Photo by Laurie Swope
I think that from the very beginning I have been interested in creating sculpture that would be meaningful as well as aesthetically significant. Pure abstraction has never fully satisfied me, even though in the past I worked in this way and still do occasionally.
Sculpture by its very nature tends to emphasize material substance, the inarticulate particular rather than the intelligible and universal. As I see it, the sculptor’s problem is to invest gross matter with meaning that transcends and thereby transfigures it. Whenever we give shape to substance we do this to some extent; we put our mark upon it, articulate it, and isolate it from the flux of the sensible. But, as I know from my own experience that does not always exhaust the artistic impulse to transfigure sensible reality.
In the past it was the function of art to embody those truths of greatest importance to a culture—truths regarded as unchanging and universally valid—adding to what was already significant the significance of formal excellence. Accustomed as we are to an art without explicit, meaningful content, that is to abstraction, or to art forms that exalt the superficial and transient, we find it hard to sympathize with this view. But looked at in terms of the development of visual art since its prehistoric beginnings the art of the present is itself an exception. Much of the art of the past is not only decorative, but profoundly meaningful. Its formal excellence completes the transmutation of the ceaselessly changing material reality perceived though the senses into a construct that suggests the permanent and unchanging, and it is with this tradition that I identify.
The concrete or material representation of meaning in earlier art was frequently reinforced by what we call a symbol. We tend to think of the symbol as something that “stands for” something else or represents it in another guise. I prefer to regard it as a link between the accidental or particular and the universal. The symbol partakes of both and provides the context within which the mysterious fusion of those extremes can occur. It does not “stand for” something else, but is a unique entity with unique characteristics. It is in that sense that I understand it and use it.
As a rule the widespread use of symbolism in art is characteristic of religious cultures. That is, in part, because religion implies the possibility of the communication or interpenetration of the changing and unchanging, of the particular and universal, of the human and the divine. It provides a comprehensive world view from which the symbol can develop or to which it can attach itself.
In our age materialism prevails and the spiritual instinct has atrophied. We lack the ability to perceive a universal pattern that orders experience and gives it purposeful meaning. This is reflected in visual art as an interest in design or composition rather than definitive meaning, in substance or matter rather than concept, in means rather than ends. The characteristic art forms of our age are for the most part modes of expression which appeal almost exclusively to the senses and to our preoccupation with the transient rather than with the fundamental and universal. The very possibility of significant expression is often called into question or expressly rejected. I refer to pure abstraction; to the assemblage composed of miscellaneous fragments; to painting dominated by the brush stroke or by the textured surface; to Dada and its numerous contemporary progeny; to aleatory art or art produced by chance arrangements; to art that self-destructs or vanishes when the performance ends; to art, such as Pop Art, that incorporates transient subject matter of the sort we find in our newspapers, and in television and radio accounts.
We have rejected the past and its art forms in favor of the present and future. Visual art is often praised not for what it is, but for what it has led to in the present, or for what it might lead to in the future. We have embraced constant change and with it the primacy of “the next new thing.” For the old Academy, which emphasized continuity, we have substituted another just as confining and authoritarian, one that emphasizes discontinuity and requires artists to create works which violate or refute the premises underlying the works of their predecessors. Younger artists especially, and curators who should know better, are frequently misled or corrupted by a philosophy that encourages a futile and artificial quest for the new and the different.
I do not subscribe to this “evolutionary” historicism; that is I do not believe that in art “new” and “improved” are synonymous.
The emphasis upon novelty at all costs inevitably led to the confusion of art with science and of art with technology. In fact one must clearly distinguish between a comprehensive theory of gravity, which genuinely supersedes its predecessors, or a computer that actually surpasses its progenitors and the work of art. As I have indicated, a serious, successful art object transcends the temporal and our customary preoccupation with ephemeral, temporal values. Museums of art would not exist did we not at least suspect this. All genuine works of art, certainly all great works of art, are in that respect of equal significance, whenever they are executed and by whatever technical means. Because fundamentally a-temporal, their distinction takes “time” to become manifest. Enough time must pass to reveal temporary prejudices and obsessions as temporary. And that is what occurs. The passage of time does not reveal the superiority of the great art of the present to the great art of the past, but rather their joint participation in a unique confraternity which the museum acknowledges and enshrines.
My intention is not to exclude or reject the genuinely new—for surely we do not wish to emulate the ancient Egyptians whose art changed little for millennia—but rather the fetishistic pursuit of novelty for its own sake, especially when it blinds us to the excellences of earlier art which could in fact lead to genuinely new discoveries, as African art did for the Cubists. My own sculptures form a connected series each element of which derives meaning from and imparts meaning to the remaining elements. The overarching structure was in part inspired by—although it is clearly not the same as—Dante’s Commedia. Certain sculptures, such as the caged figures correspond to his Inferno, others, such as the Ascending Forms correspond to his Purgatorio. Within the larger series there are minor series. For example the small running man in Gallery III derives from the Man Running series and brings with it the meaning of that series.
One’s image obviously must possess immediate sensual appeal. But to convey complex and comprehensive meaning it must also point beyond itself. It must initiate exploration of affinities and possibilities that lead far from the immediate experience of the material forms.
Such exploration necessarily engages thought and feeling, intellect and emotion. Those polarities become one in and through the meaningful art-work. The perfected work is at once intellectual and emotional, profoundly personal and profoundly impersonal, specific in substance and universal in implication, immediately present to sense yet with a multitude of connections that lead beyond sense. It lends itself to analysis, yet remains a mystery even to its creator. And since the chain of affinities lengthens and ramifies the more we attempt to follow it, its meaning is potentially inexhaustible. Although an object existing at a certain time and occupying a certain space and destined ultimately to perish, the meaningful work of visual art is in a very real sense removed from time and space. This is so, first, because its subject matter is permanent and comprehensive, not transient and local; second, because the work overcomes the limitations typically imposed by the spatial and temporal—the textures, surfaces and figures of a fully realized painting or sculpture appear to move but are unmoving, and so move perpetually; and, finally, because the perfected work is constituted of perfected relationships. Although such relationships require a material vehicle, they are themselves immaterial and hence by nature as imperishable as purely mathematical entities.