Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture
Modern American Sculpture
David Smith by David Smith
Beyond Modern Sculpture
The increasing number of recent books on sculpture suggests that three-dimensional art has become the major expressive form in the art of the mid-Sixties. Painting, the dominant mode of the early twentieth century, now seems to be straining against the confinement of the rectangular plane. What has happened in sculpture during the last five years, moreover, has sparked a controversy that can be said to threaten modern art criticism itself. The “minimal” artists, in their work and writing, have reacted against the highly individualistic art of the New York School of the Fifties by challenging traditional standards, which put a high value on individual invention and complexity. They are exhibiting work which avoids personal statement by using industrial materials and products assembled as in a factory. They reduce structural intricacy to elemental and usually familiar forms, the nature of which is apparent the moment we see them.
These sculptures do not attempt to “say” anything; they are objects displacing empty space, intended to be contemplated, not interpreted; their principal function is to create a situation, to interact with the observer and the surrounding, and this frustrates objective evaluation. Minimal art cannot be judged by the critical standards of the past: either it has to be rejected as art or the canons have to be changed. Thus theory and analysis thrive on the artist’s insecurity, and art itself becomes a form of criticism. It is symptomatic of this that three of the four books under review were written by artists.
Nearly two-thirds of the book on Brancusi by Sidney Geist, a sculptor and critic who was a student of the artist, is devoted to a survey of Brancusi’s career from the early sculptures of the turn of the century in the style of Rodin and Rosso, to the late Forties, when, a decade before his death, the artist stopped working. Each of the 204 items listed in the Checklist at the end, a number of which survive only in photographs, is illustrated by tiny and poorly reproduced figures in the margin. This gives only a vague idea of the character of the pieces, and no indication of their quality, but it offers in compensation a kind of panoramic view of Brancusi’s oeuvre that couldn’t be had otherwise in an inexpensive book. The text strictly follows the order of illustrations, alloting a brief paragraph to each without general observations or commentary on aspects other than form and subject matter. It is not only mechanical, but insubstantial.
Geist’s short concluding essay, however, is revealing, in spite of his having limited himself to supporting his analysis of Brancusi’s work by quotations from Brancusi’s own language, without interposing judgments, and using only stylistic criteria. The most valuable passages are those in which Geist’s own experience as a sculptor is brought to bear on Brancusi’s work; and he has much to say on Brancusi’s treatment of shape, surface and polish, of equilibrium and the problem of the base, the variation of pieces made in series, Brancusi’s use of photographs, and other working methods.
Geist is less helpful in interpreting Brancusi’s quasi-mystical, quasi-Platonic idealism, which prompted his insistence that his work was not abstract but “most realistic,” or “absolute.” Brancusi was one of the most theatrical characters of his generation—but Geist takes him on faith. He even falls for such pompous propositions as “I give you joy, pure joy” (if that’s what we’re after, how do we get it from marble carvings?).
Geist’s lack of distance keeps us from understanding aspects of Brancusi’s work that the artist was not aware of. Passing references to Bergson and Satie are an inadequate introduction to the atmosphere of philosophic mysticism that surrounded virtually all approaches to “pure form” in the early years of the century. Geist has nothing useful to say about the dramatic shift from Brancusi’s Rodin-like statuary to the primitive The Kiss of 1907, one of the earliest and most radical statements of the modernist sensibility, which should be seen against the background of Parisian art of that moment. I miss also a sense of the internal as well as the external setting; Brancusi’s art is so full of sexual symbolism that the psychological element must be included in any interpretation of it.
If Brancusi’s “rationalized form” brought him to works on the threshhold of “object” sculpture in the modern sense, he remained firmly on the Renaissance side of that threshhold. Geist’s conclusion that Brancusi aided the transition from the statuary of the past to the manufactured minimal structures of today could promote a misinterpretation of both. As Geist shows, Brancusi never abandoned classicism or idealism; he sought and achieved an organic, expressive statement that is absolutely antithetical to recent sculpture; in fact, it is the target of the critical attack I shall discuss below.
Modern American Sculpture contains 80 plates, many in color, and a text by Dore Ashton which struggles bravely with the impossible task of outlining in 54 pages a history of the subject since 1900. Miss Ashton is best in discussing the earlier work, where fewer artists fit into clear patterns. But her observations on recent sculptors, although frequently elegant and sensitive, are too brief to be anything but superficial; although Calder, Smith, and Noguchi are given more space than other artists, it is still not enough, while younger men are merely labeled. Texts like this exploit both the reader and the author; however imaginative the critic, their function is to help publishers to sell a book of pictures.
About seventy artists are represented by works executed before 1965. The four years between the planning and the publication of a book on the contemporary scene have defeated the book’s purpose. The most interesting development in recent American sculpture—the emergence of Minimal structures and the critical controversies they have produced have had to be excluded. (They have been collected by Gregory Battcock in Minimal Art, Dutton, 1968.) Normal production lags cannot be the excuse, for the German edition of Udo Kultermann’s New Dimensions in Sculpture, published here in 1968 by Praeger and devoted largely to work of the immediately preceding years, appeared in 1967. The absence of the sculpture of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Tony Smith, Robert Grosvenor, Dan Flavin, Kenneth Snelson, and others makes recent sculpture appear more flaccid than it is. The new directions in light and other media covered by Burnham are also missing, along with certain sculptors active before 1965 whom I would have included, such as Trova, Chryssa, Gallo and Tovish. I realize however that any selection is inevitably personal, and affected by difficulties in getting access to work not exhibited in New York. The quality of the color plates is exceptionally high.
Within the last year or two nearly every critic who has mentioned his name has called David Smith “the greatest American sculptor.” Critics rarely are unanimous, or raise an artist to such a pinnacle. I mention this not because I challenge their judgment, but because I have been swept along with it. I suspect that the reason for their high opinion is that Smith’s work now strikes a peculiarly responsive note, as it did not during his lifetime, and as it may not a decade hence. The sculpture has qualities that have been lost from American life and that we wish to regain. It is vigorous, assured, severe, yet individualistic; it disdains artfulness and sophistication, and it reveals an imagination always prepared to take risks. At a time when so much art trades on irony and cleverness, we are particularly susceptible to the voice of the only recent artist with the assurance that Walt Whitman had, or Frank Lloyd Wright.
The autobiographical sketch in the opening pages of David Smith by David Smith reveals a background and personality vastly different from that of the European avant-garde artists. Smith grew up in a small midwestern town; his first job was in an automobile factory, and after studying painting at the Art Students’ League in New York, he found working space in an iron workers’ shop in Brooklyn, where he perfected his welding technique with the help of industrial craftsmen; during the war years he worked as a welder in a locomotive plant. He never became used to the city, and as soon as he could afford to build a studio, he moved to a farm in upper New York State. The industrial and the rural-agricultural elements in his life are major factors in his work. The factory provided not only technical skills but the thematic motifs—locomotive and cog wheels, I-beams, boiler parts, etc. The outdoors often became the content of Smith’s work (sculptors never before did landscapes except in relief), and always acted as a foil: monumental pieces were conceived for and in the landscape as Smith’s fine photographs reproduced in the book show, and contend powerfully with the forests and fields.
I like outdoor sculpture [he writes, p. 123] and the most practical thing for outdoor sculpture is stainless steel and I make them and I polish them in such a way that on a dull day, they take on the dull blue, or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun, the glow, golden like the rays, the colors of nature….
The main elements of Smith’s sculpture—its simplicity, lack of urbanity, freedom from sculptural tradition, and openness to change—were features that earlier American artists often tried to overcome by studying or working in Europe. Smith, however, came to maturity when European art was losing its momentum, when the American experience seemed to provide the ingredients of a renewal of the modern tradition. Smith was more aware of this than most artists of his generation: “Provincialism or coarseness or unculture,” he wrote in 1953, “is greater for creating art than finesse or polish. Creative art has a better chance of developing from coarseness and courage than from culture. One of the good things about American art is that it doesn’t have the spit and polish that some foreign art has. It is coarse.”
Initially, his approach to form and structure was stimulated by European Cubism, and the influences he acknowledges in the book are from his teacher Matulka, who introduced him to Cubism, Leger, Stuart Davis, and the welded figural sculpture of Picasso and of Gonzales, which was the most important discovery of his early career. After the mid-Forties, his work, like that of his contemporaries Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Newman, and others of the New York School, developed on its own.
Cleve Gray has organized selections from Smith’s writings and notebooks into three sections: autobiographical notes, comments on sculpture (technique, drawing, color) and other arts, and poetry and aphorisms. The last is sometimes sententious, but not artificial:
The Question—what is your hope I would like to make sculpture that would rise from/water and tower in the air—/that carried conviction and vision that had not/existed before/that rose from a natural pool of clear water/to sandy shores with rocks and plants/that men could view as natural without reverence or awe/but to whom such things were natural because they were statements of peaceful pursuit—and joined in the/phenomenon of life….