Over the last few weeks I have encountered a rather odd collection of sculptural things: the postwar ceramic sculpture of Lucio Fontana and Fausto Melotti bursting with dynamically glazed and roughly handled surfaces, currently on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center; The Age of Innocence, a victorian bust in three different materials by the English sculptor Alfred Drury at the Henry Moore Institute; a visit to Henry Moore’s house, studios, and now foundation at Perry Green, and most recently what I can only describe as a wonderfully insane lecture by the contemporary sculptor Thomas Houseago, which involved an increasingly drunk, cursing artist saying some surprisingly sincere, profound things about sculpture. Now this is admittedly a random selection of artists and artworks, from various historical eras, with very different intents and purposes. There is, however, a more tangible connection between these sculptors than the happenstance of my travel schedule or current research.
There was first and foremost a confrontation with figuration and a reminder of its continuing currency within sculptural practice–an aspect that has always heightened the obdurate if uncanny presence of the sculptural object. I was also struck by the commonalities in the processes of making amongst this group of sculptors, with all utilizing and celebrating the traditional means of creating a sculpture by taking a piece of matter and shaping it with their hands. The transformation of material has always been the distinguishing feature of sculptural practice, so perhaps my noticing this rather conventional practice as such is just because I have spent too many years with minimalist and post-minimalist artists of the 1960s who worked hard to efface the trace of their touch within their work. For an artist like Drury, preliminary modeling and the reproduction of a single work in materials like plaster, marble, and bronze was standard practice, but the acknowledgment of sculpture’s traditional processes does not make sure objects any less interesting when seen together. In fact such material comparison is an illumination, not just to an understanding of sculpture but also to the inherent powers of different substances to convey different tones, effects, and details within the “same” object.
While I know this seems an obvious point, thinking about this group of sculptors in a kind of imaginary dialogue with each other not only emphasized the continuing importance of the simplistic, primal act of taking ‘x’ in one’s hands and ending up with a completely different ‘y’, but also the significant role played by materials in that equation. This is something Houseago has manipulated and exploited within his work, creating objects in clay, plaster, and bronze and frequently confusing our ability to visually distinguish between them; as in the work Walking Figure I (City), visible on the left that is a bronze piece that looks like unfired clay. Houseago stated in an interview from 2012:
“When you work with clay, you use your fingers, you use your hands, and you use your feet. It struck me that those were like my tools, and I like the idea of using my fingers to make a finger out of clay, looking at my own finger as I was making it. So they are more like studies of the process, a meditation on the making of sculpture, and the nature of clay. It’s strange because clay becomes a kind of extension of the body. It’s a really weird material, really bodily. In this case, it looks fragmentary, but it’s more about focusing in.”
In a oft-quoted statement, Moore likewise reflected on his experience with clay and the shaping of matter:
“Now I really make the little idea from clay, and I hold it in my hand. I can turn it, look at it from underneath, see it from one view, hold it against the sky, imagine it any size I like, and really be in control, almost like God creating something.”
The immediacy and power contained in such a basic bodily action was also emphasized by the Italian sculptor Arturo Martini, a influential figure to both Fontana and Melotti. He wrote in his 1945 essay, “Scultura lingua morta (“Dead Language Sculpture”):
“In true art, sentiment, beauty, or character are just humbug; what is eternal in it is substance. A true sculptor can make sculpture simply by squeezing the clay between his hands. . . . If the art of the blind is the truth, let it be free: pure forms and the soul which is in everything and everywhere; let us no longer confuse the real life of sculpture with the apparent life of a statue.”¹
For Fontana, Melotti, and Moore, this material encounter of the world took on a distinctly reflective, and often utopian dimension in the postwar period. Sculpture provided a way to engage a rapidly changing, expanding world in the wake of the devastation of the Second World War, but also to imagine and shape the possibilities of the future. One can see the deep wounds and chasms still fresh in these artists minds throughout the their work, but also the confrontation with new conceptions of space and materials. My own encounter with the world through these various objects over the past few weeks reinforced how sculpture has the ability to be a material tear in the world, that leaves a physical residue, putting something into the world that really has no purpose in being there. At the end of Houseago’s lecture this past week, he was asked if sculpture matters. His answer was one of those platitudes you often hear at public lectures that ends up being deceptively asute. Essentially Houseago said that sculpture is an inherently odd phenomena, but that, in the best cases, our encounter with such shaped lumps of stuff, of matter, alters how we see and experience the world. In short, the matter, matters.
1 For a complete English translation, see Jon Wood, David Hulks, and Alex Potts, eds., Modern Sculpture Reader (Leeds: Henry Moore Institute, 2007), 165–79.