Ideas in Sculpture 1965-1977
Our concept of what sculpture looks like, expresses or represents has been broadened to encompass new material and new forms not thought of fifteen years ago. This changed aspect of sculpture has been brought about by artists who are well known in the history of recent American art, and the extent to which ideas about sculpture have evolved can be considered in reference to the specific works on view here.
The year 1965 is a convenient marker for a period of new developments and attitudes toward the possibilities of sculpture. For example, 1965 is the year of Carl Andre’s exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in which he departed significantly from his earlier work by exhibiting stacked Styrofoam slabs in three different configurations. His sculpture was to evolve even further from the traditional object set in space and result in floor pieces which cut into space from their position on the ground. 1965 is the year of Sol LeWitt’s first one-man exhibition in New York at the Daniel’s Gallery where he showed angled rectangular wall and floor pieces lacquered in monochrome. It is the year of Bruce Nauman’s untitled fiberglass pieces, as seen in the present exhibition. It is the year of Eva Hesse’s early works in various combinations of rope, rubber, wood or cloth which led to her totally resolved works in fiberglass and latex in the succeeding years before her death in 1970. By 1965 Dan Flavin had already created wall pieces with fluorescent light fixtures, and in 1965 Richard Tuttle shows painted plywood forms at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Other artists in this exhibition had created significant work prior to 1965, and other innovations have followed. Sculptors including Claes Oldenburg, Mark di Suvero, and Richard Artschwager were in different ways before this date working their way out of traditional approaches to sculpture. Oldenburg’s work by the early 1960s had employed new materials and subject matter, that of non-art daily objects such as food and clothing. Di Suvero had incorporated “junk” objects into his rugged sculptural constructions and Artschwager had begun to conceive of severe geometric, furniture related objects. More recently, since 1965, Richard Serra has created massive, powerful works in steel, whereas an artist of a younger generation, Jackie Winsor, has produced her own style by the use of materials such as wood and twine.
Since 1965 new considerations have entered into the creation of sculpture, one of which is sculpture’s new relationship to the wall. Many of the works seen here function only in terms of the wall behind them, not as free-standing objects. Moreover, these pieces are not in any way thought of as reliefs, applied or integrated into architectural elements, but are understood as independent three-dimensional works. They are perceived very much in terms of their support and are in no sense mere appendages to the wall. Wall pieces by Judd jut out from the wall while those of Nauman tend to lean, push or mold themselves against it. For many of the works of Hesse, the wall functions as a neutral backdrop for sculpture which demands attention given both to its formal structure and its material substance. In the case of Richard Tuttle’s horseshoe shaped cloth mounted directly on the wall, one tends to ask if this, in fact, is sculpture at all. Tuttle has described his early geometric cloth works as drawings of three-dimensional structures in space, and their color, shape, and material are observed in relation to the dumb surface of the wall. Tuttle’s work treads a thin line between painting and sculpture, yet its particular concern with space allows for its existence in the latter category.
Sculpture’s new relation to the wall occurred in the tide of formal innovation on the one hand and new uses of material on the other. By now, Flavin’s fluorescent light fixtures, Robert Morris’s felt pieces as well as Tuttle’s cloth shapes no longer seem as radical or baffling as they did in the mid-sixties. Judd’s use of industrial colored metals and/or Plexiglas for sculpture is now taken for granted, as is the use of fiberglass or latex in the work of Hesse or Nauman. Only in recent years, however, have any and all materials become suitable for a work of sculpture, and the use of materials other than wood, metal, stone or glass has become the norm rather than the experimental exception.
The use of materials not traditionally associated with sculpture has been accompanied by the reinvention and redefinition of the possibilities of sculptural form, which previously had been associated with recognizable objects existing in space or had pertained to series of abstract and balanced parts. In an attempt to literally “reform” sculpture, Nauman created attenuated works derived from elongating positive and negative shapes of the human form such as shoulders or the space defined by armpits. Robert Morris’ felt pieces depart from previous ideas of sculptural rigidity by letting go, so to speak, and succumbing to gravity. Judd has consistently rejected traditional sculptural compositions in order to capture the experience of total volume, whereas Andre has eliminated the concept of upright sculpture altogether.
Innovations in sculptural form have resulted in new experiences of space. Where sculpture once existed as a three-dimensional object in a circumscribed space, it now often aggressively defines and demarcates its surroundings. Joel Shapiro’s works are small in scale, seemingly concentrated distillations of the history of sculpture. Their miniature size is in reverse proportion to the large amount of space required for their installation and their demanding presence is achieved on account of their ability to affect the space around them. Flat metal floor pieces by Andre specifically deal with spatial concerns, suggesting as they do the area of space above each piece, which the mind interprets and physically comprehends. The best sculpture of the recent decade offers the combination of both mental and physical understanding of space. We are asked to extend our minds beyond the work’s literal appearance in order to grasp its ultimate effect on our experience of both space and material mass and the ways these are variously related. In this respect, Judd has defined sculpture in its most essential sense as something which both occupies and contains space. Flavin’s light fixtures succeed in transforming the surrounding space into a substance in and of itself by means of colored light. LeWitt’s sculptures of cubes based on a strict modular system present a complex visual and intellectual experience which arises from their clear and literal delineation of cubic space.
The sculpture of H. C. Westerman and that of Claes Oldenburg attest to art’s ability to keep the human psyche in perspective through irony and humor. Commemorative sculpture has long since disappeared, and in its place we find meaning in sarcastic images of mankind or glorification in the shape of a geometric mouse. The sculptor’s task, one might speculate, has most significantly come to be the creation of monuments to individual experience, and thus the sculpture of recent years has focused on investing perceptions of an intellectual and emotional nature with a universal application.
This text was published in the exhibition brochure.