PRINT December 1971

Thomas Bang

A CERTAIN CONTINUITY BETWEEN SOME modernist and postmodernist art is hinted at when the term “pictorialism” is extended to sculpture. The sense in which this term seems properly to be able to link modernist painting with some recent three-dimensional art is examined with fine intelligence in the new work of Thomas Bang shown at O.K. Harris.

“Pictorialism” implies something that sculptures do or may have in common with pictures. What I intend by the word is not a description of certain sculpture as linear, or organized in a single plane, or atmospheric (as, say, Eva Hesse’s work is often called), or even figurative; all of these possible senses of the term seem to me trivial, if correct, in relation to contemporary work. One thing that a painting almost inevitably does, if it deals seriously with pictorial problems, is to posit a kind of space uniquely accessible to the viewer. Sculpture has an analogous ability to make us experience more or less specific regions of space as accessible to vision alone. However, this is not the same thing as illusionism. The most obvious but hardly the most interesting instances occur when the form of a sculpture actually encloses a space. The kind of claim on space that I’m describing happens in sculpture as emphatically open as Anthony Caro’s. It would be physically possible, for instance, to step inside the felt limits of a sculpture such as Caro’s Prairie. Yet in doing this one would not have the feeling of being inside the work, because one of the terms that the work dictates is that such behavior is radically inconsistent with understanding the object as a work of art, that is, understanding its claim to meaning.1 “Pictorialism” then describes not just the fact that sculptures may appropriate a certain kind of space, but that they have a built-in capacity to transform it, and thus render actual space virtual. To enter the virtual space set up by a sculpture is not simply to violate it, but to make it disappear by affirming its literal reality. Insofar as a sculpture secures the integrity of the virtual space it generates, it declares that it has meaning of a kind, in a way that other three-dimensional things do not. As I have already suggested, to secure such virtual space is best not accomplished by simple closure.

The virtual dimension which may attend sculpture, because it retreats before every attempt to enter it bodily, may be described as the inwardness of sculpture itself; anthropomorphism is then a “degenerate” instance of this inwardness, in the sense in which mathematics regards a circle as a degenerate ellipse. These notions are put forth in one of the most modest of Thomas Bang’s new works. It consists of two rectangular solid blocks of plaster stood on end, side by side, on the floor. Their dimensions were evidently the same originally, but the top corners of one block have been chipped away to reveal a coil of wire embedded in the length of the block. The exposed rounds of wire have been unwound and recoiled so that they spiral erratically downward around the block itself to the floor. Clearly, the coiling of the wire around the block claims for the piece a portion of space, and since the wire looks quite brittle, that space is experienced as vulnerable, not merely open to entry. The embracing of the block by the emerging wire depicts the process by which the sculpture as a whole becomes haloed with virtual space. It further declares that this process is a function of our understanding of the meaning of the piece, or rather our understanding that it has a meaning; for it is the fact of meaning, not yet its specificity, that is being dealt with. In embedding the wire in the block, Bang also mocks our tendency to feel that the meaning of a sculpture somehow issues from within it. This feeling, he suggests, is a false sense of the inwardness of sculpture.

An entirely different aspect of pictorialism occurs in Untitled #S5 (1971). This one consists of a length of metal pipe whose ends are set into identical plaster blocks; the pipe is set parallel to the floor so that the little plaster blocks hold it a couple of inches off the floor. Five coils of rusted wire extend away from the pipe on one side along roughly parallel lines on the floor. The end of each distended coil is set in a small plaster block. This piece seems to depict the effect that gravity would have in determining its form jf it were hung in the most likely way from a wall; but it is depictive, which is to say meaningful in this case, only because it is not placed on the wall. Its denial of the need for a base or support is what makes it depictive—pictorial—in the sense that it is. This kind of play upon the exigencies of anti-illusionism is typical of Bang’s plastic wit.

The finest piece in the show is the most clearly narrative, and calls attention to the narrative aspect of most of Bang’s other work. This piece, of three parts, began with the shallow square block of plaster being dropped on the floor; the block shattered, liberating four of five wire coils that had been set into it. Next to the broken plaster slab is a square aluminum sheet of the same perimeter, with the four coils released from the plaster set on top of the aluminum sheet. At right angles to the line formed by the first two squares, another aluminum sheet is raised slightly off the floor, its corners inserted into the windings of four more coils, each set into a small plaster foot. The array reads clockwise, and the conclusion of the narrative is felt to be in the area which appears to wait for a fourth element to complete the symmetry (or perhaps it evokes the step preceding the dropping of the slab). In either case that space is perceived not simply as claimed by the rest of the ensemble, but as integral to its identity, as a virtual being of the fourth term in the sequence. By reason of that fourth term, which is experienced as real but not literal, the inwardness of sculpture is made apparent.

The narrative content of this work reads as an explanation of the form of the work itself; beyond that, it reads as an account of the felt nature of the open space with which it culminates. That open space is a pure instance of the virtual space engendered by pictorial sculpture. Because pictorialism as I have defined it is so clearly at issue in this work, the self-explanatory character of the work is understood as an allusion to modernist painting. Modernist paintings respond most directly to the necessity to lay bare the conditions on which they can be seen to exist by means of strategies of self-explanation. The meaning of Bang’s plaster/aluminum ensemble is that self-explanation in works of art amounts to self-invention, that is, not invention by a self, but invention of a self. This “self” is what I have referred to as the inwardness of works of art; this is not their meaning exactly, but rather the fact of their meaning, the order of reality that it has for us. The implication of Bang’s piece is that while the inwardness of sculpture can be experienced as entirely present within the work, the inwardness of modernist pictures cannot be so experienced. The latter kind of inwardness is felt as exceeding or transcending the presentation of it which the individual painting makes, perhaps because of the fact that modernist painting generally cannot take advantage of the literal continuity between real and virtual space as pictorial sculpture can.

The parallel should be obvious between the experience of the inwardness attending modernist paintings and the experience of that inward ness with which another person always presents us.2 What is suggested is a deep and subtle anthropomorphism inherent in modernist painting, something about which I’ll have more to say in another essay. I would like to suggest that this anthropomorphism helps to explain why much of the radical three-dimensional art of the mid’ 60s made its attack primarily on modernist painting rather than sculpture. I think that one of the criteria for testing the seriousness of postmodernist work might be the posture of the work in relation to the issue of inwardness.

It needs to be said that not all of Thomas Bang’s work yet displays the sophistication of the examples discussed here. Some of his works are a bit too clever or facile for their own good, but they all reveal an extraordinary sensitivity to the possibilities of the materials used and to the occasions for their deployment. His work is strongest when it meets the question of pictorialism head on and weakest when it falls back on a sort of conventional factual-process approach. His work is decidedly worth watching.

Kenneth Baker


1. The most radically nonpictorial sculpture I know of is some of Carl Andre’s. His arrays of metal plates squeeze out the last vestiges of virtual space by their weight and placement on the floor. Walking on those plates, one does not enter a virtual space, but adds one’s own weight to its prior absence.

2. This may help to explain the rightness of Stanley Cavell’s remark to the effect that we treat works of art, especially modernist ones, more like people than like objects.