“Sculpture ’83”

Rotterdam Art Foundation

Anyone proposing an exhibition of contemporary sculpture aiming for the clearest possible statement of what inspires sculptors today should consider Luciano Fabro’s Lo Spirito (The deceased). In this baroque vision a figure lies under the graceful folds of a sheet; one can distinguish feet, legs, torso—but at the neck, the folds of the sheet fall to a pillow on which a head has rested but no longer does so. This sculpture—a figurative work in which the figure doesn’t exist—encapsulates the present artistic situation, and could have provided a focus to “Sculpture ’83.” Instead, one saw artist after artist falling into the traps set by the commercial market and the zeitgeist; the works ranged from cheerful, straightforward, beautiful things to strongly socially engaged forms, but deeper thoughts on what Fabro has called “the physics of the imagination, the discipline of experience, and the ability to choose consciously” were lacking.

The show was especially characterized by work displaying a complete rejection of classically oriented thinking. While some artists make superficial references to classical art, these are always merely facile. This lack of theoretical background, also evident in Paul Hefting’s catalogue introduction, may well be the new sculpture’s greatest weakness. “Fragments of criteria fly about, mingled with shreds of history and archetypal images. A euphoric chaos; and now comes sculpture, just as heterogeneous and labyrinthine as painting, with no rules, no taboos,” the catalogue remarks; but is this really the only lesson to be learnt from the collapse of the Modernist ideal? I think not. The very presence of all those fragments flying about demands that shows like this have a clearly defined point of view.

In this context it was a relief to see Bertrand Lavier’s work here, not because he was the best or most spectacular artist present but because he justifies his art in an original, ironic way reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp or Man Ray. Lavier painted radiators and a pulley in their original colors, using paint mixed with varnish and a Van Gogh-like brushstroke. This ironic comment on the whole artistic scene was a real pleasure, not only because it was funny but because Lavier struck an original note amid much low intelligence.

Even artists such as Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow, Jean-Luc Vilmouth, Kate Blacker, and Julian Opie, good representatives of developments in England over the last few years, seemed flat here. Cragg, the godfather of the group, showed a green vase set against a cardboard door; it may be that the future will judge him the most puritan of the beachcombers England nowadays exports, but I put him down as the poor man’s Joseph Beuys or Richard Long, a superficial puzzler who makes a very complete program from all too incomplete contents. England has discovered the rubbish dump, and with an energy worthy of something much better legions of artists have produced art out of the remains of her stagnating yet still fervently active consumer society. This seems a misguided tribute to the legacy of Richard Hamilton and Pop art. “What is needed,” Hamilton once said, “is not a definition of meaningful imagery but the development of our perceptive potentialities to accept and utilize the continual enrichment of visual material.” Our times, however, need a more skeptical attitude to mass consumption.

Among those few whose work was not a chance collection of fashionable tendencies were Anish Kapoor, Shirazeh Houshiary, Loren Calaway, Ettore Spalletti, Hans van der Pennen, and Isa Genzken. Genzken offers no “fragments of criteria” but continues to expand an oeuvre that articulates and tempers the relationship between the spatial presence of her works and their underlying geometric models. She offers a personal vision of modern sculpture that was refreshing in this all-too-fashionable, easygoing exhibition.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Michael Latcham.