Notes on Sculpture, Part 3

SEEING AN OBJECT IN REAL space may not be a very immediate experience. Aspects are experienced; the whole is assumed or constructed. Yet it is the presumption that the constructed “thing” is more real than the illusory and changing aspects afforded by varying perspective views and illumination. We have no apprehension of the totality of an object other than what has been constructed from incidental views under various conditions. Yet this process of “building” the object from immediate sense data is homogeneous: there is no point in the process where any conditions of light or perspective indicate a realm of existence different from that indicated by other views under other conditions. The presumption of constancy and consistency makes it possible to speak of “illusionism” at all. It is considered the less than general condition. In fact, illusionism in the seeing of objects is suppressed to an incidental factor.

Structures. Such work is often related to other focuses but further, or more strongly, emphasizes its “reasons” for parts, inflections, or other variables. The didacticism of projected systems or added information beyond the physical existence of the work is either explicit or implicit. Sets, series, modules, permutations, or other simple systems are often made use of. Such work often transcends its didacticism to become rigorous. Sometimes there is a puritanical skepticism of the physical in it. The lesser work is often stark and austere, rationalistic and insecure.

While most advanced three-dimensional work shares certain premises, distinctions can be made between works. Certain ambitions and intentions vary and can be named. Terms indicating tendencies can be attempted on the basis of these different aims. While the terms arrived at do not constitute classes of objects which are exclusive of each other, they locate distinct focuses.

Objects. Generally small in scale, definitively object-like, potentially handleable, often intimate. Most have high finish and emphasize surface. Those which are monistic or structurally undivided set up internal relations through juxtapositions of materials or sometimes by high reflectiveness incorporating part of the surroundings; sometimes by transparency doing the same thing more literally. Those which are structurally divided often make use of modules or units. Some of these—especially wall-hung works—maintain some pictorial sensibilities: besides making actual the sumptuous physicality which painting could only indicate, there is often a kind of pictorial figure-ground organization. But unlike painting, the shape becomes an actual object against the equally actual wall or ground. Deeply grounded in, and confident of the physical, these objects make great use of the traditional range of plastic values: light, shadow, rhythms, pulses, negative spaces, positive forms, etc. The lesser works often read as a kind of candy box art—new containers for an industrial sensuality reminiscent of the Bauhaus sensibility for refined objects of clean order and high finish. Barbara Rose has noted in her catalog, A New Esthetic, (Washington Gallery of Modern Art, May, 1967), that such objects might constitute a class of forms amounting to a new convention which is not sculptural in intent, but rather more like the emergence of a rich minor art—much as stained glass and mosaics differed from the conventions of painting. While often unambitious or indulgently focused on surface, the physical presence of these objects is generally strong. They coruscate with the minor brilliance of the “objet d’art.”

The trouble with painting is not its inescapable illusionism per se. But this inherent illusionism brings with it a non-actual elusiveness or indeterminate allusiveness. The mode has become antique. Specifically, what is antique about it is the divisiveness of experience which marks on a flat surface elicit. There are obvious cultural and historical reasons why this happens. For a long while the duality of thing and allusion sustained itself under the force of profuse organizational innovations within the work itself. But it has worn thin and its premises cease to convince. Duality of experience is not direct enough. That which has ambiguity built into it is not acceptable to an empirical and pragmatic outlook. That the mode itself—rather than lagging quality—is in default seems to be shown by the fact that some of the best painting today does not bother to emphasize actuality or literalness through shaping of the support.

At the extreme end of the size range are works on a monumental scale. Often these have a quasi-architectural focus: they can be walked through or looked up at. Some are simple in form but most are baroque in feeling beneath a certain superficial somberness. They share a romantic attitude of domination and burdening impressiveness. They often seem to loom with a certain humanitarian sentimentality.

Sculpture. For want of a better term, that grouping of work which does not present obvious information content or singularity of focus. It is not dominated by the obviousness of looming scale, overly rich material, intimate size, didactic ordering. It neither impresses, dominates, nor seduces. Elements of various focuses are often in it, but in more integrated, relative, and more powerfully organized ways. Successful work in this direction differs from both previous sculpture (and from objects) in that its focus is not singularly inward and exclusive of the context of its spatial setting. It is less introverted in respect to its surroundings. Sometimes this is achieved by literally opening up the form in order that the surroundings must of necessity be seen with the piece. (Transparency and translucency of material function in a different way in this respect since they maintain an inner “core” which is seen through but is nevertheless closed off.) Other work makes this extroverted inclusiveness felt in other ways—sometimes through distributions of volumes, sometimes through blocking off, or so to speak “reserving” amounts of space which the work does not physically occupy. Such work which deals with more or less large chunks of space in these and other ways is misunderstood and misrepresented when it is termed “environmental” or “monumental.”

It is not in the uses of new, exotic materials that the present work differs much from past work. It is not even in the non-hierarchic, non-compositional structuring, since this was clearly worked out in painting. The difference lies in the kind of order which underlies the forming of this work. This order is not based on previous art orders, but is an order so basic to the culture that its obviousness makes it nearly invisible. The new three-dimensional work has grasped the cultural infrastructure of forming itself which has been in use, and developing, since Neolithic times and culminates in the technology of industrial production.

There is some justification for lumping together the various focuses and intentions of the new three-dimensional work. Morphologically there are common elements: symmetry, lack of traces of process, abstractness, non-hierarchic distribution of parts, non-anthropomorphic orientations, general wholeness. These constants probably provide the basis for a general imagery. The imagery involved is referential in a broad and special way: it does not refer to past sculptural form. Its referential connections are to manufactured objects and not to previous art. In this respect the work has affinities with Pop art. But the abstract work connects to a different level of the culture.

The ideas of industrial production have not, until quite recently, differed from the Neolithic notions of forming—the difference has been largely a matter of increased efficiency. The basic notions are repetition and division of labor: standardization and specialization. Probably the terms will become obsolete with a thoroughgoing automation of production involving a high degree of feedback adjustments.

Much work is made outside the studio. Specialized factories and shops are used—much the same as sculpture has always utilized special craftsmen and processes. The shop methods of forming generally used are simple if compared to the techniques of advanced industrial forming. At this point the relation to machine-type production lies more in the uses of materials than in methods of forming. That is, industrial and structural materials are often used in their more or less naked state, but the methods of forming employed are more related to assisted hand craftsmanship. Metalwork is usually bent, cut, welded. Plastic is just beginning to be explored for its structural possibilities; often it functions as surfacing over conventional supporting materials. Contact molding of reinforced plastics, while expensive, is becoming an available forming method which offers great range for direct structural uses of the material. Vacuum forming is the most accessible method for forming complex shapes from sheeting. It is still expensive. Thermoforming the better plastics—and the comparable method for metal, matched die stamping—is still beyond the means of most artists. Mostly the so-called industrial processes employed are at low levels of sophistication. This affects the image in that the most accessible types of forming lend themselves to the planar and the linear.

The most obvious unit, if not the paradigm, of forming up to this point is the cube or rectangular block. This, together with the right angle grid as method of distribution and placement, offers a kind of “morpheme“ and ”syntax“ which are central to the cultural premise of farming. There are many things which have come together to contribute to making rectangular objects and right angle placement the most useful means of forming. The mechanics of production is one factor: from the manufacture of mud bricks to metallurgical processes involving continuous flow of raw material which gets segmented, stacked, and shipped. The further uses of these ”pieces" from continuous forms such as sheets to fabricate finished articles encourage maintenance of rectangularity to eliminate waste.

Tracing forming from continuous stock to units is one side of the picture. Building up larger wholes from initial bits is another. The unit with the fewest sides which inherently orients itself to both plumb and level and also close packs with its members is the cubic or brick form. There is good reason why it has survived to become the “morpheme” of so many manufactured things. It also presents perhaps the simplest ordering of part to whole. Rectangular groupings of any number imply potential extension; they do not seem to imply incompletion, no matter how few their number or whether they are distributed as discrete units in space or placed in physical contact with each other. In the latter case the larger whole which is formed tends to be morphologically the same as the units from which it is built up. From one to many the whole is preserved so long as a grid-type ordering is used. Besides these aspects of manipulation, there are a couple of constant conditions under which this type of forming and distributing exists: a rigid base land mass and gravity. Without these two terms stability and the clear orientation of horizontal and vertical might not be so relevant. Under different conditions other systems of physical ordering might occur. Further work in space, as well as deep ocean stations, may alter this most familiar approach to the shaping and placing of things as well as the orientation of oneself with respect to space and objects.

The forms used in present-day three-dimensional work can be found in much past art. Grid patterns show up in Magdalenian cave painting. Context, intention, and organization focus the differences. The similarity of specific forms is irrelevant.

Such work which has the feel and look of openness, extendibility, accessibility, publicness, repeatability, equanimity, directness, immediacy, and has been formed by clear decision rather than groping craft would seem to have a few social implications, none of which are negative. Such work would undoubtedly be boring to those who long for access to an exclusive specialness, the experience of which reassures their superior perception.

The means for production seems to be an accomplished fact. Control of energy and processing of information become the central cultural task. “According to a suggestion by N. S. Kardashev of the State Astronomical Institute . . . all civilizations can be divided into three classes according to the amount of energy they consume. The first class would comprise civilizations which in terms of their technological development are close to our civilization, the energy consumed by these civilizations being ~ 4.1019 erg/sec. The second class would consist of civilizations with an energy consumption of the order of ~ 4.1033 erg/sec. These civilizations have completely harnessed the energy of their stars. Civilizations belonging to the third class would consume as much as ~ 4.1044 erg/sec and control the energy supplied by an entire galaxy.” Mutschall, Vladimir E., “Soviet Long-Range Space-Exploration Program,” Aerospace Technology Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. May, 1966, p. 18.

Pointing out that the new work is not based upon previous art ordering but upon a cultural infrastructure is only to indicate its most general nature, as well as its intensely intransigent nature. The work “sticks” and “holds” by virtue of its relationship to this infrastructure. But the best as well as some of the worst art uses these premises. The range for particularization and specific quality within the general order of forms is enormous and varies from the more or less specific intentions and focuses indicated above, down to the particular detail of a specific work. These particularities make concrete, tangible differences between works as well as focus the quality in any given work.

The rectangular unit and grid as a method of physical extension are also the most inert and least organic. For the structural forms now needed in architecture and demanded by high speed travel the form is obviously obsolete. The more efficient compression-tension principles generally involve the organic form of the compound curve. In some way this form indicates its high efficiency—i.e., the “work” involved in the design of stressed forms is somehow projected. The compound curve works, whereas planar surfaces—both flat and round—do not give an indication of special strength through design. Surfaces under tension are anthropomorphic: they are under the stresses of work much as the body is in standing. Objects which do not project tensions state most clearly their separateness from the human. They are more clearly objects. It is not the cube itself which exclusively fulfills this role of independent object—it is only the form that most obviously does it well. Other regular forms which invariably involve the right angle at some point function with equal independence. The way these forms are oriented in space is, of course, equally critical in the maintenance of their independence. The visibility of the principles of structural efficiency can be a factor which destroys the object’s independence. This visibility impinges on the autonomous quality and alludes to performance of service beyond the existence of the object. What the new art has obviously not taken from industry is this teleological focus which makes tools and structures invariably simple. Neither does it wish to imitate an industrial “look.” This is trivial. What has been grasped is the reasonableness of certain forms which have been in use for so long.

New conditions under which things must exist are already here. So are the vastly extended controls of energy and information and new materials for forming. The possibilities for future forming throw into sharp relief present forms and how they have functioned. In grasping and using the nature of made things the new three-dimensional art has broken the tedious ring of “artiness” circumscribing each new phase of art since the Renaissance. It is still art. Anything that is used as art must be defined as art. The new work continues the convention but refuses the heritage of still another art-based order of making things. The intentions are different, the results are different, so is the experience.

Robert Morris