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

David Smith
David Smith; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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