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.
Photographic images of sculpture are an important part of the history of modern sculpture. Potts has interesting things to say about this, but he somewhat arbitrarily varies the way he reads photographs according to his own view of the art involved. For example, when he discusses a closely cropped reproduction of an African sculpture from André Malraux’s The Voices of Silence, he criticizes its presentation out of context as fostering “the illusion of a close, unmediated encounter between viewer and work.” Later, when he discusses Minimalist sculpture, he emphasizes the way in which a photograph of a sculptural work “is an image of something but it is also a viewing of something, a viewing caught in the camera’s eye.”
This is true of some of the photographs in question, especially those of Richard Serra’s sculptures, in which your eye seems to enter the photograph and move around within it. But frequently the photographs of Minimalist sculpture highlight the images of the works themselves and they do detach them from the space that surrounds them; some are as abruptly presented as the illustration in Malraux’s book. The photographs of Donald Judd’s steel box sculptures in particular seem to remove them from any real sense of interplay with the surrounding space.
What we are seeing in such photographs are staged images of concrete things, and as a result, the image frequently seems stronger and to have a more distinctive character than it might if seen in real space. A curious fact that Potts finds it convenient to play down is that some of the most celebrated and influential sculptural works of the twentieth century—Duchamp’s Fountain and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty come immediately to mind—are known primarily, if not exclusively, through photographs. A number of celebrated Surrealist sculptures are much more effective as photographic images than they are when one actually sees them, among them Meret Oppenheim’s Fur-lined Teacup and Man Ray’s Gift, a tack-studded laundry iron. Duchamp’s readymades, central to much of the new art of the 1960s, are almost always more effectively presented in photographs than in real life.
The Duchamp works were in a sense prototypes for the kind of “performative” approach to objects that Potts advocates, in which the sculptural work invites the beholder to perform the act of creating its meaning for himself. Such a sculptor as Andre wants the meaning of his metal plates to emerge from each viewer’s experience of them, not from any interpretation he gives them. To the degree that the meaning of such sculptures emerges from the effective staging of the image of the object, the readymades have a clear relationship to the sculptural revolution brought about by Minimalism in the 1960s and to the creation of art that was not painting but didn’t look very much like sculpture, either.
“Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture,” Donald Judd wrote in the opening sentence of his essay “Specific Objects,” published in 1965. In that essay Judd, an art critic who was becoming a professional sculptor, attempted to redefine current thinking about sculptural space and about how three-dimensional work might be experienced differently from painting, so that the setting in which such work is shown is changed by its presence. Judd proposed a notion of sculpture in which the viewer would experience a “tension” among simple objects—for example, metal boxes or plates—and an open conception of the space in which the object could appear: “obviously, anything in three dimensions can be any shape, regular or irregular, and can have any relation to the wall, floor, ceiling, room, rooms or exterior or none at all.”
Judd’s article appeared at a time when the notion of sculpture as objects molded and shaped in traditional ways was being strongly challenged. Robert Morris was exhibiting big blocky L-shaped forms, Judd himself was creating rows of boxes, and Andre had begun putting bricks and square metal plates flat on the floor. In a quite different mode, Eva Hesse was creating organic-looking pieces made of malleable materials such as wire, rubber hose, and cloth. All of these works were conceived in direct opposition to Clement Greenberg’s version of the Modernist aesthetic as involving an emphasis on the integrity of the work of art and its separation from the world around it; they were also in direct opposition to the idea of the primacy of painting. It was perhaps to be expected that a disciple of Greenberg’s would respond with a rejoinder to Minimalist theory and practice.
Michael Fried’s complex and subtly argued essay “Art and Objecthood,” published in 1967, is one of those inspired pieces of writing that attacks something new not because the author does not understand it but because he understands it all too well and finds it dangerous. Although Fried interpreted virtually every aspect of Minimalist sculpture in a negative way, he nonetheless probably defined it better than any other writer on the subject. (Jacques Rivière performed a similarly perverse feat in relation to Cubist painting in 1912.) To Fried the literalism of Minimalist sculpture and the importance it gave to the viewer’s involvement with it and response to it were anathema. To place the art object in a situation that would include the beholder but would have no meaningful formal unity beyond that situation was, for him, to undermine its integrity. Fried thought that painting and sculpture ought to be entirely visible and distinct from the viewer; for him the primacy of the painterly was a natural assumption, since in a painting nothing is hidden from the eye. In particular, he believed that the way the Minimalist object was staged—what he referred to disdainfully as its “theatricality”—involved a negation of the formal values that he believed gave a work of art its integrity. Such staging repudiated his belief that the autonomy and inner logic of a work of art should function independently of the context in which it was seen. (Judd, by contrast, had exhibited the same configuration of four galvanized metal boxes in two different ways at the Jewish Museum’s landmark 1966 “Primary Structures” exhibition. One was placed on the floor, the other suspended from the wall. They had radically different effects. It was as if he wanted to demonstrate the absolute dependence of form on context.)
Fried further understood that Minimalist art purposely avoided anything resembling a climactic moment—it had no real beginning, middle, or end. You can look at Carl Andre’s lines of bricks or his slab-like arrangements of square metal plates from different angles but none takes precedence over another. As a result, the beholder becomes caught in a process of viewing that is potentially endless. Fried found this intolerable, along with the idea that since Minimalist works disavowed any ambition beyond just being objects, the artists who made them denied any responsibility of providing the kind of transcendental experience that he expected art to offer.
Potts gives a nuanced and not unsympathetic account of Fried’s thoughts and concerns, and then challenges them. Referring to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception, Potts interprets the Minimalist position according to the French philosopher’s ideas—widely read in the 1960s—about the importance of vision as part of the self’s interaction with the world. Such a conception of vision strongly implies that the place within which viewing is performed will always have a critical part in the process of seeing and that the experience of viewing in a particular space and time is itself a crucial component in creating meaning. Minimalist sculpture can be seen as an art of psychic destabilization; it gives a heightened experience of awareness of the art object but, as with Andre’s metal plates, refuses to give special emphasis to any single part of the space it occupies.
Although Potts pays attention to the various sides of what he frames as the argument between Modernist and Minimalist conceptions of sculpture, he comes down hard on later Modernists such as David Smith and Anthony Caro. One wonders whether he has stacked the deck with an ideologically slanted version of the history he recounts.
For one thing, Potts’s view of Modernism is monolithic. Although at the beginning of the book he uses the term as a convenient shorthand, later on Modernism is cast in a rigid and schematic way. Picasso’s radically inventive sculptures—his constructions of sheet metal, wood, and found objects—are only briefly mentioned. Historically, Modernist art was a very mixed affair, including Duchamp’s readymades, Dadaist performances, Surrealist photographs as well as paintings, and the quasi-architectural works of the Russian Constructivists.
When Potts discusses Minimalism, however, his conception of Modernism tends to become reduced to the rather narrow one articulated by Clement Greenberg, which was the version of Modernism that the Minimalists were reacting against. By framing his own view of modernism according to the one current during the 1960s, Potts seems to use a strategy that allows him to validate his own aesthetic preferences by making them seem the result of historical necessity—Modernism, having come to a dead end, had to be displaced. In a curious way, this strategy is similar to the one that Greenberg himself employed, using historical determinism and the allegedly inexorable historical trend toward abstraction to lend greater weight to his own judgments. When Potts criticizes Anthony Caro, for example, for returning to “the vague figural reference and sense of monumentality that his earlier work seemed set to purge from modern sculpture,” his judgments smack of historical determinism, implying as they do that modern sculpture ought to follow certain rules, one of which is that references to the figure have no place in it. Why shouldn’t they?
If Potts believes that Caro’s recent work is “lumbering and emptily formalist,” I myself have similar feelings about Judd’s sculpture, which Potts greatly admires but which I find numbingly empty. But I would hesitate to frame an aesthetic judgment solely by referring to some sort of supposed historical necessity. (I also remain intrigued by how well most of Judd’s work comes across in photographs, implying, contrary to Potts’s view, that it does not actually need to be experienced with the space around it; while a work like Caro’s Prairie is so resistant to being successfully photographed that one might say that it insists on its own existence in space. This reverses the way Potts would see such work.) In setting up abstract proscriptions to justify his taste, it seems to me, Potts is simply substituting another set of rules for those of Greenberg and Fried.
I also found unconvincing the way Potts relates Minimalism and Modernism to the growth of consumer culture during the 1960s. At the beginning of his book, Potts connects the avant-garde initiatives of the 1960s, including Minimalism, with “specific political and cultural circumstances that momentarily gave the ambition to refashion the art object a particular urgency…. The American artists involved…had an oppositional thrust that was…evident in the new political movements of the period and in the eruptions of disquiet over the flagrant consumerism of post-war, American-style capitalism.” He seems to think that Minimalism gives indirect expression to the “ambition to refashion the art object” in conditions of crisis created by capitalism and that it challenges the expectations that artists would produce collectible works for a consumerist culture.
Potts would like to associate Modernist art and its proponents with “bourgeois individualism” and elitism. But the irony is that a lot of Minimalist sculpture seems to have reflected the dynamics of 1960s capitalism in a very muscular and not especially self-critical way. It made use of impersonal capitalist methods of production and anonymous-looking industrial materials. Some Minimalist work featured infinitely repeatable forms that were mechanically produced rather than handmade, and it aimed to create its own new form of consumer, particularly museum curators. Potts never convinces the reader that Minimalism made any intelligible response to consumerism or that its response was any more commendable than that of supposedly bourgeois Modernism. (Seen from our present perspective, we might add that Minimalism, with its impersonal machine-made look, its emotional coolness, and its concern to “decenter” if not puz-zle the beholder actually seems to have a good deal in common with Pop Art, its supposed stylistic and spiritual polar opposite during the 1960s and 1970s.)
The radical art of the 1960s, in my view, was not so much a response to capitalism under stress as a response to authority—particularly critical authority—under stress; it was this challenge to authority that caused painting to give ground to sculpture. Painting was at the top of the pyramid and had become virtually synonymous with the art establishment, for which Clement Greenberg (a supporter of the war in Vietnam) was seen as a figurehead. And painting, of course, was considered to be inherently elitist, not only because it had occupied the high ground for so long but because it remained physically aloof from the viewer and, in Baudelaire’s words, was “exclusive and despotic.” Equally important, painting at the time seemed to have reached a dead end, in which it was very difficult to conceive where meaningful innovation might next be made. And it was in any case clear that whatever those innovations might eventually be, they would have no effect on the world outside of art galleries, museums, and private collections. Although Potts mentions this only in passing, it is important to remember that the revolution in sculptural space did not occur only in Minimalist sculpture, but also in Happenings, Performance Art, and Installation Art—all of which insisted on conflating the real spaces in which life is lived and the fictitious spaces of art.
At the end of the book, where Potts discusses the work of a number of contemporary sculptors, his insistence that Minimalism represents the true living tradition of modern sculpture seems to blind him to some interesting aspects of the works he discusses. This is especially telling in the way Potts overestimates the relationship between Minimalism and the works of the talented British sculptor Rachel Whiteread, who renders into material form empty spaces such as the interior of a house or the underside of a chair. In trying to describe Whiteread as a Minimalist he underestimates her connection with early Modernist sculpture, most especially works by Picasso.
Potts has some interesting things to say about the reversals in spatial reading that are a persistent feature in Whiteread’s works. He finds in her Untitled (Orange Bath) of 1996, a block-like cast resin form with a bathtub-like cavity, “obvious affinities with the emphatic no-nonsense formal declarativeness of earlier Minimalist sculpture.” In fact, as Potts himself notes, what is really interesting about the Whiteread sculpture is the way in which the image of the bathtub belies its apparently settled appearances and repeatedly reverses our expectations. At first sight, Potts writes, the work looks like “a fairly straightforward, substantial sculptural block with an interesting bath-shaped indentation sunk into its upper face.” But then it becomes clear that its details don’t correspond to what an accurate cast of a bathtub would look like. Instead, it is as if an entire bathtub was “simply pressed into a huge rectangular mould, settling into it as one might into a bath filled with warm water”—a bathtub taking a bath, so to speak. If you look at the work closely you may suspect, he writes, that Whiteread is “deliberately trying to forestall a consistent interpretation of the work as being the cast either of a solid object or of a negative space.”
These aspects of Whiteread’s work are completely outside the perspective of Minimalist sculpture and seem to have much closer affinities with a work such as Picasso’s 1912 Guitar, in which the concave space of the hollow sound-hole is provocatively reversed and represented as a protruding cylinder. Another obvious model for the spatial contradictions in Whiteread’s work might also be found in Picasso’s groundbreaking 1928–1929 steel sculptures, in which he sought to represent “nothingness” and probed ways of creating sculptural equivalents not only for things but also for various states of suspension and nonbeing. But because Potts wants to believe that Modernist sculpture such as Picasso’s has become irrelevant to the concerns of sculpture today, he ignores the ways in which the concerns of Modernist sculpture remain a vital part of current sculptural thought.
At the end of his book, Potts notes that in recent works by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman, Georg Baselitz, and Whiteread the presence of sculptures is posited “as something unstable, more like an utterance than a thing, and activated in the contingencies of a viewer’s encounter with a work rather than being anchored in its form…. There is a dramatising of psychic splitting and dispersal.” While Potts can describe perceptively the intentions of artists, the inner psychological experience he is trying to evoke when he makes such statements remains vague. Given to loose speculations about the effects of historical currents on artworks, Potts believes that present-day art “is subject to the restless and directionless dynamic of binding and dispersal fundamental to the operations of a now politically hegemonic capitalism.” But he nonetheless feels that the “powerful effect” of some contemporary works “may also bear witness to glimmerings of a collective reality that is not subsumed within the endless circulation of capital.” Here it seems reasonable to ask what sort of collective reality, allegedly resistant to capitalism, is actually finding expression in displays of such art. The case for the works Potts discusses should not have to depend on intimations of a different, wholly undefined, social order.
March 28, 2002
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. ↩
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). ↩