PRINT April 1976

Notes on Small Sculpture

THROUGHOUT THE MODERN PERIOD, small sculpture has been tainted with connotations of preciosity, luxury, unearned privilege and even secrecy. In the conflict between the artist and the world (which is often represented by the patron), small sculpture can take on the look of a capitulation: to produce small objects, it is assumed, is to claim no power for oneself or for art. Yet one thinks immediately of exceptions to this attitude. Giacometti’s small figures are respected, as are Cornell’s boxes and Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe. Modernist theory and practice, in all its pluralism, has both sustained inherited doubts about smallness and found ways to overcome them. Small sculpture was provided with support when, for example, Medaro Rosso, Rodin, Matisse and Picasso transposed pictorial innovations from two to three dimensions while, very often, holding the size of their works within limits set by the dimensions of easel painting.

As is well known, Cubism inspired a particularly intense intimacy between painting and sculpture. This relationship is both effected and symbolized by the smallness of so much of the sculpture by Picasso, Gris, Duchamp-Villon, Lipchitz, Henri Laurens and others. The development of post-Cubist geometrical styles produced even more small sculpture—and more sculptor-painters. The modularity either implied or used outright in geometrical art permits small form to stand convincingly for form at any size—as in recent work by Ruth Vollmer, Phoebe Helman, Louise Nevelson and Marilynn Gelfman-Pereira. In her latest show, Gelfman-Pereira joined twigs to her miniature wire geometries. Form that had looked ready to be monumentalized was suddenly anchored to its actual dimensions.

Against the background of Cubist innovation, both pictorial and sculptural, Duchamp was able to propose the readymade—in particular, the small readymade: the Bottlerack of 1914 is 23 1/4'' high; the Traveller’s Folding Item (an Underwood typewriter cover; 1917) is 9'' high, while the Comb (1916) is 6 1/2'' x 1 1/4''. Objects despised or neglected not only for their small size but also for unacceptable associations were brought within the pale of modernist seriousness without the support of close formal links to pictorial innovation. The step from found objects of this kind to created ones with analogous qualities was made in Giacometti’s small bronzes of the late ’20s and early ’30s; as in his Man and Woman (1928–29; 18 1/8'' x 15 3/4'' which uses smallness to focus shapes drawn from the interior of a Surrealist imagination rather than from the clutter of the ordinary world. These bronzes have links with contemporary Surrealist painting, but not with the most formally adventurous kinds. The emphasis is on the meaning of iconography, which Giacometti intensifies in part through miniaturization. In his Caught Hand (1932; 23" long), he combines found and created forms to make an object which gave direction to one of the chief developments of small sculpture: the body part fetishized. More generally, Giacometti’s shapes and figures from this period establish smallness as a means of intensifying the sculptural object; while his construction of wood, glass, wire and string, The Palace at 4 A. M., (1932–33; 25'' x 28 1/4'' x 15 3/4'') establishes smallness as a way to intensify the space enclosed by sculpture. For Americans, especially, Cornell’s boxes—which first appeared in the mid-’30s—have been equally important for the intensification of space through miniaturization.1

Parenthetically, there was another kind of miniaturization during this period. In 1934, Duchamp collected facsimiles of his works in the Green Box. These stand in relation to the original works somewhat as paper money stands to bullion. They are reproductions of objects, yet their representational function is somewhat vestigial: visual resemblance is giving way to a more conceptualized link between an object and its token. This kind of smallness led, not to variant smallnesses, but to further conceptualization in which the physicality of the token object, large or small, is negligible. The miniaturization seen in the Green Box is the only modernist variety which has not offered a precedent for later small sculpture. By contrast, the intensification of objects and spaces achieved by the small works of Giacometti and Cornell has been the source of a flood of related sculpture.

However, there is no question of trying to establish links of direct influence here. Once smallness was made available without reservation to sculptors, the possibility was realized differently in each case. Smallness appears to be an option over which artists want to exercise strong proprietary rights. One may be tempted to see Giacometti’s Caught Hand behind every sculpture that presents body parts life-sized or smaller, yet the picture is complicated by the fact that among the chief works of this kind are Duchamp’s Female Fig Leaf (1950), the Objet-Dard (1951) and the Wedge of Chastity (1954). These present or evoke body parts quite different from Giacometti’s Hand; further, they are by an artist whose small found objects were in many cases prior to the Caught Hand, and helped open up the possibility for that piece. Most importantly, the punning effect of Duchamp’s body-part sculpture of the ’50s turns smallness away from the obsessive Surrealist use to which it had been so often put until then.

The Female Fig Leaf, for example, is a negative mold of a vagina; hence it “reverses” sexuality, turns it inside out, to produce an art object. At the same time, the art object is turned inside out, it becomes non-art, by so clearly presenting a sexual image. The visual-conceptual pun here turns on the art/sex dichotomy, as does the phallic Objet-Dard (Dart Object/Objet d’Art). In the late ’50s, Jasper Johns responded less to the evocations of the body in these works by Duchamp than to the older artist’s punning “investigation” of the art/non-art opposition. The result was a series of Sculpmetal and bronze Lightbulbs, Flashlights and Paint Cans. Some of these were cast life-sized from found objects; some were made by applying Sculpmetal over the object itself. In all cases a change in surface material led to small artworks so faithful in various ways to their non-art prototypes that questions about the nature and limits of art are raised.

In 1967, Bruce Nauman returned to the possibility of body-fragment-as-small-sculpture with such works as From Hand to Mouth (a wax over cloth mold of that portion of the artist’s body), Device for a Left Armpit (a painted plaster mold of the artist’s armpit), and others. Nauman achieved a blend of ironies here: Duchampian “bodily presence” with Johnsian objectness or “objectivity.” Lynda Benglis’s recent pair of double dildos, Parenthesis (each 15 1/2'' long), are first shocking, then ironic in a manner that draws on Duchamp’s sexually charged paradoxes about art and non-art functions—or perhaps they express a nostalgia for the time when Duchamp’s ironies were new.

Duchamp, Johns, Nauman and others—especially Robert Morris in the early ’60s—use smallness to mediate physicality with verbal and conceptual concomitants of the physical. Elsewhere in the postwar period the possibility of small sculpture was used to insist on the physicality of body parts in horrifying ways. The danger threatening Giacometti’s Caught Hand is recalled and made more explicit.

Some of Bruce Conner’s veiled, damaged figures are shrunken enough—baby-sized—to count as small sculptures. The repellent textures, colors and forms of these miniature torsos of the late ’50s and the ’60s suggest decay at the origins of bodily existence. Adult-sized, plexiglas-encased, gangrenous forearms and hands by Paul Thek appeared in the late ’60s, a time when youth culture was insisting on the primacy and fundamental health of the body. Thek seemed to accept and to doubt youth culture’s vaguely formulated tenets. His largest work from that period is a pyramid displaying an effigy of himself. He is dressed as a hippy. It is clear from the title of the work and the look of the figure that the hippy is dead. Thek’s body-fragment sculpture focuses even more closely on the horrors of advanced decomposition. The smallness of these works opposes obsessive doubts to the optimism of a faddish spirituality.

A different kind of obsessiveness often holds Lucas Samaras’s art to smallness. He reworks images of his own body—X-ray or Polaroid—to suggest emotional dangers with spectacular visual analogues. Or small, physically dangerous objects (knives, scissors) are subjected to reworkings (“transformations”) which leave them still dangerous and newly, perversely attractive. Alternatively, tiny sharp objects (pins, glass or metal shards) are attached in obsessive profusion to innocuous objects (books, boxes, a life-sized head) to make them dangerous. Sometimes large objects (chairs) are subjected to these “transformations,” but even then the transforming energy seems to originate in the artist’s sense that it is in the minute texture of a thing that its true—i.e. dangerous and compelling—qualities are to be found. Recently he exhibited a number of poured plaster works which make oblique reference to the body. Their heaped shapes, painted in iridescent colors, suggest metallic excreta or—thanks to holes in their centers—bodily orifices. Samaras has begun to apply the “transformations” of objects and body images to the body itself.

A sense of the body less compulsively horrific can be seen in Claus Oldenburg’s sculpture. The polymorphism which allows his objects to be read both as ordinary things and as symbols of the body is vaguely sexual, where Samaras’s “transformations” create an atmosphere of insistent sexual threat originating in the texture of things: a self-involved miniaturization is Samaras’s necessary vehicle for the meaning of his art. Since Oldenburg’s work is vague and polymorphous, not obsessively precise, and since his presence in his work is somewhat infantile, not demonically adult, Oldenburg’s evocations of the body aren’t as committed to smallness as are Samaras’s. More often than not, Oldenburg’s fleshly appliances, drum sets, fans and so on enforce a baby’s-eye-view through gigantism. Occasionally, however, this point of view leads to small sculpture, as with the Banana (16 3/4'' high) of 1965 (phallus as food) or the smaller ray guns of the late ’50s (phallus as excretion).

A number of West-Coast ceramicist-sculptors—Ron Nagle, John Mason, Billy Al Bengston (a ceramicist-painter), Kenneth Price and others—produced small clay works in the late ’50s. They were glazed in a manner establishing an intimate, sometimes ironic connection to abstract painting of the period.2 Price in particular should be mentioned because some of his glazes produced, among other things, an excremental quality. A few years later, he exhibited a series of small ceramic objects that look like shimmering puddles of bile. Smallness here gives an esthetic focus, not to body fragments, but to the results of bodily processes. The horror of Giacometti’s Caught Hand persists as an aggressively displayed disgust.

The strange domesticity of Price’s ceramic cups is better known. Though they are often decorated by small figures of nude women or frogs, these are utensils—neither body fragments nor (in themselves) direct evocations of the entire body. If popular taste were odder than it is, these cups might be small found objects.3 Perhaps smallness is being used here to focus on art ironies mutated from those of Duchamp and Johns. Then again, Price may be interested in the complexities of the fine art/applied art opposition, a possibility which is strengthened in the light of the quasi-Art Deco flavor of his most recent cups.

Price substitutes small utensils for body fragments. Minimalist and post-Minimalist sculptors have produced small, nonanthropomorphic works simply by miniaturizing their large forms. The number of artists who have done and continue to do this is too large to permit even a partial listing. Smallness in these cases is an available option in a range of possibilities weighted toward largeness. Joel Shapiro, by contrast, makes consistently small works. In 1971, he exhibited three clusters of round clay forms, each two and a half inches in diameter. Some were machined, some cast, some molded by hand. The latter brought a post-Minimal concern with process from the expanded scale of, say, a splashed lead piece by Richard Serra to the scale of intimate handling. Next, Shapiro began to present toylike figures: houses, horses, boats, coffins, bridges. Very small wooden maquettes were cast in metal with no expansion in size. By 1973, these had evolved into small geometrical forms—some recognizable as chairs or, again, houses; some with only vague, compacted architectural connotations. These miniatures are able to engage large areas of surrounding space, thus realizing a Minimalist goal which had been stated in the ’60s with much larger works in mind.4

This kind of smallness focuses the surrounding emptiness, as it does in Thomas Bang’s recent works—plaster discs approximately 7'' high and 19'' in diameter—which also command a great deal of space while occupying very little of it. Typically, the top surface of a disc is somehow flawed—punctured, scraped, cracked—and repaired with a material that makes the process quite obvious, though it restores the smoothness of the surface almost perfectly. The smallness of such details focuses the attention in a way that gives a paradoxical solidity to these fragile plaster shapes. Ultimately, the viewer’s grasp of a work’s situation is solidified—and the situation expands to include the room-as-container.

Richard Tuttle’s small cardboard forms, as well as his wire and graphite wall pieces, avoid solidity. They present a tentativeness which is not owed entirely to their size. It also has to do with the look of fragility he allows his deliberately awkward facture to impart. Unlike Shapiro’s and Bang’s small works, Tuttle’s do not engage space in a commanding way. He links smallness to his own version of the delicacy for which small sculpture has traditionally been scorned. At the same time, he invites Minimal and post-Minimal form to give up its physicality—not to bring out verbal or conceptual “content,” but to offer such form contact with recent draftsmanly traditions. One is reminded that small sculpture achieved seriousness in the modernist period by working intimately from innovations in two-dimensional mediums. Tuttle gives a contemporary variation of that saving intimacy.

For all their retiring, dephysicalized qualities, Tuttle’s small cardboard boxes are intensified objects. In this case, the intensification occurs as one grows conscious that the artist is engaging ultimately incompatible visual conventions: the boxes are objects, but they are also references to drawings of objects. Larry Bell’s smallest glass boxes (4'' x 4'' x 4'') achieve intensity through a literal transparency which becomes a conceptual transparency: these are epitomes of self-evident fact. However, these intensified objects also contain intensified spaces, each one so precisely delimited it takes on a clarity denied to exterior space. Thus Bell follows up possibilities opened by Giacometti’s Palace at 4 A. M. and Cornell’s boxes.

This is less equivocal, perhaps, in the case of Robert Graham. In the early ’60s, he made variations on the boxes Cornell had established as exclusively his own.5 By 1965, he had begun to isolate the miniature female figures which had appeared in his work from the start, and to place them in small plexiglas-enclosed spaces. (Typically, these are 24'' x 24'' x 11''.) In successive works, the figures got more and more delicate—that is, more and more carefully detailed—until by the late ’60s they offered very small, very sculptural equivalents of air-brushed centerfold nudes. Graham usually provides them with a bed or at least sticks of wood to evoke beach architecture. Sometimes these accessories take over—no figures appear. In any case, the smallness of Graham’s space gets its intensity from its almost absolute availability to the viewer. His spaces and figures are charged with a voyeur’s energy, for that is the role into which one is put by the size and refined detail of his work. Human figures become curios.

Cornell limited himself to presenting curious objects and images as curios—arranged in ways that evoke Surrealist immensities and depths of meaning, thus preventing his works from being curio cabinets per se. Graham prevents this effect by challenging the viewer in a particularly forceful way. H. C. Westermann’s small, glass-sided boxes come across as more than curio cabinets through the bizarre quality of his forms and his juxtapositions of found objects; the perverse ordinariness of the latter, as well as the perverse obviousness of his punning labels; and the overall elusiveness of what is so clearly displayed. The banal solemnity of the curio cabinet or the speciman case is undercut by the serious self-absorption of an extremely individual imagination. A small, compacted space gives Westermann the opportunity to insist on the privacy of his works’ meanings, while it permits complete access to the vehicles of meaning.

Small sculpture whose space contains recognizable images must not only avoid looking merely like a curio cabinet. It must also avoid too strong a flavor of the doll house or the marionette stage—though of course these forms may be drawn upon. Graham’s works could be seen as marionette stages rescued by sexuality from coyness or childishness. Cletus Johnson’s encased facades are like impenetrable entrances to theaters. All the drama is in the intensity with which these monochrome works exclude the viewer while offering surfaces laden with stylistic cues: knowingly over-refined architectural details, evocative words spelled out in low relief or in tiny light bulbs. There is a stagey quality to John Willenbecher’s cosmic—but ironically miniature —tableaux. A different sort of staginess appears in some of Patsy Norvell’s recent works. She uses such materials as rabbit bones to enclose spaces as small as 10 inches in diameter. The effect is of small-scale—thereby intense—ritual acts having been performed.

Giacometti’s Palace at 4 A. M., the locale of a Surrealist nightmare, can be seen as a distorted doll house or marionette stage or both. Tony Berlant, Donna Dennis, Michael Hurson, Charles Simonds and Ira Joel Haber follow up possibilities opened by this early work. All of these artists shift away from biomorphic and “dream” form toward more ordinary varieties—though extraordinary meanings continue to be offered. Some of Berlant’s works are generalized architectural shapes well over human height but still miniature in comparison to buildings. In the late ’60s and early ’70s he showed genuine miniatures, tiny houses whose windows reveal cherubic doll heads at rest: doll house as mausoleum. The heads are often surrounded by plastic flowers, and the house’s roof and sides are shingled with flower images printed on sheet metal. Smallness here draws so much coyness to a confined space that a mordant comment on sentimentality results. In some of his more recent small works, Berlant has turned to fogged plexiglas boxes within which figures float in a hazy, light-filled obscurity: doll house as a satirically conceived corner of heaven.

Donna Dennis’s hotel facades, like Berlant’s large works, are above human height, but scaled-down in relation to their referents. Her maquettes for these works are roughly eight inches high, and stand independently as small sculptures. Like Michael Hurson, who showed small balsa wood rooms at the Museum of Modern Art in 1974, she is interested in texture. Dennis’s facades combine real interior space with the pictorial illusion of it. The result is to empty out these interiors, which charges the immediately surrounding space with an atmosphere—usually tropical—evoked by rough, varied surfaces, colors and architectural detailing. The smallness of Dennis’s maquettes and of her “full-sized” works brings out the grain of materials, which intensifies the atmosphere they generate. Michael Hurson’s balsa surfaces are quite different in effect. Perfectly smooth and evenly colored, they set his miniature rooms apart from the surrounding space. The artist’s perfectionism suggests that his works are models for full-scale rooms which, for all their irregularity of shape, would be surprise-free—filled with homogenous space. Smallness becomes the vehicle of an ideal impossible to realize in inhabitable architecture.

The smallness of Charles Simonds’s houses for his “Little People” functions as a trigger for fantasies about his imaginary population’s myths, beliefs and rituals. So far as I know, the artist has never spelled out the contents of this miniature culture.6 Its pueblos, scattered about in various urban sites, are perhaps expected to be evocative enough to make this unnecessary. Of all those whose works draw on the image of the doll house, Simonds’s come closest to being, simply, doll houses.

Ira Joel Haber sometimes places not doll houses but small plastic toy houses in his glass-fronted boxes. These objects are always surrounded by landscape imagery. Occasionally landscape appears alone, both in boxes and in wall and floor pieces. Unlike the miniature topographic sculptures of Sam Richardson, which use smallness to provide a sanitized visual control over landscape, Haber’s terrain is often rough, messy, destroyed. Burnt, bent and broken twigs standing for trees are stuck in excremental heaps representing hills and dales in environmental disarray. Or the heaps stand bare, enclosing glassy, biliously colored pools.

Haber’s work draws upon and integrates nearly all the present resources of small sculpture. His toy houses, burnt and pierced, take on the quality of damaged bodies and body fragments: that which is lived in suffers some of the pains of the bodies (the people) that live there. As I mentioned, his landscapes often have an excremental, bilious quality that recalls the body in another way. These aggressive, conflicting evocations charge his spaces with a near overload of meaning. This creates tensions somewhat mediated by the adaption of vernacular styles drawn from handmade toys, advertising display, perhaps even the Christmas crêche. Where Haber allows these references to push him toward a satirical folksiness, he offsets this effect with the mass-produced slickness of his toy houses or by covering the back walls of his boxes with found photographic images of routinely—hence ironically—“beautiful” landscapes.

Largeness offers possibilities for sculpture which are defined in a general way and widely shared. Hence large sculpture is always implicitly public sculpture. The production of such work draws artists to compete with each other for a convincing “possession” of largeness itself. This requires a heroic intention, an intention that can only realize itself in monumental spectacle. The artists discussed here—whether they use smallness to intensify objects or to intensify space—employ that property as their fundamental means of advancing, with as much power as possible, extremely private intentions. One should bear in mind that the “possession” of smallness is not achieved in competition, but in acts of concentration that tend finally to filter out historical imperatives. To make small sculpture is to imply ultimately personal environments, so portable and domestic that even the community we call the art world is sometimes excluded.

Carter Ratcliff, a poet, teaches at the School of Visual Arts; he contributes frequently to Artforum and other journals.



1. There are difficulties in giving the date of Cornell’s first box. In Joseph Cornell (The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1967), Diane Waldman suggests 1936 (p. 12).

2. A bit earlier on the East Coast, such sculptors as Ibram Lassaw had also drawn close to postwar abstract painting with often very small brazed and welded versions of the action painters’ draftsmanship.

3. In fact, certain of Price’s biomorphic cups have a close resemblance to cups made in the last quarter of the 19th century by George C. Ohr. See Robert W. Blasberg’s George C. Ohr and His Biloxi Art Pottery, Port Jervis, N.Y., 1973.

4. See Robert Morris’s “Notes on Sculpture, Part II,” Artforum, October, 1966; reprinted in Minimal Art, Gregory Battcock, ed., New York, 1968; pp. 230–35.

5. There is a large body of work by a large number of artists which could fairly be called the product of a “School of Cornell.” This is well documented and illustrated, along with less derivative developments, in Art in Boxes (New York, 1974) by Alex Mogelon and Norman Laliberté.

6. An extremely generalized description of this culture is given in Charles Simonds, Art Cahier/2, Daniel Abadie, ed., Paris, 1975.