New York

“Sculpture: The Tradition in Steel”

Nassau County Museum Of Fine Art

In my search for a unifying principle for understanding this important exhibition, two ideas struck me as crucial, namely, the notions that prefabrication is socially implicit in the use of steel, and that the sculpture could be classified as either the kind that accepted and utilized prefabrication into a structure, or the kind that resisted it by emphasizing steel’s materiality. This division seemed to work whether the pieces were landscape-based or not, and whether or not they utilized the standardization implicit in prefabrication for independent ends.

Thus three of the major pieces in the exhibition, those by Michael Heizer, Richard Nonas, and Richard Serra, depend on the tension between what is essentially a prefabricated structure and the natural environment it tries to outclass through its categorical character. In contrast, pieces such as those by Richard Stankiewicz, John Chamberlain, and David Smith, among many others, avoid a domineering predetermined look by calling attention to the molten/malleable “nature” of steel. The sculptures either deal with steel as a finished sign of irreducible strength which can be organized into a basic structure, or as material that can be shaped yet whose final shape signals a resistance to shaping.

Steel conveys both civilization’s constructive power and the resistant density of matter, thus incorporating in its very being one of the basic dialectics of becoming. It is a man-made substance which subsumes the strength of natural ’material and incorporates man’s sense of superior-to-nature purposiveness. The artistic question is which aspect of it one wants to emphasize, knowing that one can never escape the pressure of the other aspect. For me, the most truly successful works in the exhibition—as steel works—were the outdoor pieces, which became something more than ingenious demonstrations of the use of a complex material. Unless, that is, they were enlarged indoor pieces more set in nature than interacting with it, in which case they were less interesting as a use of steel, failing to exploit the meaning of power inherent in its materiality. For that, natural space is needed as the scene of the power’s unfolding. As the pieces try to dominate space, representing abstract human purposiveness (echoing the meaning of steel in skyscraper skeletons), the complex signification of their material becomes evident. Whether straddling the earth, as Serra’s piece does, embedded in it like Heizer’s, or spanning it like Nonas’, steel conveys its overcoming. In most of the other works steel is simply a novel Modern material used for conventional stylistic ends, its connotations hardly explored.

Donald Kuspit