The Ascendancy of Abstraction for Public Art

By Marter, Joan | Art Journal, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

The Ascendancy of Abstraction for Public Art


Marter, Joan, Art Journal


Our complex civilization has found its crisis in the contradiction that exists between individual concepts of truth and duty and totalitarian concepts of uniformity and blind obedience. Everywhere the human conscience has been in revolt against inhuman tyrannies. In that conflict lies the unique tragedy of our age, and the sculptors of the world, of the whole world, were asked to accept the challenge of such a theme and to express its significance in a monumental style.

--Herbert Read(1)

Traditional forms of public monuments seemed irrelevant in the immediate postwar years, when the inexorable rise of abstraction in modern art was coupled with the profound suffering and devastation caused by atomic and conventional weapons, the Holocaust, and the political oppression of Communism. This paper considers the American response to an international competition with an aesthetic agenda: to find a new means of expression for the public memorial, as well as a covert political one. In 1953, even before Abstract Expressionist painters were used as a weapon of the cold war, sculptors working in abstract modes (most of whom had never made public sculpture) were chosen to demonstrate the acceptance of modernism as an embodiment of America's social and political values. The selection of the United States entries for the international competition for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, and the subsequent success of several of these maquettes at the final competition in London, cannot be separated from the involvement of American officials at every level in planning this cold war project. Despite the official sponsorship by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (ICA), the sculpture competition was initiated by the American Anthony Kloman at the behest of a single "benefactor" who remained anonymous. Kloman had previously served as a United States cultural attach in Europe, and the competition had other connections with the U.S. State Department.

Although none of the proposed monuments, including the first-prizewinning entry by Reg Butler (fig. 1), were ever constructed, the Unknown Political Prisoner competition became a locus for postwar debates on the efficacy of abstraction versus figuration in the creation of public sculpture and in itself represents an early intrusion by the State Department in affirming the cultural supremacy of the United States and its allies.(Figure 1 omitted) In the cold war pronouncements on Abstract Expressionism, abstraction came to be associated with the freedom of the individual (read both anti-Fascist and anti-Communist) while figuration provoked associations with the Socialist Realism of the Communists and the Third Reich.(2) A subtext might be given to the foremost of the Russian Constructivists in the West, Naum Gabo among the American applicants (fig. 2), and his brother Antoine Pevsner among the French entries; both were given awards in the final competition.(Figure 2 omitted) As stated, none of the prizewinners' proposals were ever realized, but many of the Americans, including Alexander Calder, Herbert Ferber, Richard Lippold, and Theodore Roszak, subsequently created abstract sculptures on public sites. Within two decades, abstraction in public sculpture became completely institutionalized with the formation of the Works of Art in Public Places program of the National Endowment for the Arts and various "percent for art" guidelines implemented by the General Services Administration and other government agencies.

In 1953 members of the National Sculpture Society and other creators of public works were unprepared for the new bias toward abstraction taken by the jury for the American preliminary competition. Figurative sculptors were outraged at the transformation of concepts for public monuments, and their reactions were widely noted in the press. The eleven winning entries displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), focused on the controversy of the viable approaches to public art, while signaling the postwar involvement of museum trustees, directors, curators, and patrons in promoting America's cultural image on the international scene. …

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