of catching light—such as David Smith’s highly polished scored steel surfaces, which reflect dazzling arabesques of lighter of accumulating shadow—such as Chamberlain’s tunnels and hollows—may be worked out of course, but the only real breaks in sculpture can be in terms of technique and materials. (Environmental sculpture, an attempt to change space by putting the viewer “inside” the work has, as far as I’m concerned, not been a success, possibly because we can only take in one view at a time anyhow.)

Of that hybrid known as assemblage, which claims as ancestors on the one hand Picasso’s 1914 “Absinthe Glass” and on the other Surrealist objects, there were a scattering of examples at the Whitney. Of these I can praise only Kienholz’s obscene contraption “Four Bears” and Westermann’s uncanny totem of green and purple carpet aptly called “The Plush.” Kienholz’s bizarre and hallucinated imagination has produced some of the strangest and authentically horrifying art to come out of America. It takes a strong stomach to digest these abortive nightmares, but they are worthy of attention, having the power to move as well as to nauseate. Westermann is much less literal. For one thing he doesn’t combine found objects, but invents his own unlikely forms. He has wit, intelligence, subtlety and a genuine gift for sculpture as such, which would make his work valuable even without the fascination provided by the ominous and mysterious content.

Perhaps belonging to the category of assemblage but escaping any attempt one makes to pin them down or to categorize them are Joseph Cornell’s boxes, one of which (“Figurehead”) is happily included in this show. Cornell’s elusive imagery remains ambiguous and unfixed; his works, though exquisite, do not degenerate into mere preciosity. Cornell’s is a truly poetic and authentic talent, and one is glad of every opportunity to see and enjoy one of his works.

Until sculpture discovered a way of executing what the mind conceived (as opposed to what the fingers felt) a totally abstract sculpture was impossible. But now the same degree of abstraction is open to sculpture as it is to painting. Some have taken advantage of it, but with a surprisingly singular lack of success. Of the “purist” pieces in the show, only two, Diller’s formica rectangles and Kipp’s massive wooden construction were totally successful as far as I was concerned, and both of them were so architectonic as to be nearly architectural. I don’t mean this in any way to denigrate either work; both were solemn and imposing. But somehow the overt application of the principles of architectural construction put the pieces almost in a category outside sculpture. (The Russians, the first to arrive at a non-objective style in both painting and sculpture, were of course the first also to apply the principles of engineering to sculpture. In many ways it seems that only now the implications of the astonishing body of Suprematist sculpture are being understood. And though we know the works of Gabo and Pevsner fairly well, a museum show of the lesser-known but often more provocative figures like Tatlin, Larionov, and Rodchenko would be most timely right now.) The piece by Diller, Mondrian’s most talented American follower, was out of his brilliant last show; but Kipp’s painted wood piece, in its subtle balance of weights and variation of similar forms was particularly impressive, and evidenced a marked gain of rigor and assurance over the pieces he showed last year. David von Schlegell’s twisted column of white maple on a metal base was architectonic more than architectural; I thought it particularly good.

Other works in a similarly purist vein I found decidedly uninteresting. These seemed to lapse into industrial design of a high order. Orchestrations of fiberglass and steel by John Clague, or Roy Gussow’s highly accomplished stainless steel piece, or Sheldon Machlin’s revolving and intersecting set of metal blades were immaculately done (especially Gussow’s) but finally, not much more than good decoration. The best geometric sculpture I know is that of Ellsworth Kelly and Alexander Liberman, but neither was represented in the show, which was too bad. Still, one can’t have everything, and given the extraordinary range of the Whitney show, it would be crabby to be outraged because not many of the works were of the first quality. Showing sculpture presents special problems, not the least of which is the expense. If only because it costs so much to transport, store and install, the public has seen less sculpture than painting recently, and, perhaps even more important, less new sculpture. Galleries that will try out a painter hesitate to commit themselves to a sculptor. Sculptors working outside of New York have difficulty getting their work known here. Now, though the reasons remain obscure, the situation seems to be changing, and more viable possibilities with regard to sculpture are presented than we have had in years. Without a comprehensive exhibition of this nature, in which work by young artists who have not yet even had one-man shows was courageously included, one could have hardly begun to discuss what is good, since it was impossible to even know what was going on.

It was odd but reassuring to notice that the most promising and ambitious work by young sculptors was so similar in intention, technique and materials that it seemed a genuinely unified style, though these young artists had never exhibited before. In general, the work was made of metal (frequently anonymous commercial parts like tubing or girders) and it was painted, usually in bright, vibrant colors. Because standard units were used it had a vaguely geometric look, but by and large relationships were still derived from nature or the figure. One could minimize its originality by pointing out that all these avenues for exploration were laid down by David Smith, and these younger men are only carrying out the implications implicit in Smith’s work. But then, what is stylistic evolution but the logical extension of the most viable possibilities an artist receives from his tradition? Among these progressive young artists were Tal Streeter, Anthony Padovano, Robert Howard, David Gray and Robert Murray.

Perhaps because sculpture is, by definition, three-dimensional, there is no such thing as anti-illusionistic sculpture. Whereas pictorial space is an artificial construct to begin with, sculpture exists in our own space, and this is, perhaps, at least part of the reason why good sculpture seems more tied to organic forms and relationships than is painting. This may mean that the best sculpture is destined always to be more closely tied to nature; certainly, so far, thoroughly abstract sculpture has tended toward the architectural or toward sterile design, though abstract painting has had a successfully independent evolution. In any event, meaningful sculptural relationships seem to need to have something to do with human gesture. Thus, even sculpture which may look totally abstract at first, such as the polychrome metal assemblages of the young sculptors in the Whitney, or Anthony Caro’s painted steel girders ultimately are meaningful kinesthetically, as gesture, posture, tension and relaxation. (I am using the word gesture more literally here than Michael Fried uses it in his analysis of Caro’s expressiveness in the catalog to the Whitechapel’s Caro exhibition.)

Caro’s work, long anticipated here, and finally shown in a beautiful exhibition at the Emmerich Gallery, is a case in point of how the very best kind of sculpture being done now, though superficially abstract, still relates more to the emotions than to the eye. What is moving, poignant even, in Caro’s work is the way forms lean away from or toward each other, how sturdy or how delicate a balance is, how one form supports another, etc. Of course the basic considerations are structural (or the work would not be as convincing as it is) but the types of relationships I have just described are those of human dramas and relationships. This is what saves the work, which is made up of standard construction units, such as beams and girders which have lost their identity. I don’t think this reliance on gesture as the expression-bearing vehicle, which one finds common to the work of Smith, Caro and Murray, is coincidence, nor do I think it just chance that many of the best sculptors, including these, are painting their sculpture. By painting the work, one takes the first step in giving a different identity to the individual parts, which are so frequently industrial discards; painted an unfamiliar color, it is harder to relate these tubes and pipes and girders to an extraneous context. Color also unifies, though I must hasten to add that there is already a preexisting structural unity in the work, if it is good. And color ostensibly serves to make it “optical,” i.e., color goes straight to the eye, circumventing any kinesthetic or emotional response. This heightens the degree of abstraction and immediacy of impact, while the emotional content of the organic, gestural relationships keeps the sculpture, which is, after all, made up of so many pieces of architectural underpinnings, from becoming some kind of functionless architecture.

Though the Whitney show was representative of most of what is being done today, one important kind of sculpture was hardly represented (Tony DeLap’s small plexiglass stepped triangle in an aluminum rectangle was the only example I can think of in the show): that is “object” sculpture, three-dimensional forms that are such simple uninflected volumes or structures that they appear to be functionless objects rather than sculpture as we know it. And the more I think about it, the more I begin to feel that this work may be our most radical sculpture, though not perhaps, our fullest.

Two of the best artists making object-sculpture are Donald Judd and Robert Morris, both of whom have works in the current “Shape and Structure” show of young artists at the Tibor de Nagy gallery. (Also included are Robert Murray, who has another arresting painted metal piece here, and Carl Andre, whose construction of rough wood beams was a radically simple way to approach the problem of making sculpture.) One of the things that all four have in common is that theirs is a thoroughly conceptual art; though Morris actually executed his piece, someone else could have easily followed his instructions, and the other three works were in fact not executed by the artists but by others according to their instructions. The works were literally willed into being; and the paintings, which were shaped canvases by painters Neil Williams, Will Insley, Charles Hinman and Larry Bell (with two additional square canvases with simple two-dimensional shapes painted on them by Darby Bannard and Larry Zox) were equally examples of the triumph of the will. Some very clear things emerged about these paintings and sculptures, all by young artists, the most prominent being their approximation to architecture. Like the architect, these artists make a plan which they would be just as happy or even happier to see executed by someone else. All evidence of personal facture is carefully eliminated, as is any reference to psychological states or forms in nature. Color is important (everything except Andre’s Rodchenkolike raw beams was painted) and geometry provides a point of departure for all concerned. Taken as the statement of an emerging generation (most of the exhibitors are just under or over thirty) it is pretty distant and noncommittal, but not entirely dismal. Neither hesitant nor cocky, the work is so forcibly willed into being, so unyielding and unmodifiable, that it has a curious strength. The sensibility expressed in these works is a new one, and trying to pin it down is a hazardous business. If I had to sum up a general impression, I would say the work looked numbed and strangled, but nobody was budging an inch. There was the definite sense of a stance being taken in a quiet but firm way. The overall effect was perhaps of a still-born lyricism: it wasn’t charming, it wasn’t gay, it wasn’t refined, but it was big and bright. All the works shared a certain clumsy, cheerless quality, a directness so matter-of-fact that it was brutal. I suppose the most obvious common denominator was how empty everything was, how much effort went just into rejecting all but the very barest, irreducible minimum.

One of the main directions in modern sculpture, of course, as Clement Greenberg has pointed out, has been toward reduction. The new sculpture, like the new painting, seems involved with finding out how little one can do and still make art. This is not the same as Duchamp’s making the bottle rack art by calling it art, but it does have something to do with Reinhardt’s search for irreducibility. But in Reinhardt’s case, the attempt to find a color (“black”) and an order (trisected square) that can be reduced no further seems some noble quest for a personal Absolute. There is not much nobility in the new art, and not much personality either. Its task is humbler perhaps than that of its immediate predecessors: garbage removal is not as heroic as the foundation of an ideal order. I can’t help but see in the reduction and simplification, the explicit clarity and straightforwardness, a profound criticism of the state of the world and the state of the art produced by that messy world. Asking the right questions, stripping art to its essentials, looking candidly and rationally, if a little coldly, at how things really are, a new generation of artists is quietly announcing itself. If they are not willing to band together in breast-beating revolt, they seem pleased to privately commit small but meaningful acts of subversion. Though their collective task may be only a general housecleaning, at least their work doesn’t suffer from the sterility of the laboratory. If it fails, it doesn’t fail as the work of the scattered progeny of neo-Plasticism, the various European centers for “pure” research and experimentation; it fails by setting the wave length for art so low that it is finally inaudible. No matter what one thinks of this new art, it is a relief that no student will ever have to write on a topic Reinhardt facetiously suggested a few years ago—“divine madness” in third generation Abstract Expressionists.

It seems appropriate to end a discussion of the art of the younger generation with a few remarks on Robert Morris’s recent show of plywood constructions at the Green gallery, because his concerns seem particularly pertinent in this connection. Morris’s clumsy, inert volumes are, to begin with, flagrantly uncommercial. They displace so much space and are so grossly awkward that they are at the same time both destructive and greedy. Where, we may ask, is the charm, the grace the rhythmic arabesque (les belles dames de jadis)? Who could want these elephantine structures (painted, in fact, a neutral elephant grey) that take up so much space without giving any occasion for delectation in exchange? It is aggravating to be subjected to such childishly simple lessons. Anyone could figure out that a cube halved could be shoved flush into a corner so that only one triangular face, its apex touching the wall and its base resting on the floor, is visible. What a willful way to violate a corner! And so on. Obviously this oversized stuff can’t fit into anyone’s new high-rise apartment, and since the plywood isn’t weatherproof, it couldn’t go outside either. One must conclude there is no private collector in existence disinterested enough to purchase this work for home installation. If it was not made to be sold, what is its purpose? Morris’s purpose is, I think, obviously enough, to teach or to question certain very basic ideas about art, its meaning, and function. The most overtly didactic of the artists I have been discussing, his formulation of issues is in many ways the sharpest. I like particularly the way in which he subverts the “purist” reading one would normally give to such geometric arrangements by interpolating a content that jars and does not mesh with any geometric interpretation. He does this first of all by changing normal scale, and not relating one part to another as, say, Diller would, as well as by relating the pieces to the wall and floors of the room they are in. Having no parts, they are only one continuous, oversized volume. Thus, they look like cloddish objects (with vague references to basic structural units like door frames enhancing this impression). But if they are objects, they have no function; even if they are sculpture they may have no function greater than focusing the attention on fundamental principles. (What does this say about the role of art in a utilitarian culture?) I don’t think it is exaggerating to see Morris as posing such questions as: what is the function of the artist? What are the bases of sculpture? What is structure, what is construction and what is their relationship? (This involvement with process and with the very act of creating or making, is part of Morris’s total statement, as evidenced as well in his smaller, more complex, but finally less subtle, lead pieces.) Ultimately, of course, he questions the limits of art and the very activity of the artist. Such a gloss on a body of work makes it seem so full of extra-visual ideas that the visual expressiveness must of necessity be limited. Yet that is not quite the case in Morris’s work, and finally it is what makes his art so challenging and elusive. Like Lichtenstein’s paintings that are overburdened by the weight of art history, Morris’s sculpture manages to survive the theoretical load it must bear and to remain, as art, elegant and expressive—again, more so, in my opinion, in these demanding plywood pieces than in the elaborate metal, lead and glass works which tend to drown in the rich complex of ideas that animate them.

Barbara Rose