In a recent show we did at Poussin Gallery, a career survey of the work of Katherine Gili, I was taken by surprise by a sculpture called ‘Leonide’ (1981-2), which was her first ‘Sculpture from the Body’. When I first saw it in 1982 I disliked it, but I think I was wrong to do so, because this time it looked very good. It is undoubtedly figurative, which I guess is why I took against it thirty years ago, thinking it was a wrong direction and a missed opportunity. Now, I simply think it would hold its own with most other figurative work – Rodin, Matisse, whatever. It certainly more than held its own with the rest of Katherine’s abstract work in the exhibition. What particularly struck me seeing it again was just how spatial it was – how the extension out into space of the free leg and two arms was really quite extreme for a figurative sculpture. We are used to the idea of abstract sculpture being spatial, but figurative work less so.
I first of all wondered whether such an achievement didn’t call into question not only some of Katherine’s own abstract work in particular, both before and since, but also some of my own thoughts about abstract sculpture in general. The conclusion I came to is that perhaps in ‘Leonide’ Katherine had got pretty close to the limits of what one can do spatially whilst still working within the constraints of the figure; and so therefore if one wished to go further in terms of opening the sculpture out (as I personally do, and I think Katherine does too), it would by necessity have to become (or in her case, return to being) abstract. And perhaps this is why Katherine, having made this successful figurative work, felt compelled to move on again, back into more abstract territory. In fact, in her recent work, it is rather unclear even to her whether the work is categorically either abstract or figurative. And then again, it is a moot point whether her newer work, though more open than ‘Leonide’, is more spatial.
In ‘The Language of Sculpture’ you dealt with the topics of gravity and mass, along with the ‘objectness’ of sculpture, at great length, and I guess that these are preoccupations of your own recent work. There is mention in the book of the ‘drawing in space’ of Gonzales and Smith, but the emphasis in these works has always seemed to me to be more about an ‘open image’ rather than an ‘open spatial structure’. In fact, I find the sculptures of Degas, which I understand you to admire as much as I do, more genuinely spatial than either. I think we might agree that Degas’ small figures are a high-point of articulation of three-dimensionality; but it seems to me that this is achieved by virtue of an extraordinary conjunction of the physical with the spatial.
Dear Robin, ‘Leonide’ as I remember it from the catalogue seemed to project a strangeness, a quality of being out of its time, of being continually present. (I can’t find the catalogue you kindly sent me, so I can’t say if I would feel the same if I had the image of the sculpture in front of me, or of course the sculpture itself). Degas’ sculpture when it was first exhibited some years after his death must have felt like this. Actually it still does, for me at least. I think it’s something to do with the way the works convey a sense of the artist’s direct, sensuous engagement with the model/body/figure (none of these terms are quite right) through actually making it, shaping, forming it, with his hands and in his hands. As opposed to making a sculpture of the model, like Rodin: a kind of self-awareness, a consciousness of the artist practicing his or her art, which comes across in Degas’ paintings and pastels too.
But not in the small, late wax pieces. There’s a major de Kooning show at MOMA right now, and I’ve been thinking about his sculpture, which made a similar impression when I first saw it in the 1970s as having absolutely nothing to do with my own concerns in sculpture at the time, or that of the contemporaries who interested me. But now, looking back, I think they must have imprinted themselves on my consciousness quite deeply. Whatever doubts I have about many of the images, the sheer uninhibited engagement with clay, the generation of form through the hand in the material I find really inspiring. And almost all are figures, or part figures. It’s interesting to read what you have picked out from my book, and your use of terms like “open”, spatial, object, even abstract. I was writing in the late 60s, early 70s. Ron Kitaj, who had his own agenda for the revival of figurative art, pointed out to me at the time that all or almost all of the artists discussed in the book made figurative sculpture. Of course, but what interested me at the time were the abstract components of their work. And of those artists I suppose Matisse is the one who continues to excite me the most. Best wishes Bill
You equate the timelessness of late Degas sculptures with immediacy and directness, an unselfconscious and sensuous manipulation of material, which you also see in de Kooning’s three-dimensional works. Whilst we might agree about the greatness of Degas’ sculpture, I relate his achievement to something quite different, and in my mind it may be altogether antagonistic to de Kooning’s approach. I think Degas’ little wax figures – in particular the series of dancers in arabesques, or those raising their right foot – amongst the greatest ever sculpture because they are, as a group, such a focused essay in the development of three-dimensional structure (though curiously I dislike to see them shown together, particularly in a ‘sequence’ such as is to be seen at the Royal Academy at the moment). I’ve certainly never thought of them as an ‘uninhibited engagement’ with material. Indeed, I think there is a necessary detachment there that is lacking for me in de Kooning. Maybe I just don’t find the manipulation of material in itself expressive. I do find spatial structures expressive and I find it hard to envisage abstract sculpture going forward in a way that is not spatial.
Perhaps you don’t think such a distinction is worthwhile. Do you think of your recent work as abstract? Or as figurative, but with abstract qualities? I have recently thought a lot about and written a little about the ‘abstract-ness’ that I find in figurative art, and what I see as its mirror-opposite, the ‘literalness’ in much abstract art. The thing for me is to try to make sculpture more and more abstract and less and less literal. But as you suggest, all these terms are difficult and might require definition. ‘Abstract’ in particular seems to mean several things, some of which are opposites. My own definition of ‘abstract’ is now pretty synonymous with my definition of what is ‘properly visual’, and so this abstract-ness has always been in art, to a greater or lesser extent.
I can’t believe I equated Degas and de Kooning sculpture in any serious way, I’m wondering what kind of point I was making or trying to make. Something about the historical context, of the work being out of time. Since I last wrote I’ve been back to MOMA, looking again at de Kooning. What now strikes me most is the intense graspability and penetrability of these pieces, their frontality, their lack of structure in the sense of the resistance to gravity of the human figure traditionally represented in western sculpture. Tremendous energy, frantic movement, but within the figure, rather than the figure in movement (one or two exceptions). Paint materialized as substance, but the address of the sculpture is that of the woman in the paintings. In the painting the elements of the figure are held together by the rectangle and its inherent frontality. In the sculpture the figure is the armature for a recognizable, coherent image. The sculpture completely depends on our recognition of the shape and placement of the component parts as head, arms, hands, legs, torso. You can’t say “what if the image were not there?” because the sculpture only makes sense as a figure. In certain paintings de Kooning consciously fragments and scatters parts of figures. In the sculpture the elements physically cohere, but then the artist consciously defies our expectations of the shape, proportion, articulation of the parts we recognize by their position in the ensemble.
As you say, there could hardly be anything more different than Degas’ figures, in terms of structure, surface/volume, balance, movement, proportion, etc, etc. But however apparently distanced, impersonal, they are not abstract, they are figures, and our appreciation of their structural and spatial properties is inseparable from our awareness of them as figures. It may be a background kind of awareness, Degas was not interested in landscape or still life, it would have been inconceivable for him to have made sculpture that was not a figure or a horse. But in the 1970s, what other artist of de Kooning’s stature was making original, inventive, expressive figures in sculpture? Given my own history and experience, you can imagine how disturbing it was when I first saw them.
Maybe now I can get to your question about whether I think of my work as abstract…..
Ha-ha, maybe. I think we agree about Degas anyway.
I remember seeing de Kooning’s sculptures at the Serpentine Gallery, must have been in the seventies – is that when you first saw them? They certainly were ‘out of time’, I remember being very interested, but haven’t thought about them much since, even when I was into ‘Sculpture from the Body’. As you say, they are pretty much dependent upon the image of the figure.
One thing Degas certainly does for me – and Rodin, in a different way – is distinguish ‘sculpture’ from ‘figure’. Another way of putting that would be to say that they are more interested in the expressive visual three-dimensional structures of the body than they are in the image of the figure signifying some other kind of ‘content’ for the work, as is the case with most statuary. (I think for me this is also the case with de Kooning, though somewhat mitigated by the physical manipulation of the material that you have mentioned.)
The three-dimensional constraints of figuration were pushed to the limits by these two great figurative sculptors from the end of the nineteenth century. We then got to a place in the middle of the twentieth century when figuration was abandoned by those in the vanguard of sculpture in favour of a whole new territory of abstract, ‘open’ sculpture. That certainly more clearly defined, to use your own phrase, the ‘condition of sculpture’ from statuary. But it seems to me that pretty much as soon as this abstract territory opened up, it was within a decade constrained again, by the idea of ‘objecthood’. What interests me most at the moment is the attempt at a definition of what it is that distinguishes non-figurative sculpture from ‘literal’ objects – not for the sake of the definition, but because that helps me understand better where abstract sculpture might go in the future. I think the answer might be ‘anywhere and everywhere’, but not in the sense of thinking anything can be sculpture – the opposite, in fact. It seems the more spatial territory abstract sculpture occupies, the less conceptual territory it has. But that is badly put.
Maybe one thing that does distinguish sculpture from object is the difficult business of ‘illusion’ – it seems to me all the good things in art are illusion, and yet I firmly believe in abstract art being an ‘art of the real’. I think this contradiction is the place I’ve been trying to get to in this exchange, but still don’t quite know how to frame the problem. It is why I started with that figurative-but-spatial sculpture of Katherine Gili. In any event, I’m very excited by what I see as a big black hole opening up into which abstract sculpture might leap! Yet more abstract than the sixties, even.
Hello Robin, and apologies for my long delay in replying to your email. In fact, while not replying I have been thinking a good deal about figuration in sculpture, and specifically about “presence”. After reading the revised version of a Bob Taplin article – I read the original piece a couple of years ago – I felt I ought to go back and read Fried’s Art and Objecthood, but resisted, assuming that Taplin had summarized it correctly. Instead, picking up on your dismissive use of the term “statuary”, I went back to a book on sculpture that impressed me profoundly when it came out in paperback a few years ago, “The Dream of the Moving Statue” by Kenneth Gross. It’s a book about the myth of the statue that comes to life in literature ranging from the Old Testament to Freud. Or conversely the myth of the individual turned into a statue, as in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. To make a figure of a human being is potentially a dangerous enterprise, which is why it is forbidden by two of the major religions. Statues have the power of the person they represent, which is why it was so important to the US to orchestrate (quite ineptly) the destruction of the statue of Saddam Hussein. Are the David’s of Donatello, Verrocchio, and Michelangelo “statuary” in your sense? Obviously not; certain work of all kinds and periods is formally inventive and adds something to the language, most does not. Most sculpture of all cultures has been figurative, most has had a religious or magical purpose. Which is one reason for the desire to purge sculpture of the figure, and of “presence”, that happened in the 1960s.
But when you speak of the “constraints” of figuration, my own experience of British sculpture of the late 1950s when I started out, was of the clichés of figuration — welding steel, construction rather than modelling or carving, making objects rather than figures, seemed the most direct way to make a completely new start.
There is so much to get into here…..Also to comment on the difference between the sculpture (figures) of Degas and Rodin, which seems to me immense….
Looking forward to hearing from you
As you say, there was a desire to purge sculpture of anything to do with the figure in the sixties, whether physical or otherwise. I take a rather sceptical view on ‘presence’. Did you know that there is in fact a moving statue outside of Tate modern? http://arts.guardian.co.uk/video/2007/nov/20/1 This probably defiles the whole idea!
Of course, there is no clear cut distinction between a ‘sculpture’ of a figure and a ‘statue’ of a figure, and most with be a mixture of both – but that is why I would suggest that both Rodin and Degas – different though they are – highlighted such a distinction. The distinction may seem arbitrary or imprecise, but I feel it is important.
So how do you see ‘presence’ in terms of abstract sculpture? I’m not sure I can see how what I rather hopefully call ‘real abstract sculpture’ can embody something outside of itself. Does it not then become immediately ‘representational’ of that thing? If it is to have a presence, does it not come from its physical presence rather than from a ‘spiritual’ content? Is this perhaps why you don’t really feel your recent works are abstract? Not that you have explicitly said that…
What seems to me more important is what a sculpture ‘does’. This, of course, begs more questions than it answers. But if one asks, for example, ‘What does Rodin’s “Walking Man” do?’ the answer must surely be something other than ‘walking’. (Perhaps this helps with the distinction with statuary?)
Lots to get into, indeed; we might get some comments from other interested parties which would open it up. And as I started, you can have the last word. Thanks and kind regards
I never answered your question early on in our conversation about whether I considered my current sculpture ” abstract”. The fact is, I can’t answer, because I don’t know what the term signifies any more. You seem to have a clear idea of what abstract means, and my work is certainly not abstract in your sense. We haven’t touched on the question of modelling, the difference between working with volume as against spatial construction, seems fundamental to me somehow…
During the 70s, in fact from ‘Angel’ onward, my sculptures in steel stood upright, in a vertical plane confronting the onlooker, and in effect framing his/her field of perception. The wood pieces also, but because of the nature of the material there is some invitation to touch. As I progressively switched over to modelling in plaster, my hand replaced the tools I had been using; the relationship to my body and by extension to the body of the onlooker became fundamental. At this point, the distinction between abstraction and figuration lost its meaning for me. Working with volume – clay, wax, plaster, material that has no form in itself but is essentially formed by actions of the hand, indeed the body – cannot be abstract, unless all traces of the process are eliminated, whether the image is recognizable or not. At least, that’s my own experience; and in general the image has become more recognizable over the last 25 years, though I myself knew what I was working from almost from the start of making sculpture directly in plaster. The critical experience for me, in confirming the new direction my work was taking, was seeing the ‘Riaci’ bronzes when they were first exhibited in Florence in ‘81. But maybe this is a topic we can explore in a later conversation.