The Shape of Things to Come

Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture

by Sidney Geist
Grossman, 247, 204 figs. pp., $10.00

Modern American Sculpture

by Dore Ashton
Abrams, 54, 28 figs., 80 pls. pp., $25.00

David Smith by David Smith

edited by Cleve Gray
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 176, 107 figs. pp., $22.95

Beyond Modern Sculpture

by Jack Burnham
Braziller, 402, 135 figs. pp., $15.00

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….

The language is not always clear, yet there is throughout the same vigor and purpose that inform the sculpture. Apart from one powerful explosion of doubt and frustration toward the end:

I’m exhausted enough to want to rest and the mind won’t—enjoying nature is only occasional and not complete enough—but more so than artificial stimulations of jazz and bop and beer which race along without the mind and leave me feeling cheated—I hate to go to bed—to stay alive longer—I’ve slipped up on time—it all didn’t get in—the warpage is in me—I convey it to the person I live with—where do I find it to change—do I like it that way, am I glad it’s too late—some yes some no—would financial security help—or why cannot part security till May be some appeasement.

nearly every sentence is in the rhetorical mode directed at the kind of people who read art magazines. There is ambivalence in this since Smith thought of that audience as largely composed of parasites and phonies, and wanted his art to speak for itself. Perhaps he felt that only he could set the record straight.

But he is only partly successful in interpreting his own work. Most of what he had to say about it critics have observed before, and his own view tends to confirm their perceptions.

Some critics refer to certain pieces of my sculpture as “two-dimensional.” Others call it “line drawing.” I do not admit to this, either conceptually or physically. It may be true in part, but only as one attribute of many, and that by intention and purpose. There are no rules in sculpture.

The technical comments are generally the most illuminating, particularly when they refer to processes of which only the end result is visible:

In my own procedure, along with the material, a new concept process has developed. That is where the distant whole or finished work consists of the sum of its parts. This is much like the industrial method of building a machine but without a blueprint, and where the function is only visual. Where the end is never seen until the final part, and the finality being realized when each part in unity works up to the whole. Conceptually this procedure is much like painting….

There are few descriptions of the genesis of a particular work, and where they occur (as in the account of “Hudson River Landscape,” which tells how a series of drawings made from a train were fused into a sculptural design by accident when a bottle of ink spilled), they are more of biographical than of critical interest.

Smith defensively asserts his indifference to tradition, high culture, and the historians, museums, and critics who are able only to “say what art was, not what art is.” His ideas are familiar from earlier avant-garde manifestos, and give no hint of his affinity for primitive and archaic art, which led him to adopt themes such as Leda, Menad, Sacrifice, Tank Totem, Sentinel, and hieroglyphic studies in the notebooks and scultures like The Letter. In seeking the archetypal character of the primitive icon or totem in many of his major sculptures, Smith asserted the continuity of culture while overtly rejecting the historical traditions of western European art that had inspired so many of the earlier innovations of modern sculpture and painting.

Like almost all writings on their work by artists since Leonardo, these selections tell us only what the author wants us to know. It is, in a sense, another work of art, a romantic self-portrait of the artist as a lonely pioneer. But we cannot expect the artist to play the critic, to reduce what he already has communicated in his art to fit the narrower medium of words, particularly when, like Smith, he is profoundly suspicious of criticism. It is for us to extract whatever helps us to understand the artist and to approach the sculpture with fewer misconceptions than we might have had without his help.

In that effort, however, we are frustrated by the editor, who has unveiled only a small segment of Smith’s self-portrait without telling us either what is its relation to the whole or how much is still hidden. There is no easy way to tell whether we are getting a representative portion of the writings, or a portion selected by Gray to show Smith in a favorable light. Two pages of notes provide skeletal information identifying the source, but I have the impression that, with a little effort, Gray could have helped us to read more perceptively between the lines. It would be useful to know, for example, what principles guided the selection of most of the statements from notebooks of the 1950s (there are only five passages from the Thirties and Forties) and, as far as possible, which were the statements that were repeated publicly again and again, and which were the soliloquies.* Unfortunately, Smith’s splendid photographs of his work are compromised in the gravure reproductions; either the editor or the publisher should have realized that they were not illustrations but important statements in themselves; they deserved better treatment.

Beyond Modern Sculpture is a utopian view of the future union of art and technology. It is less about sculpture itself than about the relationship of science to the theory of sculpture, though masses of individual works are cited as evidence. Burnham knows a great deal about these subjects, and his gifts of organization and persuasion make this one of the most informative and challenging books about contemporary art.

Burnham first traces the history of sculptural theory from the late nineteenth century to what he aggressively calls “the exhaustion of formalism.” “Formalism” is a disapproving translation of Clement Greenberg’s term “modernist(ism)” which refers to avant-garde abstract artists of the Fifties and Sixties—David Smith being one—who found stimulus in the tradition of Cubism and Surrealism. To call an artist a formalist is to imply that he is primarily interested in solutions to problems of color, structure, space, etc. internal to his art, and Burnham believes that these problems have been worked to extinction.

He characterizes the early development toward abstraction, from the narrative art of Rodin and Medardo Rosso to Brancusi and the constructivists, as an escape from the tradition of monolithic statuary through the gradual elimination of the sculptural base. He outlines the origins in scientific and philosophical thought of the Vitalist theory of sculpture (best articulated by Herbert Read), according to which the artist imbues inert materials with the semblance of biomorphic life—the élan vital of Bergson—by more or less overt references to the human body. Moore and Arp, and in this country, Roszak, Lipton, and most other sculptors of the Thirties and Forties are representatives of this tendency.

Burnham is less convincing in trying to identify the scientific and mathematical roots of “formalist” sculpture, imposing unnecessary restrictions on the diverse range of abstract work that presumably belongs in this category. Artists who consciously adopted mathematical concepts are forced into the foreground—e.g., Max Bill—and there is an absurd commentary on David Smith’s Cubi, which claims that Smith cannot be credited with being the first to use boxes, then moves from Smith to Minimal artists (Judd, Morris, Truitt, Bell) who occasionally use cubic forms, and from there back in time to the Constructivists Tatlin, Gabo and Pevsner, and again ahead to Pop Art and Noguchi. The scientific model fits some of these and not others.

Burnham scrupulously avoids discussing individual works of art except as they realize a particular idea; his defense in the conclusion to Part One is that the whole apparatus of traditional criticism (which he calls “stylistics”) has collapsed, along with formalist art. Discussions of form and space are, he says, irrelevant in a world of “invisible values,” and should be replaced by a phenomenological criticism which requires the observer to focus on the nature of his own perceptions in relation to objects of art. I find it confusing that the principal source of his theory is Merleau-Ponty, the philosopher who has exerted the strongest influence on recent “formalist” criticism; and Burnham compounds the confusion by his refusal or inability to apply the method he recommends to any of the works he refers to.

The second part, entitled “Sculpture as System,” is an exhaustively documented demonstration of how the science of cybernetics has made possible an art of objects that respond to the observer as sensitively as another being. He looks forward with relish to an era in which the border-line between the biological organism and the machine will dissolve entirely. In tracing the steps to this goal, Burnham sweeps rapidly through the history of automata since antiquity, as well as the modern development of kinetic art from Duchamp to Tinguely and the European “Field Kinetic” groups, the use of light as a sculpture medium, and finally Mock Robots and “Cyborg” art (a system relating to an organism by reciprocal feedback). He admits that because of the huge cost of adapting modern technology to the purposes of art, all efforts to do so to date have had to accept debilitating compromises; many are no more advanced in conception than eighteenth-century clockworks. But the potentialities are unlimited, and if they are realized the art of the future will, as Burnham hopes, indeed be incalculably different from any we have yet known.

Burnham’s doctrine of the machine for the machine’s sake promises that the frenetic pace of changing fashions in the art market will be sustained by alliance with technology. He assures us of constant surprises, but says nothing of their value to us as we try to cope with just those crises which post-industrial culture has produced. Future art may well employ unimagined techniques and materials, but if it uses these uncritically and if it no longer offers insights into the human condition, it will become another commercial product with built-in obsolescence.

While Burnham argues for a radically new interpretation of the art and culture of our time, his historical method itself is obsolete. The notion of a culture progressing toward a goal—in this case the union of art and systems technology to produce a biological interaction between work and observer—represents a return to Hegel’s historicism and to the methods of art history that emerged out of it in the 1890s. Burnham is Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl reincarnated. As Ernst Gombrich has recently shown in In Search of Cultural History (Oxford, 1969), it took the historians more than a generation to escape the seduction of a teleological theory in which history is interpreted as the gradual unfolding in progressive steps of a human or national destiny. Here it re-emerges in mod costume, as the enthusiastic utopianism of the technologist.

The reason many of us worked so hard to beat down the first wave of Hegelianism was that it submerged the work of art in the dynamics of history, and promoted a criticism that was concerned not with the character or quality of works of art but with their function in realizing a hypothetical destiny. Burnham, like the Hegelians, sees the works he discusses only as moments in a historical evolution; a sculpture by Moore interests him as an instance of the realization of Vitalism, a Calder as an instance of Kineticism. How they affect us as individual conceptions doesn’t seem to matter. He is not bothered by the admission that the cybernetic art of our time, which represents for Burnham the farthest point of advance in his linear evolution, has not yet been more than titillating, because its effective realization will occur in the future, like the withering of the State in Marx’s historicist theory. Burnham cannot resist applying to art and culture the old-fashioned optimism and progressivism that technologists have had to adopt to keep going. The rest of us may be more doubtful of the benefits to be expected from the machines of the future, particularly when they start thinking and acting on their own.

Nor can I share Burnham’s enthusiasm over the future marriage of art and technology, not because the idea is in itself distressing, but because the issue seems irrelevant. Because art does not progress like science, it is impossible to say where it is going, and presumptuous to recommend to artists a particular path. Some cybernetic art may prove to be great; so may some easel painting. What matters is whether we discover in works of art an experience worth having; when works of cybernetic art stimulate this experience, fine: let’s talk about them then.

The critical consciousness of our time is so pervasively historical that we can hardly resist seeing Brancusi, Smith and recent art—whether cybernetic or Minimal—as in some sense representatives of the past, the present, and the future. We can show that Brancusi’s work evolved in a most natural way from an unbroken tradition of figurative statuary. With a little ingenuity we can show Smith’s sculpture as evolving from the quasi-representational imagery of Cubism and Surrealism to pure abstraction. Finally, we can interpret recent sculpture as the inevitable dialectic reaction from the inaccessability and individualism of the “modernist” aesthetic toward a demand for intense and total interaction of observer and object.

But evolutionary theory in art as in biology works best on events somewhat removed in time. This one may treat Brancusi fairly, but it begins to falter when it interprets Smith’s work as the logical unfolding of a process that culminated in the distant and geometrical abstraction of the late Cubi; this linear course can be traced only by excluding the distracting evidence (e.g., the allusive Wagon series from the same period as the Cubi) of the artist’s incessant fertility and scope. Historicized criticism, by inhibiting our capacity to grasp the full range of Smith’s art, diminishes his stature. In its application to more recent sculpture, the theory tends, as in Burnham’s book and Minimal Art, to abandon criticism entirely in favor of speculation about the direction in which art is “moving”; it suggests that the criterion of value for a particular work is whether or not it is “with it.”

But the apologists for cybernetic and Minimal art cannot be brushed off as naive or unintelligent. They have mounted an attack on the premises of Western art since the Renaissance (and particulary on those of Smith’s generation), which is a greater challenge to American criticism than that of Tolstoy and the Marxists, whose ideas never took root in this country. In effect, they are saying that our traditional critical standards, which give the highest priority to individuality of statement and gesture, to inventiveness, and to the uniqueness and permanence of the work of art, are obsolete—that we have entered an age as different from that of the Renaissance-to-Modernism as the Renaissance was different from the Middle Ages. The values of traditional criticism are associated with a privileged social élite; they are inaccessible to the larger and less educated public; they promote the isolation of art from life and its interment in museums and private collections. In contrast, the new art seeks out the anonymity of the machine in employing manufactured materials and industrial techniques; it is the expression of mass society. By its great scale it demands a public space.

The theory seems well-suited to American art—it is democratic, socially conscious, and it accepts the machine. But, like Futurist theory half a century ago, it is a program produced by and for the élite it purports to attack. The art it demands and supports is no more congenial to the public than was the radical art of the last generation. And because of its flirtation with technology and systems, it seems likely that it will be antipathetic to the future élite—the generation of student reformers whose social consciousness is expressed in rhetoric that identifies the evils of the Establishment precisely with the machine and with the systematization of society.

The new aesthetic may be an unconscious attempt to adjust to the collapse of the avant-garde tradition. The commercialization of radical art since the mid-Fifties signaled a shift by art consumers from a posture of rejection of innovation to one of eager and undiscriminationg acceptance. The artist whose work is devoured in a market obsessed by novelty can no longer maintain the position of the alienated outsider, which was natural and inescapable for David Smith. In this altered environment he needs a new defense and a new attack; his freedom can no longer be protected by assurance of the opposition of the Establishment. The theories I have referred to not only suggest a willingness to accept acceptance, but they erase the barrier between art and manufacture. Still, they are just theories, and no matter how different the art of the future may be from that of the past, I am sure it will continue to be inspired more by art than by words.


Art’s End November 20, 1969

Art’s End November 20, 1969

  1. *

    I am grateful to Rosalind Krauss for information on the archive.