In the Sculptor’s Studio: Calder & Stella

Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture

an exhibition at Tate Modern, London, November 11, 2015–April 3, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Achim Borchardt-Hume
Yale University Press, 233 pp., $50.00

Frank Stella: A Retrospective

an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, October 30, 2015–February 7, 2016; the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, April 17–September 4, 2016; and the de Young Museum, San Francisco, November 5, 2016–February 26, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition by Michael Auping
Whitney Museum of American Art, 250 pp., $65.00
Frank Stella: The Whiteness of the Whale (IRS-1, 2X), paint on aluminum, 149 x 121 3/4 x 45 1/4 inches, 1987
Private Collection/© 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frank Stella: The Whiteness of the Whale (IRS-1, 2X), paint on aluminum, 149 x 121 3/4 x 45 1/4 inches, 1987

Picasso, a painter who from time to time turned to sculpture, was neither the first nor the last artist to explore the rival attractions of two very different disciplines. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci, who mastered the art of sculpture as well as the art of painting, delighted in comparing them. He argued that painting “involves greater mental deliberation and is of greater artifice and wonder.” Sculpture, the lesser art, was “nothing other than it appears to be.” Even if we take exception to Leonardo’s judgment—and in his own time Michelangelo certainly did—his ideas can provoke further thought and investigation. All artistic possibilities are not created equal. The challenge is to figure out what can be done with what—and when, and how, and why. Especially in modern times the literalism of sculpture, what Donald Judd called its “specificity,” has been seen by some as a great strength, while the “artifice” of painting has rendered it suspect.

The debates about the values of various arts and materials—which Leonardo and his contemporaries framed by what they called paragone, or comparisons—are intellectual pursuits and also a source of artistic experimentation. Certainly, they have been important to many of the artists who have worked at one time or another in both two and three dimensions and range from Verrocchio, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Bernini down to Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, and Calder. Curators and critics, however, sometimes prefer not to engage with these invigorating rival claims, perhaps because any attempt to characterize or evaluate can be dismissed as judgmental or elitist, an effort to draw distinctions at a time when what can look like the gray zone of mixed media or multimedia is embraced by an increasing number of artists.

“Picasso Sculpture,” at the Museum of Modern Art, would have greatly benefited from the inclusion of some significant paintings, so that museumgoers could see how Picasso used the possibilities of one art to embolden him in the other.* And the Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York is not helped by the insistence of Stella and many of his supporters on continuing to refer to most of his three-dimensional constructions as paintings when by many if not most definitions they are sculptures.

The old arguments about the rival claims of painting and sculpture may feel exhilarating now, when the critique of distinctions that was central to modernism has in many circles deteriorated into a philistine belief that anything goes. In her little book about Picasso, Gertrude Stein proposed that in the twentieth century “the framing of life, the…

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