Abstract Critical

Where is Abstract Sculpture?

Written by Tim Scott

Tim Scott, Cathedral, 1970-71 painted steel and stainless steel, 15m x 5m approx. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

Tim Scott, Cathedral, 1970-71 painted steel and stainless steel, 15m x 5m approx. Courtesy of Poussin Gallery

Last year marked the hundredth anniversary of Picasso’s ‘Guitar’ construction of 1912.

I responded to this event by making a small ‘homage’ version in laminated card, and by doing so, the full force of that inspired innovatory declaration of a new idea, that of ‘constructed sculpture’ (rather than modeled or carved), revealed itself once again.

Picasso himself seems to have recognized its seminal character, for he made further versions in 1914 and in 1924, along with many other ‘constructed’ pieces, intermittently, over the years, until his old age.

So what does ‘Guitar 1912’ say about the direction that sculpture, which we now label ‘abstract’, constructed and otherwise, has taken since? Matisse, whom we shall come to, had already, prior to Picasso, made forays in the direction of ‘abstraction’ albeit within the context of figure based sculpture. He, however, remained dependant on traditional modeled means, and did not have the inventive flare with materials that is so evident in Picasso’s explorations. One can assume that he (Picasso), as with the ‘papiers colles’  which must have provided the original grounding for ‘construction’, was seeking a greater sense of ‘reality’ in his representation of the things of the real world; a means of capturing the actual three dimensionality of thing/object in a truer spirit than was available through traditional illusionist means.

The actuality and three dimensionality of a guitar itself was extracted from the everyday world of utilitarian and crafted objects and transferred into a previously non-existent world of ‘sculpture object’ that Picasso himself did not, and probably could not, recognize as ‘sculpture’. He had written a poem on feeling generated by the subject, ‘guitarness’; he took the functional form of the original musical instrument and by dissecting and analyzing it visually, arrived at a synthesis of invented form to create the idea of a guitar (and possibly even of the music it produces). This synthesis was to prove revolutionary for sculpture.

Picasso’s arrival at three dimensionality with a disparate lexicon of invented and suggestive (referential) forms that needed, on the whole, by their nature, to be assembled by unorthodox, untraditional means, gave to sculpture an expanded world of subject and response. No longer would the human form dominate the sculptor’s perception, but also the forms (often new), of the world generated by manufacturing and craft.

It is of note that most of the sculptors of the time who responded to Picasso’s vision, applied it in one form or another to a human image (including Picasso himself). Lipchitz, Laurens, Archipenko, overlaid cubistic deconstruction on volumes conditioned by appearance. Others, the Futurist, Boccioni, and one or two of the Russian Constructivists, had a stab at non-figuration, but mostly remained trapped in the generation of sculptural ideas through the imposition of deconstruction on an existing image rather than (with rare exceptional pieces) launching headlong into the implications of ‘Guitar’: that is the building of a sculpture those appearance derived from the logic of its own internal structure, rather than the facts of its subject.

Picasso’s genius is all the more poignant for this fact: it was he also who was to subsequently contribute to forging a path away from human (though not other subjects) image dependency through his collaboration with Gonzalez in metal worked sculpture.

A misinterpretation of the implications of ‘Guitar’ was to appear soon enough. From the moment that the ‘Urinal’ of Marcel Duchamp became accepted, ideologically, as ‘sculpture’, the cat was out of the bag: real objects could stand in for real sculptural invention, subject and interpretation could become synonymous. The only problem being that, as time went on, the cat went up its own backside; any and every object was vested with the possibility of becoming ‘sculpture’. Today we are faced with the cretinous consequences; the term sculpture now being largely understood to merely mean things, anything!

At the time ‘Guitar’ was created, Rodin’s extraordinary vision of the human body as a structure exposing all the tensions, compressions and stresses of anatomical change through simulated movement was still in full flow. In this way Rodin’s sculpture explored appearance as it was actually generated, rather than through some a priori understood image.

With his virtuoso technical ability to render soft matter (clay/plaster) into tensile hardness, it has taken many years to recognize that his aims contributed dramatically to the formulation of ‘abstract’ thinking in sculpture. His emphasizing of the supreme importance of generational structure, underlying appearance, as a modus vivendi for sculpture over and above the mere imitation of nature or of some given previous sculptural style, gave to sculptors not besotted by his imitational powers a model of how to think radically. Brancusi is famous as the sculptor who first broke from the hegemony of Rodin;  but in my view, his (Rodin’s) example for Matisse was to have much more lasting consequences. Matisse seems instinctively (perhaps because he was not a sculptor) to have grasped the fundamentals of what lay beneath Rodin’s observational force and attempted to apply it to his own efforts.

It is not surprising that few, if any, sculptors have subsequently managed to mould anything of Rodin’s insights into their work. The overwhelming representational scenario of his oeuvre overpowers the analytical and original thinking that underlies it, that is the thinking that has been an inspiration to making sculpture in later eras.

Perhaps only the famous late figures of dancers in movement (were they influenced by Degas perhaps?) have been commonly included in the canon of ‘modern’ sculpture; but this is to underestimate entirely Rodin’s contribution to revolutionary thinking in sculpture for those who have been prepared to look. One particular example of his ‘modernism’ (to be seen especially at Meudon) is his remarkable willingness to view the body as ‘parts’ to be assembled at will; not that far removed from Picasso’s deconstruction of the object.

Brancusi’s own example has not always been a happy one, spawning a myriad polished and burnished nothingnesses. He did, however, intelligently turn to African sculpture where he found a model of carved simplified volumes hewn direct from the monolith, which he coupled with an innate building sensibility of stacking and placement. It is in large part due to him (and to Picasso and Matisse) that African sculpture came to be recognized as having already evolved the kind of synthesis of the observation of appearance (human and animal) with invented ‘abstract’ form directed by craft means that so many modern sculptors have striven for. It look a long time to recognise that African sculpture involved exactly the sort of radical moves that western sculpture needed, and would eventually painfully discover. Go to the many ‘ethnographic’ collections in museums around the world and ‘Guitar would not at all look out of place amongst them.

Both the painter/sculptors Degas and Matisse provide models of the intense investigation of bodily movement and appearance synthesized into a ‘construction’ i.e. obviating an alternative structure to that provided by nature itself which, at the same time, is both of the reality of the subject, and an inspired exploration of masses, volumes and the space they inhabit.

Few sculptors, subsequently, have taken up the challenge of a ‘figurative abstraction’ (or ‘abstract figuration’) that departs radically from the imitation of appearances in order to make that appearance more forcefully apparent. (Does ‘abstraction’ prevent it?) Most have remained satisfied to pay lip service to ‘expression’. The odd distortion, variation of size, scale and proportion, of a comparatively arbitrary nature, have served to provide the semblance of a departure from the given presence of the model or subject. Most have fallen back on a generalized ’organic’ image rather than attempt to rethink the structural underlay of appearance so evident in ‘Guitar’.

The figurative sculptures of Picasso himself as well as those of Laurens, Lipchitz, Arp and Moore show that they generally failed to understand that they needed a structural cause for imagined and invented forays in ‘abstracted’ composition to replace that provided by actual anatomy. These sculptors and others, have consistently depended on a vision of the world derived less from the actual physical formulation of a subject’s entity, than by a freewheeling imaginative take on it; a subconscious one rather than an observational analytical one. The entire Surrealist programme propounded such a basis for creative thinking and it was extremely influential on sculpture; I have to say not always for the worse, as it introduced a lexicon of form other than the linear, planar or geometrical. One could pick at random streams of thought in post ‘Guitar’ sculpture, but thematic visions of form have undoubtedly enlarged the field  of experience of what sculpture could be ‘about’.

Both Degas and Matisse, however, and this is a mark of the greatness of their sculptural achievements, were able to conceive ‘abstract’ solutions to a naturalistic core, emphasizing and expanding on their powers of observation without recourse to the importing of form-ideas from other sources. Their ‘new’ forms arose from the sculptural necessities engendered by their enhanced perception of natural form. This, in turn, pinpoints the differences in quality in the radical rethinking of sculptural form based on intense observation between that stemming only from ‘imagination’, fantasy, or some imported programme.

It was Picasso’s encounter with the smith, Gonzalez, that further consolidated the innovations of ‘Guitar’ by transferring its vocabulary into that of iron/steel construction from that of collaged flimsiness. His ‘subjects’ were not free of any illustrative intent, but nevertheless managed to introduce us to a new world unlike any that had been seen in sculpture before, except perhaps in the metal working of ancient cultures. Picasso was a notorious ‘borrower’ and it is not unlikely that some of these images had entered his visual memory. Be that as it may, the new construction in steel (with the added offshoots of wood, aluminum, plastics and other materials), focused initially on the imaginative transformation of graphic (pictorial) images into three dimensional spatial amalgams of plastic relationships which sought to generate their own logic replacing that of the subject. The visual poetry of line, volume and mass was injected into the reality of the material, with its tensions and strengths creating a new kind of sculptural configuration.

Following the Picasso/Gonzalez initiation of the genre, David Smith, Chillida and Caro all made significant, often great contributions to the advancement of abstract constructed sculpture, an analysis of which would be far too complex to be made here. Suffice it to say that they, between them, are the giants of abstract construction and have built a legacy of work the innovations of which are essential to absorb for expanding abstract sculpture into the future.    

However, as the idea developed over time, the use of industrial techniques and processes for sculpture gave rise to an aesthetic conundrum; whether these conglomerations of material and the bric a brac of the made world, could be ‘sculpture’ or whether their given identity would overwhelm and subsume any sculptural intent. It is clear that in many attempts by many artists to overcome this problem, it remains controversial; the strength of the sculptural image often being swamped by the power of the material in whole or in part. The reality being that sculptors, insufficiently aware of the dangers whilst being in the thrall of a particular means, produce, in the end, not imaginative commentaries, but insipid alternative translations, which quickly tire in favour of the functional logic of the real world. I would sooner choose to look at a rocket taking off from Cape Canaveral than all the ‘airport sculpture’ that grows like mushrooms around the world.

Abstract sculpture has then evolved from attempts to transfer the emotions generated by the physicality of the real world, whether devised by nature or the human hand, to the building of an  alternative’ physicality in a plastically conceived poetic construction; the formal relationships of which, as in music or architecture, are generated from an internalised structural reality that  bypasses function, or use, or even logic.

The insights released into the world by ‘Guitar’ turn out not to be so unique after all. What Picasso arrived at was a reaffirmation of essential, fundamental raisons d’etre of the sculpture making process that had been lost, discarded or otherwise overlooked or ignored through ignorance, prejudice or lack of understanding. In doing so he provided a model that spoke of the innovative possibilities of ‘abstraction’, ‘construction’ and, importantly, its kinship with past history. He opened the way for sculpture to move into the XXth century.

Abstract sculpture attempts, as with all great sculpture before it, to found itself on inspired insights into the actual physicality of real subjects, however disparate and varied their origins, and to then remould such insights into fresh three dimensional form conditioned by the processes of making. It has proved demonstrably more capable of portraying, in sculpture, an original response to our own time than the efforts of alternative modes. The lessons of ‘Guitar’ are vital to our continuing ability to discriminate what innovations of the past open avenues for the future.


Tim Scott, April 2013

  1. Tim Scott said…

    re: my comments on Brancusi and African sculpture (para. 13), I came across this passage in ‘The lost 1941 interview- Henri Matisse’ recently published by the Tate:
    “…. the corner was full of little wooden statues from Africa. I was astonished to see how it was conceived-I mean in terms of sculptural language-how close it was to the Egyptians. In other words compared to European sculpture, which is always about muscle-because of the emphasis on describing the object-in these African statues the medium dictated the form, while the shapes and proportions were invented …”

  2. Tim Scott said…


    ….This,in turn,pinpoints the differences in quality in the radical rethinking of sculptural form based on intense observation AND that stemming only from imagination, fantasy, or some imported programme……

  3. Robert Persey said…

    Yes Patrick this is a good article but no Patrick it is not a call to sculptors to go hunting for something sculptural to appropriate from guitars.
    The form of an acoustic guitar fundamentally results from a necessity to create sound, which is in itself a physical thing. Materials are selected, shaped and desposed together into a particular structure,another physical thing,for that purpose. The sound and the object belong together, they are synonymous and from this relationship we recognise and wonder at its three dimensional coherance.

    But the sculptor who comes along to steal the trappings of this relationship and uses some visual aspect of the reality of an existing object, or all of it, to bolt on and re-present as art is just involved in various types of mimicry.

    The point Tim is making here, is that if a sculpture is to be a convincing three dimensional experience then is has to have its own, invented cause to effect structural reality. Picasso’ Guitar, regardless of whether it is convincing sculpture in itself or not, effectively introduced the powerful posibility of construction as sculptural means. It brought into focus the essential necessity of invented structural coherance that was present in the the great sculpture that preceeded it but had become hidden by preoccupation with surface and other aesthetic qualites.

  4. patrick jones said…

    Dear Tim,This is terrific article ,which I cant pretend to have fully digested in one reading .However “Guitar”remains one of my favourite ever artworks.On a visit to the Quai Branlie Museum in Paris,there was a case full of lutes and one string instruments from Africa,whose sculptural potential looked huge to a painter!.Very enjoyable and will read again.