“Skulptur Im 20. Jahrhundert”

Merian Park

This unique exhibition—a private initiative, with the Basel art dealer Ernst Beyeler and art historians Reinhold Hohl and Martin Schwander the organizers—offered no more and no less than a survey of the 20th-century history of sculpture and of the art’s contemporary status. It complemented an earlier, equally ambitious project, organized in 1980 by the same group and sited in another of Basel’s parks. The previous excursion began with the late 19th century; “Skulptur im 20. jahrhundert” (Sculpture in the 20th century) started with André Derain and Pablo Picasso, thus reflecting at its outset a subtle but repeatedly suggested secret leitmotif—the contribution of painters to Modern sculpture. In a sense, it was argued, the decisive impulses that broke down traditional concepts of sculpture came from without, from the yearning of the painter, imprisoned in two-dimensionality, for the “vollkommeneren”(more perfect, more complete) third dimension.

The development of Modern sculpture, the way it has opened itself up and shaken off old limitations in the 20th century, was presented on the one hand in historical retrospective and on the other in a stocktaking of the most important contemporary directions. With the exception of a rather “museumy” presentation of important pieces in one of the park buildings, in no way did this structure lead to a chronologically didactic installation, for the sculpture was distributed throughout the park in accordance with esthetic rather than art-historical criteria. Thus each piece stood on its own and yet in an environment that facilitated dialogues among styles and across temporal distances. Sculpture could be experienced—and this is more unusual than it should be—in the round, from the most varied angles; it could be bodily comprehended in a quite literal way as one wandered through the park.

Sculpture by painters clearly stood out in the historical part of the exhibition, with work by not only Picasso and Derain but also Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the Futurists, and the Constructivists, among others. And such work comprised a substantial number of the contemporary pieces as well; among the new “painter sculptors” were Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck, Enzo Cucchi, Per Kirkeby, Markus Lüpertz, Mimmo Paladino, and the young Swiss artist J.F. Müller. The work of these artists was just as varied in point of departure and results as was the earlier work, yet it was also marked by a certain affinity in that much of it in some way returned to traditional means and forms, whether in materials or motifs. Necessarily generalizing (the emerging problems deserve deeper study), the current “painterly” sculptors can be divided into two groups: those who develop their painting on a different level in sculpture, and those who essentially concretize two-dimensional themes and motifs, gaining a third dimension but losing imaginative power. Judging from their works in Basel, Cucchi, Paladino, and Müller belong in the latter group. Cucchi’s two enormous bronze feelers shot up into the air to the respectable height of nearly 40 feet; arching and curving slightly, they seemed to grow out of the ground, and they were certainly impressive accents in the park landscape. Considered for their sculptural content, however, they proved on inspection to be “magic,” for their anchoring consisted of a great deal of concrete ballast sunk directly into the ground, avoiding the problem of the pedestal. The form appeared marvelous from a distance, but in the last analysis it remained an effect, not a sculpture—more an image than a solid body. In very different ways Palladino and Müller also stumbled over the problem sculpture presents, probably because the impulse behind their work derived not from a sculptural idea but from the desire to lend three-dimensional reality to a two-dimensional image.

There was ample demonstration in the show that even when sculpture deliberately employs traditional forms and materials it need not necessarily become illustrational (to put it baldly), but can assume an autonomous presence which retains its secret even when its preconditions are laid bare. Baselitz, for example, exhibited a powerful wood figure, and Kirkeby a bronze piece cast from plaster, but both succeeded in mining new dimensions from traditional methods. Both stuck to rigid rules, but interpreted them with a “painterly” sensitivity and method of working. These details are important, for the new “painter sculptors” are evidently concerned not with shaking off the old limitations of sculpture, but with investigating conventional forms, with working through the fundamentals that make new constructions possible.

The breadth of “Skulptur im 20. jahrhundert” is well illustrated by two works commissioned for the show, one a radical opening up of the field of sculpture, the other a reduced, elementary spatial form. In Joseph Beuys’ Thermischplastisches Urmeter (Thermal-plastic Urmeter, 1984) a small pipe pokes out low from a wall and emits a barely visible cloud of steam. Going around the wallone finds a metal boiler in a pit; filled with water and heated by a gas flame, it is a poetic but very concrete metaphor for energy. In a very different way, Sol LeWitt’s Cube, 1984, is also a void full of potency: a brick cube painted white, about 16 feet in each dimension. Sitting in a clearing in the park, it has a transcendental aspect. This show proved that everything is possible in sculpture, but also that not everything works.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.