Object Matter

From William Tucker’s book The Language of Sculpture, comes these further words on cubist construction:

Pablo Picasso, Construction with fringe 1914

Pablo Picasso, Construction with fringe 1914

“Apart from their richness and power as individual pieces, all these wooden constructions demonstrate the object-nature of modern sculpture. They take objects, still-life, as their subject-matter; they are constructed of the same material and in the same way as made objects in the world; and they have a completeness, an object-quality in themselves, an autonomy of structure and internal relations, that gives them an independence of any model in reality.”
One reason this stands out for me is that it reminds me of the obsession with so-called “literalism” among the steel sculptors on abstract critical, a kind of Friedian time warp. I’m always bemused by it. The avant-garde strategy is to test the status of the artwork by pushing it as close as possible toward the ordinary thing, but history has shown that the illusion of art is indestructible. Since it can never be absolute, the thingness of art is only compelling as something to strive toward; since it is compelling in that way, it’s really stupidly conservative to argue against it. Nothing can be accomplished by such a stance. But Tucker says something very interesting—that autonomy, the very essence of art, is also object-quality. Meditation on this elegant formulation should help to dispel confusion about the literal and the artistic, or at least turn attention away from such unproductive arguments. The book was published in 1974, the heyday of minimalism, yet it is only concerned with early modernist sculpture. In its context it seems oddly old-fashioned and art historical. The writings of Morris, Judd, Andre and Smithson are all in the history books, and define the discourse of that time, but though Tucker’s book is completely out of step with all that, it is nevertheless a valid intervention. For instance, an entire chapter is devoted to the object. Tucker was aware of the zeitgeist, but his dialogue with it was less direct, a little more subtle, because his own work had to do with surface and volume, and he evidently felt that was still a legitimate direction. And why not?


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