PRINT Summer 1967

American Sculpture: The Situation in The Fifties

IN 1949, CLEMENT GREENBERG, in noting that the number of promising young sculptors in this country was proportionally much larger than that of young painters, pointed out David Smith, Theodore Roszak, David Hare, Herbert Ferber, Seymour Lipton, Richard Lippold, Peter Grippe, Burgoyne Diller, Adeline Kent, Ibram Lassaw, and Isamu Noguchi as the sculptors with the greatest potential to contribute work that was ambitious, serious, and original. In 1956, expressing disappointment about the trend of world sculpture since the forties, Greenberg cancelled out all the Americans except Smith, with the criticism that the rest had succumbed to artiness and fanciful improvisation.

I have cited Greenberg here because his remarks were significantly timed: the year 1949 falls within a pivotal period for most of the sculptors he named, and 1956 was a critical date for modern art and criticism in this country. By 1949 Noguchi, de Rivera, Roszak, Grippe, and Hare had achieved their most influential, and in some cases, best work. Lassaw, Ferber, and Lipton, though all mature sculptors, entered the fifties with important changes in style, caused in part by their having begun welding; even Smith’s sculpture changed somewhat from 1949 to 1951 in a direction that was to increase the viability of his form. In the first half of the fifties, a dozen more good sculptors had come on stage, as had the second wave of Abstract Expressionist painters, but whereas painting sustained a relatively stable character, the new sculpture surged forth in multiple and intermixed styles, proving that while Abstract Expressionism was a fairly well-defined style of painting, it lacked a clear counterpart in sculpture. Sculptors had access to a wider range of materials and methods, and were drawing on a more varied tradition than that from which painting had emerged during the previous decade. By 1956 sculpture in this country seemed to have gotten out of genetic control, whereas Abstract Expressionist painting seemed poised on a peak of its own achievement. Depending on the observer’s point of view, sculpture, in relation to painting, was either healthy and fertile for new and multiformed ideas, or it was merely frothing divertissements that showed neither direction nor quality. Greenberg took the negative view; he even found Smith’s achievement hard to formulate, finding him a reckless sculptor who showed everything he made, worked in different styles, and had an “aggressive originality.”

I suggest that the principal cause underlying the ways sculpture and painting in this country emerged from the forties was that there were quite definite groupings of painters, but not of sculptors; groupings of the latter have begun only in recent years. Before the second world war, there was a handful of important sculptors—Calder, de Rivera, Smith, Roszak, Noguchi, Lassaw, and Grippe, in order of appearance—but stylistic links among them are hard to find, and they never associated. Yet they all were moving ahead with remarkably inventive freshness. By the end of the forties, with the addition of Hare, Lippold, and Louise Bourgeois, each was a major sculptor, but there still was no group, nor did any of the important starters in the first half of the fifties follow one of the earlier leads. The effort some critics have made to link most of these sculptors by their use of direct-metal techniques has not been successful, for even in the early fifties, when most of them were welding, they were doing it in different ways, proving that technique and style were not the same thing.

I believe that the rise of modern sculpture in this country has been more a matter of successive inventions built upon a variety of influences than one of a unified stylistic development. By 1956, in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay area, sculpture was taking many different paths, yet each center showed a fairly coherent direction in painting. Largely this had resulted because Abstract Expressionism was a powerful force in painting, relatively clear-cut in ideas, and everywhere visible. Its easy proliferation was also greatly aided through the art criticism of the fifties, which helped to unify the style by naming it, by explaining its aims and technical process, and by ignoring those who didn’t fit. Harold Rosenberg’s article on “action painting” was in some ways as important a factor as de Kooning’s painterly style, and Clement Greenberg’s and Thomas Hess’s sensitive explanations of the genesis and direction of the style helped it to sustain a unified flow across the country.

Some sculpture did fit into the formula of Abstract Expressionism, but too many critics have considered the few similarities between sculpture and Abstract Expressionist painting enough to subordinate the sculpture to the painting style. Even in 1965, one prominent critic tried to unify the new sculpture shown that year at the Jewish Museum by writing that all of the works were derived from Abstract Expressionism—even though the exhibition included Stankiewicz and Segal, whose styles, both in relation to Abstract Expressionism and to each other, are distinctly remote.

The radicalism of modern sculpture in this country is only disconcerting to those whose historical orientation demands stylistic grouping and continuity. The belief that sculpture since the late forties has followed painting is now a cliché, resulting from the fact that the history of modern art has been written about painting. Neither the role of sculpture in Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism, nor the object-imagery of Dada and Surrealism have been adequately described. Likewise, the essential parallel between American carve-direct sculpture and painting in the thirties and forties remains to be studied, as does the impact of sculpture on American painters after 1956.

Is there any tradition at all in the four decades of our modern sculpture, or shall we concede to a series of a few isolated inventions in the midst of skittish divertissements? In the thirties, in a milieu of carve-direct and expressionist sculptors, those who stood out as modern were Calder. Smith, de Rivera, Noguchi, Roszak, and Lassaw. Calder’s pieces of the early thirties showed a concern with craft and direct expression of materials. Like Calder, Smith evolved his first imagery from the Cubist collage, but more than Calder, he infused his process with the social implications of material and technique, using the boiler plate and welding as symbols of the industrial process. De Rivera’s machined sculptures of about 1930 and Roszak’s hitherto unnoticed metal sculpture of 1932 and 1936, which involved the full range of machine-shop processes (welding, screw cutting, machining, and so on) paralleled Smith’s in this respect, yet differed greatly in specific ideology and in formal results. Like the stone and wood carvers of the same decade, these sculptors were true to their chosen materials and processes, and only to this extent did they fit into the general picture of modern sculpture in the thirties, when the work of most sculptors represented fading phases of earlier styles.

What unified the best American sculpture was its Surrealist bent in the forties. An important innovation in the first half of the forties occurred in the work of both Lassaw and Grippe, who fused Surrealism with the Neo-Plasticism of Mondrian, producing the first wave of cage-like sculpture, precedented only by Giacometti in the early thirties; Grippe developed this style through a remarkable series of terra-cotta “cities” (the most important open sculpture of the early forties), while Lassaw made it his signature style of “armature” constructions. Calder continued to remind us of Miró and Arp; Smith held to the Surrealistic mode of Picasso and Gonzalez; Noguchi was looking to Tanguy; Hare was close to Breton and the style of Matta; Roszak had resumed the style found in his earlier paintings, which had been inspired by de Chirico; both Lipton’s and Ferber’s work was aggressively Surrealistic. The range in style, then, covered the loose Bauhaus configurations of Lippold, the Surrealistically transformed Neo-Plasticism of de Rivera’s continuous forms, Grippe’s and Lassaw’s cages, and the outright Surrealism of Noguchi, Roszak, Hare, Ferber, and Lipton.

Nor did the first half of the fifties show a uniform continuity in the development of sculpture. The emergence of many new sculptors widened the stylistic range further and tended to divert sculpture from the direction of painting just at the time when painting in this country appeared to be most unified. What this situation really implied, however, depended on the observer’s viewpoint. In regard to painting, which seemed to be forming a tradition of its own, critics tended to fix on those characteristics that unified it, whereas in regard to sculpture, they were more attentive to its diversity. Moreover, the departure of the new sculpture from established definitions of sculpture was drastic in a variety of ways, in contrast to the new painting, which seemed to have reestablished the art of painting in the wake of the imaging, non-painterly phase of Surrealism; thus the diversity of the new sculpture in the first half of the fifties was exaggerated by being analyzed in relation both to painting and to traditional sculpture.

After the mid-fifties, when the sculpture of Bourgeois, Nevelson, Stankiewicz, Kohn, and later, Chamberlain, de Suvero, Agostini, and Sugarman became important, critics were quick to parallel their work with Abstract Expressionist painting. But this was precisely the period when support for Abstract Expressionism was weakening, when its tenets had been so often repeated and its style so widely exposed that the best of the young painters were looking for new directions. The diversity that had characterized sculpture in the first of the decade became also the trend of painting in the second half. Yet by 1961, critics had fairly well defined the several new painting styles and had grouped the painters, while the situation of sculpture was still similar to that of the forties—a number of promising artists with viable styles, amid some faded styles of older sculptors and a profusion of talent by younger ones. For the first time, however, painting and sculpture were recognized as partners in the variegation.

SUPERFICIALLY, THE USE OF direct metal processes does group a few sculptors during the first half of the fifties and also relates their work to action painting, since the frank exposure of the metal, the welded seams, and the surface treatment compare with the attitude toward brushwork and paint quality that the painters showed. That is, in both media the earlier illusionistic adherence to the surfaces of images was set aside in favor of an acceptance of the visual character of the technique and the medium, but in this way only did welded sculpture parallel action painting; it was differently timed, and a result of other historical processes. David Smith began using the cutting and welding torch around 1934, but only in the ways it was used in industry and by Gonzalez a few years earlier. Theodore Roszak used the torch in 1936, but his method too, being socially oriented, was related to industrial processes. Ibram Lassaw and Gertrude Greene experimented briefly with forged metal sculpture in 1937; in the early forties Peter Grippe made a few welded sculptures of junk materials in reaction to the war-time scarcity of bronze for casting; and in 1946, after Saul Swartz’s return to the Sculpture Center, a welding machine was set up there. Only in Smith’s work, however, did a consistent development of the technique occur. Roszak took up the welding torch again only in 1945, Lassaw started using it in 1951, Grippe abandoned the method completely, and the welded work at the Sculpture Center, restricted to old-fashioned imagery, was inconsequential.

Important for the fifties were the direct-metal processes developed by Roszak, Lassaw, Ferber, Lipton, and Calvin Albert. Not one of them was dependent upon David Smith, nor did their initial use of the welding torch result in an abrupt change of method or style; it simply extended the continuity of their directions, which had been set by other methods. Only in Roszak’s case did there seem to be a sudden reorientation; however, the style of his work from the second half of the thirties and the early forties, which was on the periphery of both Constructivism and Surrealism, can in some ways be seen as an interlude between his earlier paintings, inspired by de Chirico, and the welded work he did after 1945. The oxyacetylene torch did permit a three-dimensional realization of his earlier form, and the sizzling, violent heat of the process was commensurate with his tortured imagery, which was a response to the immediate post-war psychology of social concern.

Lassaw’s development from the late thirties to the early fifties is particularly remarkable. In 1937, he was the only sculptor to be represented in the first exhibition of the American Abstract Artists. Though evolved from his earlier plastic “torsos,” the work he was doing then was abstract and Surrealist. The wire armature, here and there thinly coated with plaster, supplied linear connections between visceral, biomorphic shapes, and this near exposure of the armature led directly to his open, armature sculpture of around 1950. Between 1937 and 1949, Lassaw’s progress involved the unlikely fusion of the styles of Arp, Miró, and Mondrian (and his friend Pollock, after the mid-forties). Lassaw’s treatment of this material was entirely his own, however; his work of the second half of the forties, with geometric frameworks and nuclei of dripped plastic with thin connections, though indeed remindful of Mondrian, Arp, and Pollock, is a logical development out of his biomorphic plaster pieces of the thirties and his geometrical constructions of the early forties. In 1950, when Lassaw had found a solution to his Surrealist, Neo-Plastic duality, he was working in a way that called for the welding machine for continuity; his Milky Way of 1950, made with plastic applied to a wire armature, does not differ significantly from his first piece made with molten metal dripped from the tip of an oxyacetylene torch in 1951.

Ferber’s first direct-metal work dates from 1945, but he did not start welding until 1954. Earlier, he worked mostly in wood, experimented with concrete on steel armature, and started using lead after seeing a large lead repoussé head by a still unidentified Spanish sculptor working in New York. Repoussé metal had been used earlier by Gargallo and Baizerman, but Ferber took it up as a means for achieving a more open form. His initial work in lead involved processes not too different from the traditional use of plaster on an armature—a metal frame around which repoussé lead parts were fitted, with the whole surface then worked to achieve a continuous form. As Ferber’s sculpture became increasingly open, the armature assumed greater importance, and the application of lead involved less repoussé and more the attachment of small pieces of lead worked into the form by the heat of a blowtorch and the whole then finished with a soldering iron. By 1949, a number of Ferber’s pieces were technically little more than brass armatures coated with lead to give them what Ferber called “true shape.” By 1953 he had begun using copper sheet to achieve surfaces within the open network of his “armature"; sometimes the surfaces were left exposed, at other times coated partially or completely with lead. Ferber’s shift to the oxyacetylene torch came only in 1955, after having used acetylene without oxygen during the previous year in much the same way as an ordinary blowtorch.

Similarly, Seymour Lipton developed his direct metal technique through a logical progression of wood, lead, and welded metal. After a period of wood carving lasting until about 1948, he too began working in lead, first with lead slab, cut and soldered, then with wire and metal sheet, which he shaped, assembled, and coated with molten lead. Lipton started welding in 1951, and his first welded pieces were again in a logical continuum with earlier work.

Superficially, the application of droplets of molten metal on a wire and sheet-metal armature links the work of these sculptors to the drip paintings of Pollock, with each droplet of molten metal, like a drop of paint, assuming a free-form shape as it passes from a liquid to a solid state. More important, however, is the debt the process owes to the tradition of surfacing sculpture done in traditional media. In the thirties and early forties, it became part of the sculptor’s credo to leave the work of craftsmanship apparent on the surface of the sculpture. Chisel marks and wood and stone grain were treated seriously, and provided, I think, the tradition for the kind of surface texture that Roszak, Lassaw, Ferber, and Lipton sought. Moreover, the form of their sculpture—at once armature and sculpture—though it can be equated with the simultaneous drawing-painting of Pollock and Abstract Expressionism, depends on the earlier sculptural practice of making an armature before the sculpture, just as the new drawing-painting developed from the tradition of drawing before painting.

THE SCULPTORS I HAVE MENTIONED so far can also be grouped by their attitude toward subject matter. This too was what prompted negative attitudes after the mid-fifties when critics shifted their attention from the expressive aspects of Abstract Expressionism to the formal. In the late forties and early fifties, sculptors were safe to speak of their ideas as involving dreams, emotions, personal mythologies, and social opinions, for in the wake of Surrealism and sculpture with social commentary, they were in line with modern thought. By 1956, however, those who had not adopted a more formal attitude were obliged to defend their sustained interest in literary and mythological imagery, which by then seemed old fashioned alongside the more modern nostalgia of Bourgeois, Nevelson, Stankiewicz, and Chamberlain.

In 1950, Smith could title a sculpture Race for Survival and call it an image of hate, adding that he could not say whether the chains in the sculpture were chained legs or the chain of events, whether the wheels were Gandhi’s spinning looms or the broken wheels of our time, the figure, a spectre, insect, man, or merely the image of fear. But after a decade of shift to the strictly formal and monumental, he said in 1964, in response to Tom Hess’s suggestion that his work showed a “geometry of nostalgia,” that he didn’t like that word and that, while he may not be beyond nostalgia, sentiment, or any of the lower things, when he chose a couple of old iron rings from a hub of a wheel, it was because they were circles all having the same radius and performing the same Euclidean relationship, with also the romance of past function and new use, sentiment, and geometry.

Because Smith (and also Ferber, whose first roofed sculpture of 1954 set him in a more formalistic direction) could move away from the aggressively romantic and allegorical subject matter of the late forties toward the more measured geometry of his stately “tank-totems” and “forgings” of the fifties, he was at each successive stage of the fifties acceptable to corresponding new phases of criticism and to the younger sculptors who admired him. Calder, Noguchi, and to some extent Lippold, also enjoyed some of this sustained approval, but the work of Lassaw, Grippe, Roszak, Lipton, and Hare was pretty much put aside as irrelevant for the new situation.

Value judgments aside, why then did the emerging work after 1955 of Bourgeois, Stankiewicz, Nevelson, Kohn, and Chamberlain, all of which was steeped in nostalgia, appear refreshingly modern, as did, for that matter, the assemblages of Rauschenberg? The link with the first half of the fifties was, I think, the work of Stankiewicz, whose junkyard sculpture was the first to lighten the cumbersome emotional load that Surrealism had heaped upon socially-oriented sculpture. Stankiewicz’s pieces were light-hearted to the point of whimsy, rather than ponderous, and surprisingly cool and abstract, without direct comment on the social origin of the junk, though not denying the romance of past function that Smith acknowledged in the character of his own work. Relieved of the need to ponder sculpture, or to think about it in terms of mythology, primordial histories, or Zen Buddhism, one was able to deal more directly with the work as self-sufficient visual objects, in the way one had come to view Abstract Expressionist painting.

Similarly, the new work of Louise Bourgeois in the mid-fifties presented images that were nostalgic, yet so hauntingly austere and subtly conceived as total experiences that the associations they suggested did not detract from the extraordinary formal conceptions. In 1949, Bourgeois had exhibited a number of tall, austere pieces, grouped to surround the viewer, which, while related to the personages of Smith and Noguchi from the same period, were less evocative than theirs of specific identities or associations. Preceding the personages of Louise Nevelson (important for her own development, I think), Bourgeois’ sculpture stood out in the second half of the fifties both as a link with the earlier half-decade and as important for the new imagery of sculpture after 1955.

The anonymous personages, “still-lifes,” and architecture concepts of both Bourgeois and Nevelson—not unrelated to Smith’s sculpture in this respect, and also remindful of the formalistic subject matter of Cubism, were important for the way in which they, too, lightened the load of emotional imagery. Nevelson’s black sculpture of 1955 to 1958, while suggestive of kings, queens, chiefs, moon gardens and unlighted cathedrals at night, were total visual experiences extraordinarily rich in feeling but carefully controlled as structures; the uniform black color generalized the parts and unified the sculptures while at the same time generalizing the ready-made components so that their specific origins were lost in their new purpose. True also for the contemporary work of Smith, Stankiewicz, and Bourgeois, the aura of nostalgia functioned to reinforce one’s concentration on the visual form.

Chamberlain’s sculpture of 1958 to 1962 is the last I will consider here. As Barbara Rose has pointed out, any direct reference to the wrecked automobiles that supplied the material for his work is misleading, for Chamberlain was then, as now, essentially an abstract sculptor, and his material even more anonymous than Nevelson’s. It is interesting to think that those proud Detroit machines, designed for public taste, had been allowed into the realm of art only by being reduced to junk, but Chamberlain was not commenting on public taste, nor did he have a perverse attitude toward the automobile. Dependent upon Smith, his work emerged in 1959 vigorous and fully plastic, closer to Abstract Expressionist painting than that of any other sculptor’s, yet fully sculptural in the way that its warped and bulging parts, accented by some linear elements, worked in space. Like di Suvero a year later, Chamberlain had all but cast off the literary associations of Surrealist-inspired sculpture, retaining only the gestural quality that related his and di Suvero’s work to Abstract Expressionism, and to the “personage” imagery of the forties and early fifties, which was in line with the long tradition of heroic figure sculpture.

Wayne Andersen