From Object to Experience: Notes on American Sculpture

by Sunanda K Sanyal

To put it rather bluntly, it is impossible to write an exclusive history of modern sculpture. Though one could make the same argument about modern painting, it certainly is more relevant to sculpture; for unlike painting’s occasional insistence on purity and self-critique (as with Abstract Expressionism), sculpture of the last century has been more consistently engaged in self-deconstruction, opening itself to complex dialogs with almost every other medium and mode of expression: painting, photography, architecture, landscape, video, light, sound, motion, language, not to mention the human body. Sculptural practice today is thus infinitely more hybridized than the enterprise of painting. Instead of attempting a survey of such a complex history, this brief essay touches on some of the key attributes of American sculpture of the 1960s.

Civilian life in the United States was unscathed by World War II. So while much of postwar European art bore dark memories of trauma and destruction, American art from the same period was largely indifferent to the social and political changes at home and abroad. Instead, it was deeply involved in its own discourse. The differences among them notwithstanding, all the post-war American trends —Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Happenings, Minimalism— were essentially hermetic in character, underscoring self-referentiality as art’s primary goal. But whereas Abstract Expressionism’s high-winded, anxiety-ridden, author-centered rhetoric of self-referentiality was all about the processes and materials of art-making, Pop art in the ‘60s insisted on the self-referentiality of signs by collapsing the barrier between “high” and “low” cultures. Tawdry images of soup cans, coke bottles, Mickey Mouse and living as well as dead celebrities emerged as unstable, thoroughly mediated signs in a media-driven consumer culture, with no hierarchy of values. Pop owed much to the Dada strategies of Marcel Duchamp, yet it bypassed Duchamp’s biting social critique to eagerly embrace capitalist materialism with a non-committal gesture, articulated through wit and irony— an attitude often summarized in the expression “deadpan cool”. Thus repudiating the conventional supremacy of the artist-author, Pop’s self-referential images signaled the end of a discourse of art that had reigned since Manet and Courbet. Minimalism emerged in the late ‘60s with curious ties to Pop.   [More..]

(Published: Art News & Views, 3(4), December, 2010: 29-31)