PRINT September 1986

Max Wechsler

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Situations in need of clarification, or unknown circumstances surrounding an event that have to be brought to light, or a renewed inquiry, in an ontological sense, into the nature or essence of things or ideas, usually involve questions, but questions, except for didactic or rhetorical ones, are quite unusual in the context of scholarly art-historical exhibitions. In fact, such shows are often intended to nip questions in the bud, and even to provide answers to questions that hover in the air. Now along comes one of this genre of huge, art-historically conceived exhibitions, but it comes in the actual form of a question: “Qu’est-ce que la sculpture moderne?” This is surprising, for Margit Rowell, who conceived the show and installed it, at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, knows very well what “modern sculpture” is, as her selection of art indicates. But by making the title of the show into a question, Rowell makes her choices in a sense also part of the question. Her answer is not an explicit one, but comes in the form of a parade of over 250 works; in its own right and as a representative of every other, each work must answer the question, what is modern sculpture? Or, put another way, before each piece the viewer asks, If this is “modern sculpture,” and this is “modern sculpture,” then what is “modern sculpture”? A subtle shift thus takes place: the question no longer addresses primarily the appearance of modern sculpture, but its essence. This shift charges the exhibition with provocative energy

In his biographical sketch of Giorgione, Giorgio Vasari tells a story that expresses something fundamental about sculpture and painting. Apparently, Giorgione was having an argument with some sculptors who maintained the superiority of sculpture over painting because it could present a figure from different views; Giorgione countered that in a painting different views of a figure could be grasped at a single glance, without the viewer having to walk around the figure, as is necessary with sculpture. And he offered to paint a figure that could be seen simultaneously from the front, the back, and both sides. The resulting picture showed a young man from behind, but with his front reflected in a pool of water, his left side in a polished breastplate nearby, and his right in a mirror. (The work has not survived.) Vasari’s anecdote in a way reflects the situation confronting those artists who initiated the development of modern sculpture, around 1900, for the beginnings of this sculpture are often thought to lie in the hands of the painters of the early-20th-century avant-garde. (Such a view disregards such artists as Auguste Rodin and Medardo Rosso.) These painters can be said to have projected their problems of two-dimensional pictorial space into the three-dimensional space of sculpture in order to test out their advances into a new pictorial reality. Thus sculptural works by Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse comprised the prologue to the Paris show.

But while the Vasari story claims for painting the more complex approximation of reality, the situation for the turn-of-the-century artist was reversed. The painting had asserted itself as an autonomous reality alongside the reality of the world about us. In consequence, the nature of the problem of movement beyond the pictorial space suddenly changed: if the representational object (the painting) had become a real object in space, then the element represented, the painted illusion of figures and space, equally demanded a role in concrete reality—by implication, a translation into sculpture. This development can be seen particularly clearly in Cubist representational sculpture, which, with its pasted-together quality, emphasizes its illusionistic artificiality even more than its formal elements. The adventure of modern sculpture began, then, in this view, with a contradictory situation in which the advanced theory and practice of painting developed toward an art form that had moved less far away from imitative representation. At first, in fact, sculpture was not up to the complexity of the questions that painters posed it. The result was a radical break and the development of new forms—in other words, modern sculpture.

In two parallel lines of chronological development, “Qu’est-ce que la sculpture moderne?” shows how quickly sculpture formulated a modern self-definition, how it manifested itself as autonomous created form or structure. The one line, beginning with Gauguin, traces the development of sculpture oriented to nature, and to myth-related thought, sculpture that remains largely indebted to a vocabulary of organic form, even when abstract. This path leads through Expressionism, Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, and Surrealism to Joseph Beuys and arte povera. The other line, beginning with Picasso, Rowell sees as indebted to “culture,” to rigorous philosophical thought, which produces a conceptual type of sculpture; here the development leads through Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, and Constructivism to Nouveau Réalisme and Minimal art. This kind of structured chronological workup of art history results in a purely formalistic perspective, which works well enough until the section of the show dealing with the ’50s and ’60s, the last room of the show’s first part, where the works practically collide with each other, fusing into a visual mishmash.

When I saw the exhibition, this was also the point at which the question posed in its title again became pertinent. (Apparently, the installation has changed since then.) The last things to be seen before we descended six stories to encounter Beuys, Minimal art, and arte povera in the huge, unsubdivided room that holds the rest of the show were three works by Piero Manzoni, including Linea (Line, 1959) and Merda d’artista (Artist’s shit, 1961). Visually, these pieces are unprepossessing; their sculptural value, if any, does not lie in the area of three-dimensional form. What we see in each is a container, in Linea a small cardboard cylinder with a cover, in Merda d’artista a tin can. The works really rest on the invisible contents of these containers—a 9-meter-long line on a rolled-up strip of paper in the earlier piece, and the artist’s shit in the later. Here it is difficult, to say the least, to distinguish between work and “framework” The show’s formalist principle has strayed into uncertain territory. And it gets thoroughly knocked about downstairs, where we see more of the sculpture of the ’60s. The wealth of works displayed in this cramped space makes it impossible fully to experience the architectonic spatial quality of a Donald Judd or a Dan Flavin piece, or the process quality of a Beuys or arte povera work.

It is unlikely that the careless and awkward presentation of this last section of the show is intentional, but it makes it impossible for these works to answer the question posed them—what is modern sculpture. This is all the more regrettable since this overview of sculpture from 1900 to 1970 really needs to be seen in relation to sculpture’s contemporary situation, a situation that has been sprouting remarkable blossoms for some time now and not just of the “Post-Modern” variety. There is nothing wrong with a historical overview of modem sculpture, but by the end of the show the question in the title has turned into coquetry, and the exhibition into a generalized statement—certainly not a question.

Max Wechsler

“Quest-ce que la sculpture moderne?” will remain at the Centre Georges Pompidou until October 13.