“De Statua”

Stedelijk Van Abbe-Museum

A sculpture exhibition whose participants ranged in age from 36 (Giuseppe Penone) to 62 (Joseph Beuys) in age clearly did not aim to show the latest developments in the field. Yet with the recent work of these 14 well-known artists, museum director Rudi Fuchs sought to develop new criteria for the making of sculpture. “De Statua,” the rather solemn title of both exhibition and catalogue, refers to an essay by Leon Battista Alberti, the Renaissance architect and theoretician. In it Alberti outlined two ways of sculpture: “Some proceed by adding and taking away, such as those who work in wax or clay . . . others merely by taking away, like those who, by removing the superfluous, reveal the figure of man . . . hidden within a block of marble. We call these latter sculptors.” Fuchs’ reliance on the Renaissance is rather surprising when such participants as Beuys, Luciano Fabro, Barry Flanagan, Richard Long, Bruce Nauman, Ulrich Rückriem, and the Netherlands’ Carel Visser have all been steering the course of sculpture away from these 15th-century theories for years. Moreover, only four artists satisfy Alberti’s description of the true sculptor: the painters Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorff, Markus Lüpertz, and A. R. Penck, all of whom have switched to sculpture since Baselitz surprised everyone at the 1980 Venice Biennale with a large piece in wood.

The exhibition, then, seems to have been staged to give a more rounded picture of the work of these four. Fuchs writes that their sculptures “bring certain qualities back into perspective” and might “lead to some new definition of sculpture.” So what’s new about them? The work stands on pedestals, is mainly figurative, is carved out of wood, and is rather primitive. These monumental sculptures are intended to last a long time—two originally wooden pieces by Lüpertz and Penck are here cast in bronze and iron. The work is new by being old-fashioned, and seeks to offer an alternative to the apparent dead end in sculpture following Minimal art’s rejection of craft, expression, and content.

But do roughly carved statues, because of a wide-open mouth or an upraised arm, express more content than a series of metal cubes? The works here that actually do offer a counterpoint to the formal stance come from those sculptors who have been going their ways for a very much longer time than the four painters—from Beuys, with his symbolic use of materials, Rückriem, who achieves expression through his personal idiom of carving and cutting, from Flanagan and Visser, with their whimsical fantasies, and from Fabro, whose position is quite separate. In Bacinelle (Basins), seven of his freeform glass dishes stand on a table covered with a white cloth; in the dishes are engraved the names of Malcolm X and others who paid for the ideas they held with their lives. It is almost as if each dish bears the decapitated head of John the Baptist, transformed into a glass form and merged with the dish itself. High above the table hangs a painted-wood rainbow of thin lines of color; balanced in its center is a little paper boat with an inscription. A single gust of wind and it would be gone.

Fabro’s sculpture stands as a monument to the imagination and to ideas. Wooden torsos on pedestals are simply monuments to craftsmanship, even if, as Alberti says, they are the work of the true sculptor.

Saskia Bos