Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Recasting the Past: On the Posthumous Fortune of Futurist Sculpture

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Recasting the Past: On the Posthumous Fortune of Futurist Sculpture

Article excerpt

The issue of the conservation of sculpture is probably as old as the history of sculpture itself. Once a sculpture has left the artist's workshop, its life is fraught with the danger that it will be damaged or destroyed. This apprehension, which is an inevitable result of its materiality, in turn warrants the establishment of norms for its preservation, repair or, in extreme cases, substitution.

In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder describes the bronze of a dog licking its wounds which had originally been held in the temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill in Rome and which was destroyed in a fire during the author's own lifetime. Its 'wonderful workmanship and absolutely life-like treatment are sufficiently proved', Pliny states, 'not only by the sacred spot where the work was dedicated, but also by the unusual guarantee demanded for it. No sum of money was considered equivalent: it was a public ordinance that the curators should pledge their lives for its safety.'1 Pliny's story suggests that, since antiquity, one of the most significant historical clues about the artistic status of an object resided in the anxiety over its destruction. The ruin stands therefore as an inner germ of potentiality within sculpture's identity, a doppelgänger that haunts the sculptural object.

In the twentieth century, the prospect of a sculpture's disappearance became an even more acute concern. The use of fragile or less traditionally codified materials increased the inherent threat of impermanence proper to the sculptural object. The historical avant-garde, moreover, by emphasizing conception and display over realization and durability, destabilized even further the traditional practices of collecting and canonizing modern sculpture.2 The codes of sculptural reproduction in the twentieth century were thus defined by the close interaction of two factors: historicization and commodification.

The case of Marcel Duchamp's re-editions of Fountain that were produced in 1964 in collaboration with the Milanese gallerist and collector Arturo Schwarz offers the most compelling example of the problematic status of authorized, 'original' copies (fig. 1). Explaining the motivation for these replicas, Schwarz noted: 'Only in this way could [Duchamp] rescue these readymades from oblivion and, at the same time, restore the missing pages to the corpus of his work.'3 In her book Unpacking Duchamp, Dalia Judovitz has furthered this idea, interpreting Duchamp's copies as deliberately staging 'the challenge that the reproducibility of objects poses to the work of art, since a new work is created by reactivating the conceptual interval between the original and the reproduction'.4 Still, this desire to guarantee a series of authorized replicas resulted in a much less controlled multiplication of exemplars. The Schwarz re-edition now includes twelve official copies, a 'prototype' and four additional, unsigned copies, which have since surfaced in private collections. The latter works were apparently a 'defective' set from the 1964 casting.5

It is, however, the issue of posthumous casts, authorized and unauthorized, that has been at the centre of a major debate on the reproducibility of modern sculpture. The polemic that in the early 1980s opposed Rosalind Krauss and Albert Elsen in relation to a series of late castings of Rodin's works, in particular his Gates of Hell, has since developed into a wider scholarly reassessment of the status of sculptural reproductions. Still, the Krauss-Elsen debate has had the effect of focusing scholars' attention on the problematic status of authorship within the historiographic and commercial systems of modern art. At the same time, it has also demonstrated the challenges that a particular type of historiography informed by structuralism and poststructuralism, with its insistence on the so-called 'death of the author', faces when confronted with the survival of the artwork after the demise of the artist.

Writing about the new Rodin bronzes exhibited in Washington in a major exhibition curated by Elsen in 1981,6 Krauss remarked that 'in finishing and patinating the new cast there is no example completed during Rodin's lifetime to use for a guide to the artist's intentions about how the finished piece was to look'. …

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