A Scribble in the Air

A Concise History of Modern Sculpture

by Herbert Read
Praeger, 310 pp., $7.50

The sculpture of this century boasts an amazingly wide repertory of forms and styles—wider, perhaps, than that of any other period in the history of art. Behind much of this profusion, which to the untutored eye looks so arbitrary and bewildering, stands the revolutionary change in sculptural syntax effected by the aesthetics of Cubism. This change was decisive in two respects: it displaced the traditional sculptural methods of carving and modeling with the technique of joinery, or assemblage, borrowed from the Cubist collage; and it applied this new technique to the construction of sculptures in which space—so-called “empty” space—functioned for the first time as the cultural equivalent of solid volumes formerly created by the use of materials such as stone or wood. So fundamental was this renovation that its effects made themselves felt even in the work of those rival traditions—the tradition of modeling which derives from Rodin, and that of carving which stems from Brancusi—which, with Cubism, form the principal conventions governing the production of sculpture in our time.

The historian who undertakes to guide us through the vicissitudes of this rich and many-sided production needs to recognize at the outset, then, that he is writing for the most part about a visual genre whose very premises have been permanently altered by innovations, both conceptual and material, originating outside its own practice. He must be prepared to meet that transformation of pictorial ideas into sculptural realities which, far from comprising an aesthetic sport or an historical byway, makes up the largest and most consequential part of the subject before him.

Now the oddity—or perhaps I should say, the scandal—of Herbert Read’s new book is that, under the guise of giving us a concise history of this subject, he has actually launched a lengthy, repetitious, and poorly reasoned polemic attacking it. As an account of modern sculpture, Mr. Read’s book scarcely exists, but as a guide to its author’s intellectual rancor concerning the most fundamental innovations—and thus the most fundamental achievements—of modern sculpture, it exerts an undeniable fascination. One must not expect a history, however. History, for Mr. Read, is apparently the sum of theoretical ruminations that accumulate around a given work of art and the date of its creation. Of course there are moments in the present work when these ruminations actually have some bearing on the sculpture under discussion; but usually they have none. Mainly they are a kind of intellectual fog—rarely powerful enough to obliterate completely the shape of the object at hand, yet sufficient to generalize and attenuate its essential qualities to a point beyond critical redemption.

Even aside from its inadequacies as a history—taken, say, as an extended causerie on sculpture since Rodin—the book is patently the work of a divided mind. And its divisions are of a sort that render the book very nearly incoherent. Thus, about the nature of Cubism, which he readily acknowledges to be central to his whole discussion, Mr. Read maintains two wholly irreconcilable positions. On the one hand he…

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