PRINT November 1982


RELIEF HAS OFTEN SEEMED to waste away in ambivalence between painting, at least painting “proper,” and any “true” sculpture. Minimalism, however, called the question on the contrived dominance of conventional freestanding sculpture—something that Charles Baudelaire and Alberto Giacometti, not just Robert Morris and other contemporaries, had already criticized. By default, relief has generally been left close—if never quite close enough—to the condition of painting, and thus compromised or “impure”; at best. it could submit to architectural subordination. Besides, in and of itself, relief seemed categorically weak, something compositional and at least to some extent planar that had as it were to lean on materiality. Notwithstanding the complexity of Hegel’s qualifications—sculpture seeming to cut loose from a dependence on the inorganic/architectural—painting was supposedly all mind; sculpture was all body: so relief was like weak body or, if painted, like prosaic mind.

Lately the very comprehension of space itself has changed, which has consequences for the sovereign pride of “real” sculpture in staking out claims in an unlimited space there for the taking, versus the relief’s apparently less enterprising attachment to a wall willfully imposed (as architecture) into the inexhaustible receptivity of space. Radio astronomers have been saying not merely that space is finite, but that it distinctly ends in what “looks just like an opaque wall.” According to one, “The visible universe ends right there. . . . We see it all the time, but we just ignore it” (Esquire, April 1982). Now, once everything in the universe is understood to be inside it in this new sense, like so much furniture, space itself loses much of its mystique, and the notion of a wall may take on some of the ultimacy that the cosmic “roof” or dome long ago possessed. For the scope of sculpture this may suggest a new sense of the wall as opportune, a place for sculpture that not only gets it out from underfoot, frees it from its tendency to preside pompously over space, but one that also facilitates a new and less oppressive finality. At least you don’t have to worry about pedestals.

Not that current sculptors have necessarily had this revisionist cosmology in mind. In various ways they do leave behind the once reliable, gravity-bound finality of the walled-in floor or, outside, the architectural or open setting, as the “responsible” place to put sculpture, which even in Minimalism has a virtually inevitable ballast of gross mass. For two or three generations the understanding of constructive possibilities, starting from Picasso’s wonderful 1912 Guitar relief, in sheet metal, opened out beyond the pale of the old Albertian antithesis between carving and modeling. Perhaps today a comparable revelation is the sense, only clarified over the last decade, of the distinction in painting between Suprematism, with its transcendental yearnings, and Constructivism, which is so much more immanently a literal putting together of material elements to make a concrete object (as most ordinary objects are fabricated under the industrial system). Painting has tended to inherit Suprematist issues; sculpture, Constructivist ones. If certain relief constructions now seem to qualify their otherwise “mere” materiality by painterly means, this amounts to much more than any simply esthetic ambiguity—as with the painted reliefs of ancient Egypt (much too graphic to be considered sculpturesque) or Greece (unequivocal sculpture souped-up with painting). These large issues are on my mind now because the work of certain newer sculptors engages them, and their struggles are part of the larger struggle of sculpture itself today to do more than make grand paperweights for corporate lobbies (which may also be why we find so many small pieces that are not modelli.)

Thomas Clancy takes up relief after having made two big freestanding constructions, Place, 1979, a kind of late-to-post-Minimal counterpart to Anthony Caro’s at first stunning (now contrived-seeming) Prairie, 1967, and Leaves, 1980, another large, and still more radically direct, installation (both Clancy pieces have been dismantled but saved). Actually, Caro’s Prairie can be considered in some sense a “floor relief.” Such a category would also include some of the most important “Minimal” sculpture: many works by Carl Andre. of course, and some by Carel Visser—even, perhaps, sculptures by Ulrich Rückriem, in the sense that the vital breaks in his stone pieces are essentially looked down upon (or, almost, into, if that were possible), in the specifically perpendicular way that we approach what usually hangs on the wall, only rotated to the horizontal. Clancy’s large pieces are closer in essence to the structural personalism, individualistic and displaying homemade means, of Michael Singer’s beautiful stressed wood constructions. The difference is that, while comparable works by Singer and Clancy obviously call for strenuously individual making, Singer’s partake of a romantic pastoralism, with a practically Maoist sense of some huge, imposing thing made patiently of manageably light parts, whereas Clancy’s evoke the complex social interdependence of heavy-industrial technique (perhaps even of credit finance).

Complex yet self-evident as a structure, Clancy’s Place consists of a vast, low, stagelike floor of truss-work plastered over with white concrete, this tipped on all three axes in space (shades of Kazimir Malevich, in painting?) by an almost upright row of parallel but skewed steel rods. For me, the overscaled, indoor picturesqueness of its planar expanse recalls the landscape aspect of Caro’s Prairie, although the extreme structural self-evidence of Place, including its palpably thin layer of painterly white concrete, made the Caro piece, in memory, seem to play on a wish to see the reality of gravity evaded, if not overcome, by sleight of hand. Leaves consists only of a large horizontal platform, like the “deck” in Place, this comprising concrete-block “footings,” simply placed down, then regularly spaced rows of steel rods, then crosswise rows of straightened piano wire and, on top, thin newsprint sheets that happen to come from the want ads of the Times (Clancy means to play lightly on the idea of desire); all of this neatly stacked.

Now, however, Clancy has shown a related but quite different relief sculpture, Rainbow, 1982, a long horizontal wedge of common steel, in two lengths, like a V beam instead of an I beam, attached flat to the wall along one side of the V and bearing, in the face of such weight, the negligible load of a continuous, self-effacing strip of newsprint leaves (this time from Buy-Lines) soaked in paraffin and hanging down from their middle folds. Rainbow has the raking sweep once characteristic of much large-scale Minimalist sculpture (Ronald Bladen: earlier Robert Grosvenor), that unimpeded rake that can be found in life in, say, looking up close along the gunwale of a boat. But here the hanging “tarpaulin” of waxy newsprint, with its own painterly overtones (think of Jasper Johns’ encaustics), sheathes any possible sleekness in a lyrical hesitancy. As structurally undisguised as it is, Rainbow engages structural matters that cannot be subsumed under sculptural Minimalism. There is, mainly, an effective muting of possible structural oppressiveness by something almost trivial in substance. Also, since either side of the troughlike V of steel could have been used as the supporting flange, secondary to the other, there is also the old question of the puntello, that nonfigural strut or prop that, whether we are meant to attend to it fully or not, holds up some otherwise riskily overextended limb in figural sculpture from antiquity onwards.

Technically, Rainbow is a cantilevered structure, or rather practically all it is is a piece of cantilevering. The cantilever had specific engineering overtones in Constructivism, but it also has a sculptural prehistory: consider exceedingly outstretched arms in figures by Bernini and, later, the wedgelike postures of Rodin’s Prodigal Son, ca. 1889, and Brancusi’s The Prayer, 1907, all before, by about 1920, the total embrace of cantilevered engineering structure in the works of the Stenberg brothers, in early modern Russia. Clancy’s constructions impress me as not merely displaying structure qua structure, but also, at once, playing down anything like structural histrionics. In keeping with an entire tradition of American vernacular construction, Clancy’s work is at once forthright and formally understated, not only “honest” in the Functionalist sense but positively unassuming. By the same token, his constructions also compare with the likewise full-scaled and architectural, even if essentially “nonutilitarian,”steel sculptures of George Trakas. Even so, for all their structural literalism, Clancy’s works look only like sculpture and not like architecture.

What the venerable architectural issue of art and utility is to Clancy’s kind of structure, the specifically modern, Heideggerean question of the instrument in the sense of tool is to the recent relief sculptures of Thomas Bang. (The esthetician David Carrier has ably negotiated this approach to Bang’s work, and I owe this insight to him.) Over the years, Bang’s work has developed from a relentless exposition of its own logical determinacy to, now. something still structurally logical but more passionate. Earlier reliefs by Bang force carving and modeling into direct collision: a section of wooden beam, perhaps a two-by-four (echoes of constructional form as given, in conventional building materiel), is dug out in stepped angular slots, into the wood as well as laterally; the resultant cavities are partly filled back in with black wax, flush with the front in places and visibly broken off elsewhere, the way hard sticks of wax break. Obviously such work has a “process” aspect. Bang having once been obsessive about presenting structural “information.” Other reliefs got more shaped, modeled, with the wax on the outside. over a wooden armature sufficiently exposed to make it reciprocally active, not simply supporting. Typically, a piece may take a sort of barbell shape, with rounded, semicylindrical bulbs of wax at either end, what is solid wax playing against so much that has either been cut away or that never was there. There are related metal reliefs, too, in which the chunky, rounded parts just sit firmly in place. In shiny metal the instrumental aspect pointed out by Carrier is undeniable (even the Upanishads exemplify iron by a pair of scissors): one thinks naturally of finely shaped bearings or pistons (remembering that the most numerous practitioners of sculptural processes are the world’s tool-and-die makers, for whom sculpting is a means to somebody else’s mechanical end). However, these pieces also seem too edited to operate as implements, lacking as it were enough grammatical connectives.

Some of Bang’s new reliefs are shelflike in structure, some of these even belonging to a “Shelf” series. But they do not use the shelf as it was used in Minimalist sculpture, where it often appears as a base that just happens to be attached to a wall, a base for the display of samples of material and/or a baseline for some sequential parade of formal units. Bang’s shelflike sculptures are more organically structural, not unlike body cartilage. One, like Shelf No. 5, 1981, of wood and industrial belting covered with black wax, is anthropomorphic, however abstractly so: a long, low stretch of shelf climaxes at the extreme right end in a small, pivoted cross form which is tilted to rest on one “arm” (one may recall an important 1917 Suprematist painting by Malevich that has been likened to Rubens’ Elevation of the Cross, 1609–10).

The wax surface of Bang’s new reliefs, whether Suprematistically black or black and red, is emphatically painterly in its application, with a tarry substantiality and fleshliness, onto a mesh armature whose presence is signaled by the slight protrusion of regularly spaced prickly wire ends. The handmade, heartfelt, maybe even stubborn effect resembles Johns’ works in “sculptmetal” as well as encaustic and also the early, Johnsean sculptures of Robert Morris—not to mention, earlier, the raggedly puttied, thin-fleshed modeling of Giacometti. Perhaps more urgently now, one recalls the slim, graceful, mysteriously pseudo-utilitarianlooking pieces, of a beautifully puttylike painterliness, made by Bruce Nauman in the mid-1960s. The Johnsean aspect of Bang’s new reliefs is also iconographically suggestive: pivotlike elements compare appropriately with the painter’s “device” motif, with its implications of mechanistic detachment or “semiautomatic” action; furthermore, a recurrent pointed, flat ovoid form evokes the (concrete) impress of a (withdrawn) flatiron in Johns’ paintings from about 1975. What these connections imply has something to do with the possibility of action in the face of doubt or restraint, just as, in its main thrust, Bang’s recent work seems to engage the problem of making one’s intentions known, even to oneself.

Bang’s current “Instrument” series of reliefs do not only look vaguely mechanical; they are even like machines themselves, in the definitive sense that, in physics, a lever is one of the fundamental “machines.” Never, though, would we mistake them for devices with outside obligations, not even as old tools are favored with romanticizing formal regard (as in photographs by Hans Namuth and prints by Jim Dine, let alone the quasi-esthetic, folkloristic collecting of such implements). Neither are Bang’s reliefs “machines for looking at” in a Purist way. We feel too immediately close to them, almost in kind, to mistake them for anything to do something else with. Thus, in Instrument No. 5, 1981, we seem to find a system of weight and counterweight and also the capability of radial, pivoting movement that we recognize from the movements of our own limbs. Of course, these parts are fixed, but neither in the composed or idealized positions of some “device,” in the sense of emblem (here, hammer and sickle?), nor in the ever “typical” yet always inconclusive, snapshot position of a machine in operation. Bang’s new reliefs are far, as sculpture, from resembling either actual tools or the human body as statically posed. That we understood even what was covered up in its very being covered was previously a more didactic feature of Bang’s work. Now the work suggests the uneven acquaintance we have of our own body structure, which derives from what we can readily see and touch.

Peter Brown came from sculpture to painting, but, as with Bang, his reliefs are more than a matter of “painterly” Minimalism. Like Clancy, but in his own way, Brown raises structural, architectonic questions. For instance, using plaster as a flush infill—something found in the sculpture of Edward Higgins a generation-ago, where it evokes body flesh—here is more like, in miniature, exposed beam “Fachwerk,” or “half-timbering,” in North European vernacular architecture. Brown’s structures are woodenly wooden. Since the soft, splintery wood generally keeps the roughness of the packing crates and such from which it derives, its point of sculptural origin is the sort of wood construction that began with Picasso’s 1914 Mandolin, of which Alfred Barr says, in Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art (1946), “Technically, it is carpentry; esthetically it is a composition in space division, without a frame, without a base, with little sense of weight but enriched by color and the texture of the rough sawn wood.” Brown paints his earnestly handmade, asymmetric structures in a way that looks more manual, as regards handling, than brushed. The result is something other than organicized or “Post-Minimal” Sol LeWitt, partly because, with Brown, asymmetry, which obsessed Louis Pasteur as the very mark of organic microstructure, is of the essence. (Pasteur was partly right, partly wrong and partly precocious.)

It has been maintained that LeWitt’s sculptures have the look of sheer thought, as the structure of rationality itself might be imagined. While I tend to see this ideal of rationality as in itself a manifestation of taste or the clinically pure (many rational individuals show an aversion to the clinical pursuit of universality) the idea holds water. It might even be possible to maintain that what is, after Nietzsche, most tellingly Modern is the brave attempt to be “clear” about what is unclear. Naturally, philosophers tend to be people who value structural consistency and clarity as traits. Early on Wittgenstein spoke several times in the Tractatus (1921) of logical processes as exposing the “scaffolding of the world” (6.124), a conception seemingly so tailor-made for LeWitt as to fit over his work like a (clearplastic?) slipcover. But then Brown’s painted, irregular lath structures might be said to have the air of the way it feels to pursue thought into action, specifically into work and the problems of workmanship. So the paint job is not a “finishing” process, separate from the structural making, any more than we ever find ourselves first having a thought and then, separately, laying some feeling onto it as we carry it into the realm of consequence.

Brown’s pieces show affinities with the marvelous hanging constructions of Alexander Rodchenko, especially the sole-surviving, painted plywood and wire Hanging Oval Construction, 1920, in the George Costakis collection, or with the almost sexy strut from the wing of Tatlin’s Letatlin, or flying machine, begun in the 1920s, which has also been seen recently at the Guggenheim Museum. (A whole study could be made of aeronautical form in early abstraction, including propeller forms in painting and sculpture, and even the actual propeller design made by Wittgenstein between 1908 and 1911, when he was a research student in engineering.) Other Brown reliefs betray a different ancestry, having started out as parts of subsequently scrapped larger projects: these are more in the line of Kurt Schwitters’ elegant, white-painted Sword and Slim Angle (perhaps ca. 1930), shown at the Guggenheim in Margit Rowell’s “Planar Dimension” exhibition. The Schwitters pieces were originally for his all-encompassing Merzbau projects, started in 1923 (destroyed 1943). Like them, pieces by Brown have the terseness of detached, highly condensed, single poetic syllables. One started out as a horizontal image of waves and now, rotated, resembles a hat block and/or a head in profile; another could be a boat model and/or a flatiron.

Some of Brown’s reliefs (less important ones, I tend to find) are inescapably landscapes: a stylized city skyline in silhouette surmounts a bulging slice of “river” consisting of painted canvas stretched, fuselagelike, over a curved lath support. These seem too simply pictorial and, as such, too literally small, in the sense of models for structures, like model railroad architecture, rather than full-blown structures in their own right. (Joel Shapiro does not escape this problem: his single little houses can look like “Monopoly” hotels as opposed to those on wall brackets, which especially allude more profoundly to Cézanne.) These Brown pieces wind up merely subordinating themselves to painting as little more than eccentric stretchers. His best reliefs, on the other hand, are abstractly anthropomorphic, vertical, and understatedly asymmetrical, ribcagelike open structures, rigid and hollow, like armless versions of the crucifixional corpus. Painted with a heartfelt irregularity in white or blue, these have a fully vital character of structural intelligence as not simply “clear,” but laid bare.

Where Brown turned from painting to a “painterly” form of abstract sculptural relief, the reliefs of Maureen Connor grow out of a feminist esthetic that formerly hovered skeptically, almost evasively, somewhere between painting, “fiber” or textile art, and a sculpture of real clothes, like Judith Shea’s. The real construction and significance of clothing has all along been Connor’s starting point. She affirms the structural aspect of “stuffs” in assemblage. Connor’s recent reliefs follow upon deconstructions and “abstract” reassemblies of actual garment parts. Before, when she took clothes apart and (mock-formalistically) used the intrinsically colored parts for original constructions, it was not always easy to say whether a given project was a sculptural relief only by default, as it were, just for being so inescapably material, or whether in a hedged, revisionist way it counted as painting (all the more so if one recalled the long overlooked, abstract cloth collages of Anne Ryan). After that came crisp, light cloths. starched, folded in complex patterns, and ironed, which were not so unlike the folded translucent paper drawings of Dorothea Rockburne.

Now Connor has made new reliefs in which cloth and chair caning or wicker reeding are bunched or interwoven into a curvaceous “bloom” which is no more problematically “female” in connotation than John Chamberlain’s sheet-metal pieces are, automotively, “male.” Here obvious allusions to Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, and other overtones of painting, are manifest in constructive sculpture. Categorically, the reliefs partake of the Baroque “trophy,” that clustered ornamental array of symbolic instrumental attributes found in architecture but also affecting still-life painting. Typically for Connor, whose work has never been merely negative or ironic in its feminism, the trophy, while usually a distinctly “masculine” affair (bouquets of farm tools for agriculture, arms and armor for the military) leads on also to the structural quasi abstraction of Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s “Attributes of the Arts” paintings. with their emphatic, pre-Cézannean constructive emphasis, not to mention their pre-Modern concern with the working instrumentalities of art-making. But Connor’s breaks down by hand what somebody else fabricated by machine; construction begins, for her, with extemporaneous, nonfunctional “repair,” as though in a gradual transformation of what was given as (finished) craft into the reclaimed, neutralized materials, and the willfully imposed forms, of abstract relief sculpture. Neither is Connor far, here, from the crumpled and uncrumpled, leafy forms of Lynn Umlaut’s recent reliefs which fall within the realm of painting.

Painting has been vital to the ceramic reliefs of Joyce Robins, which have bright tints soaked right into their noodly, solid-tubular elements. The baked clay, of course, has its own pale, neutral color to begin with. Even as Robins’ watercolor polychroming permeates the clay, it remains qualifying; soaked in but not submerged, the color shares in the sculptural materiality, in the sense that clay does not naturally look this way (as, for instance, the color of white chocolate or green pasta cannot be taken for granted). In some earlier reliefs the colorism, indeed, looks didactically “conceptual,” what with rainbow arrays of clay in varying hues, like paint samples—or even the paint-chip motif in Duchamp’s Tu’m. Otherwise, Robins’ ropy, luminously colored strands and loops of clay might suggest a petrification of Keith Sonnier’s length of actual neon lights (as do recent polyester reliefs in polychrome by Nancy Arlen).

Robins’ basic element is a linear solid, whether in more or less straight early pieces or in voluptuously convoluted or even knotty compositions of intertwining strands. Most sculpture engaging “concrete line” is in one way or another constructivistic, but Robins’ approach is always essentially calligraphic. Especially when a single convoluted strand, modulating fluidly from one hue to the next, swells and twists in opulent, cadenzalike switchbacks, there is the lyric intensity, on a small scale, of watercolor painting. In fact, the pursuit of a kind of whiplash line in profile as well as frontal view, as a piece bulges out from the wall, makes for a sensuality and bodily freedom on the intimate scale of the sketch, like that of Rodin’s—or, more so. Abraham Walkowitz’s—watercolor portraits of lsadora Duncan dancing. Despite any evocation of paint from a tube against a white wall, these pieces are specifically sculpturesque if we think of the exposure of “material color” (though achieved by carving) in the art of cameo.

Lately Robins has been making related bronzes. It is worth mentioning that she finds important an undated, partly painted bronze by Frederick Kiesler (d. 1965), Birth of a Lake, whose stalagmitic lower part, dancing upward like a charmed snake, relates to at least one freestanding bronze by Robins. Robins’ pieces, all unpainted, are cast by the lost-wax process. but not really modeled, as even Lucas Samaras’ similarly doughy recent tabletop figures are. Standard, solid-cylindrical lengths of wax are softened, bent, and then cast (as the bronze to displace them will itself pass from the solid, to the liquid. and back to the solid, state). The result retains a vital tentativeness, like solder quickly cooling, since the casting only seems to “fix” an exploratory and quasi-organic quality of growth.

Perhaps partly because we cannot turn to bronze without shifting into a low gear of profundity. Robins’ new reliefs seem understatedly yet still somehow preclassical—prearchaic, even. I think, again, of Gottfried Semper’s theory of the quasi-mythic, primeval knot, as well as of Lynda Benglis’ by now justly famous “knot” reliefs. But there is also the more visible issue of the paleolithic Venuses. One tiny yet monumentally massive piece by Robins looks, even to the artist, like the famous Frau von Willendorf, for example. Larger pieces also have a knobby, bonelike aspect. As Robins works on with the bronze reliefs she also finds herself conscious of “abstractly” natural linear growth, as of sinewy grape vines. Indeed, if she produces cast bronzes that do without the “make-believe” of modeling, her whole larger project concerns the transformation, by forthrightly manual manipulation, of “industrially” given unit materials, without disguise, into artworks that might be more at home in the natural order.

Since the reliefs discussed here in one way or another work against Minimalism, it seems worth recalling that in the first installment of his “notes on Sculpture” (Artforum, February 1966) Robert Morris wrote categorically against relief as a viable sculptural mode. In search of a kind of object that was neither figural nor architectural, Morris there rejects relief not only for relying on the wall, “a surface shared with painting,” but for “timidly” resisting gravity instead of confronting it. Condemning the object on a wall as irrelevant, Morris wheels out an old idea: “One more objection to the relief is the limitation of the number of possible views the wall imposes . . .” In other words, sculpture is supposed somehow fundamentally to open itself to a multiplicity of viewpoints, implying an ideal of independent presence also sought after, with some exceptions, in Minimalist sculpture.

Sometimes the history of art can be seen to take on a peculiar contemporaneity, concerning itself with issues that parallel concerns of current art. Just as Morris was writing his essay, Rudolf Wittkower, the great Bernini scholar, was finally, in his lectures and writings, dispelling the idea that sculpture necessarily presents a range of multiple views. After all, it had been Baudelaire’s devotion to the esthetically “exclusive and despotic” organization of attention in painting, a passion ungratified by conventional freestanding sculpture, that had led him, in the Salon of 1846, to write the essay on “Why Sculpture is Boring.” Baudelaire, let alone Bernini, never knew any sculpture that was neither carved nor modeled. Today, when most freestanding sculpture, as Giacometti put it, throws itself at us or, as Baudelaire tended to think, just sits there, grossly taking up (our) space—and when again the cosmos itself is a walled interior which everything and everyone must share—why should not modern constructive sculpture “share” the wall with painting, assuming the admittedly pictorial, yet also potentially structural, condition of relief?

Literally “structural” structure, and the relation of sculptural to architectural structure, are not simple issues. In Europe the Purists and their contemporaries pushed an aggressive advocacy of engineering structure as being every bit as capable of beauty as hallowed, fine-art architectural form. Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, 1923; Elie Faure’s L’Esprit des formes, 1927 (the fifth volume of his History of Art); and Amédée Ozenfant’s Foundations of Modern Art, 1928, with its simpleminded call for an architecture that might merely become sculpture: all such works radically juxtapose images of engineering structures on a par with great architecture “proper.” Ultimately, behind these Purist manifestations lies a specifically French tradition of seeing Gothic structure as possessing esthetic virtues equal to those of classical architecture, a tradition going back to the 17th century.

An American esthetic of built structure is explored by John A. Kouwenhoven in his essay “What is ‘American’ in Architecture and Design?” in The Beer Can by the Highway, 1961. Kouwenhoven patiently isolates a certain apparently ad hoc character in American construction. (Many supposedly “all-American” esthetic traits prove, I believe, broadly characteristic of cultures in similar historical circumstances, but that is another issue.) Juxtaposing Arizona’s Canyon Diablo railroad bridge of 1882 with the ancient Pont du Gard at Nîmes, Kouwenhoven says that anybody “accustomed to the forms and proportions of traditional Western European construction” would have disconcerting doubts about the “demonstrable capacity to bear weight” of the metal railway bridge—which, by the way, does not look modular, despite its prefabrication. There is more here than a question of whether structures look fragile, or elegant, or not; despite intimations of modernity, the late-19th-century English poet Coventry Patmore, in an essay on “Ideal and Material Greatness in Architecture” (collected in his Principle in Art, 1898), cannot leave behind the reassurance of a “modest ostentation of extreme substantiality” in architecture. By this he means the “reality, and the modest ostentation of the reality, of superfluous substantiality,” which “constitutes the secret of effect in many an old house that strikes us as ‘architectural’ though it may be almost wholly without architectural ornament.”

The American abstract sculptors considered here tend to underplay any cozy European structural “ostentation” in Patmore’s sense. It might also be possible to compare works by the English sculptor Nigel Hall and the American John Duff on these grounds, though the upshot would not necessarily be predictable. Likewise the way Trakas’ structures do look quasi-utilitarian, or as though they might just as well have been engineering constructions (if not fine-art architecture), is problematic.

Kouwenhoven was onto something. Americans, partisans of modernity or not, have probably had more trouble than others with the “elitist”-sounding opening lines of Nikolaus Pevsner’s famous Outline of European Architecture, 1942, to the effect that Lincoln cathedral is “architecture” but a bicycle shed is only “building.” What is crucial is whether something architectonic, and on roughly the scale of, say, an ambitious bicycle shed, could be as much fine art as the necessarily more formidably scaled and less mundanely and specifically functional Gothic cathedral. Then again, sculpture in general can be considered beyond even the loftiest architecture in its freedom from utility or instrumentality, although for the architectural to dissolve into the sculpturesque is no doubt a more formidable task than Ozenfant, and plenty of literal-minded Constructivists, ever thought.

Joseph Masheck has taught art history at Barnard College since 1971. He is a contributing editor of Artforum.