Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

From 'The New Sculpture' to Garden Statuary: The Suppression of Abstract Expressionist Sculpture

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

From 'The New Sculpture' to Garden Statuary: The Suppression of Abstract Expressionist Sculpture

Article excerpt

Introduction

A photograph in the January 15, 1951 issue of Life magazine depicts fourteen men and one woman gathered in an empty room, dressed in suits (and an overcoat for the woman), and staring defiantly at the camera. Their sparse surroundings give no indication of their identity; rather the accompanying caption addresses them as an 'Irascible Group of Advanced Artists'. The short paragraph that follows notes their opposition to the jury of a national exhibition to be held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This photograph, known as the 'Irascibles' photo, is today a defining symbol of American Abstract Expressionism, which emerged in New York City after the 1939-1945 war. However, it also contributed to the mythologizing of this movement in two ways: first, it depicted what appeared to be a cohesive group of artists, when nothing could be further from the truth, and second, it played a part in the belief that Abstract Expressionism was a movement of painters. Although ten sculptors signed the letter to the Met, they were not included in the photograph. In fact, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, both painters and sculptors were part of the New York avant-garde, and attempts to document this period, such as Modern Artists in America (1952) edited by Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt and the 1951 exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), often included sculpture. But as Abstract Expressionism became canonized, sculpture was written out of the story. The factors that shaped this omission are the central concern here.

Of the ten sculptors who signed the Met letter, this article will focus on six who used welding and other direct-metal techniques to make abstract sculpture: David Hare, Herbert Ferber, Ibram Lassaw, Seymour Lipton, Theodore Roszak, and David Smith. They had the closest ties to the New York School painters, and their work, with the exception of Smith, has suffered the most from the later suppression of sculpture from this period. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, Hare, Ferber, Lassaw, Lipton, Roszak, and Smith were part of a new generation of sculptors in New York, and their works were regarded as embodying a new sculptural vocabulary. Drawing from Constructivism and Surrealism, their pieces exhibited anti-war and anti-nuclear sentiment; an interest in nature, primordial creatures, the cosmos and scientific developments; and the expressive use of dripped metal. Of the six, several were prevented from travelling to Europe due to the war, so the influx of European artists in New York in the 1940s had a profound impact. Although their work is very disparate, and they did not see themselves as a cohesive group, the use of Surrealist biomorphism to express a dystopian worldview in the post-war period is a common theme. Like the Abstract Expressionist painters their lives were shaped by the social and political events of the time: the Great Depression and the New Deal programs, the devastation of the 1939-1945 war, the dropping of the atomic bombs, and the Cold War. Despite common aesthetic concerns and shared experiences, very few histories of Abstract Expressionism look seriously at the intersections between painting and sculpture.

These sculptors developed alongside the painters of the New York School and were involved in many of the same avant-garde activities; therefore, their work has been labelled by Stephen Polcari and others as 'Abstract Expressionist sculpture', 'action sculpture', or 'sculpture of the New York School'.1 Despite the problematic nature of these labels, as they suggest the sculptors were emulating developments in painting, they will be referred to in this article as Abstract Expressionist sculptors. This act of naming serves two purposes. The first is one of convenience and clarity, while the second is ideological. Naming was an integral step in the consolidation of avant-garde painting in mid-century New York; therefore, extending this label to sculpture challenges the canon and recognizes the power of naming in the myth-making process. …

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