Preparatory Sketch for an Exhibition

Alison M Gingeras

When contemporary magazine invited me to contribute an essay to their sculpture issue, the best possible means for me to answer their question was to propose an argument for a ‘hypothetical exhibition’. In lieu of giving an inevitably incomplete and highly subjective overview of the nebulous category of ‘contemporary sculpture’, what follows is a preparatory ‘sketch’ for such a show. Even if this proposal amounts to nothing more than a preliminary proposition, it attempts to identify several interrelated approaches to sculpture – trying to link both historical antecedents and current manifestations of sculptural practice.

From the ‘Expanded Field’ to a Neighbouring Discipline
To evaluate the state of a given medium (e.g. sculpture), it is sometimes more efficient to compare or confront it with an inherently different medium (e.g. painting) as opposed to exclusively examining the limits of its own boundaries. In her influential essay, ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ Rosalind Krauss attempted to open up the High Modernist definition of sculpture – pushing the limits of formalism towards the ‘formless’. Writing at a moment in which all the traditional terms seemed to be thrown out the window, her reflection was spurred by the fact that ‘rather surprising things have come to be called sculpture: narrow corridors with TV monitors at the ends; large photographs documenting country hikes; mirrors placed at strange angles in ordinary rooms; temporary lines cut into the floor of the desert.’1 Even if the category of sculpture seems infinitely malleable, Krauss asserted that the art historians have a responsibility to map the exact boundaries of this ‘expanded field’ of sculpture. While the discipline of sculpture had transgressed its traditional preoccupations, it was still possible to articulate a set of oppositions (not architecture, not landscape) that defined the terrain into which this ‘new’ expanded field of sculpture fell.

Today the various heterogeneous manifestations of ‘expanded field’ are far from surprising or new; instead, the forms that Krauss described as part of ‘expanded field’ has become the absolute status quo for sculptural practice today. The artists that have been singled out in this proposal have created a dialogue with an entirely different medium – the history of painting – using sculpture as the vehicle for this. Leaving behind the dictates of art historians and critics, this exhibition would focus how the agency of artists is manifest in articulating ‘new’ forms of sculpture. If Krauss argued that the expanded field of sculpture was delimited by two negative terms – ‘not architecture’ and ‘not landscape’ – this group of artists might be understood as framing their interest in sculpture as ‘painterly but not painting.’

Painting without Canvas
Painting as such has reportedly been dead, buried and subsequently resurrected with cyclical regularity. Whether as the result of market cycles, critical ideologies, or pure aesthetic trends, the constant questioning of painting’s legitimacy has provided cultural workers with a niche market.
The practice of periodically taking its pulse, celebrating its renaissance, or proclaiming recent innovations, this preoccupation with painting has become a specialised field of endeavour generating countless exhibitions and the emergence of this sub-discipline occupying curators, gallerists, and critics alike. Independent of this professional discourse, contemporary artists have visually and conceptually engaged painting’s charged history without necessarily taking up a brush and using stretched canvas.

Defying the readymade category of ‘painter’, an eclectic group of artists spanning several generations could be constituted because of their engagement with the historical baggage of ‘painting as such’. Working in diverse sculptural languages and using distinct strategies, these artists directly address the relevancy of painting’s ‘currency’ within visual culture. Sometimes critical, often ambivalent or humourous, but always very visual – painting without canvas is a practice that has slipped under the nose of the current debate about the viability of painting by critics and curators.

‘Painting Without Canvas’ could be described in terms of several distinct modes of formal and conceptual strategies. The following two ‘chapters’ provide a central nucleus for this hypothetical exhibition. While there are many artists (as well as supplementary categories) that would also be appropriate for this show, this eclectic group has been chosen because their works best embody a (purely artist-driven) dialogue between the history of painting and the contemporary practice of sculpture.

Gesture, Colour, and the Painterly
Taking cues from the cliché of the Modernist painter embodied by the likes of Jackson Pollock (aka Jack the Dripper), this group of artists are keenly interested in transposing traditionally ‘painterly’ concerns onto unconventional ‘sculptural’ supports. Beyond a mere displacement of paint to another medium, these ‘painters without canvas’ reflect on the integral components of traditional painting practices through playful engagements – whether literally miming or metaphorically referencing – Modernist painting. Each of these artists has transposed two-dimensional manifestations of key painterly tropes around colour, composition, materiality, horizontality, and impasto without the literal application of paint to canvas.

Acting out the physical vocabulary of Abstract Expressionist painting, the work of Franz West directly plays off Modernism’s love affair with the ‘gesture’ and the repertoire of physical action of Expressionist painting. His recent performative sculpture, La Limousine Bleu (2001) consisted of having a brand new Mazarati sports car covered in a bath of Pepto-Bismol hued pink paint. Executed during the opening of his solo exhibition at the MAK Vienna, West soiled the paradigm of the readymade sculpture (albeit in a high price tagged version) by magnifying Pollock’s multiple drippings into a singular gesture of a mass dumping of paint. This interest in gestural splashing and exuberant use of colour is not an isolated example in West’s oeuvre. His ongoing series of splatter painted papier-mâché sculptures – best exemplified by such works as Group with Cabinet (2002) – demonstrates the tense dialogue he constructs between traditional sculptural concerns and a playful dialogue with the highly mythologised figure of the painter in his work. As Robert Morris suggested in his influential essay ‘Anti-Form’, Pollock’s dripping had particularly strong implications for three-dimensional work. A wave of floor-oriented, scattered and liquefied sculptures appeared in America following the Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967.2 From Richard Serra’s formless masses of rubber latex scatter pieces to Lynda Benglis’ brightly pigmented latex floor sculptures, pouring and spilling were not only innovative techniques for sculptural practices but are direct evidence of vanguard sculpture’s active dialogue with Modernist painting. Having recently admitted a debt to Benglis’s poured sculptures, Piotr Uklanski has taken the dialogue between painting and sculpture to another level.3 His Untitled (Wet Floor) (2000) is a cheeky enactment of painterly/pouring action, with an added pictorial twist. In order to surpass its otherwise banal status as a puddle of water spilled on the gallery floor, some sort of pictorial work must hang on the surrounding walls in order to be reflected in the water. With a banal sense of beauty and annoying simplicity, Uklanski’s work is entirely dependent on the continuity of traditional, two-dimensional wall paintings while embracing the avant-garde tradition of the floor-oriented sculpture.

Simultaneous to his utterly traditional production of two-dimensional oil paintings, Glenn Brown has developed a unique practice of sculpting with paint. His massive accumulations of oil paint are sculpted into carefully structured impasto-forms that visually oscillate between abstract gestural blobs and more suggestive figurative shapes. Perhaps inspired by Pollock’s own failed venture into sculpture – Untitled from 1951, ‘a big, ungainly papier mâché construction with a batch of ink on rice paper drawings glued on to chicken wire frames’ (4) –Brown’s sculptures are a physical embodiment of both our (both his and Western culture’s) fetishism of painterly surface, impasto, materiality and gesture.

Monochrome, (Empty) Space and Immateriality
An eternal trickster, Piero Manzoni tried to push the avant-garde preoccupation with monochromatic purity to its extreme conclusion. His series of achromes – unadulterated white canvases that he began to make in 1957 by drying white plaster and kaolin on canvas – took Modernist painting to the edge of the abyss of nothingness. As Germano Celant explains, Manzoni’s ‘achrome aims at a stripping away; it avoids the image in favour of a more radical purity, that of a vision as a “naked” physical entity.’5 While Manzoni’s quest for nothingness on canvas is the result of a long historical trajectory in the history of avant-garde painting (preceded by the work of Fontana, Burri or Jean Fautrier), he could be considered the starting point for the pursuit of nothingness in three-dimensional (sculptural) form.

Like Manzoni, Yves Klein was obsessed with the monochrome and with nothingness, though he carried through his experiments to the realm of space –his practice revolved around a search for The Void. In May 1957, Klein had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris in which he exhibited a series of monochromatic paintings made of blue pigment, a colour he later patented as YKB. Outside the gallery, Klein made a gesture that was much more radical (and light-handed) than his pictorial works. With an announcement of the future development of his art – a practice more oriented towards space than the object – he released 1001 blue balloons in the Parisian sky. Prefiguring his now infamous exhibition of an entirely empty gallery a year later, Yves Klein continued to develop his pursuit of the The Void through experiments with architecture, fire, water, and light until his untimely death in 1962. The chronological and conceptual leap from Yves Klein to Martin Creed can be summarised as one from the metaphysical pursuit of ‘nothingness’, to the quest for ‘nothing in particular’. Like Klein, Creed has developed a practice that is based on dematerialised objects and interventions that underscore the perceptual/sensual limits of the ‘white cube’. In Creed’s Work no. 201: half the air in a given space (1998) a calculation has been made to determine the exact cubic volume of air in one room of an art gallery – and an identical amount of air is used to fill hundreds of balloons in order to ‘make tangible’ what is otherwise invisible. Creed’s work amounts to a spatial monochrome – replacing Klein’s spirituality fuelled quest with a playful yet visually satisfying engagement with the physical and administrative spaces that serve as a container for art.

Since his first series of paintings, begun in 1966, that used a preprinted striped motif of repetitive, alternating white and coloured vertical stripes of 8.7 centimetres in width, Daniel Buren’s persistent use of the ‘stripe’ retains an aura of Marxist criticism (of painting, of autonomy, of artistic gesture, etc.). Since this early, ‘radical’ period, Buren’s supposedly anonymous striped motif (or more precisely termed as a ‘visual tool’ by Buren himself) has jumped from the canvas stretcher to just about every imaginable format: architectural surfaces, utilitarian objects, flags, boat sails, or newspaper inserts, just to name a few. While these ‘enlargements’ have been read as an evolution of medium, most historical accounts assume that their meaning and intent is stable: the presence of the visual tool signals the same critical impulse as his first desire to strip painting to ‘degree zero’. While Buren has always engaged formal issues coming from painting as well as the architectural/institutional frame, the spectacular explosion of colour, mirrors, and materials that constitutes his ‘later’ work since the late 1980s reveals a radical, even startling ambition: to create a space for ‘undeniable visual pleasure’6. In works such as L’Arc en ciel (1985), Buren installed a range of coloured flags along an otherwise anonymous pier in Ushimado, Japan. Without ‘betraying’ his own radical artistic language and through a subtle gradation of colour, Buren uses vernacular objects to heighten our visual experience of the landscape while also referring to the painterly preoccupation with the sublime in nature.

1. Rosalind Krauss. ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ reprinted in The
    Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), p. 31.

2. Kirk Varnedoe. ‘Comet: Jackson Pollock’s Life and Work’ Jackson Pollock
    (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998), p. 70.

3. ‘Earth Wind and Fire: Piotr Uklanski interviewed by Maurizio Cattelan’
     Flash Art (May – June 2004)

4. Ibid. p. 63.

5. Germano Celant. ‘Piero Manzoni: The Body Infinite’ Piero Manzoni
    (London: Serpentine Gallery and Charta Editions, 1998), p. 23.

6. ‘It is true that my recent works are very different then those I might have
    done ten years ago. That being said, I have already used colour and effects
    of “explosion” in my work, these are constants in my work. What is also
    totally different without being completely new is my work on the notion
    of the decorative.’ Daniel Buren, Les Ecrits (1965-1990), vol. III.
    pp. 87. Translated from the French by the author.