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The Road to Minimalism

Sometime around 1960, the painter Ad Reinhardt defined sculpture as “something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” This summed up the longstanding prejudice against sculpture, which for centuries had been considered an art that was distinctly inferior to painting. Leonardo da Vinci famously argued that the practice of sculpture required less intellectual effort than painting and that sculpture could draw on distinctly poorer means, lacking such basic elements as color, chiaroscuro, and perspective. Leonardo also asserted that the sculptor was too dependent on nature, especially because it lighted his work in the same way as it did “other man-made things that would otherwise be invisible.”1

Over the next few centuries, a number of writers expressed similar attitudes, criticizing sculpture for being too closely bound to nature and unable to exercise the kind of artistic control that would make it sufficiently independent from the rest of the real world. In Baudelaire’s essay on sculpture, titled “Why Sculpture Is Boring,” he characterized sculpture as “brutal and positive like nature,” but at the same time vague and elusive: “It presents too many faces at once…. The spectator, who revolves around the figure, can choose a hundred different points of view, except the right one.” Echoing Leonardo, Baudelaire also wrote about how random lighting effects could humiliate the sculptor by revealing beauties in his work that he himself had not thought of. In a painting, by contrast, one saw only what the artist wanted one to see: “Painting has only one point of view; it is exclusive and despotic: and so the expression a painter can command is much stronger.”

The notion that sculpture was subservient to painting became so entrenched that a painter like Reinhardt could speak with the flippant assurance of someone who feels he will not be challenged. But in the 1960s, only a few years after Reinhardt made his jibe, sculpture’s place in the world changed radically. Sculpture began to look very different, rejecting even indirect resemblance to anything in the world outside itself. (“What you see is what you see,” Frank Stella remarked in 1966.) It also began to interact with the beholder in a very different way: instead of bumping into it, one would have been more likely to trip over it or bang one’s head against it. Works such as Carl Andre’s long, narrow rows of bricks hugged the floor in a way no sculpture previously had; Eva Hesse’s wiry constructions looped down from gallery ceilings with an unprecedented fluidity of movement; Richard Serra’s large steel plates broke up with powerful, even menacing effect the spaces in which they were placed, and Donald Judd’s rows of shiny metal boxes were stacked relentlessly up and across gallery walls. Sculpture had not only come off its pedestal and inhabited space in a radically new way, it was increasingly shown in galleries in which there were no paintings from which to back away. Within a few short years, painting, which had for so long ruled the roost, was widely being declared “dead.”


This transformation of sculpture and the radical change in its position in relation to painting is the subject of Alex Potts’s stimulating and challenging book. Potts casts the history of modern sculpture in a broad frame, beginning in the late eighteenth century with Antonio Canova and ending with works by a handful of contemporary artists. He sees this history as having a specific direction that reached a crucial turning point in the 1960s, when sculptors freed themselves from painterly models and rethought the presentation, or “staging,” of sculpture.

Potts is interested in the ways that theoretical writing about sculpture has affected sculptural practice and the conventions of beholding. His goal, stated at the outset, is to insist on “intense close viewing of sculpture, while making it clear that anything we say about such viewing is dependent upon linguistic constructs and cultural convention—both ours and those current in the milieu for which the work was created.” His book achieves that goal, balancing close readings of a number of influential theoretical and philosophical texts with careful examination of individual sculptures. He gives an excellent account of how sculpture has been written about since the eighteenth century and provides illuminating discussions of work by a wide range of writers. There is much that is valuable in his book, though much, also, that is arguable.

Potts conceives the history of modern sculpture as having three main phases. In the first or classical phase sculpture is concerned with representing a self-sufficient, often beautiful human figure, usually rendered in a single material such as marble or bronze. In the second or Modernist phase, which begins after Rodin and gains strength from the Cubists and Surrealists, the work of sculpture becomes more like an object that has aesthetic interest apart from its resemblance to things outside itself, though it still retains a strong representational element. Although Modernist sculpture is more abstract than traditional sculpture, it continues to give high priority to internal structure and formal unity. In Potts’s view, the Modernist work, whether by such artists as Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, or the Russian Constructivists, projects its own integrity, independent of the setting in which it is placed.

In Potts’s third phase, which begins in the 1960s and is closely associated with the pared-down geometrical art known as Minimalism, sculpture becomes not so much an object as a specially organized spatial environment.2 Minimalist works, according to Potts, reject classical and Modernist ideas about the formal integrity of sculpture and emphasize instead the process of viewing. The physical components of such works are presented as literal objects—Carl Andre’s bricks, Richard Serra’s rectangles of sheet metal, Donald Judd’s steel boxes—which are situated in a space that either implicitly or literally includes the beholder. Shaping the beholder’s response is believed to be more important than the internal unity of the art work.

The experience of the work is thus intended to be more important than its visible components and form; the artist tries to avoid the elements traditionally associated with structural unity, such as compositional balance or modulation of shapes and rhythms. Such works do not contain imagery in any ordinary sense. They are abstract not only because they are not meant to represent anything beyond themselves but because that very fact, along with their own inert physical presence, is part of what they are intended to convey. The irritated and angry responses to Carl Andre’s bricks suggest how puzzling and provocative the effect of that fact can be. In Minimalist sculpture, the structure of the work does not suggest any particular meaning, so that each spectator can, in effect, create his or her own experience of it. The work of art is intended to alter the beholder’s subjective reactions; instead of concentrating attention on a conventional (and potentially commercial and domestic) art object, the Minimalist wants the viewer to be part of an environment which is controlled by the sculpture.

Although Potts’s general scheme is extremely interesting (and set forth with a subtlety and complexity that one can hardly do justice to in a short space), he is at times too categorical, especially in relation to the somewhat schematic way in which he conceives of Modernism. Although he is not explicit about it, he seems to have an ideological position echoing that of the Minimalists themselves.

Potts sets the stage for his argument with an account of the historical and theoretical situation of sculpture in the late eighteenth century, when public art galleries emerged and sculpture was more and more separated from its traditional architectural setting. As the exhibition of sculptures as autonomous objects became a common practice, sculpture was increasingly created without a specific site in mind, simply to be displayed in a gallery space. This radically altered the way in which sculpture had been perceived throughout much of its earlier history, when sculptures had usually been part of religious edifices and became familiar to communities of beholders who were assumed to share common values.

Subsequently, sculptural production was characterized by an increasing sense of dislocation. Where sculptural works physically belonged and how they should be viewed became a contentious issue during the mid-nineteenth century, when the classicizing figure, Potts argues, “ceased to be a viable model for any even remotely critically aware sculptural practice because it presented itself so blatantly as a reassuringly consumable commodity.” It came to embody a fixed idea “rather than a stimulus to think subjectivity anew.”

In this part of his account, Potts is alert to the ways that individual pieces of sculpture resist having theoretical interpretations imposed on them. In his discussion of Canova’s sculpture, for example, he calls attention to the way Canova’s apparently classical style was undermined by his use of richly sensual surface effects and by a lack of compositional unity that lent his works a curiously modern, fragmented effect. And though he discusses Rodin as coming at the end of this classical phase, Potts also gives close attention to the Modernist, object-like characteristics of Rodin’s sculpture, such as his use of fragments, his emphasis on psychic rather than physical states of being, and the sense of placelessness that is characteristic of many of his works.

Rodin was interested in the way that studio photographs of his own sculptures could be used to suggest how they ideally ought to be seen. Rilke, who for a time was Rodin’s private secretary, wrote of the difficulties Rodin often had in trying to place his sculptures in public spaces. As Rilke noted, sculpture had to distinguish itself from “objects of daily use” lest it become no more than a mere paperweight. “Such work has to be staged,” Potts points out, “and…one way in which this could be done was through studio photographs.” Photographs also gave a place of refuge, as it were, to what Rilke perceived as the homeless condition of modern sculpture.

A generation later, Brancusi was faced with similar problems of showing his work. In order to emphasize the autonomy of his sculpture he relied on what seem to be two diametrically opposite practices which in fact worked toward a similar effect. The first was that he elaborated the bases of his sculptures to such a degree that they became integral parts of the works rather than mere pedestals for them. In doing so, Brancusi not only called attention to the presentation of his works but also created specific kinds of interplay within them, which involved contrasts of forms, textures, and materials—such as a rough wood base set against polished stone, or grainy stone set against gleaming metal. Secondly, Brancusi took extensive photographs of his sculpture-filled studio and of the pieces within it. In fact, he seems to have conceived of his photographs not merely as interpretations of his sculptures but as independent works of art. Both the pedestals and the photographs allowed Brancusi to control the beholder’s perspective for viewing and thereby to control the experience viewers have of the work.

  1. 1

    Leonardo da Vinci, “Paragone,” sections 36–46; in The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, third edition, edited by Jean Paul Richter (London: Phaidon, 1969, pp. 91–101); my translation of the phrase “ch’essa aiuta l’altre cose invisibile artificiose” in the directly quoted passage (p. 94) differs slightly from Richter’s.

  2. 2

    Although Minimalism is much discussed, it has never been clearly defined. For a detailed and useful recent history of the debates and exhibitions that were associated with it, see James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (Yale University Press, 2001).

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