A Broader View of Sculpture: Two Books by Artists on the Perception of their Medium
The Elements of Sculpture, A Viewer’s Guide by Herbert George and The Cardiff Tapes by Garth Evans
Two books by the sculptors Herbert George and Garth Evans have been published recently. Both men have had long and distinguished careers as artists, and reputations as inspiring teachers. Neither book is devoted to the practical, to the actual making of sculpture, as has often been the case in books by sculptors. Rather both authors, after a lifetime of making, teaching and exhibiting sculpture, deal with larger questions of how sculpture is perceived and understood, or misunderstood, by the public at large.
Herbert George in The Elements of Sculpture, takes as his premiss that sculpture is a thing, a physical object, which can be identified by 13 physical qualities — material, location, mass, color, center of gravity, surface, edge etc. There is also a final and non-physical category, “Memory” in which he places one actual memorial — Charles Sargent Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial in London — with works by Cornell, Kienholz and others.
Each “element” is illustrated by a group of images of sculpture from different times and places. Thus the first Element Material is represented with works by Goldsworthy, di Suvero, Brancusi’s “Torso of a Young Man” in wood and in polished bronze, Bernini’s marble “Apollo and Daphne”, Degas’ “Little Dancer” and two contemporary pieces in found materials by Felix Gonzalez Torres and Shinique Smith. This selection gives an idea of the distribution of the 214 illustrations between contemporary, modern, historic European sculpture and pieces from Asia, Africa and the Americas — about half being in the first (contemporary) category and progressively fewer in each succeeding category. The images themselves make an eloquent visual argument in this thoughtfully designed book. Each is accompanied by a short description, and there are longer introductory and concluding chapters, but the images of sculpture dominate.
In contrast, Garth Evans’ The Cardiff Tapes is a modestly sized paperback, with few but telling illustrations, and a text of compelling interest — a transcription of several hours of audiotaped comments by unnamed citizens of Cardiff, Wales, in response to a sculpture installed there in 1972 by Evans himself. There are also introductory and concluding essays by Evans, and one giving the historical context by the historian and curator Jonathan Wood.
The Elements of Sculpture is based on a class for non-art majors Herbert George invented and taught at the University of Chicago, where he noticed that his students “though skilled writers in other realms, lacked the vocabulary and experience to understand and write about works of sculpture”. The class was unusual in that individual sculptures including contemporary works were treated as objects, rather than images, without regard to their subject or social function, their historical or cultural context. The book, described on the cover as “A Viewer’s Guide,” extends that project to a wider audience faced with contemporary work usually presented in one person exhibitions or monographs on individual artists.
The context for The Cardiff Tapes, “The City Sculpture Project” had a similar educational ambition. Funded by the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation, some 17 artists were invited to design and build works for public spaces in eight British cities; the sculptures to remain on view for six months, in the hope that the cities would agree to permanently siting them thereafter. None did, so far as I know. (My own work was rejected by the cities of Newcastle and Liverpool before it could be installed in either city in the allowed period — a Liverpool city councilor described it as “looking like the collapsed lungs of a lung cancer patient” — the result of smoking Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes.) One has the impression that artists and public alike emerged frustrated, bewildered and often angry from the experience. But not Garth Evans, whose commitment to the project was profound and personal. and who saw himself as both participant and observer.
Jon Wood’s essay, entitled “Spectators, Speculations, Specters” describes the scene in Cardiff — “a large, twelve-meter-long geometric steel sculpture […] its middle, raised section bookended by triangular and rectangular forms […] is placed at an angle on a paved pedestrian area, cutting across a popular thoroughfare” in the Hayes district of the city. Evans explains “I did not want a location that would signify importance by isolating the work from people and making it inaccessible. I wanted a situation where people would come upon the sculpture naturally and interact with it.”
He was at a point in his career where his abstract work had brought some recognition and success in the art world, yet he felt uneasy about the vast psychic distance between the objects made in his London studio and the lives and culture of the working people of South Wales, where he had grown up. Generations of his family had worked in the coal mines and he knew at first hand of the hardship and danger of that life.The horizontal character of the sculpture, its suggestions of some tool or machine, its matt black finish, could all imply an association with coal mining and its grim history: the thousands of miners who had died in accidents, and notably in the Senghenydd disaster of 1913, in which 440 died in a single day in a mine close by Cardiff — these factors could all have suggested the work be a memorial, and at least guaranteed some recognition, some respect, on the part of the public. After much self-questioning Evans refused that option: the sculpture was dropped into place one day without warning or explanation, and the artist was at hand to record what people thought about it. The transcription of what he heard in the next few hours — comments by and conversations among perhaps a hundred men, women and children — makes for remarkable reading.
7th CHILD: “What is this thing?”
8th CHILD: “What is it?”
7th CHILD: “I don’t know: it looks like nothing”.
8th CHILD: “What is it?”
7th CHILD: “It’s better than anything else anyway”
8th CHILD: “You can’t climb on anything else”.
7th CHILD: “I wish there were a hundred more like it.”
None of the adults were as open or accepting. A few immediately responded in terms like “ugly,” “dreadful,” “a stupid thing,” “an abomination,” “a waste of metal.” For most the question was “What is it for?” or “What is it intended to mean or represent?” and speculated sometimes at length on possible answers. Only one person, the “41st Man,” and the last of the day, came up with a response that went beyond an attempt to place this object in a familiar category — “What I think is that different people will read different things into this — and make you speculate — and you may come to the right conclusion and you may come to the wrong conclusion, but you [will] have speculated, you see, thought. And it’s tantalizing and mysterious and (uh) provocative. But — I like it, and yet — I wouldn’t say I don’t like it — but , I like it …”
Some 40 years later Evans writes: “I had wanted to confront viewers with something unavoidable and yet unknowable, and I had succeeded in both those aims….The work, when it enters a public world, must make a place for itself within that world, and in doing so change that world. It does this by not allowing itself to become known easily… Sculpture needs to be difficult, not for the sake of being difficult, but because if it is to be worthwhile, it needs to be able to disturb, confuse and disorient.”
Such questions about sculpture’s identity and purpose were being debated more than a decade earlier in London. In the 1950s the sculpture getting the most critical attention was figurative, the so-called (by Herbert Read) “Geometry of Fear” sculptors, younger followers of Henry Moore and probably in turn influencing him, such as Bernard Meadows, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Elizabeth Frink. It seemed that the figure had come back with a vengeance, reflecting a turn against the utopian optimism of early European Modernism, as featured in the first (!937) edition of Carola Geidion Welcker’s classic “Modern Plastic Art” — Brancusi, Picasso, the Futurists, the Constructivists, de Stijl, and in Britain, Unit One. In the 1957 London County Council exhibition in Holland Park, my own first experience of contemporary sculpture, Barbara Hepworth was present with one or two other abstract artists, but expressionist figures by Moore and the younger sculptors were clearly the dominant trend.
At this time Garth Evans was modeling portrait heads and life size figures in clay from the model at the Slade School; and Herbert George was just beginning a six year quest to acquire the traditional skills of sculpture, including of course figure modeling, at various schools, including the Pennsylvania Academy.
I remember discussions with Phillip King around 1960 — if sculpture were not figure, and not an example of idealized abstraction, what was it to be? If it was an object, a thing, how would it be different from other things? How would it declare its identity? Phillip came up with the phrase “a familiarity which resists recognition”. to describe what he thought I was after, a new object which would suggest an existing object, or incorporate it, or be a variant of it. For King himself the sculpture was to be a phenomenon rather than an object — it would amaze the onlooker, be unlike anything seen before, a completely new experience. Each sculpture was to be a whole, a single gestalt (Gestalt psychology was an important influence), unlike the multipart horizontal steel constructions which Tony Caro was starting to make. Taken together with the sculpture of Bolus, Annesley, Scott, and the minimal artists in the US, it seemed as though sculpture was being completely re-invented as object rather than figure. But why stop there? Why need sculpture be made, or physically exist at all? In the next few years “sculpture” was created in the form of every every kind of temporary and dispersed material and location, photography, performance, video — in effect “the de-materialization of the art object.” Evans’ self-questioning, his uneasiness about the social role of sculpture, even of sculpture’s right to exist, have to be understood in the light of such developments of the late 1960s.
Herbert George was a witness to these debates when he was in London in 1967 on a Fulbright Scholarship studying Romanesque and Gothic sculpture. In the 1970s in New York he founded and edited Tracks, a magazine of artists’ writings, which often featured pieces from artists whose work transgressed the conventional boundaries of sculpture. But he himself has no doubts about sculpture’s existence, or its right to exist in our time. It is there, a fact, part of human culture since prehistory, and practiced as an art today perhaps in greater volume than ever before. George is a maker of sculpture and a teacher, but above all he is a lifelong student of sculpture, knowledgeable and infinitely curious about every aspect of it, and eager to share his passion with a wider public.
He writes from personal experience of all the works illustrated in his book, including Brancusi’s Endless Column in Romania; the Spiral Jetty, the Lightning Field and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, in the desert South West; Christo’s Running Fence on the California coast in the early ’70s, and David Mach’s Polaris, built of 5,000 tires on the South Bank, London, for a few months in 1983. The only sculptures illustrated I imagine he has not seen are the Bamiyan Buddha in Afghanistan, pictured before and after its destruction by the Taliban; the “Burghers of Calais” installed under Rodin’s direction on an 18 feet pedestal next the Houses of Parliament in London, and which remained at that height until 1956: and the Pacific coastal village of the Haida people pictured in 1878 with its spectacular array of totem poles carved from trees of the surrounding forest (and now long since destroyed or dispersed).
By far the greater number of illustrations are of works accessible in museums, galleries or public spaces so that the image and the author’s descriptive commentary can be tested and expanded by the onlooker’s own actual experience. The author presents the reader with images grouped around sculpture’s physical characteristics in order to focus the viewer’s attention on a major aspect of the sculpture, but leaves the viewer to experience the object individually and subjectively. The selection of sculpture presented seems catholic and open, and not designed to promote one school or tendency, even as George writes “I am very aware that this book excludes installation, sound art, video, body art, which could be considered sculpture.” The very limitation of sculpture to a physical object that can (mostly) be walked around, will exclude the large number of woman artists whose work falls into these categories (especially installation); and inevitably there will be questions as to which works, especially by contemporary sculptors are or are not included to illustrate the “Elements “.
The sequence of images throughout the book, the pairing and contrasting of contemporary work with sculpture from past time and other cultures makes for a rich and effective visual narrative parallel to the text, reinforced by the clarity and simplicity of the book’s layout and use of space on the page. The quality of design plainly demanded an equally high quality of images; and the availability of such good images must also have been a consideration in the author’s selection of sculpture. Probably also the inclusion of some highly publicized contemporary sculpture, as opposed to works of more substance by less well known artists, may have been a factor in engaging the general reader.
Even so, in consideration of the vast number of sculptures and images of sculpture that could have been chosen to illustrate George’s thesis, certain principles or preferences emerge beyond the precondition that sculpture is “material form in real space” (from the Introduction, “Experiencing the Third Dimension”) The first principle is that the photographic image is a means of identifying the sculpture only, and that a person has to spend time in the presence of the sculpture itself to even begin to understand it. And so the works chosen are necessarily limited by the author’s experience of the actual objects. But within that limitation it is clear that that George has sympathies with certain works as a sculptor. From graduate school until the 1990s he himself made elegant and inventive constructions combining various materials — wood, canvas, glass, steel, aluminum, plaster, stone. Since the 1990s he has turned increasingly to carving sculpture in stone with equal precision and craftsmanship. It is hardly surprising, then, that if one sculptor gets more attention in this book, in terms of the amount of text and number of illustrations, it is Brancusi. And rightly so, given the fundamental premiss of the book that a piece of sculpture, whatever its perceived image or function, is before all else an object. Brancusi’s marble Sleeping Muse of 1910 is surely the modern prototype of the sculpture as object, preceding by a few years Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe and Duchamp’s Readymades.
George’s sympathy with and understanding of the process of stone carving are evident in the many examples from the history of Western art, and notably in his sensitive observations on portrait heads by Francesco Laurana, and Houdon. Besides Brancusi himself, George has included a surprising number of modern and contemporary examples of stone carving, from the Mount Rushmore monument to works by Noguchi, Louise Bourgeois and Wolfgang Laib, Wood carving in the modern period is represented by Brancusi and Barbara Hepworth alone — one wonders that he might have found a place for a more recent work in wood, by Gabriel Kohn for example, or Raoul Hague or Martin Puryear?
But in whichever material carved works are the exception in the context of most recent sculpture which is constructed either by the artist or executed by others at the artist’s direction; and even carving can now be executed digitally without the artist’s intervention.
Whether carved or modeled the making of sculpture from the earliest times has been a thought process at the same time as a manual and perceptual process. It was only when production and distribution of sculpture on a large scale have become the norm, that mechanical copying and casting, enlargement and reduction, in response to orders and commissions, in effect crowded out individual vision and invention. It was Rodin’s achievement in the late 19th Century to return sculpture to the action of the human hand whether in clay or plaster, and to see what would happen. It’s unfortunate that Rodin is represented here by two finished monuments, the Burghers of Calais and the Balzac, rather than one of the partial figures, such as the Iris or the Flying Figure, which prefigure Brancusi and might themselves be considered the first object sculptures.
That sense of the hand as active in the work is most conspicuous in the two Giacometti sculptures reproduced in the book — The Forest (under Scale) and the MOMA 1948 Standing Woman (under Space). Each sculpture is an excellent example of the Element it illustrates; but their presence on the page seems to me to vibrate with an energy unlike any other sculptures in the book. Giacometti’s post-war work is almost unique (with Medardo Rosso) in the history of sculpture, in that their form derives solely from the artist’s perception of the subject rather than conventions of the subject’s representation. For Giacometti himself they were explicitly not objects, as in his earlier Surrealist pieces. The term object surely connotes something finished, complete, a product, rather than a process. Thus Michelangelo’s unfinished St Matthew seems strangely out of place in the section on Texture, where the variety of surface treatments is a byproduct of the carving process, rather than a conscious feature of the finished sculpture — as in Donatello’s Mary Magdelene, for example, or in The Mandoline by Germaine Richier or Eva Hesse’s Accession.
Giacometti’s sculpture is also distinct here among modern works, because it is so powerfully and uniquely figure. There are only three recent examples of contemporary figurative work in the book — by Pistoletto (Center of Gravity), Yves Klein and Katerina Frisch (Color). These figures, variously carved from marble, life-cast or modeled, are without interest in themselves, neutral, literally and perversely objects. They function both to reinforce the intention of the book — that sculpture is to be seen as object, before it is figure.; and also to represent the actual situation in contemporary sculpture where thoughtful figurative work is notably in the minority.
Yet Herbert George the artist seems to part company here with Herbert George the teacher. His own work, shown opposite Bernini’s Ecstacy of St Teresa (under the element Light), is a carving in onyx titled Composite Likeness #2; though hard to read in the illustration and not mentioned in the text, it is in fact a study for a memorial for victims of Agent Orange, based on an image from a Vietnam hospital. It’s interesting also in this context that a concluding chapter of the book, titled “Using the Elements of Sculpture,” is devoted to a description of Robert Gober’s Untitled (2005-2006) a sculpture consisting of a chair, a paint can, a pair of legs modeled from a single tubular length of beeswax, shoes and socks: each commercially available element actually recreated by the artist in glass, ceramic, etc. George describes each object separately and in combination in terms of his Elements — Color, Scale and Memory —to construct what is in effect a figural presence, even if the literal figure is absent. The author’s speculations as to the meaning of this work are extended and seem deeply felt, revealing a personal identification with this sculpture not evident in his objective descriptions of other works.
Sculpture after all is made by individual people; any work of sculpture. whatever its form or subject, must to some extent embody an individual consciousness. Fortunately we get a glimpse of this from the quotations George includes as he introduces each of his Elements; the fresh and direct voices of the sculptors themselves often complicate or contradict rather than advance a logical analysis. Thus, in the section on Material:
“We must not make materials speak our language, we must go with them to the point where others understand their language.” -Constantin Brancusi
“…challenging the material, looking at the shape and learning from things, and having the opportunity to touch all of these things, to feel their difference…Material is everything to me.” -Tony Cragg
“What matters for me in art is to make one forget material — art is invisible.” -Medardo Rosso
George himself in the final paragraph of his essay on Robert Gober’s Untitled writes: ”I began with the elements that were of primary and secondary importance, then asked why the artist made these formal decisions, being careful to search for answers within the sculpture itself… But this is a beginning, a reasoned first step. My interpretation may not be correct. Furthermore I am not sure what being ‘correct’ might mean in the context of a work I immediately perceived to be an enigma, a mystery. To see more clearly is a deeply satisfying process, but lodged within the core of any sculpture is a question. And that is as it should be.”
It seems we are not so far from the last paragraphs of the Cardiff Tapes:
40th MAN: Is it supposed to represent anything at all?
41st MAN: It’ll dawn on me some day. But then, at that point, I’ll have different interpretations according to my moods, you see, and, uh, I’ll work at this— because it’s provocative. It provokes thought and lots of different things, teaching me about thought. You know what I can tell you about —
40th MAN: So, where do I go from there?
Some 50 years later the publication of The Elements of Sculpture goes some way, if not to answer the questions raised in The Cardiff Tapes, at least to open to a wider public the possibility that the experience of sculpture can be a conversation, rather than a mutual confrontation on the part of both viewer and object.
Herbert George. The Elements of Sculpture: A Viewer’s Guide. (London: Phaidon, 2014). 192 pp, ISBN 9780714867410, $39.95
Garth Evans (with Jon Wood). The Cardiff Tapes. (Chicago: The Soberscove Press, 2015). 90 pp, ISBN 978-1-940190-08-2, $16
Herbert George will lecture on sculpture at the New York Studio School on March 2nd at 6:30PM