Sunday, October 26, 2014

Smart Museum: What is Sculpture ?

George Minne, "Kneeling Youth"

What makes an object a sculpture ?

In an artworld where breaking boundaries is the rule, rather than the exception, we might better ask  "who makes an object a sculpture?"

Millions of Brillo boxes on supermarket shelves do not qualify -- but one of them may be called "sculpture" if put on display in an art museum.

But still, in this exhibition,  viewers are  encouraged to examine their own experiences to seek the answer, led, appropriately enough, by a group that calls itself  "500 Clown".

"We invite you to move from passive visitors in the galleries to active participants in co-creating the Museum." say the clowns -- but this "co-creation" is no more active than any other act of looking, which cannot help but be co-creative because that's how the human eye/mind works.

The Good, Bad, Ugly exhibit at the DePaul Museum a few years back was a more sincere invitation for participation, offering explanations for why some pieces were being considered for museum de-acquisition, and asking viewers to vote their responses.

This post is my form of viewer participation - beginning with the sculpture shown above --- because it's one of my favorites in the Smart museum's collection, though it was not included in this show.

David Hare, 1955 .......... Marino Marini, 1956

Mainstream figure sculpture fled from any sense of social idealism in the 1950's -- and I'm not fond of it.

But the Smart can fill an entire small gallery with this genre -- and it's interesting to see these pieces side by side.

Eduardo Paolozzi., 1956 ........................ David Hare, 1955

Richard Hunt, 1961

This youthful Richard Hunt piece looked pretty good in the same room -- and it felt quite figurative - and jaunty.

Anthony Caro, 1984

Germaine Richier, 1955

Henry Moore

Moving over to something quite different - this case offers an interesting juxtaposition of Art  Deco neo-Egyptian  (made by an Armenian) --- with a piece made by an actual  contemporary Egyptian.

Mahmud Mukhtar, 1930

The stillness and power of ancient Egyptian sculpture is apparently being sought - but  not being achieved.

Hakop Gurdjian, 1930's


This piece is more pleasantly decorative -- but still feels 5,000 years removed from the Old Kingdom.

This man is not an ancient Egyptian - he's an extra in a Hollywood movie set in ancient Egypt.

Fang peoples (Cameroon), Byeri (male ancestor figure)

The museum does not seem to have much African sculpture -- is this the only piece ?

As sculpture, it hardly compares with the Great Bieri at the Met.

If you wish to distinguish cultural artifacts from sculpture, this is the former.

Emil Armin, 1923

This local artist  is much better known as a painter - but this is  respectable venture into a very different medium.  And formally it has more in common with ancient Egyptian sculpture than the attempted imitations shown earlier in this post.

Hans Arp

These small pieces are much less impressive than the large-scale piece up in Evanston, just outside the Block Museum.  I'd rather just look at gourds.


If I were going to define "sculpture",
I would use this display case as an example.
The two Buddhas to the left  (Chinese and Tibetan) are just Buddhas.
But the small, green one to the right (Korean)
is also a sculpture.

Korea, Amita Buddha, 15th C.

Quite delightful, actually. 

John Chamberlin, 1963

Not that similar conglomerations could not be found in any junk yard -- but still, I like this one.

It feels like it's been composed  as  an ebullient ornamental riff - doing the same thing with fragments of colored metal that other ABX artists were doing with gobs of paint.


Charpentier, inkwell ("Starvation"), 1894

The Smart has several cases full of 19th C. bronzes - most of which should be sold for scrap and then  melted down.

But this one has some very delicate modeling.

And it's also a bit strange.

Who would want to be reminded of  starving people whenever dipping one's pen into ink ?

Wonderfully modeled hips

The Smart has a substantial  collection of historic Chinese painting-- but it's Tang sculpture is not worth keeping.

Better examples can be seen every year at the Chicago Antiques Fair.

Jacques Lipschitz, death mask of Modigliani

Lipschitz was a great sculptor -- and Modigliani  a great painter.

But a death mask is just a  cast taken from a corpse.

Why is this in a collection of sculpture ?


A nice little bust, but regretfully I did not record the name of the artist.

It appears to be a 20th century homage to ancient work - so appropriately enough, it shared a display case with some ancient artifacts.

I'm guessing that this small torso, with the Three Graces, is 4th C. Roman

Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1758-1843)

Thomire was the leading ornamental sculptor of his time - reportedly employing 700 workers in his factory  in Paris.

The three dancing figures aren't quite as special as the low relief around the base.

But I doubt we'll ever know who actually modeled it.

Egide Rombaux, "Mountain of Venus" (Venusberg), c. 1900

Elsewhere I have written a little tribute to this sculptor.

I enjoy his favorite theme of  rampant hetero-sexuality - but this piece feels a bit cluttered.

The rest of this case is forgettable

Pakistan was a great place for figure sculpture - 400 years before it was over run by Muslim armies.

These examples are mediocre - but still worth seeing.

Most of the Ghandaran sculpture that I've seen was carved stone -- but Gallery signage tells us that this piece is cast stucco.




A small tribute to the Chicago Imagists

Princess Marie Christine D'Orleans, "Joan of Arc", 1835

It's fascinating that a young daughter of King Louis-Philippe was a serious student of sculpture,
but this piece is little more than an historical curiosity.

John Mowbray-Clark, 1918

I'd like to see more work from this artist, who was a principal organizer of the 1913 Armory Show.

Joseph Charles Marin, 1788

A bit more cute than his master, Clodion, I'm still glad to be introduced to this 18th C. sculptor.

Jacques Lipschitz, 1914

This is another piece from the Joel Starrels Jr. Memorial Collection of bookshelf sized  early 20th C.  modernist sculpture.

Magdalena Abakanowicz

Magdalena's sculpture is pretty much focused on the misery of life in 20th C. central Europe.

Her parade of rusting headless iron zombies doesn't really belong in Chicago's  Grant Park -- but this  dreary, sexy, outrageous  monumental fabric would make a  darkly humorous addition to the wall of some condo overlooking the lake.


Happily, this piece is usually on display as one enters the museum -- and I'm always glad to see it.

Avant Garde Modernism only flirted briefly with Classicism before launching itself into a century (or more) of surrealist rebellion.


Zhan Wang,  "Ornamental Rock", 1996

For at least a thousand years, maybe longer, every Chinese Mandarin's courtyard had to have a "scholar's rock" --- i.e. a big chunk of weathered stone whose turbulent forms suggest the forces of nature.

Several contemporary Chinese artists have continued this tradition by making their own.

Several monumental pieces were displayed on the roof of the ModernWing last year -- and other pieces have recently shown up on temporary display in Millennium Park.

This piece, which resembles crumpled tin foil - is pleasant enough -- but it doesn't really demonstrate the power that real geological specimens - or really good sculpture - can display.

Here's another interesting juxtaposition -- placing an ancient Cambodian Shiva Linga next to two pieces of modern sculpture.

Han Yongjin, "Dark Black Stone", 1986
Yong Jin Han is something of a minimalist,
but this is the kind of minimalism I enjoy

The piece feels relaxing rather than annoying.

Isamu Noguchi, "Goddess", 1982

My photograph does not do justice
to the flecked surface of this
gently mysterious and humorous piece.

I suppose if it had a protrusion instead of a hole in the center,
Noguchi would have called it a "God"

Dan Peterman, 2005

If the Smart collection has to include joke art,
it might as well have these tubs  of  abandoned laboratory equipment,
appropriate for its university setting.