March 27, 2008

The De-Definition of Sculpture

Filed under: Abstraction,Installation,Sculpture — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 5:14 pm

Robert Morris, Box with the sound of its own making, 1961. Wooden box with tape loop playing inside.In a previous post I showed how painting began the process of its own elimination, or more exactly its transition from being one of the defining categories of artness, to becoming just one more colour on the artist’s palette. In this post I will outline the beginning of the end of sculpture as a defining category. The story begins with minimalism, or more precisely it begins with abstraction, which along with the Readymade was ultimately responsible for the subordination of painting as a defining category of what is or is not “art”.

The Duchampian Readymade is certainly the first and perhaps most powerful deconstruction of the category “sculpture” but in this post I would like to look more closely at the unravelling of the concept of sculpture during the course of the 1960s. One can begin such an examination with the “paintings” of Frank Stella which effectively segue the end of painting with the de-definition of sculpture. Take for example his Aluminum Paintings first exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York in 1960 (click thumbnail image for full-size).

Frank Stella, Aluminum Paintings, 1960. Installation view Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, 1960.

The significant feature of these works in terms of the de-definition of sculpture lies in the depth of their canvas supports which jut out significantly from the gallery wall in a sculptural manner. We can also note that these canvases are shaped, which again deconstruct the boundary between painting and sculpture.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1966. Stainless steel and yellow Plexiglas. Six 34 inch cubes.
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1966. Stainless steel and yellow Plexiglas. Six 34 inch cubes.

The interrelationship between painting and sculpture introduced by Stella is amplified by the work of Donald Judd when he bolts a series of metal boxes onto the gallery wall. But Judd does not simply repeat Stella’s proposition, he takes it further because his sculptural units include the gallery wall in the fabric of the sculpture. There is accordingly an architectural dimension to the work. So now we have a blurring of boundaries between painting ( now de-defined as a work of art that hangs on the wall) sculpture, and architecture.

Robert Morris, installation in the Green Gallery, New York, 1964. Seven geometric plywood structures painted grey.

Robert Morris, installation in the Green Gallery, New York, 1964. Seven geometric plywood structures painted grey.

Robert Morris goes beyond Judd in a remarkable exhibition at the Green Gallery, New York, in 1964. What is remarkable about the exhibition is that it introduced what we would refer to now as “installation art”. Here was sculpture that the viewer could literally walk into due to the fact that it insinuated itself into the fabric of the architectural space of the gallery. Thomas Crow explains that the ” large geometric solids, constructed in gray-painted plywood” had been originally built as “performance props for [Simone] Forti and other dancers since 1961” (Crow 1996: 139). So now we have even more deconstruction of boundaries; this time between sculpture, architecture and modern dance.

Crow also reports that it was Morris’ “sculpture” that provoked an outraged response from the Greenbergian critic Michael Fried. The art theorist Clement Greenberg had formulated an ironclad theory based upon an apotheosis of abstract painting. His theory was an abstraction of abstraction that placed the art object on a Platonic pedestal detached from everyday life. One can see immediately how old-fashioned this notion would seem anybody au fait with the Duchampian Readymade–which deliberately deconstructed the notion that the work of art was an precious object in an idealised  aesthetic realm, separated from everyday life. Crow notes “in the journal Artforum, … [Fried] declared that these large, simple shapes were not properly art at all, but belonged to the realm of theater” (Crow 1996: 140).

Sometime later, in 1977, the New York based art theorist Douglas Crimp noted that in his attack on minimal art Fried asserted that ‘Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theater,’ defining ‘theatre’ in this context as ‘what lies between the arts’ (in Crimp 1984: 176). It is evident that Crimp effectively accepts Fried’s analysis with the exception that whereas Fried understood the ‘theatrical’ as a degeneration Crimp understands it as evolutionary, as is apparent when he observes: “over the past decade [1968-1977] we have witnessed a radical break with that modernist tradition, effected precisely by a preoccupation with the ‘theatrical'” (Crimp 1984: 176). Crimp is obviously referring not only to minimal art but happenings, performance and environmental art as well as experimental film and seminal modes of video art. In other words what lies between the arts becomes that which replaces the now defunct defining categories of painting and sculpture.

Robert Morris, Box with the sound of its own making, 1961. Wooden box with tape loop playing inside.

Other works by Morris unhinge the traditional concept of sculpture. Take, for example, his Box with the Sound of its Own Making, 1961, (above) which consists of a wooden box containing a tape loop that plays precisely the sounds made during its construction. We have another instance of theatre and yet another medium: sound.

Robert Morris and Carolee Schneeman, Site, 1965. Performance.

Morris, in collaboration with Carolee Schneemann, amplified his deconstruction of sculpture even further in what might be termed a “sculptural performance”, Site in 1965. This performance consisted of a large white box on a stage accompanied with the sound of a jackhammer. Thomas Crow reports:

The artist entered in plain work-man’s clothing to face three standard sheets of plywood. Handling the unwieldy panels with impressive muscularity, he seized, turned, and shifted them to reveal the reclining figure of Carolee Schneemann, nude and covered in white makeup, exposed against a fourth panel in the exact pose and accessories of Olympia, Edouard Manet’s famous 1863 painting of a naked prostitute in the pose of a Renaissance Venus. Then the dance with the plywood sheets repeated itself until Schneemann’s figure was again hidden from view. Any trace of his expression was hidden by a mask molded (by Jasper Johns, no less) from Morris’s own face. (Crow 1996: 139)

In Site sculpture is conjoined not only with theatre but also dance in the vein of the modern dance groups with which Morris was associated. These groups rejected traditional dance in favour of a modern version consisting of everyday movements such as running (e.g. Yvonne Rainer’s We Shall Run first performed in 1963). Michael Archer notes that as late as 1969 Morris “was describing himself in exhibition catalogues as a dancer” (Archer 1997: 60). And it was Morris who declared that art was no longer bound by the categories of painting and sculpture but had evolved into a “complex and expanded field” (in Archer 1997: 60), a notion that Douglas Crimp’s colleague, Rosalind Krauss was to take up in in her essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1979).

Perhaps we should not think of Site in terms of “sculpture” despite the physical structures involved and its is relationship with Box with the Sound of its Own Making. But the boundaries are so thoroughly blurred, that we may as well call it sculpture. After all, at the turn of the millennium anything that hangs on the wall can be called a “painting”, what ever it is made of. Should we,therefore, take Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece performed in Kyoto in 1964 as an instance of “sculpture”?

Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (FIG. 88), performed in Kyoto, Japan, in 1964,

Ono’s Cut Piece was not only a performance it was also an instance of audience participation because members of the audience were invited to take a pair of scissors and cut away parts of Ono’s clothing.

Gilbert and George, Singing Sculpture, 1970.

We may say Cut Piece is not a sculpture because of the presence of the human body, but this is contradicted by Gilbert and George’s declaration in the late 1960s that they were “living sculptures”. Archer quotes them as stating “On leaving college and being without a penny, we were just there. … We put on metallic make-up and became sculptures. Two bronze sculptures. Now we are speaking sculptures. Our whole life is one big sculpture.” (Archer 1997: 103). And in 1970s they demonstrated this in their performance Singing Sculpture (above).

It is possible to adduce more reasons why Cut Piece might be classified as “sculpture”—if only to underscore the radical deconstruction of the category ” sculpture”. The other development that took place in the 1960s was a foregrounding of process, placing more emphasis upon the process than the product.

Richard Serra throwing molten lead in the Leo Castelli Warehouse, New York, 1969. Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni. Richard Serra, Splashing, 1968. Lead 18 x 26 in. Installed Castelli Warehouse, New York, 1968. Destroyed. Richard Serra, Casting, 1969. Lead 4? x 25 x 15?. Installed Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1969. Destroyed.

Richard Serra provides an excellent example of process in sculpture. The first image above shows him hurling molten lead at the wall of the Leo Castelli warehouse in New York in 1969, although the fact that he is not wearing fireproof clothing suggests that this is a posed shot. A typical result of Serra’s lead hurling “action sculpture” can be seen in the second image, and in the third image we see the accumulations of hurled lead being detached from the wall as sculptural products, in this case to be exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1969. What is interesting about this particular example is that although there is a product we also see an image of the performance, which is to say there was a deliberate effort to employ a photographer to record the event. And this is particularly important because the photographic records of ephemeral performance art effectively stand in as the work of art, at least in the limited edition photographic prints sold by galleries. The reproductions we find in books are merely information.

Beuys delivering a lecture on the spiritual healing power of art as part of his so-called “social sculpture”.

Although Serra is fundamentally a sculptor the notion of process played an important role in the deconstruction of the category “sculpture” especially because one step beyond considering the material process of making art is to consider the formation of ideas. At this point one steps into the abyss of conceptual art. We can think, for example, of the self-styled “shaman” Joseph Beuys giving lectures on the spiritual healingness of post-“painting and sculpture art” to amused or befuddled audiences, all in the name of what he referred to as “social sculpture”.


Archer, Michael. 1997. Art since 1960. London: Thames and Hudson.

Crow, Thomas. 1996. The art of the sixties. London: The Everyman Library, Calmann and King Ltd.

Crimp, Douglas. 1984. “Pictures”. In Art after modernism: rethinking representation, ed. Brian Wallis. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art; Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., pp. 175-188

Krauss, Rosalind. 1979. “Sculpture in the expanded field”. October no. 8, Spring, pp. 31-44.


  1. links from Technorati(primera mitad del siglo XX), de la renovación de los temas, motivos y procedimientos artísticos establecidos por el desarrollo del arte desde la admisión de lo moderno. Donald Judd, S/T, 1966 Foto:artintelligenceLo que distingue la aplicación de la categoría de lo nuevo en lo moderno es la radicalidad de su ruptura con todo lo que hasta entonces se considera vigente; se niega la tradición del arte en su totalidad. No se le oculta a Adorno que la novedad es

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  2. Great post, a nice brief survey of minimalism and sculpture through some wildly important years. The similarities between Duchamp and Gilbert and George get me, they were the Readymade sculptures of themselves. And while I don’t enjoy G & G’s work, I appreciate the value they have brought to the art arena.

    Comment by Chris Rusak — March 27, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

  3. Perhaps you could slip Judd’s “Untitled” into the more logical category of “Relief”?
    I feel there are just not enough categories. “Art”, “Sculpture” etc are pigeon holes so big they fit just about anything. This fuels great argument about what is Art or Sculpture. I have noticed Artists and Sculptors getting very heated about it in internet forums.

    Comment by Robert Mileham — March 28, 2008 @ 11:01 am

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  13. This is a brilliant basis to Minimalism and the like. I studying sculpture at ANU SChool of Art. seriously good reference from a site that everyone can handle.


    Comment by Heather — October 1, 2010 @ 6:13 am

  14. I recreated the Morris-box in Second Life. Have a look:

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