PRINT November 1967

Sculpture’s Vanishing Base

FUNCTIONS OF THE SCULPTURE BASE: The base is the sculptor’s convention for rooting his art to surrounding reality while permitting it to stand apart. As such, the base creates a twilight zone both physically and psychically. It says, in effect, that this sculpted object has a life, a “presence” of its own. Its use to support various top-heavy standing figures, and to provide a perch to minimize damage, are the obvious physical reasons for its existence; beyond that, the base helps to create an aura of distance and dignity around the favored object. Moreover, the Western tradition has been consistent in the use of the base as an appendage to sculpture. Within the representational idiom in general, the base has served to isolate and emphasize the particular psychology and anecdotal content of the activity it supports.

Modern abstract and non-objective art has produced a considerable shift from this general use of the base. Steadily the base has declined in its purpose of psychological segregation to become the means of physically isolating one class of objects from all others: That one class is sculpture. That sculpture could be created by setting any object upon a base became a chief dialectical dilemma of modern sculpture. All objects, thereby, could be considered sculpture, a popularization which turned sculpture away from the base as a means of identification. If the base was rendered meaningless—both physically and psychically—sculpture could only regain its meaning free of the confines of the base.

While practical and esthetic questions of mounting sculpture have confronted artists for thousands of years, it is revealing how little attention the problem merits in historical texts and technical treatises. Except for certain arbitrary proportional canons, the base has remained a minor detail of the craft. Until the advent of gallery-size sculpture in the 18th century, the sub-structure was usually an architectural detail, designed to harmonize with an architectural setting, or planned according to elements of an architectural order as in the case of statuary groups by Renaissance woodcarvers and metalsmiths. Until the present century, architecture was considered the mother of sculpture.

Nomenclature for the sub-structure of sculpture is ill-defined. Plinth, base and pedestal are the most commonly used terms, and sculpture may employ any or all of these elements. These terms may be defined as such: the base, the greatest mass upon which a sculpture rests, refers to the support as a whole; the pedestal, a shaft-like form which elevates the sculpture; the plinth, a flat, planar support which separates the sculpture from the ground or from a pedestal. Until recently, students were taught that a base should be unobtrusive while providing maximum enhancement for any sculpture set on top of it. Bases consequently tended to be strong geometric shapes with an architectonic simplicity separating them from the organic activity above.

Not surprisingly, the greatest innovators in modern sculpture have had the most to do with the reorganization of bases. This stems from a realization that sculpture continues beyond its material periphery with a spatial sphere of influence, which varies and emanates in all directions. The modern sensibility has progressively attempted to break down the psychic barrier, the traditional object-viewer relationship, that accounts for the transcendent qualities of sculpture. It has tried to substitute an environment where observer and object are given a like status; raising an object to humanness or superhumanness is no longer an issue. What is important is a naturalness where things, both objects and organisms, are accepted for what they are, not for what they represent. As a result, the destruction or withering away of the base is very much a part of the “secularization” of sculpture. Withdrawn from sculpture are all the old reverberations and implications of the “art object.” In its place sculpture without a base functions with all the casualness of an umbrella stand or the early morning fog over a field. In a sense, the sculptor has asked ate observer to forget about the heroics of past art and to concentrate on the nature of the everyday here and now.

As a consequence, two trends have dominated the modern base: the first incorporates the base into the sculpture itself, to the point where sculpture rests directly on the floor or ground; the second attempts to free sculpture from all earthly contact or means of visible support, making sculpture not so much airborne as gravity defying.

These solutions for mounting modern sculpture have another more far-reaching implication. Traditionally the base with its limited area has implied a fixed situation where the “frozen” condition of the sculpture necessitated no room for mobility. Traditional sculpture is virtually life that cannot move. Consequently it is given nowhere to go. From the second half of the 19th century there seemed to be a collective consciousness at work among avant-garde sculptors working both to disturb this traditional biological immobility, this fixity which the base ordains, and the sense of gravitational dependence so inherent in the anatomy of man. Besides being a field of action, the base becomes an orientational device; it is a tacit acknowledgement that all mammals have a top and bottom or head and feet, plus a ventral and dorsal side. The base is a biological reaffirmation that man is constructed to walk the ground, to gain his mobility through successive contacts with the earth. It was preordained that for sculpture not rooted to the ground or made inanimate, the base had lost its reason for being.

This section will show through successive examples that the sculptural will towards spatial mobility and a non-idealistic art are intimately tied to innovations in the function of the base. This is an involved transition; it continues today; and the evolutionary pattern is not always clear. As a sign,though, of great transformations which are taking place in sculpture, the base is symptomatic and deserves to be given the closest attention.

WORKS BY FOUR EARLY MODERN SCULPTORS: It is fitting to begin this study with an analysis of figurative works. These are by sculptors whose unorthodox conceptions of the human form and its actions are in part defined by their very personal approaches to presentation. Certainly one of the earliest for our purposes was an artist who had already revolutionized the psychology of portrait painting before taking up sculpture. During the past ninety years much has been made of Edgar Degas’s bronzed creature clothed in a real cloth bodice, dancing shoes, net tutu, and hair ribbon. The Little Dancer of Fourteen, as she was called by Degas, is neither sculpture nor doll, but an attempt to bring art into the area of living activity. This was the only sculpture exhibited by Degas during his lifetime and since he used great care in its preparation, there is, if one is aware of Degas’s personal problems, a hint of the Pygmalion impulse in its creation. It was certainly more than an anatomical exercise. The Dancer may be an alter ego, reflecting aspects of Degas’s personality: among them physical plainness, a sang-froid attitude and a remarkably aggressive frailty. Also there is a resilience of character which is not without its pathos. It may be that the infusion of perverse vitality into this child-figure had something to do with Degas’s propensity for inventing and solving formal problems in figure sculpture at the expense of feminine grace and dignity.

The Dancer’s feet are in fourth position with knees, hips, and elbows locked in a posture of disciplined repose. Actually this position would not be painful because the girl’s body is not in constant muscular tension. Rather, her skeletal framework, locked in position, supports the main weight of the body. This is not “frozen” activity but a position which could be held for some time. More relevant is the slab of polished hardwood under the Dancer’s feet that serves as both a plinth and a replica of a ballet practice floor. The base, like the real costume, is a part of the environment, an abbreviated tableau helping to establish the ambivalent reality-ideality of the piece.

More indicative of Degas’s revolutionary attitude towards the sculpture base is his small bronze of a woman bathing, The Tub. This 18 1/2-inch high replica shows a woman one-third submerged in a round tub partially filled with water. Her left knee is drawn up and grasped by the right hand in a typical Degas pose. Photographs of this piece ordinarily show a crudely-textured plinth under the bathing tub. Knowing Degas’s inclination toward directness and immediacy, one suspects that this plinth was not a part of the original ensemble. The difference in the modeling between the two would bear this out. John Rewald has included an overhead view of the original wax casting which shows the plinth as an after-thought of the caster.1 It did not exist in the original.

Obviously Degas conceived of the tub, half filled with water, as the base for his composition of the woman bathing. There are previous examples in sculpture (for instance, the monumental cadavers and biers of Roman antiquity) where the base has become a part of a figurative composition. Yet here with Degas’s bronze casting also depicting the water in the tub, the figure seems to emerge from the base. All considered, the Dada and tableau aspects of this piece are so radically new that plaster castings fitted into their dry-cleaning shop environments of the 1960s seem passé by comparison. If a bathtub can function as a base, what prevents us from considering the bathtub as pure sculpture in itself? Degas was breaking ground for such a line of reasoning.

The Impressionism of Medardo Rosso made for the first fusion between base and subject, the figures and the structure upon which they are mounted. Very early in the sculptor’s career, before his mature style of group Impressionism, he completed a work where the relationship to the base displayed the same modern sensitivity as Degas. The genius of Rosso was such that he displayed an almost pathological inability to execute the expected reaction to any problem in sculpture.

During his first year in art school in Milan, Rosso had been commissioned to design a funerary monument for a Milanese client. Circumstances surrounding the transaction are most obscure. The work, in some respects, is a typical Italian funerary theme of the times and is called The Kiss on the Tomb. It depicts, in life size, a woman fully prostrated on the tomb of her just deceased husband, bestowing a last kiss before the tomb is sealed. In terms of emotional directness, the subject was not unduly histrionic for the urban cemeteries of Genoa and Milan at the end of the century. Rosso treats the modeling of his stricken woman, especially her clothes, almost as a sketch and with an amazing lack of slickness. The slab or face of the tomb is handled with the same vigor. For some unexplained reason the municipality of Milan had the work removed from the city cemetery and melted down—on the advice of the local art commission.

It could be surmised that Rosso’s aggressive, slag-like treatment of the modeling—so out of character with the usual grand finish of Italian carving—offended the sensibilities of the commission. This plastic fusion of base and figure may have produced a public or official reaction. One suspects, considering Rosso’s hectic and aborted art schooling, that the crudeness of the work evoked certain political and revolutionary overtones unacceptable at that time. The Kiss on the Tomb contains little pomp, that emotional protection which anesthetizes the pain of death. Instead, the prevailing feeling is one of naked pathos.

In a series of conversations with his secretary, Paul Gsell, Auguste Rodin comments on Gsell’s character analysis of The Burghers of Calais, a monument which caused Rodin so much rethinking:

. . . you have justly placed my burghers in the scale according to their degree of heroism. To emphasize this effect still more I wished, as you perhaps know, to fix my statues one behind the other on the stones of the Place, before the Town Hall of Calais, like a living chaplet of suffering and of sacrifice.

My figures would so have appeared to direct their steps from the municipal building toward the camp of Edward III; and the people of Calais of today, almost elbowing them, would have felt more deeply the tradition of solidarity which unites them to these heroes. It would have been, I believe, intensely impressive. But my proposal was rejected, and they insisted upon a pedestal which is as unsightly as it is unnecessary. They were wrong. I am sure of it. . . .2

If sculpture of the past twenty years is any indication, Rodin was considerably ahead of his time. On more than one occasion Giacometti has used precisely Rodin’s suggestion with impressive results. Yet, ironically enough, the choice which Rodin was forced to make resulted in a base with multiple bodings for the future. If there is any straight line of evolving conceptions concerning the development of bases, they remain obscure. Rather many paths have evolved leading towards the situation existing today.

The town council of Calais ordered the sculptor to assemble the Burghers as a single group composition so that it could be mounted on a tall base in the City Square. It is easy to imagine how all of Rodin’s thoughts about the intimacy of the individual statues were destroyed. However, other possibilities began to appear. Originally each figure was created to stand on its own plinth. These plinths are not simply flat tablets; they are sloped, uneven perches giving each figure some degree of imbalance or tilt from an imaginary axis perpendicular to the ground. Throughout the ensemble this creates a concurrent forward and backward thrust, a type of twisting momentum which revolves around no one figure. With these six oddly-integrated figures Rodin cast the whole into a single eight-inch-thick plinth.

Albert Elsen3 has described the sequence of shadows and concavities that a viewer encounters while walking around The Burghers of Calais. The ever varying spaces, hollows, and angles tend to make the group extremely difficult to read as a coherent sequence. Any impact of drama and unity is sensed through the group as a mass. Arms invading pockets of interior space, and the tilted, almost falling, position of some of the bodies stem from the erratic contours of the plinth underfoot. Viewed alone, this craggy slab of bronze has all the ambiguity of a Cubist relief whose projected planes slip past one another opening deep crevices. Each statue’s center of gravity is partly defined by the slope of its footing. Figures tend to lean forward and towards the center of the composition. Yet added complications, projected arms and contorted bodies, produce a sense of indeterminacy.

It is possible to disagree with Rodin’s final placement of the Burghers; the focused intensity of his original plan (a column of figures) is lost so that some of the gestures within the group are wasted effect. But an immediacy and improvisational quality are gained, in which semi-random placement is played off against a strictly determined psychology of human emotions. With both the figures and the unified base, the effects gained by shattering, then reforming the totality have slowly gained an importance through later sculpture experiments.

Christopher Gray says this about the relationship of space to solid matter in Cubist painting: “. . . both solid form and space itself are treated as if they had a positive material existence. Space itself is given form and modulated with color in the same manner as material form.”4 In contrast, the Cubist or Futurist sculptor worked without the advantage of illusionism and tied down to an analytical approach to compact volumes. Ambiguities of space and matter could only be implied through devices such as negative silhouette and perforation.

The Futurist, Umberto Boccioni, saw the possibility for a more literal fusion between the material subject of a sculpture and the illusionary environment surrounding it. This was made evident in the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture where he stated: “Let us . . . proclaim the complete abolition of the finished line and the closed statue. Let us open up the figure like a window and enclose within it the environment in which it lives. Let us proclaim that the environment must form part of the plastic block as a special world regulated by its own laws.”5

Boccioni’s determination to realize these aims of the manifesto proved far more ambitious than the intentions of the Paris Cubist sculptors. His Fusion of a Head and Window (1912) with its awkward assembly of parts is one of the earliest efforts in this direction. The assemblage consists of a real window sash without glass panes, penetrated by a sheath of wooden sun rays more substantial than the carved head they illuminate. The result is a futile attempt to introduce ephemeral environment; plastically the work is too chaotic and simplistic to justify the high aims of the manifesto.

In Development of a Bottle in Space, Boccioni comes closer to transforming Futurist ideology into palpable bronze. The composition moves through a succession of discontinuous spiral edges towards an apex at the mouth of the bottle. The dish, the cloth, and other obscure objects surrounding the bottle become part of the base; compositionally the base is part of the sculpture; therefore Boccioni has come closer to his original intention. Formally, the base appears as a row of shifting, inclined planes which level by level appear to penetrate the space of the bottle itself. Plastically, this solution is vastly superior to the earlier one of heavy-handed sun rays passing through a nonexistent glass. Similar to The Burghers of Calais, the base functions as a stage set, a baroque platform impelling flux and activity. Within the humble limits of a few still-life objects, Boccioni contrived a small structure whose coherence and related forces approach true monumentality.

Shortly before his death in the First World War, Boccioni turned from the depiction of flux, physical and psychical, between juxtaposed objects to the expression of mechanistic-organic dynamism. This he achieved with a sculptural synthesis of flayed muscles and streamlined forms. His masterpiece in this style is Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. A vaguely striding figure stands supported on rectangular impost blocks as part of a single casting. These two pedestals, executed with precise geometry, contrast sharply with the imprecision and slightly aerodynamical expression of the forms they support. The base no longer circumscribes activity but serves as a launching pad for all movement. The staticity of the two separate blocks is tied together by the arch of the figure’s striding legs. What Boccioni accomplishes with the underlying plinth and two blocks is an effect of optical closure where action between two defined points is filled in by the viewer.

THE BASE AS ANTI-BASE: Even before 1913 and the appearance of non-objective sculpture, the function of the base was changing. More radical figure sculptors tried to make their statues fit into daily life, curtailing the hieratic function of the base in favor of environmental naturalness. In some cases the base satisfied no more than a convention, a means for allowing a work to stand with the least evidence of support. One exception to this resulted from the desire of some Cubist and abstract sculptors to leave no doubt in the mind of the public that their work was sculpture. In this instance elaborate and imposing bases were used. Today no such caution is necessary and the sophisticated public has few preconceptions about what is or is not sculpture.

Tangent to these attitudes were the evolving presentation techniques in non-objective sculpture or sculpture of “pure-form.” More breathtaking methods were sought to release essential form from the confines of the base. Since idealized form approached hyper-physical being, the base no longer served the primeval biotic function of providing solid “earth” for repose. Several works by Brancusi, and later the Constructivists, contain a number of overlapping attempts to rid sculpture of mass, the effects of gravitation and, even at times, spatial orientation.

The situation, however, was not so straightforward as simply accommodating the base to a new set of plastic values. Marcel Duchamp conceived of a more imposing threat to the idealism of the sculpted object. Duchamp produced a series of ordinary objects, frequently utilitarian, which, through a “laying on of hands” by the artist, were raised to the status of fine art. Part of the irony of the “Readymades” is their very idealism—a consequence of being all idea with no deliberate construction technique on the part of the artist. Rather than dying out as an ontological caper, the Readymade has become one of the pervasive influences in modern sculpture, a sort of Goedel’s Theorem of esthetics, which has proved the provisional quality of art.

The installation of a Duchamp exhibition, until recently, always stirred interest because the mode of display varied with a given director’s assessment of the Readymades as works of art. They could be displayed as “art,” as historically important curios, or merely as the interesting results of a wayward talent. The usual cautious, neutral, and probably fitting decision was to set the Readymades in plexiglass cases—neither mocking nor accepting the Readymades as art—a wise precaution considering today’s deluge of post-Duchampian art and the ascendancy of the “cool.” Now fewer things begin on a pedestal, but all receive wary respect.

Yet if one cult sought to denigrate sculpture to the status of mundane object, another more powerful faction strove to “iconize” sculpture via bodiless formal conceptualizations.

CONSTANTIN BRANCUSI: Brancusi’s ability to create psychical associations with his materials has resulted in the most amazing array of presentation techniques. No one can grasp the development of modern sculpture without understanding how Brancusi rethought the relationship of sculpture to its environment. As frequently observed, his bases are more than an appendage to his sculpture; they are sculpture. In a way the bases have their origins in the senses and memories of the perceiver; like the reveries of children, they are the phenomenal outgrowth of all the hyper-physical properties of substances. The relationship between the subject and base resembles that of a flowering plant; to separate the stem and flower from the roots makes for an abbreviated beauty, committing an offense to both biology and to art.

Many of Brancusi’s ideas for the mounting of sculpture are original inventions. And like all organically conceived innovations, they developed slowly from work to work. Effects were modified and heightened until they reached a climax. Later Brancusi would re-employ them in a new context. To all but a few contemporaries his ideas for displaying sculpture seemed very strange, even more so in some cases than the sculpture itself. Their acceptance into the idiom of modern sculpture is staggering; in the past forty years thousands of sculptors have borrowed from Brancusi’s ideas. Rather than examine an abundance of individual works, a few examples support this enumeration of Brancusi’s display techniques:

1) Frequently his bases confront the observer with rough and handhewn textures in direct contrast to the finished precision of the subject above. For instance the bronze “bird” culminates the forms of wood and stone below it. Moreover, these textures establish a psychical hierarchy. Usually, the lower portions of a base are the roughest, like the rusticated facades of Renaissance palaces. This spectrum of crude to fine finishes has its symbolic implications, some revealed by Brancusi in conversation: commonness opposed to preciousness, the creative seed in the mother, emergent life, the story-teller and the myth, natural and sublime origins, geometry and organism, etc.

2) A sculptor like a good builder opposes the mere application of materials. Still, only intuition, not engineering finesse, exists in the way Brancusi sandwiched assorted shapes into what appears to be a precarious pile. These piles do not seem to be structural solutions; rather, they substitute the visual equations of a poet for a builder’s logic. Often a metal dowel, a bit of glue or cement, keeps such an equation intact. To support a portrait head, there is no reason why an eighteen-inch cruciform of light buff-grey limestone should have a six-inch diameter pink marble cylinder placed on top of it.

3) The bases often give the impression of a child’s precarious pile of building blocks. A single added block could topple an entire structure. That Brancusi has securely fastened the parts together is not for the viewer to know. What lingers is the faintest expectation of collapse, thereby releasing a bird or fish from all firm contact. The sculptor developed the visual power of sources of potential energy, with great overhanging weights. In the veined grey marble version of The Fish, a millstone, supported by a much smaller cylinder, hovers just off the ground. As counterpoint a sleek fish hovers a few inches above the ponderous millstone.

4) It was Brancusi’s practice to align the vertical axis of the sections of his bases in rigorous symmetry. Sometimes, as a gesture of provocation, a sculpture would be placed off-center or rotated to a non-frontal position. For objects, symmetry offers one of the highest forms of organization; any artistic volition which calls for its destruction must establish an even higher call to order. There is a biological truth here: within the total regularity of a crystal or organism only an imprecision spurs on further growth or formation; in sculpture as well, a calculated irregularity separates the living from the dead.

5) The breathing “bases” are pedestal forms with saw-tooth sides or cylinders carved with ring-like involutions similar to the lining of an esophagus. Usually, Brancusi would place such a form between two rectangular blocks. The result is purely optical; a faint retinal pulsation gives the effect of a minute rhythmic contraction and expansion.

6) A mirror surface placed directly beneath some versions of his fish sculpture is most effective when the area of contact between the reflective surface and the fish forms are minimal. The resulting impression of depthlessness is as close as he comes to “floating” his sculptures or disengaging them from earthly contact.

7) The type of contact that a sculpture had with its base was of the utmost. importance to Brancusi. This touching of two surfaces, the ground below and the touching object above, signifies the essential dynamic relationship of the delicate film of life covering the earth. A sculpture with a great deal of under surface in contact with the base is analogous to a plant reaching into the earth, or an iceberg with its mass under water. In contrast, Brancusi’s egg-shaped sculptures rest on a single tangential point. Their point of contact with the flat surface of the base is completely visible. However, the center of gravity of these sculptures is such that normal tilt suggests tranquility. Not always does Brancusi position his sculptures according to their inherent equilibrium. Occasionally he defies a sculpture’s center of gravity by pinning it with a dowel in a position of unrest. The result is a sense of precariousness and momentary gesture.

As with the sculptures themselves, Brancusi infused his bases with an ancient and logical sense of animism. They are logical because they fulfill a primitive need to provide for the psychic security of a living spirit. Their height above the ground promises protection from dangers real and imagined. Their materials represent natural habitat for the spirit of the sculpture. In many cultures the living set out food, utensils, and even doll-servants for the dead; just so the bases of Brancusi provide a liberating and sympathetic environment for any latent life which they embrace.

THE CONSTRUCTIVISTS: While some of Brancusi’s bases are metaphorical attempts to release earth-bound masses from the pull of gravity, this one desire becomes the raison d’etre for the Constructivists. During the “heroic” period of the Russian Revolution, when the Constructivists had visions of revising art according to the technological and scientific landscape, all factions recognized the importance of using modern engineering techniques. If their earliest analogies for sculpture ran to bridges, structural steel towers and rigid-frame air-ships, their solutions for bases bore a relation to abutments and foundations, but perhaps more to dirigible moorings. Three considerations seemed to be of uppermost importance: That the base express a dynamism consistent with the construction on top of it; that it be an extension of a construction (structurally as well as visually); and perhaps most important, that an illusion of separation be produced between the base and its superstructure. As the Constructivist movement became more involved in absolute conceptions of self-contained objects, this last became a primary concern.

A remaining evidence of these three functions can be found in some of the photographs of the Vkhutemas student exhibition in Moscow (May, 1920), held under the direction of Tatlin, Rodchenko and Gabo. While these constructions no longer exist, the surviving photographs reveal that the bases for these works were fragile pedestals supported by the thinnest wooden struts and tension wires. These constructions, intended to teach students the properties of materials for engineering purposes, Were not for pure sculptural experimentation. Nevertheless, the idea behind the structural integration of base and construction has had a lasting effect on sculpture. It epitomized the means by which modern engineering erected structures through the least visible and lightest members.

What motivated the Constructivist sculptors to support masses by nearly invisible means? Recent successes with heavier-than-air flight might have been influential, but more important were the conceptual models of science. As after 1921 Soviet esthetic policies aborted progress within the Constructivist movement, work continued outside Russia by the brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner.

Gabo led this later development. By 1921 the anthropomorphic character of his earliest works had completely disappeared. The bases for his constructions lost all their traditional implications, and, like Brancusi, their new function was discovered only through experimentation. The next phase of Gabo’s work approached the architectonic mock-ups of Futuristic skyscrapers. Between 1922 and 1925 Gabo’s bases consisted mostly of raised polished discs, sometimes mirror smooth and close in character to Brancusi’s solutions. Both sculptors realized by 1928 that their constructions, receding from the human and architectonic images, had evolved to become creations of pure imagination (though ruled by a host of subconscious images culled from the realm of engineering and science). Contrary to anthropomorphic statuary, these new constructions lacked biotic orientation. They had no up or down, no front, back or sides. As a class of objects existing in real space, the symmetry and congruity of these constructions became visually obscured, if not destroyed, when placed on a flat, opaque surface.

Gabo’s construction, Torsion, (1929), is the forerunner of several attempts to produce a kinetic relationship (kinetic in the sense of embodying latent energy, not movement) between a construction and its base. This had already been attempted by the Vkhutemas group with working models of string and bowed wood. Gabo’s work with heat-formed plastics could only imply some system of tension and compression. Raised by small metal pins above the plastic under-base, a circular sheet of clear plastic acts as a plane of contact with the construction. This superstructure is fastened to the periphery of the plastic disc while two attached projections curve inward and meet over the center of the work. The twisting counter-stress of these projections, of course, accounts for the name Torsion. Here Gabo uses the transparency of plastic to make pellucid the consistency of his structure, to express continuity of space, and especially to produce the illusion of separation between structure and base. Visually this is a better solution than his 1925 Construction on Two Points where he tries to use two circular edges of glass segments as the only points of contact with the base. Structural difficulties impelled him to reinforce the glass with metal supports.

Though Gabo’s solutions for mounting his constructions increased in daring, his brother (after the 1920s) reverted to more conventional ideas. In part, this was in keeping with Pevsner’s sturdier technique of brazing bronze rods into warped planes. The Dancer (1925) was one of Pevsner’s last attempts at anthropomorphic sculpture. It balances a large rhombic form on an apex of minimum dimensions. This area of contact with a thin plinth of sheet bronze is defined by a small, intricate set of plastic and metal parts, very precisely assembled with small set screws.

The 1935 Construction for an Airport represents Pevsner’s desire to provoke the feeling of lift and flight. This model for a monument consists of a row of triangular planes making contact with the ground on one edge and one point, though the edge is raised a quarter of an inch to preserve the autonomy of the model. This hovering quality disappears from later works as Pevsner pursues a more baroque conception. Interior space subsequently did not imply airiness and suspension, rather it invited the eye to move perpendicularly over curved and ambiguous planes of bronze.

Though intent on freeing his works from the ground plane, the Constructivist sculptor has usually refrained from simply suspending his constructions from an overhead wire. He found that, even poised in the air, a work needed one or more visual points of reference. This was necessitated by the viewer’s desire for spatial orientation. Yet few suspended sculptures, until this decade, have been designed for specific spaces or positioned for a given architectural context. However, for gallery sculpture, the early Constructivists discovered that a work held barely off the ground (by one or two inches) seemed much more airbound and aloft than one suspended, quite isolated, thirty feet in the air.

An instance where such a ground reference plane was employed is Gabo’s Construction in Space (1953). A typical Constructivist solution, the base consists of a circular plinth in black plastic. The sculpture hangs suspended from above, attached to its base by a thin guy wire. When Gabo devised a construction to hang very high in the air, as with a work, Construction Suspended in Space, for the Baltimore Museum in 1953, he carefully used the surrounding circular staircase as a visual point of reference. Some fixed point nearby helps to give any air-bound sculpture a sense of proximity and relatedness, which defines the difference between something hovering in space and limply hanging.

In an essay on the war monuments of Rotterdam Lewis Mumford presents a moving description of the festive and difficult installation of Gabo’s Bijenkorf Monument.6 A great token of hope for the people of that destroyed city, Gabo envisioned his twisting vertical structure as a tree which would be the symbol of growth and regeneration. The construction, 85 feet high, needed a very deep substructure of steel girder embedded in concrete to withstand lateral and bending stresses above ground. Gabo speaks of this steel-concrete substructure as the “roots” of his construction. These “roots” above ground are clad with slabs of black marble. In effect this base is simply a very practical form of protection against the abrasion of daily street wear. It is perhaps providential that one of the first artists to fully employ technological means should seize upon an organic metaphor as a symbol of regeneration of hope for the urban domain.

POST-WAR WITHERING OF THE BASE: Methodically examining the role of sculpture display techniques after the Second World War is no easy task. Trends have appeared, the most important being the disappearance of the base from floor-standing sculpture. Concurrent with this is the repeated placing of sculpture on a few points in contact with the base.

The development of the base provides an evolutionary parallel which has its counterpart in nature. Imagine the growth of a young bird in the nest; finally it climbs out of the nest and begins to use its feet and wings; as time passes flight becomes its primary means of locomotion. On a different biological time-scale, another species of birds may have decided to come out of the trees and walk along the ground. This analogy may be an oversimplification; however, it is not unlike what has happened to sculpture in the past few decades. The base, or the perch, no longer seems to have much meaning for the sculpture produced today.

Environmental Merzbau by Kurt Schwitters and Calder’s larger constructions are the most obvious attempts to transcend or ignore the sculpture base. Calder’s work particularly in plate steel precipitated the move towards positional informality. His first large-scale stabile was a giant, room-filling structure shown at the Curt Valentin Gallery, New York, in 1940. A second version of this was commissioned and made because of the structural instability of the original. Here Calder used heavier plate steel, ribs, and gusset plates that considerably added to its sculptural richness.

Later, Reuben Nakian and Herbert Ferber used immense size to provide environmental experiences. However, Calder’s stabiles, because of their subtle articulation and abrupt changing contours, still make the most sense as ambient adventures.

In his The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard takes up the question of size in a spatial context. In a chapter entitled “Intimate Immensity” he states:

Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being which life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone. As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense. Indeed, immensity is the movement of a motionless man.7

As Bachelard later points out, size is those instances when the mind can expand in ideal space far beyond itself. In this respect, and considering Bachelard’s remark about immensity within a motionless man, a tiny group of six-inch high Giacometti figures positioned on a massive plinth has infinitely more monumentality than most room-size environmental sculptures.

During the early 1950s Harry Bertoia created not only sculptured wall screens, but a type of open suspended construction consisting of thousands of brass rods randomly joined, giving the impression of a mesh-like metallic cloud. Even at the time, when the statistical format of Jackson Pollock and Mark Tobey had found fairly wide circulation among artists, Bertoia’s constructions represented a new sculpture sensibility, one that dealt with large masses in space without allowing them to appear painfully heavy and trapped.

At this time, Richard Lippold found a more formal and precise answer to the obstacles surrounding suspended wire constructions. This hinged on the fact that most suspended objects seem to hang; they have a rather undynamic affinity with their environment. Many of Lippold’s works are held in suspension by guy wires radiating in all directions. Each wire construction is the nucleus of a series of variable tensions, so that supporting wires become part of the construction itself. Lippold has played down these supporting wires by diminishing their brightness and thickness, making them less visible also by the control of lighting sources.

A tour de force, Lippold’s The Sun is kept poised in the air by dozens of wires fastened and recessed into the walls, ceiling, and floor. Similar to the block and tackle rig of a large tent, excess tensions and slacknesses are taken up by small turnbuckles attached to each guy wire. Most of the wires in the construction describe radial pencils of lines in segmented planes. Guy wires, on the other hand, are nearly invisible because they run singly and in different directions. In this type of installation, the entire room serves as a base for the construction. A statistical phenomenon gives this work its hovering effect; a radial massing of wires produces a readable form while single strands of thin tension wire stay invisible and hold the work in place.

An example of a sculpture almost balanced on a single point is David von Schlegell’s Twisted Column. The connection with the inverted ‘L’-shaped steel member lying on the floor is particularly subtle because the column seems to be cantilevered so that its center of gravity would put it out of balance. This is not the case. The column, consisting of sheets of heat-formed wood veneer, bends so that the counter-weighted top accommodates the odd angle of the channel member connecting the inverted base to the underside of the column.

FLOOR-BOUND SCULPTURE: Despite a flat sheet-iron plinth welded to its legs, Picasso’s Design for a Construction in Iron Rods (1928) served as an important forerunner for the tradition of floor-standing metal sculpture. Undoubtedly the very crude utilitarian consistency of welded iron and steel made the preciousness of the base seem an affectation. Both the geometric and biomorphic idioms gained a robustness from direct welding techniques; also, unfinished surface treatment contradicted the exclusive status which the base gives to objects. Large welded and brazed constructions (circa. 1955) by David Smith and Ibram Lassaw were raised from the floor by only the thinnest plinths. Much of the floor-size “New York School” sculpture, following the lead of Picasso and the post-war British metal sculptors such as Lynn Chadwick, Kenneth Armitage and Reg Butler, began to grow leg-like appendages instead of bases.

Within the last six or seven years floor-bound sculpture has become more the rule than the exception—though many small works, to facilitate inspection, are still set upon pedestals not designed as part of an ensemble. For a growing number of sculptors, to the point of affectation, sculpture is not just set upon the floor but has an obligation to lie upon the floor—or better, to be casually propped up by a wall. In a number of cases these sculptures do not reach the standing eye-level of the viewer but are designed to be seen from above.

The German sculptor, Jochen Hiltmann, and the Englishman, Anthony Caro, are two early producers of floor-bound sculpture. Hiltmann’s sculptures, made between 1960 and 1964 have the fascination of small meteoric steel spheres posing as found objects. Set upon the floor, they assume the casualness of beach stones. In contrast, many of Caro’s sculptures are obviously floor oriented with a dominant horizontal axis. Thus, the ground or floor beneath acts as a stabilizing plane for oddly pitched structural steel members which make irregular contact with it. That a sculpture or construction can be made to look unquestionably floor-bound, was made evident in a series of vibrating works of about 1960, 1961 by Harry Bertoia. An example consists of a tubular stainless-steel frame (rectangular and close in spirit to some early Breuer furniture) housing grid-like clusters of thin steel rods. Seen in the context of other sculpture then in vogue, Bertoia’s brushed stainless-steel was staggeringly severe and cool to the touch. The fact that his constructions have functional legs now seems both less surprising and more reasonable.

The wave of “new sculpture” with its main entrances in London, New York and Los Angeles has made the schism with the formal base complete. New York “Hard-Center,” “Minimal” or “Object” sculptors (Don Judd, Robert Morris, Ann Truitt and Mike Nevelson were some of the earliest) created a school which makes blanket rejection of all the older dynamic-geometric and vitalist theories. Their solution offers a three-dimensional form as inert as it is massive. In some instances these severely geometrical shapes resemble bases more than sculpture. A typical reaction was that of the critic, Barbara Rose. For her, these objects asked such questions as, “What are the bases of sculpture? What is structure, what is construction, and what is their relationship?”8

“Object” sculpture retorts to the first question set forth by Miss Rose. It might be saying that sculpture, as we have known it, is only one kind of three-dimensional object, and that it conforms to its own particular standards of esthetic presence. As much as object sculpture seems to be a denial of past sculpture values, it reminds us uncategorically that sculpture is eminently three-dimensional. To desire sculpture which is solid, palpable and real may appear tautological, but in truth, these characteristics reaffirm those qualities which have been methodically removed from modern sculpture. What comes next in the quest for ephemerality after the fine wire constructions of Lippold or the plastic transparencies of Gabo? Pure energy itself? Both these questions now receive answers—and the resulting solutions threaten the existence of sculpture as it has traditionally been conceived. When sculpture is less and less tangible, the base becomes the only aspect which continues to show presence and substantiality. Perhaps an inverse premise is at work. If Brancusi can incorporate the base into his sculptures, what is to prevent the base, in later hands, from becoming sculpture?

There is also another possibility, which might be called “ceiling-bound” sculpture. Robert Grosvenor creates the most dramatic of these constructions. Transoxiana, suspended by channels from the ceiling, teasingly misses the floor by inches. Such a switch in gravitational orientation destroys not only the base, but the spectator’s sense of “up” and “down.”

The base belongs to an older conception of art, typified by a reverence for irreplaceable objects. In some cases the art object emanated transcendental qualities. Thus, the sculpture base bestowed an apartness; it physically defined the esthetic distance which necessarily remained between viewer and art object. To a marked degree this relationship has changed. Gross familiarity with objects, artistic or not, results from the mass proliferation of man-made things. This has undermined the protocol of the viewer-object relationship.

A desire to bring art directly into the flux of life has produced some doubtful consequences. Some recent construction has been presented on the basis of store window display or the tableau vivant. These consist of assemblages of dressed figures given the benefit of real materials and objects for a setting. Here the problems of the base do not exist. In psychological effect, this type of mannequin Expressionism and environmental tableau relates to similar efforts in the European courts and Catholic Church during and after the Middle Ages. Their fragility probably excluded those objects from being considered high art in the sense of painting and sculpture.

AIR-BORNE SCULPTURE: Within the past ten years attempts varying in resourcefulness have been made, which go beyond the Constructivist ambition of the total liberation of sculpture from the base. Short of shooting sculpture into orbit (which has been suggested as a real possibility by Takis), some sculptors have tried to free their forms from all physical contact with the Earth.

One attempt, though missing the goal, has been the use of discontinuous compression and continuous tension systems, the “tensegrity” principle first developed by Kenneth Snelson under the guidance of R. Buckminster Fuller. The Japanese sculptor, Morio Shinoda, has worked with balloon-type, sheet-metal forms suspended by the tensegrity principle. Where Snelson has been involved in lifting small, thin compression members off the ground, Shinoda’s forms, because of their apparent bulk, are much more dramatic. These steel globes hover a foot or so off the floor with the help of only a few fine stainless-steel wires. (Since writing my comments about Shinoda, Kenneth Snelson has held his first show of tensegrity constructions in New York during the spring of 1966. Significantly, in his larger works Snelson has enlarged his compression members. These thick, hollow tubular aluminum units have the same feeling of bulk as Shinoda’s constructions.)

Since 1959, the sculptor Takis has produced numbers of—what he calls—Telemagnetic constructions. The base in this instance is a wall or metal plate which serves as an anchor for the system. Takis attaches found or-self-made forms to flexible wires, which are tied to fixed posts. These metallic forms are set within range of the magnetic field of electromagnets. The forms stand straight out in the air, attracted towards but not touching the magnet. Repeated interruption of the electric current makes these objects fall limply or quiver at attention in the direction of the electromagnet.

The yearning to free sculpture from the confines of gravity has been met by subjecting forms to even more powerful kinds of energy. Such forces can produce a condition of equilibrium. Thus Alberto Collie has designed a number of titanium discs (non-magnetic metal) which are repelled by a strong magnetic field. Early models stabilized and held the disc within range of the base by a tiny, almost invisible thread tied to the bottom of the sculpture. The systems technology of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, laboratory has enabled Collie to eliminate even this tiny thread. Here the disc is subjected to another stronger magnetic field produced by an electromagnetic coil which keeps the piece within the field of the first, or levitating, coil. Any attempt to dislodge the disc relays a feed-back signal which strengthened the magnetic field opposite the force pushing the disc out of equilibrium. Hence, the base has vanished altogether!

In a newspaper article, Collie insists that Brancusi would have sent some of his forms aloft if it then had been possible: “He was working to the ultimate of what was scientifically available to him at the time. I am able to free my form from gravity because technology has moved so far ahead.”9

The technological significance of Collie’s art is impressive, but not because of its association with Brancusi’s sculpture. The purpose behind technological acceleration is not the creation of better Brancusis. His work already represents a particular era and attitude towards sculpture. Collie’s plastic and esthetic problems are in another realm, though his reasoning for the use of electromagnetism touches upon a long unsolved dilemma: “It is like describing an egg. No matter how much of an egg a person can see, there is still a tiny place at the base where it cannot be seen. Now I have been able to take the art form and place it so that it can be viewed in its entirety.”

This statement echoes the Constructivist dilemma with self-contained constructions whose symmetry is destroyed by laying them on a flat surface. Collie’s difficulty had earlier been surmounted with the aid of guy wires, point contacts, and suspended objects. Now, with sculpture completely liberated from its base it becomes a different animal! Its raison d’etre is no longer that it embodies formal qualities, but that it exists as a physical system including invisible forces. The duality between matter and energy enters a new phase.

Finally, there are the gestures of unrealized liberation. These include the Group Zero night exhibitions, vernissages held by Otto Piene and Heinz Mack in the streets of Düsseldorf. Under the night sky in 1960 dozens of white balloons were set adrift and followed up into the heavens by searchlights. In part, this was propaganda for the group, but more importantly these balloons signaled the migration of material forms towards another area of activity. It would be tempting to avoid mention of Andy Warhol’s silver-colored pillows filled with lighter-than-air gas, produced by the “Factory” for his May, 1966, show in New York. These floated at all heights, slowly discharging their contents.

The water-borne sculptures of Robert Grosvenor attain another form of floating. These are meant for sea travel as a buoy-like structure carries a ‘T’-form above the waves. This super-structure, triangular in cross-section, projects out of the water at an angle.

For four years Hans Haacke has worked with large weather balloons stably balanced on columns of forced air. Lately, these have been perfected to the point where the balloon moves at some distance and in a trajectory from its source of air support. In fact, the currents of air used are almost unnoticeable. Actual “flying sculpture” (beginning in 1966) are now being constructed by the New Yorker, Charles Frazier. Besides various sculptural helicopters, rockets, and inflated shapes, Frazier’s most ambitious undertakings are a series of fantastic, doughnut-shaped hovercraft which operate by moving over the ground on a sixteen-inch cushion of air.

The trend towards mobility, and particularly through the air, will probably continue. Even if the sightings of “Flying Saucers” or U.F.O.s, silent, stationary and suspended off the ground sometimes for great periods, are only a collective fantasy, it lingers as a goal in the unconscious mind of man.

Mr. Burnham is Assistant Professor of Art at Northwestern University.

The article above is an extract from Mr. Burnham’s forthcoming book, Beyond Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century, to be published by George Braziller & Co. in the spring of 1968.



1. John Rewald, Degas: Works in Sculpture, New York, Pantheon Books, 1944, pp. 78–79.

2. Auguste Rodin and Paul Gsell, Art, Boston, Maynard & Co., 1912, pp. 88–89.

3. Albert Elsen, Rodin, New York, Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Co., 1963, p. 83.

4. Christopher Gray, Cubist Esthetic Theories, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1953, pp. 2–93.

5. Quoted in Robert Herbert (ed.), Modern Artists on Art, Englewood Cliffs, N.Y., Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 28–29.

6. Lewis Mumford, The Highway and the City, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963, pp. 31–40.

7. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, The Orion Press, 1963, p. 184.

8. Barbara Rose, “Looking at American Sculpture,” Artforum, Vol. III #5, Feb., 1965, p. 36.

9. Alberto Collie (subject), “Dramatic Breakthrough in Art: Collie Sculptures Float in Space,” New York Herald Tribune, October 26, 1964.