If we follow Krauss’ concept of the ‘expanded field’ as the expansion of ‘sculpture’ from neo-classical and romantic, figurative or ‘statuesque’ traditions, into a new set of modernist (abstract) constraints or possibilities, in turn followed by an ‘opening up’ into all available extensions (Krauss is happy to use the term ‘postmodernism’), then it may appear, looking at the situation of sculpture today, that expansion was quickly followed by evaporation. Today’s replacement of sculpture by conceptual and post-conceptual installations (site-specific and other) from one side, the gallery end, and by architecture (or the built environment read as artwork) from the other, exterior field, appears to have left … exactly what in-between?
The institutional collection of large installations, which may be taken, or was once read, as sculpture, now fills many halls of gallery and museum space. This situation remains true of classical (or ‘figuresque’ plastic art) as for modern sculpture (in general the presentation of classical–romantic sculpture, whether in museum halls or in parks and gardens, come of better).
‘Modern(ist) sculpture; is it ‘Sculpture’? Perhaps the disappearance of ‘sculpture’ goes even further back than the post war revolutions in the arts… It is a matter of definition. Are Hepworth, Moore, and friends sculptors? Well… evidently. But are their products generally considered to be ‘sculpture’? At issue are a pair of related oppositions which colour how we view or define the ‘plastic arts’: the first involves, primarily, the form of the work in question, figurative versus ’abstract’ (or realistic versus ’altered’); whilst the second questions the place or context of viewing (which also influences the nature of the commission) whether it is found in (intended to be placed in) parks and gardens or in public squares or other urban spaces. The contrast of form explores traditional as opposed to other means of expression (conservatives only regard figurative art as art, moderns also find ‘altered’ form and a tendency to abstraction as art). The contrast of the setting of context, rural or urban (and often public and private) manifests itself as politics; as public messages connoting memory or ideals (both coming together in the hero; as in Nelson’s Column) and usually featuring some degree of nationalism (despite the ‘internationalism’ of the style, Classical, Romantic, Modern, Post-modern… down to today’s dominance of the Post-conceptual). Opposed to these ‘public’ or general meanings are the ‘private’ or restricted meanings associated with ‘taste’ or ‘décor’ or ‘atmosphere’, of cultural reference as ’cultural capital’…as the ‘ornamental’ lining of the ‘room’ of our identity. Again, in its appropriation of Classicism and Romanticism (in the means of expression if not always in the content of expression), always ‘international’ (even if originally ‘European’ or Middle Eastern). Being the heir to prior civilizations is not only an appropriation for national purposes, but a statement of identity, of identity with a larger family of cultural identification… ‘Modernism’, most particularly the case of the avant-garde, also offered a set of identity propositions (generational, international, epochal, ‘rational’, historical, ‘necessary’). Equally venerated and denounced by Left and Right, international in style, if not in appropriation, and always connoting membership of a cultural elite, ‘Modernism’ reunited, or made explicit, the union of public and private, in politics (which previous styles, perhaps with the exception of ‘realism’ in the image, had felt themselves ‘above’). However, then (as now) modernist sculpture found little actual space in public (surviving in the main in private or interior spaces).Nevertheless the difference between art and sculpture remained; as exemplified by Cubist image-making and object-making practice.
However, once an art work is built up from the floor, or hangs from the ceiling, or is designed to fill up a particular space as opposed to just hanging demurely on the wall -beginning with Rauschenberg’s collages that grow out from the plane of the picture frame- then the difference between art and sculpture has evaporated (unless we limit the definition to objects sculpted from a given material and not made from a variety of materials - so a single material with added form – in which case we are back with statuary, classical and modern).
Looking back at the evolution of art from Schwitters to Cesar and Rauschenberg , Nevelson and Oldenburg, three-dimensional art moves to its ironic, self-parodying, climax in Koon’s giant puppy and other ‘sculptural’ forms (‘sculpture’ in this sense, survives only as a parody, encapsulating an ironic iconicity).
Post-conceptualism (and the influence of Conceptualism, of the idea as an integral part of the artwork, is now general) has offered two ‘Masters’, Jeff Koons and Damian Hurst, both of whom, it is worth noting, design their works, others build them… so adding to the distance from the traditional notion of the artist as ‘maker’. The agent along with the object has undergone significant changes.
Outside. The previous art history
of sculpture often appears drab and depressing; badly presented, grouped
together in unflattering and decontexualized
combinations (see Berlin and Vienna modern art museums where modern sculpture
is placed in its own ghetto outside). Notable exceptions would be Rodin’s
garden in Paris or Hepworth’s in
sculpture by major art world figures (Gormley, Kapoor, Heatherwick) seemed to
have had something of a resurgence with the change of the century (thought
might perhaps more precisely be dated back to the commissions resulting from
the rebuilding of Britain’s post-industrial cities in the late ‘80s). Some
cities commissioned populist-flavoured works to
commemorate their industrial pasts or their allegiance to social equality;
however many of these also come across as trite and didactic (the ‘public art’
of the neo-feudal state structures of ‘actually existing socialism’, as with
other twentieth century totalitarianisms, always anyway functioned as
propaganda for the State religion). Many of the larger works by talented
artists seem to have misjudged the impact on their audience (or their effect in
an exposed place), or permit their works to be ‘drowned out’ by contextual
‘noise’ (lack of sufficient space for a proper view). One exception may be the
work of Thomas Heatherwick, whose remarkable
Public sculpture: there does not seem any more to be any place for it; unless it be re-appropriated as a palimpsest by the (un)popular form (of vandalism) we call ‘graffiti’.
Land Art itself, whether or not read as ‘sculpture’, is generally well-favoured because usually context-related or sensitive; unlike most public art (and much architecture…). Indeed it often seems that public sculptures (even ‘good’ ones) are often are placed in public spaces utterly unsuitable for them... and so disliked. Moreover Land Art styles that play with negation or absence do better as they interfere less with the environment (constructing hollows ‘in’ rather than building constructions ‘out’), and so highlighting the context in a variety of ways, as the positive context to an absent part (Micheal Heizer to Anna Mendieta).
at the far end we have architecture as public sculpture. Of recent examples:
Good is the willowy tower in Guangzhou (really only to be looked at… despite
some, relatively limited, functional space inside; elegant in white light by
day, playfully lit-up by night): bad is the Beijing ‘victory arch’, the CCTV
building (parodied by locals as ‘big underwear’ or ‘long-johns’; indeed as a
bent or twisted arch, the form may well be read as performative
of its function, sadly one doubts that this ironical ‘twist’ was any part of
the ‘author’s intention’). The cool lines of the Grande Arche of La Defense,
Modern public sculpture is not felt to be ‘sculpture’, as the concept resides in the popular imagination: rather contemporary art or installation or design.
Have we born witness to the death of public sculpture, seen it disappear among the neo-avant-garde explosion of the arts in the post war period and replaced by the return to ‘beauty’ (even if often tinged with a little of the ‘sublime’) of design in architecture.
‘Design for (Public) Living’….
(See also, ‘The Presence of Statues’, for a reflection on the meaning of statuary.)
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2013