Sculpture: The Sober Art

A native of New York who did his first sculpture on a W.P.A. project in 1938, HAROLD TOVISH is today a ranking American artist, with works shown in the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum, the Walker Art Center, the Chicago Art Institute, and other leading institutions. He is presently an instructor at the School of the Boston Museum.

SCULPTURE is a sober art. Its materials yield reluctantly to the sculptor’s will. It must be engineered correctly to avoid structural collapse. It tends to resist vagueness and to demand clarity of form. Its limits as an art form are clearly defined by its absolute physical reality.

I think painters pity us a little for this reason. Technical problems do prevent certain flights of fancy easily possible in the art of painting. However, sculptors come to realize that these very limitations are a source of power in the medium. Our art is tempered by the stubbornness of gravity. An impossible sculpture is truly impossible, whereas in painting the role played by illusion is full of temptation. The problem of the possible is much more complicated in painting than it is in sculpture.

I attach great importance to these sobering limitations of sculpture. I believe they make us prudent, reflective, slower to develop, and, perhaps, slower to change. Our gestures are not so spontaneous, so free as the painters’. The sculptor must be deliberate in his actions; he must exercise a nicety of judgment from start to finish. Discipline must be apparent in his work. When it is not, the result is all but unbearable to look at. The nature of the medium forces the sculptor to plan ahead; it discourages the improvisation.

Since both arts deal with visual images, they tend to influence one another. There can be little doubt as to which art has been more influential during the past decade. The influence of painting is pervasive, and much sculpture being done derives from painting and not sculpture. In my opinion, this influence has been a mixed blessing.

Our concepts have greatly expanded, and for richness of conceptual variety, sculpture today almost rivals painting. In order to meet the challenge of new ideas, we have sought and found new materials, such as stainless steel and plastics, and techniques, such as welding. Consequently, the limits of our confining art would seem to have been expanded. Yet, I have become convinced that, in the process of shaking off the limitations, we may be undermining the fundamental strength of the art, which is that it is real substance in real space. I will try to clarify this point.

There is a kind of sculpture being done today that could be described as a sort of freestanding painting. It often consists of a sheet of steel that has been perforated so as to produce a variety of shapes. Such sculpture must be viewed from the front or back; the side views merely determine the thickness of the metal. I know that some sculptors do not repair certain casting accidents, because these accidents add an unexpected charm to the bronze — an element of spontaneity, as when a painter’s brush slips and the accident is a happy one.

I have seen sculpture that begins as a straight rod. By bringing the rod to red heat, it can be readily bent and twisted to produce an image that is closely related to calligraphy — a three-dimensional brush stroke, as it were.

Think how important a role color plays in some recent sculpture. The technique of making patinas is complex and time-consuming. It takes loving care to produce those chemical greens, rusty reds, silver grays, and so on. However, the intention differs from the traditional use of the patina, which was to give the form a unifying color. Nor is it related to the ancient polychrome technique, in which color is applied flat, has a decorative function, but leaves the underlying form intact. Instead, what we are seeing now reflects the sculptor’s desire to introduce color for its own sake, essentially a painter’s approach.

More subtle are those sculptors who use colored glass and plastic, cunningly mounted between strips of metal, ingeniously arranged in space to create an image containing a considerable range and variety of color. This, too, suggests an ambition to challenge the painter in the use of color.

Recently, I have seen sculpture made of scrap metal from which the coatings of paint had not been removed. The complexity of these structures was compounded by the profusion of color. In some of these pieces, even the stenciled lettering was retained, and reminded me of certain paintings in which letters appear as details in the design.

Along the same lines is the type of sculpture that consists of bits of wood, sand, scraps of metal, all assembled, in bas-relief form, to create what is an obvious extension of the painter’s collage.

ANOTHER aspect of the influence of painting can be observed in the curious absence of tactile appeal in much of the sculpture done during the past decade. I refer to the kind of sculpture that appeals to the eyes and has little or no appeal to the sense of touch. Whatever material is used in such sculpture, it serves to reflect the sculptor’s interest in the delineation of space. He is less interested in filling space than he is in dividing it. In other words, he tries to manipulate space by surrounding it with a variety of linear patterns. In order to examine such sculpture properly, it must be viewed against a bare background — a blank wall, or against the sky — because a complicated environment would tend to fill the “empty spaces” in the sculpture with irrelevant detail and thus destroy its clarity. Significantly, when these works are seen under ideal conditions, they appear to flatten into silhouetted patterns against the background, as if drawn on a flat surface. Thus, we are not tempted to touch the sculpture; it can be taken in with the eyes alone. The influence of painting is apparent, for we feel the objects in painting with our eyes, not our hands.

It is therefore reasonable to conclude that many sculptors have come to resent the restrictive nature of sculpture and envy those qualities that have been the special province of painting. Many of us long for the illusion of space, not its reality; some are more interested in the two-dimensional shape and not the three-dimensional volume; in color, not color of material; in the vague, not the specific, form. In other words, the unique qualities of sculpture — its physical reality in physical space, its potential precision, its utter realness — all these qualities are being compromised for effects that are natural in painting, and perhaps less so in sculpture.

Sculpture is durable. Its life can be measured in centuries, in millenniums. The sculptor can reach out in time and space and reaffirm his existence. No other art has this power in quite the same measure. Surely this is one of the qualities of the medium that attracts the potential sculptor in the first place. Yet, there is evidence that even this magnificent quality of the art no longer grips the imagination of many sculptors.

The ancient craft of stone carving is not now practiced so widely as in the past. Motion, as we all know, has been introduced in sculpture. But motors break down, friction destroys the moving joint, and strings rot. Many sculptors burn, pit, and corrode the surface of their sculpture. Whatever their motive, in effect they force five hundred years of wear and tear in a matter of minutes. Even more revealing was that disgusting charade in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, where, recently, a sculpture was exhibited whose special merit was that it blew itself to bits — with the sculptor directing the demolition!

The museums are full of convincing evidence that the separation of the two arts, like the separation of the sexes, is irrevocable. Even the basrelief must be conceived in sculptural terms, for when it imitates illusionistic techniques, it is a trick, a tour de force that confuses the visual and haptic senses. It is unlikely that even our disordered age will see the collapse of the border between the two arts.

Obviously, I am not convinced that experimentation can satisfactorily explain what is happening. I doubt that such experimentation as I have described can result in a constructive redefinition of the limitations of sculpture. The critical issue, of course, lies elsewhere. What I have pointed out so far are the superficial results of an intense search for the image of our age; a search of such intensity and desperation that it is without precedent in history. In a general way, I would describe this phenomenon as an almost universal tendency among contemporary artists to follow an idea to the end, regardless of the consequences.

I BELIEVE Giacometti is one of the most important living sculptors. The quality of his effort exceeds that of all other sculptors. Everything about his work is in a state of crisis — the techniques he employs, the relation of the details to the whole, and the image itself. His sculpture is tentative, tremulous, and seems on the verge of disaster. Although the image barely exists, it is a measure of his achievement that it is also unforgettable. Without question, the sculpture of Giacometti is extraordinarily moving and unequaled in contemporary sculpture. Yet, I feel it fails to become sculpture of the first importance because it is incomplete.

I said that everything about his work is in crisis — the way he does it, the relation of the detail to the whole, and the final image itself. The desperate character of his sculpture is consistent. Giacometti has said of his work that he does not “finish” it, he “abandons” it. Each piece expresses, like a recurrent nightmare, his own sense of desperation, yet he cannot resolve it. The feeling he has is so intense that it controls him, and he cannot or will not direct it. As a result, the image that emerges is as unresolved as the feeling itself. The sculpture is more visual evidence of his feeling of desperation than it is a symbol for it.

Why, then, is it so difficult for an artist of such stature to produce a completely resolved image? What prevents him from achieving that final control which produces great sculpture? For that matter, why is it that so many serious sculptors using the human image will not or cannot achieve a fully realized form? The sculpture of such figurative artists as Giacometti, Richier, Butler have this in common: We cannot tell at what stage the image is; whether the form is moving toward realization or whether it has passed that point and is disintegrating. Thus, the image is ambiguous in idea, in feeling, and in form. For, if the sculptor desires to express the ambiguous, he must create a decisive form to embody the idea. Sculpture is real substance, and we must be able to determine its actual state of development. If it is not possible for us to know whether the form implies “becoming” or whether it implies disintegrating, we are forced to respond with the same indecision. The fatal flaw, it seems to me, is that such sculpture dangerously approaches the realm of optical illusion, and this can be dealt with effectively only in painting. Thus, it is possible for Francis Bacon, the painter, to blur the image of the cardinal, because the blur can properly function in painting as a formal and expressive necessity. But in sculpture form cannot properly be ambiguous, since sculpture has its existence in substance, not shadows. In order to express an ambiguous idea, such as metamorphosis, for example, the sculptor must surround the idea with a decisive formal structure. The form must be complete. This, I believe, is why a sculpture by Giacometti has the characteristics of the sketch — with its promise, its immediacy of feeling, but also its essential incompleteness. By giving precedence to feeling above all other considerations, many of us, like Giacometti, have raised the sketch to monumental proportions with, I’m afraid, perplexing consequences.

To be less specific, why do we generally find the suggestive form more interesting than the conclusive form? Isn’t it true that Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpture seems greater to us than his finished work? We plunder the past to discover images that reflect our passion for the enigmatic, the imponderable. We seem mesmerized by the transitional, the elusive, the unresolved—qualities that are essentially anti-sculpture.

I cannot discuss the sociological reasons for this phenomenon. Whatever the reasons, the tendency I have been describing to follow one’s feelings or ideas to the end, regardless of the consequences, is most clearly observed in nonobjective art.

The nonobjective movement in art is seen as a logical development of cubism and expressionism; that is, a progression from cubism to constructivism, and from expressionism to abstract expressionism — ideas “carried to the end.” Nonobjective art has as its basic tenet the virtual abandonment of all reference to the physical world and instead is exclusively concerned with the inner world of being. To put it another way, the nonobjective artist is not interested in the Cheshire cat, but only in its smile. His art is based on extreme introspection.

However, such extreme introspection confronts ghosts: either the shifting, elusive, insubstantial nature of the nervous system with its feelings — the aspect of our inner life that we call emotion; or that other ghost, the mind, with its mysterious ability to postidate, control, and direct thought — the part of our being which is the intellect.

If, as in the case of abstract expressionism, the artist is trying to transfer feeling as directly as possible — while it is happening, so to speak — then nothing must impede the flow. If, for a moment, the artist begins to assess the image that is forming, the flow of emotion is impeded and the image is crucially compromised. He must therefore try to eliminate the intellectual part of his nature. The emotional being is all, and the intellect is suspect. If the self is but a fragment of the universe, we are discussing a fragment of a fragment. This strikes me as an awesome limitation the abstract expressionist imposes upon himself; a limitation which makes it impossible, in my opinion, to create effective symbols, and, consequently, impossible to create an art of the highest order.

Since feeling in its pure state exists exclusively in the human being, it cannot be transferred outside of man, it can only be transformed; and what matters in art is the quality of the transformation. If feeling is elusive, changeable, and, furthermore, cannot be transferred intact outside of man, then the image that emerges can only be a pale reflection of the real thing. However specific its actual visual form, the image cannot effectively embody the original feeling, which is a ghost. The image is therefore doomed to remain, at best, only a personal symbol, a record of the artist’s transient emotional state; a less accurate record, in its way, than a cardiogram, which specifically maps the rhythm and pressure of the beating heart. Therefore, it seems to me that an aesthetic idea depending entirely on such mercurial sources cannot achieve authentic symbolic meaning.

Thus, when we study a painting by Jackson Pollock, for example, we find that we can make almost anything we want of it. To some it will seem gay; to others, tragic. It may be enjoyed as pure decoration by one spectator, while his neighbor sees in the same work the cosmos. When an artist creates a meaningful symbol, he not only controls what appears before one’s eyes; he also controls to a great extent what one is able to think and feel about his work.

If, as in the case of constructivism, the artist deals with purely formal relationships, emotion must play a minor role. The constructivist must not allow emotion to interfere with the process of intellection, lest it compromise the purity of the image. The artist aims at perfect formal relationships, which reflects his inner desire for perfection. However, is it possible to symbolize perfection adequately with variations and combinations of the circle and the square? I think not, although it may be that the discovery of these basic forms gave man his first intimation of perfectability. I believe that a circle or a square is an example of a special kind of perfection, perhaps more adequately symbolized in mathematics.

To be sure, self-expression plays a crucial role in the making of art; otherwise, personal style could not exist. However, self-expression becomes meaningful only when it casts its shadow on the familiar things of this world. The object supplies a passive focal point upon which the artist can exert the pressure of his idea and feeling. The influence of this pressure crucially transforms the object. Thus, everything that finally appears in the painting or sculpture takes on the special character of the driving force in the artist. The transformed appearance of things supplies the key to the artist’s imagination.

The abstract expressionist and the constructivist have this in common: both exclude environment from the act of image making. Both seek the ultimate expression; the former is concerned with the emotion, the latter with the intellect. However, each expresses only a fragment of his being in isolation from the real world.

The practice of art could be described as a method which enables man to control fate within a limited context. However, the method is extremely demanding, and the man who practices painting or sculpture needs all the resources at his disposal if he is to succeed in his effort to control fate (in the sense in which I use the word). In all probability, his unconscious determines his predilections and sets the tone, the mood, and general character of his art. Nevertheless, he must not surrender to his unconscious, because it reduces him to mere instinctive action and cripples his potential capabilities. Instead, he must seek to direct his emotional and intellectual being purposefully. As an artist, he must confront the world with his inner forces intact. He must allow the world to pass through his being, so to speak, and find there images which seem to be emotionally pervaded and intellectually identified with the general or particular insights that he culls from his experience. As a man who has studied and practiced his difficult craft, he finds the formal means to embody these insights. If he can do all this, he will create an image to which his feeling and his thought are inextricably bound. The image will then be a symbol which stands for what the artist thought and felt but which has been transformed and therefore has a life of its own. However talented an artist may be, unless he can complete the symbol-making process I have tried to describe, his work, though charged with many of art’s attributes — the excitement, the atmosphere, the appeal — will be more artful than art.

By inference, I have answered the problem of communication. For, when an artist has created an effective symbol, its implications are there for those who will allow themselves to ponder and feel its meaning. Thus, a work of art eventually makes itself felt, and it is of minor importance whether or not the artist intended to communicate.

Although I believe a nonobjective art is incapable of communicating even in the long run, because it cannot create effective symbols, I cannot say that it has no value. Certainly it has expanded our technical resources. It has shown us the elemental power of color and form. Whatever increases awareness in the artist is valuable. Perhaps in this century it is necessary for us to carry ideas to the bitter end. It may be part of a universal process of re-evaluation of our needs and desires which must precede more purposeful action. Is it possible that we have already passed a critical point in this process of re-evaluation? The nonobjective artist has followed the self to the bitter end and finds himself facing a blank wall. I say “bitter end” because it seems to me that where he sought liberation, he ends imprisoned; where he sought an ultimate individuality, he ends in stylistic anonymity; and where he sought a greater reality, he finds shadows. To put it bluntly, I believe obsession with the self reduces the artist to a state of artistic impotence and makes him incapable of producing a potent art.

It is obvious that I do not share the current jubilation over the state of sculpture today. I was led to ask myself questions that arose out of perplexing difficulties I have experienced in my own work and have seen in the work of other figurative sculptors with whom I feel an affinity. I believe the questions I have raised are pertinent to a general crisis in contemporary art.

For myself, I feel fruitful possibilities can be found in the directions indicated by sculptors who are already part of our tradition. One such sculptor is Boccioni. who in his Unique Forms of Continuity in Space has created an image complete in its conception, in its formal structure, and in its symbolic meaning. In this work, I believe, Boccioni has effectively expressed his feeling and understanding of energy-motion as implicit in life. The human figure supplies the focus for the expression of his insight. Boccioni does not re-enact his feeling of energy-motion in the sculpture. Even a casual examination of the work shows that it was clone with delibera tion and a degree of emotional calm. The discipline is apparent; the idea, the formal structure are irrevocably bound together; and the image becomes the symbol for Boccioni’s apprehension of energy-motion. In order to achieve this decisive image, he rejected neither the self nor the environment but rather contemplated a particular connection between the two forces and, as an artist, directed events according to his purpose.

I end on a note of pure speculation. I sometimes get the notion that perhaps sculpture is going to be the pivotal art in the near future, not because we sculptors are more perceptive than the painters, but because the limitations of our art will not tolerate, indefinitely, the present drift from the real world.