PRINT May 1969


Jack Burnham’s Beyond Modern Sculpture

Jack Burnham, “Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century” (George Braziller, 1968); 402 pages, 135 illustrations in black and white.

AFTER YEARS OF CONSIDERABLE NEGLECT, modern sculpture is beginning to experience an eager courtship by publishers anxious to present its history in the same coffee table format with cafeteria content that has afflicted modern painting. We are already wading in the first waves of books on sculpture whose covers are too far apart or which you can’t pick up once you’ve put them down. (Recently we have even been subjected to a putative history of 19th and 20th century sculpture that attempts to subtract from the modest sum of knowledge in this field.) Although responsible for publishing a deplorable history of the beginnings of modern sculpture some years ago, George Braziller has had the foresight and courage to publish Jack Burnham’s Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century. This is one of the most controversial books on modern sculpture, if not modern art. (The publisher has curiously hedged his financial bet by withholding important additional illustrations of scientific objects and machines crucial to the book’s text.)

Intellectually, Burnham’s is one of the very few books on modern art that makes one think and forces the reader back to the library and to the works of art themselves. It invites argument, and for once the broad margins in an art book see service for commentary, challenges and questions. Whether you are for or against its ideas, this is a book worth getting worked up about. The author is a young sculptor with training as an engineer who is currently a Fellow at the MIT Center For Visual Research. Burnham has taken many years to explore seriously the relationships of sculpture, technology and science. He makes no claims to having written a complete history of modern sculpture and there is noticeably little reference to the influence of modern painting. (It is this last aspect which has already aroused criticism, but I do not feel that the basic thesis and points of view around which the book is constructed are seriously weakened by it.)

Shedding the tedious conventional categorizing of modern sculpture, Burnham sets out to explain why sculpture has undergone a drastic alteration in the last seventy-five years, sowing the seeds for its own extinction or transformation into a new art form. It is not the influence of painting, but “technics” which he sees as physically and spiritually responsible for sculpture’s great break with the past. As contrasted with others who have written comparable histories of modern sculpture, Burnham’s vision is of long-term trends rather than a succession of “new movements.” I find myself in strong agreement with his view that, “Quite broadly, sculpture and technics are related in that they are both extensions of an urge to control and shape a limited part of man’s environment.” Justly referring to traditional sculpture as an “archaic” endeavor (in terms of how it is made), Burnham sees these modes of realization “unwillingly thrust into a hostile and ultimately explosive frame of reference.” The surprise in his thesis is that sculpture will not die of formal exhaustion, but rather extinction “through the attainment of goals as old as sculpture itself.”

One of these goals is man trying through art to recreate himself. In an industrial society he sees abstraction as “nothing less than psychic preparation for the entire recreation of society, including remaking the biological composition of its inhabitants.” What may cause consternation in certain critical quarters is his view that abstraction or formalism “to remain culturally . . . potent must gravitate toward a merger with the types of symbolic reasoning employed by science.” Burnham argues for a more “pervasive” formalism, not its total elimination, as art becomes more of a “psychical manifestation of the scientific demiurge.” To prevent the future of a world in which there is an artless existence, Burnham rightly argues for a meaningful and expanded alliance between artists, technicians and scientists. For him the totemic artifact, the isolated, discrete, material sculpture with its set place may have historical and sentimental value, but will not be relevant to the values of future societies. (Having disqualified himself as an orthodox historian, it is consistent that the author try his luck with the future.)

As a sculptor with an engineering background, Burnham cannot accept Mallarmé’s contention that art and science are enemy faculties. He concludes that the artist and technician share parallel goals, of which both are unaware. Modern sculpture is seen:

. . . as a preparatory stage representing steps towards the simulation of biological life, a point in human evolution when the sculptor begins to imitate the machine maker and the creator of scientific models, unaware that the artifacts of technology are meant to do the same things as his own forms, and that they do some more successfully. The drive that finally prompted the sculptor to foresake naturalism and the human figure was not that of the desire to destroy the biological replica, but the realization that if he was serious in his quest to bring inert matter to life anthropomorphism would not accomplish it. The machine, he intuitively realized, as unsubtle and inefficient as it was, remained the only means by which man would eventually reconstruct intelligent life, or what might be called life-hearing artifacts. As a result, much modern sculpture has been concerned with the creation of pseudo-machines which haphazardly approximate the life impulse.

One of the important ways in which this book is helpful to the reader is in making him more aware of the pervasiveness of scientific influence on modern sculpture. “Modes of scientific idealism have consistently stimulated the development of nonrepresentational sculpture; thus the so-called biomorphic idiom relied on vitalism; Constructivism found its impetus in the evanescences of modern structural engineering, mathematics and physics; Surrealist sculpture vested its validity in Freudian interpretations of the subconscious mind while the object sculpture of today seeks transcendence through the seeming rationality of materialism colored with phenomenological considerations.” (In fairness to the author it should be pointed out that in the early chapters of the book he spells out these influences in greater detail.)

The book’s two parts divide modern sculpture into object and system (“an interacting assembly of varying complexity”) which Burnham sees as the “means by which sculpture gradually departs from its object state and assumes some measure of lifelike activity.” The first chapter, “Sculpture’s Vanishing Base,” appeared in the September, 1967, Artforum, and Burnham argued that sculpture’s acquisition of an object status and the decline of vitalist ideas caused the elimination of this appendage. (This is a fresh but incomplete view of an important subject. Rodin’s baseless sculptures, for example, are not taken into account.) The second chapter, “Biotic Sources of Modern Sculpture,” is a welcome review of the philosophical and scientific basis for investing spirit in sculptural matter. Chapter three, “Formalism, the Weary Vocabulary,” presents the classical machine as the archetype for this form of sculpture, which the author feels is no longer adequate. Reading an anachronistic conflict into formalism and vitalism, Burnham foresees a dead end in the chapter, “Form Exhaustion and the Rise of Phenomenalism.” He astutely points out that sculpture is fatally attracted to ideas which challenge its material being, and postulates “at least the temporary survival of sculpture through transition from the object to the system.”

The second half of the book may be the most informative for the layman, exciting for the young sculptor, challenging for the art historian, and dismaying to collectors, art dealers and museum directors. All chapters are prefaced by excellent synoptic and critical histories which interconnect art with related and often earlier developments in science and technology. The chapter on Automata begins with a fascinating (but unillustrated) recapitulation of the history of pre20th-century ventures into mechanical reproduction of the human form, which are referred to as “subsculptures.” He then proceeds into intelligent observations concerning the early work of Archipenko (whose contributions Burnham truly appreciates), Duchamp-Villon (I doubt that I will ever accept The Horse as a “subsculpture”), Léger, Schlemmer and Bellmer. One of the best and most thorough historical summaries in the book is that on “Kineticism: The Unrequited Art,” which he links with optical abstraction in painting. He renders harsh but merited judgments on those who have attempted to adapt the machine to moving sculpture:

Kinetic sculpture has a problem which only a few sculptors have partially surmounted. Deterministic kinetics either produce simplistic motion patterns which do not sustain interest, because somehow the nature of mechanized motion is not intrinsically interesting, or they reduce to a mesmerizing effect such as light dancing across a body of water.

Burnham points out that we have been content to coast along on an esthetic designed in the spirit of a far less complex technology, and that before 1960 artists did not concertedly set out to use scientific methodology in solving artistic problems. He predicts a new symbiosis of artists and engineers; “engineers are not visionaries . . . the artist will find it increasingly difficult to realize his visions without the aid of his practical advisors.” During the course of this chapter, the author indicates the importance for the thesis of his book of the general propositions of the Group for Research in the Visual Arts, by which “art becomes a matter of accommodating perception.” For many artists now and in the future, the question will continue to he posed as to whether this type of art or goal is sufficient or relevant to the needs of intellect and feeling of both artist and audience.

Symptomatic of Burnham’s ability to capsulize precisely in a sentence a complex development is his introduction to chapter seven, “Light as Sculpture Medium”: “. . . the trend of light art is to eliminate the specific art object and to transform the environment into a light modulating system sensitive to responses from organisms which invade its presence.” Then, along with slightly more familiar figures like Thomas Wilfred and Moholy-Nagy, the names of Adrian Bernard Klein, D. D. Jameson, Frederic Kastner and A. W. Rimington––men who were early interested in the connections between light and music––are brought to the attention of students and artists, in many instances for the first time, and in the context of a history of modern art. Light art is in its infancy, according to the author, because of the late change from mechanical to technical thinking on the part of artists, and a more recent public responsiveness to its effects in art. Lucio Fontana’s pioneering and extensive European influence is given full credit and explanation, which will come as a surprise to an American readership accustomed to a postwar critical bias that has focused almost exclusively on American artists. This is but one of many instances in which Burnham shows the international scope of his research and his disinterest in championing American dominance in the field of modern sculpture. His interesting distinction between the European and American use of the new medium is that the latter is an uninhibited adoption of commercial advertising techniques.

At no point do I read Burnham as saying that one medium is a priori better than another. He does feel that certain new media have greater relevance to an increasingly sophisticated public sensibility that is influenced by science and technology. He concludes his chapter on light art by writing, “Increasingly, pure energy and information seem to be the essences of art: all else is being dropped methodically by the wayside.” Within the context of his book, I think it is fair to say that the reader is aware that the author recognizes there are thousands of sculptors who do not share his view and continue to prefer and practice traditional sculpture in the broadest sense.

The final chapter on “Robot and Cyborg Art” explains the historical attempts “to make communication between the work of art and the observer a sustained two-way experience.” What he feels may be the ultimate art form is an intelligent art, sculpture that truly acts and reacts to humans. Looking at art today, its past tendencies and future possibilities, Burnham is moved to write, “As a reflection of the Faustian drama in the 20th century, it is increasingly impossible for sculpture to hang midway in its present position between the imperfection of the machine and the artistically superior tradition of figure sculpture.”

Burnham carefully explains the meaning and history of the scientific terms and concepts with which he deals. This helps us to understand the dilemma of the kinetic artist, for example, whose aspirations are not matched by his ’technical ability, or mastery of what Burnham elsewhere called “the mechanics of the possible.” Further, he sees many figure sculptors of this century as not imitating man, but imitating “robots trying to become human.” (Paolozzi, is cited as an example.) Psuedo robots, or mechanical men such as Trova makes (“Pop totemism”) are not, in Burnham’s eyes, the fulfillment of man’s dream of recreating himself in sculpture. “They take the last step before the automobile kewpie doll inherits the Western tradition of mimetic influences from Praxiteles, Michelangelo and Rodin.” Citing anthropomorphism as one of the constants of sculpture, the author points out that lifelike art, like advanced robots, need not resemble human appearance, but instead can display the human qualities of responsiveness, thought and action. The development of scientists like Gray Walter and artists like Nicolas Schöffer, indicates how human qualities can be imparted to machines by means of various devices and electronic systems. Schöffer is pictured as having a private synoptic vision, tenaciously held, daring to meet the engineer more than halfway. While recognizing the “inhumanity” and “overprettiness” of some of Schöffer’s work, Burnham sees this artist as performing an heroic and valuable service by reminding us that “technology without much help from the artist is becoming increasingly responsible for its own visual impact.” Both Schöffer and Burnham pose the question of the place of the artist who turns his back on science in a computer dominated world. The formidable problems, financial as well as intellectual, of working with the new science and technology are cited along with sound warnings about the sociological implications of heavy industrial support for certain artists and not others. Giving some balance to his view of the present and future he cites the work of Hans Haacke, who rejects cybernetic hardware in favor of “cycles of natural organization,” which the author calls an “environmental systems philosophy.”

At one point Burnham raises the question of whether or not figures in bronze and marble today symbolize “the form-creating ambition of our culture.” Answering negatively, he claims that the artist Enrico Castro-Cid, with his mock cybernetic systems, represents “the technical and spiritual will of our civilization.” If we acknowledge the unverifiability of the answer, but accept the validity of the question, the challenge to the reader then is to approve or replace Burnham’s choice. My own view is that Burnham has too high (or too early) an estimate of the spirit of our time and our culture, which still stands in awe of bronze and marble figures while supporting the Barbie doll. Picasso continues to come closer to this imaginary ideal than Castro-Cid, and it is unfortunate that Burnham did not comment on the work of one of this century’s most important and influential sculptors. (Unfortunate, but I do not think destructive to his thesis.)

Burnham foresees, by the century’s end, sculpture as we now know it being phased out; “. . . the logical outcome of technology’s influence upon art before the end of this century should be a series of art forms that manifest true intelligence . . . with a capacity for reciprocal relationships with human beings. . . . The need for intelligent response and self-recognition which we have instinctively sought and sometimes found, in art will reappear in fantastically powerful forms. But in turn for fulfillment of our needs, we must loosen our psychological grasp on traditional art.” This last reminds us of Zola’s comment regarding the art of Manet, that to appreciate it one had to forget a thousand things about painting.

One of the last and most provocative questions posed by this book, whose answer lies in the future, is whether or not art is a form of biological signal. “If man is approaching a time of radical change, one not controlled by natural selection and mutation, what better non-scientific way exists for anticipating self-recreation (not procreation) than the spiritually motivated activity of artificially forming images of organic origin. Could it be that modern sculpture is this process vastly accelerated?” In one of his most eloquent and optimistic passages Burnham forecasts art’s future great purpose: “By rendering the invisible visible through systems consciousness we are beginning to accept responsibility for the well-being and continued existence of life on earth.” This last refers to art’s serious involvement in the “rehabilitation” of technology.

This first book by a young artist, and (whether he likes it or not) art historian, is a brilliant performance. No future history of modern sculpture can ignore it, and hopefully it may abort plans for less serious and conventional histories still to be published. Burnham has left it to others to write a complete history. His central thesis, that science and technology have accelerated the realization of man’s eternal dream of recreating himself in art, is a sound one and welcome in a history of modern art. He has made intelligible the influence of science on art and gives us the best insight to date of the role that technology has played in modern sculpture. Rare among historians of art in this century is his concern with why modern sculpture has developed the way it has. Burnham has something of Buckminster Fuller’s comprehensive vision whereby he can see a phenomenon as part of a larger interrelated system of events. The book tells us a lot about Burnham as a person and he has set a high intellectual model for others to follow. He has brought to sculpture a rich background of reading and reflection in fields ranging from poetry through philosophy, science, psychology, and music. Not only has he seriously and at length researched library and laboratory, but he has talked and corresponded with sculptors and scientists to clarify and expand what they have said, thereby bringing much new material to his book. I admire his boldness, buttressed by thought, in making judgments, raising questions that the future must answer and speculating on what is to come. He hasn’t shrunk from evaluating the work of colleagues in new movements and he has an unusual breadth of understanding that permits him to sympathize with their intentions. Comments regarding such diverse sculptors as Degas, Rodin, Archipenko, Calder and Schöffer, to name only a few, show an exceptional sensibility to sculpture. His historical sense has made us consider and reconsider the work of such artists as Goeritz, Fontana, Archipenko and Moholy-Nagy.

Beyond Modern Sculpture is a book of ideas as well as information. The reader will not find another book on modern sculpture with as many original insights. Burnham’s book may be vulnerable in its facts (Lipton’s figurative pieces substantially precede the “Image of Man” exhibition, for example), its summaries of new developments in science (which I am not qualified to assess), and judgments about society’s present readiness to foresake the esthetic object, but his vision of the past, present and future of sculpture seems to me based on the most imaginative, thorough and extensive research ever brought to bear on the subject. The book is an inspired juxtaposition of thought, scholarship and events. The generative power of his ideas in the future will rightly test his contribution.

Albert Elsen