I concluded the first essay by saying: “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 internalized structural reality that bypasses function, or use, or even logic.”
The ‘physicality of the real world’, historically, for sculpture, meant the nature and beauty of the human body. From prehistoric times the human body, particularly in its female manifestations was described in sculptural form by early man as a simile for fertility and the emotions attached to sexual union, the most intense and the most pleasurable of physical senses.
At the same time, early man was highly aware of the parallel physicality of animals, those he hunted, those he feared, those he tamed. Knowledge of the forms of animal life played a large part in the formulation of sculptural modes and the linked relationship can even be observed right up to the end of the XIXth century with the love of and keen appraisal of the horse as part of everyday life. Human physical action, be it dance or warfare, athleticism or even calmness; all have generated intense sculptural emotions in artists by their using material – clay, wood, stone, bronze, ivory, precious metals and so on – to fashion syntheses of their observations.
Abstract sculpture, though with both feet in history, aims to build a new three dimensional ‘knowledge’ of physicality around an invented set of forms stemming less from those of observed reality than from an inner logic and structural necessity. But can it? and does it?
Taking, firstly, the case of music, the most obvious art form devoid of any direct overt connection to appearances, real ‘things’, or even the illusion of them (painting). Music, unlike physical sensation, depends entirely upon a receptive organ that is hidden, that has no form of its own – hands, eyes arms legs that are fundamental to the receipt of tactile feeling. Music ‘arrives’: it simply (through the organ of hearing and the brain) creates ‘form’ inside the mind of the recipient and stirs intangible emotional reactions without requiring anything more than acute attention. Because of this, music is probably the ‘purest’ of creative endeavours which can stir the human mind emotionally; I hesitate to say ‘soul’, but that analogy is nearer to a description of a receptive vehicle.
Sculpture, unlike music, has a direct bearing on our physical being through analogy; it seeks to replicate the very sensations of how we ‘feel’; it manifests itself in an overt, exposed and tangible format. So can there be a parallel between the sources of musical inspiration and those of abstract sculpture? There are three areas which we should examine in the making of sculpture in general and pertaining to abstract sculpture in particular:
‘Facture’, the actual making of sculpture; the materials it springs from, their conditions and limitations; the relationship between these and the sculptor’s intended ‘construction’.
The ‘Subject’, whether some form of relationship with an observed model (past history); some particular or generalized observed current model or some amalgam of these; an unseen and unspecific model drawn from the imagination or memory; or simply something ‘unknown’ and non-specific. This latter is, in itself, a non sequitur, as everything must derive from something. Which leads inexorably to:
‘Intention’, what the sculpture is ‘about’, what it can say; what it should say in relation to the two previously stated conditions. In short what makes it ‘sculpture’ as a unique and differentiated object from the rest of the physical world.
The material a sculptor chooses and uses is a crucial factor in the characterization of his ‘muse’. It is the instrument he chooses to play and determines the ‘sound’ the sculpture produces. I would venture to suggest that it is the ‘nobility’ of this ‘instrument’ which, initially, enables the sculptor to create a ‘music’ that is noble. It is equally this essence of the stuff the sculptor chooses to handle that enables him to ‘imagine’ a sculpture, rather than simply a’ thing ‘or ‘object’, as he sets out to turn the material into something poetic and expressive which will speak to the viewer. I am not here talking about ‘craft’ or technique. Unlike the instrumentalist, the ability to handle a material can be comparatively simple and primitive. It is a matter of empathy, of being at one with the material and its nature, to develop and carry an idea. Abstract sculpture, as can be seen in its brief history, has been at pains to formulate a clear, clean association between the physics of the material and the intended sculptural result. The new order of form initiated by Picasso required a leap of the imagination in ‘making’ that scarcely has any parallel (though Picasso himself was most probably unaware of the consequences or even thought of it as ‘sculpture’).
Manufactured material, that which expands upon and adds to those historically available: clay, stone wood, metal casting, ivory, precious metals and so on, abounds in qualities and characteristics previously not dreamed of. The post-Duchampian, post modernist, conceptualist agenda insists that sculpture is anything you care to make it (and make it of), and that it is about anything you choose it to be ‘about’. The fact of the availability of an immense variety of material, technical processes; the advent of the computer, film, video and any number of other extraneous ‘sources’ of ‘making’, have transformed the initial historical processes into making new form in sculpture a ‘pick and mix’ counter, which has debased achievement to the extent that the term ‘sculpture’ has in itself been decapitated of all meaning. The term ‘abstract sculpture’, at least, remains comparatively free of abuse and is meaningful as a term. It is interesting to note that no artist engaged in any of the above notions of sculpture, would dream of calling the results ‘abstract sculpture’.
Abstract sculpture’s distinctiveness from other norms and modes of sculpture making, (these latter continue to occupy much of the audience for sculpture), centres not on the use of materials in all their multiplicity and/or fashionableness, but on engaging with the nature, characteristics, responses and dynamics of the chosen material and extracting fundamental aesthetic decisions from it accordingly. This is the antithesis of the novelty paraded endlessly around the publicity machines of the art world; parodies of any real contact with, or feeling for, the ‘nobility’ of making.
What does inspiration in sculpture spring from and about what does sculpture purport to ‘speak’ differently from those art forms which may well spring from the same source? Again, it is important to differentiate ‘subject matter’ that is truly appropriate to sculpture’s needs from the acceptance of the idea of a universal pot pourri of ‘inspirational’ matter. Those who advocate for sculpture a capacity to absorb, as a source, sociology or journalism or engineering or even political commentary, are endlessly missing the point. Missing the point because there are and have been for a century or more, other media which are designed to purvey the essence of these aspects of life more fully, concisely and succinctly than ever a piece of sculpture can. We are all aware that in the history of sculpture there have been innumerable examples of attempts to present us with illustrations of, say, glory or combat; love or tragedy; ending up with trite and banal representations of the most superficial characteristics of their topic. Why is it any different for an assemblage of old washing machines, pianos hanging from the ceiling, rock gardens, or any other of the myriad confabulations that pass for ‘sculpture’?
Most sculptors would, I think, agree that they have been involved at some point or another in their development with the ‘figure’, the human body, whether as a part of training or as a choice of subject in their work. The question, therefore, is in what way ‘abstract’ requires, by definition, some other source, some other subjective passion, as a motor for their endeavour.
Turning again to music; the ‘abstract’ form of music, before composition, before instrumentation, before a structure of octave, key and tempo is imposed, is the note, the single sound in the ear of the composer’s imaginative mind. Abstract sculpture seeks to find ‘notes’, albeit not in sound but in imagined pieces of material that can be assembled into sequences of form that will eventually dictate a structure of the whole, which, in its relationship to the physicalities of load, weight, stress, bending, collapse, gravity, will carry an emotional message to the viewer in its presentation as an ensemble. This ensemble does not illustrate anything, does not represent anything, does not imitate the appearance of anything; it simply ‘is’, just as the ensemble of notes ‘is’, but has become recognizably ‘music’ through the power of its combinations, sequences, timing and order. Our sensibilities are conditioned and directed by our ‘experiences’ of the physical world, through body sensation, and subject to our stored knowledge as individuals.
The body, therefore, as ‘subject’, remains crucial to the sculptor’s being; but not necessarily in the form of image or overt recognition; certainly not in terms of the imitation or representation of appearances. Doubtless abstract sculpture’s ‘subject’ thus defined, precludes aspects and experiences of the world many would seek to include. But why should sculpture be made to incorporate norms of experience that are obviously better suited elsewhere to other media or forms of expression? The intensity and capacity to emotionally move the spirit arrives in art only through the intensity and emotional passion that its maker injects. That requires a distinctive and defined rigour in choice of ‘expression’ which if spread thinly on the ground in a catch all attempt at descriptive inclusiveness, is bound to dissipate the overall strength of anything it is attempting to say. Abstract sculpture, then, occupies a unique and defined area of expressive power which is still undergoing transition. The ‘subject’ of abstract sculpture is itself, but only on the condition that the emotional analysis that is undergone by the sculptor in the first place is sufficiently austere and inspired to inform the structure (sculpture) that emerges. It is a process of eliminating anything but the essential, which in turn requires insight into what constitutes the inessential.
The sculptor who chooses to engage with abstract sculpture has therefore a distinctive sculptural ‘identity’, defined by a an intense relationship with his chosen material, (but for expressive purpose, not just skill); an equally intense engagement with what constitutes a sculpturally (plastically) three dimensional vision , rather than a graphic two dimensional , planar one; or illustrational or other distractive evocation. This will inevitably involve great sensitivity towards the physicality of the seen (and felt) world, an individual awareness of spatial three dimensionality, particularly in close association with solid form, (the spatial world of a sculpture is close and intricate), which will in turn require an awareness of structure which, unlike the engineer’s, architect’s or biologist’s, has no functional purpose other than that of its own internal self engendered logic (to ultimately create ‘music’).
Should there be complaints that this puts abstract sculpture into an ivory tower of exclusiveness and separateness from the larger creative world; into becoming an elite private preoccupation of the connoisseur, so be it. I cannot think of any major movement, in any art form, that did not initially require an ability to abandon existing preconceptions and the opening of minds to previously unheard of (or unseen) results. Such movements inevitably engender rejection by the audience, and of course by other artists. Within the last half century or so the art market has occupied virtually all the space available for the serious sculptor to broadcast his efforts to an audience, just as the serious composer must compete with mass musical entertainment. The poetry and vision of abstract sculpture has to be fought for through constant engagement with its central issues, as against seductive alternatives.
Originality is the goal of any aspiring sculptor, originality being the hall mark of any innovative and positive thinking in creative fields. What is originality in abstract sculpture? It is the moving on from an established historical position. It is the abandoning of any imitative, already known and oft repeated style, in favour of embarking into the unknown. It is avoiding the importation of ready made ‘truths’ instead of real invention. It is not simply putting new wine into old bottles. It is a genuine effort to find a vocabulary for an unknown language that has to be extracted from experience. The structural form of abstract sculpture, like that of all really meaningful sculpture from the past, is unlike any other and independent of any other. It succeeds or fails on its own terms which depend in turn on a precise and considered part to part and part to whole inspired ordering derived from the sculptor’s imaginative impulses. The ‘truth’ of this effort cannot simply be found in a stockpile of visual stimulae which seem superficially to appear ‘original’ in their unlikeness to previous sculptural souces; and crossing boundaries with other art forms is, at best, a worthy experiment, but no more. All fresh art begins with experiment, but experiment must grow and mature at a deeper level to become original. It now seems unlikely, from recent history, that traditional modes of sculpture making can or will achieve genuine originality. At best they appear to merely repeat visual statements that are all too readily imitable. An ‘academy’ even of ‘modern’ form is easily achieved. Nothing that has been produced over the last fifty years or so would lead one to suppose that originality and a new sculptural force will emerge from any other direction than that of abstract sculpture. That said, it is of course axiomatic that abstract sculpture itself has to constantly reexamine and reinvent its own targets if it is to succeed as the plastic art of our age.
Tim Scott February 2014