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There’s an old joke that describes sculpture as the thing you bump into when stepping back to look at a painting. While the gag reflects the long-held prejudice that sculpture is somehow secondary to painting, this has not always been the case. During classical antiquity, three-dimensional representations of the body were considered nature’s truest mirror, and the rediscovery of sculptural fragments amid ancient Roman ruins launched the Renaissance. However, during the 17th century, the Royal Academy of France formalized artistic training and favored painting over sculpture, even to the point of reducing the latter to a soil tool (in the form of plaster casts of classical statuary). to teach drawing. With the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the academic restrictions that limited art were upended by an avant-garde determined to bridge the gap between art and life. Sculpture became an essential part of this endeavor and remains important to art to this day, as you will see by checking out our list of the best insights into modern and contemporary sculpture. (Price and availability in effect at time of publication.)
1. Judith Collins, sculpture today
Published in 2014 as one of Phaidon’s best-selling surveys of contemporary art for the general public, Judith Collins’s sculpture today offers a comprehensive overview of the last 50 years of sculpture. Collins’ account begins at a point she describes as the end of modern painting after nearly a century of revolutionary stylistic change, beginning with Cubism. At the dawn of the 1970s, sculpture and practices adjacent to sculpture became the main mode of expression of what has been called the dematerialization of the art object – a somewhat ironic term, being given that the genres that emerged (earthworks, installations, body art and the expansion of Duchamp’s “ready-mades” were three-dimensional in nature. Using concise and easily accessible language, Collins, former senior curator at the Tate Gallery in London, focuses on how the innovations of sculpture from the 70s were assimilated between 1975 and 2007 and became the basis of today’s medium.
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2. Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in modern sculpture
As co-founder of the theory-laden quarterly October, Rosalind Krauss was at the hot center of the critical discourse that animated the art world at a time when that discourse still mattered. Originally published in 1981, Passages in modern sculpture is a classic example of 20th century art history in which sculpture evolves inexorably from figurative to abstract – a progressive model that was already out of fashion when the book came out. Kraus presents a series of case studies beginning with the relief of Auguste Rodin The gates of hell (1880-1917), which she cites as a decisive break with the narrative tradition of sculpture. She then covers the groundbreaking achievements of other major personalities – Brancusi bird in spaceby Picasso Wire constructionby Duchamp Fountain– before moving on to the work of contemporaries such as Carl Andre, Michael Heizer and Robert Morris. Although obviously of its time, Krauss’ book is a milestone in the historiography of art.
Purchase: Passages in Modern Sculpture $39.95 (new) at Amazon
3. Jon Wood and Julia Kelly, Contemporary sculpture: writings and interviews with artists
Although the contemporary art world seems awash with paintings, sculpture remains a vital expression, especially in the realm of public art, which has become increasingly prevalent over the past few decades. This volume, whose publication in 2020 was overshadowed by the confinement that followed the Covid epidemic, uses interviews with artists or their statements to explore the continued relevance of sculpture, not only in the public sphere, but in extensive studio practices covering everything from traditional statues and bust portraits to photography and performance. The book contains 50 texts related to artists from Europe (Germany and the United Kingdom in particular), the United States and Asia, with, for example, discussions of material and methods with established names such as Katharina Fritsch, Thomas Schütte and Paul McCarthy. Highly readable with a format that allows readers to dive in and out, Contemporary Sculpture explores its subject in the artists own words.
Purchase: Contemporary Sculpture: Artists’ Writings and Interviews $50.94 (New) at Amazon
4. Ina Cole, From the sculptor’s studio: conversations with 20 pioneering artists
Another book compiled from interviews with artists, From the sculptor’s studio is a UK-focused look at contemporary sculpture with conversations with 20 internationally renowned figures, including Anthony Caro, Antony Gormley, Mona Hatoum, Anish Kapoor, Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread, among others. Author Ina Cole is an acclaimed writer on modern and contemporary art and an editor for Sculpture, a journal affiliated with the International Sculpture Center in the United States. She takes readers behind the scenes, visiting the studios of her interviewees as they weigh in on their ideas, processes and approaches to exhibition mounting. The conversation often revolves around specific works that are among the most significant sculptures produced since the millennium, accompanied by reproductions, many of which are double-page spreads. The 165 color images also include artist portraits. Cole herself contributes an introductory essay that explains her selections and their depiction of current sculptural trends.
Purchase: From the Sculptor’s Workshop $42.49 (new) at Amazon
5.William Tucker, The language of sculpture
British critic and artist William Tucker brought his experience of sculpture to this key study of the medium published in 1985. Tucker was essentially a late modernist who emerged in the 1960s with geometrically abstract objects that caught the attention of not less than one digit than Clement Greenberg in the United States. Tucker’s reputation as an avant-garde artist would prove short-lived, however, as his benevolent formalism was eclipsed by radical genres such as minimalism and arte povera. In this book, Tucker attributes two major characteristics to sculpture: gravity, literally meaning the attraction of a sculptural mass towards the Earth; and light, which reveals the object to the viewer. Another way of saying it is that sculpture is the interaction between matter and form. It is a conservative view that breaks with 1970s theories, but remains relevant to Tucker’s analysis of Rodin, Brancusi, Picasso and Matisse and their roles in advancing 20th century sculpture.
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6. Glenn Halper and Twylene Moyer, A sculpture reader: contemporary sculpture since 1980
This collection published in 2010 contains 42 essays written by a diverse group of contributors who originally appeared in the pages of Sculpture magazine over its first 25 years, offering a three-dimensional overview of art from this period. The writings focus on the works of individual artists rather than general trends or movements, which is just as well since the latter were no longer relevant at that time. Yet this anthology offers a sharp critical insight into the state of the medium at the turn of the millennium, even if the aims of its practitioners were somewhat diffuse compared to those of their 20th-century counterparts. The book suggests that the open nature of today’s sculptural practices has its virtues, as illustrated here by in-depth discussions of the work of internationally renowned art stars such as Ann Hamilton and Olafur Eliasson, as well as many other important names.
Purchase: A Sculpture Reader $29.95 (new) at Amazon
7. Roxana Marcoci, The Original Copy: Sculpture Photography: 1839 to Today
This volume accompanied a 2010 MoMA investigation into the relationship between photography and sculpture, a symbiotic pair that dates back to the invention of the camera itself. Early on, busts, statues and architectural friezes naturally lent themselves to photography because, unlike humans, they did not squirm, a plus when cinematic technologies required long exposures. And while critics argued that photography signaled the demise of art (or the loss of its aura, according to Walter Benjamin), artists – sculptors in particular – began to use photography to extend their practices in various ways. . Rodin hired photographers and orchestrated the dramatic lighting of his works to document them. The images Brancusi took of his sculptures in his studio became works of art themselves. Later, photos served as substitutes for ephemeral or site-specific genres like earthworks and performance. With 300 photos by over 100 artists, this book offers a fascinating look at an underappreciated aspect of modern art history.
Purchase: The Original Copy $55.00 (New) at Amazon