Abstract Critical

Thoughts on Abstract Sculpture; A Reply to Alan Gouk’s “Steel Sculpture, Parts 1 & 2”

Robin Greenwood, Camel Eye

Robin Greenwood, Camel Eye, 2014

“What kind of object-non-object is a sculpture to be? If it is not to be like a kind of crazy irrational non-functional piece of furniture standing implacably, grounded and aligned axially in planar echo of the architectural space it occupies, encouraging one to perceive it “optically”, rather than through organising intelligence, at least in emphasis, prioritising eye over mind, and dividing and subdividing that given space which its perimeters enclose – if not that, then what is it to be?” Alan Gouk, Steel Sculpture; Part 2.


Great question. What is it to be…?

It’s great too that the painter Alan Gouk should take the time and effort (again) to write with all his erudition and insight about abstract sculpture, a subject that leaves many abstract painters brimming with a less-than-charming mixture of incoherence and indifference. So, a big thank you to Alan, who has a long history of involvement, having run the advanced sculpture course at St. Martin’s in the seventies and been instrumental in progressing sculptural thinking through a direct participation with teaching and writing. Especially important was his lecture/article “Proper to Sculpture” (published later in Artscribe) in 1980, which was of more significance, in my opinion, than Tucker’s book.

I think Alan’s new two-part essay on steel sculpture is also good in parts (the analysis of Caro’s work in Part 1 was pretty much on the button), and If I’m now seen to disagree with aspects, it’s because there would be little point in reiterating areas of mutual thinking. I’m also going to leave others to pick up on disputed facts of history, if they so wish, because I’m pretty lazy on that. I’d rather use this opportunity to open up a debate about the principle of three-dimensionality, which is so central to what is happening in abstract sculpture at the moment.

My main divergence with Alan is this: he writes early on in Part 2 (having gone along with Gabo quotes on a similar theme in Part 1) about the importance of the properties of material to sculpture (and Tim Scott makes similar points several times in his own recent essays on abstract sculpture on this site). For example, in discussing Tucker’s sculpture from the seventies, Tunnel, Alan writes of allowing “the structural capabilities of laminating plywood to generate the forming of sculpture.”

I don’t think this is right. If real sculptural form flowed so directly from the structural capabilities of the material, then according to theory Tucker’s Tunnel should be well on the way to being a good sculpture. It is no such thing; it is another dead-end. All that the capabilities of any material can do is generate types of structural objects – and that is not sculpture! This categorical error is one of the reasons why we got into such a deep hole with object-sculpture in the sixties, and why (with Alan’s help) we had to dig our way out with “Sculpture from the Body” in the eighties (where were the material properties then?). So likewise, when it now comes to Alan’s favourite capability of steel, and the one that he sees as projecting forward into the future, he selects “tensility” as the very thing, and goes so far as to imply that three sculptures – Smith’s Australia, Gili’s Bitter Joy, and Scott’s Song for Chile II – are masterpieces of the genre of steel sculpture because they use this inherent property of steely tension so aptly. (OK, I’m not sure he uses that horrid word “genre”, but he might as well have.) Like Tunnel, those examples give the lie to the misplaced thinking. They may well do what Alan proposes, in terms of suggesting “drawn-out” feelings of stretching tension; and they may have lots of other fine aspects for which they should receive high praise; but they are all manifestly deficient in their sculptural three-dimensionality (OK, I’ve not seen the Chile one, but I’m guessing neither has Alan), as too is the sculpture of mine, B3, he cited in part 1; and if we don’t come clean about these things, we will not make progress (which is why I get annoyed when people are upset by my criticism of the revered Australia).

Robin Greenwood, Fire Engine, 2014

Robin Greenwood, Fire Engine, 2014

My point is this: sculpture calls the shots, not material. It happens, just happens, that (in my opinion and as far as I know) most of the best and most advanced sculptural work being done at the moment is in steel, and has been for a while. But it could be otherwise, were sculpture to so dictate. To even talk about “steel sculpture” is in some ways to put the cart before the horse. We might rather talk of “abstract sculpture made of steel”, which better puts it in its place. What abstract sculpture is, could be, will be, determines everything, including the material, and will not be bound by the history of a “genre”. For an object to become a sculpture it may or may not need to embody the physicality of tensility; but also perhaps compression; and inert mass; and volume; and movement; and lots of other un-nameable stuff. Anything and everything; sculpture needs to range far and wide, to leave nothing out. But the clear imperative is for it to embody all of this content in as fully a three-dimensional manner as possible, because that will encompass and make viable all other characteristics. Nothing can exist in an uncompromised state in abstract sculpture without this three-dimensionality. Not only is Alan’s bias toward tensility a needless limitation to sculpture, but were it true that the best of steel sculpture was circumscribed by such a vocabulary, then steel perhaps ought to be abandoned in favour of a more versatile material. As it is, I believe steel is that versatile material, and it is perfectly clear to me that an individual steel sculptor’s personal take on three-dimensionality need in no way privilege the qualities of tensility over anything else. Alan points to the“…quality of acute sensitivity to the expressive potential in working metal so evident in Gonzalez and Gili…”; to which I can only think “So what!”. We only have to look at the recent work of Mark Skilton, who knows a thing or two about steel, but doesn’t work at all with tensile structures, whose sculpture for my money knocks every single piece of work Alan cites into a cocked hat. It’s a pity, Alan, that although you now acknowledge his advances, you didn’t get along to see Mark’s work last year, as it may have undone this theory of steel (and by implication, other materials) that I know you have held for some time. I think it has been disproved.

So the real issue for sculptors in any material is this: how do you truly liberate three-dimensionality? If you need to work in steel to do this better, so be it, but there can be no historical or linear-baton-passing reason to do so that is not phony. Nor should there be any fundamentally different considerations and criteria for making value-judgements about “steel sculpture”, as opposed to, say, “wooden sculpture”, or “plaster sculpture”, or “sculpture-made-of-fag-ends-sculpture” (Damien would be master of those if we had to bend the criteria to suit the material).

When I recently dismantled into their bolted weldment sections the two sculptures I showed in last year’s Brancaster Chronicles (Gothic Blud and Tree of Ornans), I noticed yet again (because it has happened with previous work) that the three-dimensionality of the separated parts came to life to a greater degree when apart than when assembled into their sculptural configurations. This is a big thing – the realisation that configuration suppresses three-dimensionality. I’ve known it for some time, but have only recently begun to understand how to overcome it. So this is the important challenge of the moment for me, and I think for others too: how do we escape from configuration in all its numerous and insidious aspects and let three-dimensionality – and in my case I want a particularly spatial kind of three-dimensionality, but there will be all sorts for all-comers out there – freely and spontaneously open out, live and breathe? How do we truly express all of that and forgo all other conceits, which would include all the literal ideas (like material capabilities etc.) used in the past to justify sculpture-as-object, and would most certainly encompass tensile structures of the sort made by Alan’s particular favourite, “the great Chilean sculptor Francisco Gazitua”, most of whose work is little more than “sensitive” two-dimensional diagrams of such literal structures. There is no way forward in that.

Abstract sculpture is becoming really very exciting as it turns itself inside-out to face the challenges of overcoming its obdurate object-ness. Even Alan senses it, in his final paragraph. But I’m afraid to say that, as abstract sculpture takes on this quest for greater and greater three-dimensionality (and yes, it is exactly a matter of slowly and patiently accruing more and more of it, bizarre though that sounds) in a manner that I would insist has never been dreamt of or attempted before, it distances itself from the origins of sculpture in steel. It breaks apart the linear history of Alan’s story, and leaves the pieces of that story without a genuine rationale. Abstract sculpture is rising up as something completely new, something with only a scant connection to the history of figurative sculpture, or the early abstractions of sixties object-based work, or even the over-willed machinations of “Sculpture from the Body”. It has nothing to do with Picasso and Gonzalez, or even David Smith. It sets itself against the works of those artists who “drew” in space, or made flattened or pictorial steelwork. Australia and works of its ilk, I’ll say again, are three-dimensionally compromised and ambiguous. It is an ambiguity that has been passed off as sensitive abstracted simplification, but the truth is we don’t any longer need or want that. What we want is complexity, the ability do many things at the same time, a kind of sculptural multi-tasking; a capacity to flex, but also to straighten; to push and then to pull; to rotate and to unwind; to resist and to yield. Those are actually just some of the capacities of, for example, one’s own arm or leg or whole body; but owning such “contrapuntal” properties implies no uncertainty. Like the living body, but unlike the more singular mechanical properties of materials, the principle of three-dimensional complexity in abstract sculpture can embrace manifold and opposing capabilities without compromise or ambiguity.

This new, complex abstract sculpture is the first artform of any description to fully explore three-dimensionality in all its diversity. It is a truly liberated discipline, apart and to itself; I’ve no doubt Alan will be amongst the first of painters to recognise it.

Robin Greenwood
May 2014


  1. Alan Gouk said…

    Disproved my arse!

  2. anthony seymour said…

    Most intense and thought provoking trying to read these good articles & makes YBA art seem quite funny by comparison!

  3. Tim Scott said…

    My apologies for claiming that Robin did not mention ‘movement’ in his reply;
    He did.

    Whilst he is entitled to his opinions as to which sculptures, if any, satisfy his quest for a holy grail of ‘three dimensionality’, and he is modest enough to exclude his own; I do not think, personally, that innovation in abstract sculpture fell, or will fall, from heaven.
    In due course it will become apparent that innovation, whatever form it takes, will have precedent, and will be grounded in the successes and failures of what went before.

    Whilst I agree. (and hope that), abstract sculpture will take unforeseen and unknown routes into a future; we will only recognise it as sculpture from our experience of its past. It is only this which provides us with eyes to see anything previously unseen.
    It will come about through talent, but talent makes the future through knowledge of the past

  4. Tim Scott said…

    “….sculpture calls the shots, not material. It happens, just happens, that….most of the best and most advanced sculptural work being done at the moment is in steel, and has been for a while. But it could be otherwise, were sculpture to so dictate…..”

    This is a timely statement, Robin, with which I totally agree. It is more an accident of history than anything else that steel has become the dominant medium for advanced sculpture. No sculptor would, I hope, seriously argue that sculpture cannot be achieved despite the material it happens to be made in.
    ‘Real three dimensionality’ is a quality which some of us have been engaged in seeking to achieve for a long time; the emphasis on tensility is one of the paths towards it.
    Tensility,(like other physical forces), is a symptom of ‘life’, of ‘liveness’; (we all know the difference between a piece of steel that has ‘tension’, and one that has degenerated into the state of a pudding. Achieving ‘three dimensionality’ will be of no consequence unless it embodies the liveness of parts and parts to whole implying movement, (and by ‘movement I mean ‘change, transformation’ not running around); a word which Robin does not mention. Movement (implied) IS life in sculpture.
    Yes, real three dimensionality in abstract sculpture can be achieved in ways which at the moment are unclear or unmade; but will not be if the life giving sense of physical forces is not a basis for the invention of sculptural form, investing it with “…..the capacity to flex, but also to straighten; to push and then to pull, to rotate and to unwind; to resist and to yield’…..”

    Tim Scott June 2014

  5. Robin Greenwood said…

    On re-reading this, it occurs to me that I have not said quite enough about physicality. Alan and I probably agree in large part about its necessity for sculpture, and it was one of the touchstones of “Sculpture from the Body” that we both participated in. But like anything else, there are ways of using it that range from the literal through to the three-dimensionally re-imagined. I suspect that most of the “interpretations” of physicality that have happened to date in any of the work Alan cites, including my own, will in a few short years hence (if not already) look pedestrian (which is not to denigrate their achievements) as we unlock more and more diverse and inventive ways to make abstract sculpture more particular in just how it activates space. One might already see the overt allusions to a “physicality-of-the-body” in some of the work to date beginning to be subsumed into something of far greater subtlety and breadth of imagination. After all, the achievement of physicality, of itself, is surely not the central purpose of abstract sculpture, any more than opticality or weightlessness. Here I agree that ”illumination, lucidity, clarity”, are of higher value – though it must be re-stated that such high-minded ambitions should be grounded in real achievement in three-dimensions, and not get short-circuited by simplistic conceptualisations. Above all, though, abstract sculpture’s aspirations are not to be limited by any particular property, as I argue above.