Is sculpture dead? Or is sculpture just really, really tired? (2000)

An essay by Glenn Harper, the editor of Sculpture !

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 12 February 2011
This essay was presented at the Nexus Contemporary Art Center (now the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center) in August 2000.

Is sculpture dead?

As the editor, now, of a magazine called Sculpture, capital S, the artist whose name I see referred to most often by our writers is probably Marcel Duchamp— he is usually standing in for the idea that anything can be art. But the movement that is referred to most often by far by writers and artists in our pages is without any doubt Minimalist. On the one hand, Minimalism is the most sculptural of styles: Donald Judd’s boxes or Carl Andre’s bricks are above all objects, sitting there in living 3D. But on the other hand, Minimalist objects have no meaning, refer to nothing, exhibit industrial material and processes, with no reference to the hand of the artist. They are simply objects, sitting there in the space we share with them.

Oddly, the Minimalist object, with its plain and simple quality of being there, is the source of everything from Rachel Whiteread’s inside-out-bathtubs to Damien Hirst’s animal carcasses to the cows, pigs, and buffalos littering the streets of New York, Cincinnati, and Buffalo this summer. Robert Storr is quoted in a recent New York Times article as saying that the use of animals and other non-sculptural materials has followed a general "shift to literalism." "By the 1960’s a painting was just paint and canvas. Sculpture went the same way. A steel box was a steel box. A stone was a stone."

And if sculpture ultimately is just whatever put out in that name by the artist, the gallery, the museum, and the magazine, has the expanded field of sculpture grown so large that it encompasses everything and therefore signifies nothing?

Or is it that the linear notion of art that periodically pronounces the death of painting even the death of art what is actually dead? Mike Bidlo says that in the ’70s, he saw that "the system [was] closed…[that] Everything exciting [had] been done." (Re-enactment/ Rapprochement flyer) But, Bidlo, of course went on to make art for the next 30 years and counting.

Maybe what is more pertinent to artists today is not the death of art or the death of sculpture but the open-endedness, the lack of and end or a goal or a common sense of what we are working with or what we are talking about when we use the word art or the word sculpture.

One aspect of that problem that gets us into Scandinavia via the back road can be seen in the discussion among Finnish critics writing in the current issue of Nu say that there are "No trends, no schools, nothing really to get a grip on," (Tuva Korström) and that the consequence of that is "that there is no school to [react] against, it is almost impossible to be in opposition— everything gets accepted." (Pelle Andersson) Which is perhaps the trivialized, contemporary version of the dilemma of one of the Karamazov brothers, who worried that if God is dead, everything is permitted. Perhaps, what we mean by asking if sculpture is dead is simply that if everything is permitted, does anything count? In the face of what might be seen as a "repressive tolerance," or an indifference to art on the part of society in general and even an art audience that is only left with momentary taste to base its judgment on, art is granted permission but no value in the culture.

Another aspect of the problem is more historical. I was recently in Houston, in the Menil Collection, and in the face of that definitive collection of Modernist art, the thought occurred to me, will it be possible for a wealthy collector to create that kind of institution out of a collection of ’80s art, or ’90s art? If not, what ceased to be possible after the ’70s— since it is surely not that money is less important now, what has changed? In the ’60s and ’70s, as in earlier decades, it was possible to identify, or at least argue, who the major artists were, and collectors like the Menils reinforced that story of art by buying the work and exhibiting it, as did the museums and the commercial galleries, and the magazines and the critics. But now, does the Saatchi collection or the Sensation show that came from it create a history of art, or just a hype for the art market? When we talk about the art world today, are we in fact talking about art or the market?

And, to ask one more question, has sculpture dissolved into cyberspace and virtual reality? At the sculpture conference that was the reason for my being in Houston, a large group of artists spent several days arguing that, indeed, "virtual sculpture" is the future of art. At one panel, one of the artists ecstatically proclaimed that he can now make sculpture in a computer environment without having to worry about gravity. A woman in the audience piped up, "Well, yeah! That’s called drawing."

She was right in more ways than one. First, to proclaim one way of making sculpture as the way of the future is stupid now, and also denies the shallowness of much of what is done in the name of virtual sculpture. Second, it would be better for all of us if we stepped back to look at what we are actually doing, rather than worrying about either labels or notions of dominating what can be called art or significant art or avant garde art.

That being the case, as André-Louis Paré characterized it in the Canadian magazine Espace this summer, "Renouncing traditional sculptural rules, though not academic ones, sculptural art has become more minimal, or more theatrical, incorporating itself with place, and reconfiguring our relations to time and space, it begins to explore the formless." No rules, no hierarchies, no form, and no dominant style. And by theatrical, he means to refer to the idea of Michael Freed that minimal sculpture had killed off the striving toward transcendence that had characterized art until modernism, in favor of simple presence or theatricality: new art isn’t just made now, it’s about here and now, not about transcendent ideas or forms or essences, whether aesthetic or spiritual.

But as Paré also says, " It is in sculpture that art and life meet, that ethics joins with aesthetics." That is to say, even if sculpture is just what it is, sitting there in the room with us, not pretending to represent some other absent reality or transcendent truth, it forces us to deal with that space in which we live, which puts us back into the ethical, social, political world, regardless of the content or intention of the particular sculpture we are looking at. The challenge is for the artist, either in the specialized space of the art world or the social space of public art, to engage that ethical dimension with whatever object they are putting into it.

So where does that leave the sculptor or sculpture? We have to remember that a notion of art that has developed alongside the current pluralism or "expanded field" is that art is a conversation: art isn’t after all just the object, not even in Minimalism: it’s the dialogue around the object. Otherwise, we are just decorating rich people’s houses, and maybe making rich collectors reputations, whether it’s the Menils or the Saatchis. If art is a conversation, then art is engaged in making culture, or resisting the numbing mass culture that bombards us in a one-way stream from on high—because conversation can be multi-vocal, and either widely distributed, or local. It’s also ephemeral— although a more permanent object can be the instigator or the occasion, conversation requires a living response to a live statement.

But is "sculpture" dead? If you mean the traditional rules and materials of what would have been understood as sculpture 100 years ago, sculpture is at least very very tired. Leonardo’s Horse, for example, is a very heavily hyped project that demonstrates that sculpture is dead. But if you do look at the expanded field, you see a broad conversation among people who may refuse to call themselves sculptors, but who have collectively inherited the concerns of space, scale, place, and material that grow out of the history of sculpture. The fact that without this exhibition we don’t know the artists in "Between Space and Time" is both frustrating and liberating: if there is no anointed "great" artist dominating the art world or world culture, there are nevertheless a lot of good artists engaging formal and social issues, and with any luck engaging audiences that share the space in which the work sits.