Making Sculpture with Elmo and Louise Nevelson

This week I happened to watch two short videos about sculpture, or more specifically two videos that showed the making, the labor, of sculpture. The first, a clip from the children’s television program Sesame Street, featured the actor Jon Hamm and showed him talking with Elmo about sculpture while the muppet intently carved a work – revealed at the end to be a ‘lifelike’ self-portrait.

Photograph of Louise Nevelson working in her New York Studio, 1966. Photo by Ugo Mulas
Photograph of Louise Nevelson working in her New York Studio, 1966. Photo by Ugo Mulas

The second, no doubt far less viewed, video is from SFMOMA’s website and shows the American sculptor Louise Nevelson, a bit of a character herself with her headscarf and cigarette, constructing and discussing a wood sculpture.

Louise Nevelson at Work

The Elmo clip has been widely posted, tweeted, and discussed this week within popular culture, no doubt owing to the presence of Hamm. For a certain generation of adults with fond memories of watching Sesame Street as a child, the video also elicits immense nostalgia, and the dual cuteness of a scruffy Hamm and Elmo making a perfect viral combination. As a scholar who spends most of her time thinking about sculpture, however, I thought the clip was both hilarious and fantastic (even taking into account Hamm’s mildly deranged facial expressions throughout the video).

The video prompted me to visit Sesame Street’s website, which at least this week, is promoting a whole playlist of sculpture-related videos from the show.

There is a ‘Word on the Street’ clip informing children that sculpture is “a piece of art that you shape” and that you can “put it together into anything you want.” There is a video of Bert and Ernie, which in art historical terms could be said to deal with issues of figuration and portraiture when Ernie forgets to include Bert’s nose on his sculpture.

In another, Big Bird, constructs a found object assemblage of himself that recalls the “junk art” of so many artists from the 1960s

While I am admittedly getting a bit caught up in my enthusiasm for encouraging people, especially young children, to think more about sculpture, I was struck by the way that the succinct definitions of the medium presented in these clips echoed the values I find most profound in it. Sculpture on its best day can shape and give form to the world around us and provide a tactile engagement to material. It is on this point that I found the most resonance to the clip of Nevelson, which I know at first glance may seem to have little in common with a staged scene of a manic red puppet “chiseling” a fake piece of stone. There are of course significant differences between two such high and low culture discussions of sculpture (and interesting connections to the long, rich tradition of filming and photographing sculptors at work), and yet both emphasize the contact between material and maker, the “performance” of the sculptor enacted for the film camera, and the act of giving form to an object. They both illuminate sculpture’s inextricable connection to the process of its making. As Nevelson said in another clip available on SFMOMA’s website, “I never really wanted to make anything but give form to my life.”


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