Contemporary art Fairs Books United Kingdom

Sculpture in all its dimensions

3-D works have trumped painting over the past half-century

Jake and Dinos Chapman Tragic Anatomies, 1996. © the artists; Courtesy of White Cube

Over the past 50 years, sculpture has experienced a golden age, more often than not putting painting in the shade (aesthetically and critically if not commercially). That statement sounds even better if we replace the term “sculpture” with the unappealing catch-all “three-dimensional work”, for then we can include installation art and the countless paintings that are reliefs, due to collage, impasto and/or a shaped support. It may be that, as society becomes ever more enslaved by the flat computer screen, 3-D art will have an even more exotic allure—and who knows what might be achieved with 3-D printing?

Anna Moszynska made her name with the 1990 book Abstract Art, in Thames & Hudson’s “World of Art” series. She has now written, for the same series, Sculpture Now, a very informative survey devoted to sculpture of the past 20 years. The book is sensibly organised, with seven thematic chapters, opening with “The Body” and “The Everyday” and ending with “Installation” and “Sitings”. Using expanded notions of sculpture derived from, among others, Joseph Beuys (who believed that even thought and sound were forms of sculpture, able to shape the world), Moszynska takes in “Light and Sound’’, “Nature and Ecology” and “Design and Handmade” along the way. Each chapter is written to a basic formula: after a brief contextual introduction, a single paragraph with an illustration (or half a paragraph with or without an illustration) is devoted to each of around 30 artists from around the world.

In her introduction, Moszynska attempts to periodise her chosen timespan (the mid-1990s onwards). It is one of “tumultuous ferment” due to developments in technology (the internet, mobile phones), politics (the rise of Islam) and economics (the enrichment of the Bric nations). Globalisation, feminism and the mapping of the human genome are mentioned, as well as a discovery that I am ashamed to say had completely passed me by: “New understandings of space… suggest there are 11 to 12 dimensions.” This is classic “timeline” history, where every great work of art mirrors or predicts the major events of the moment (Cubism and relativity; Pollock and atomic bombs).

Yet with her art historian’s hat on, Moszynska tells a less dramatic yet more convincing story. She discerns a much longer durée: “Much recent re-thinking of sculptural practice can be traced back to theoretical shifts… that took place during the 1960s.” Indeed, many of her quotations from recent critics and theorists are reheated ideas from that extraordinary decade—and from even earlier. Not so much Sculpture Now as now-ish.

Moszynska is probably right to begin with “The Body”, though she underplays the importance of the performance art of the 1960s and 1970s. Hyper-real sculpture made using life casts is one of the most striking genres of recent decades, and Moszynska regards Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Old Person’s Home, 2007, in which 13 wheelchair-bound “world leaders” collide with each other, as the most disturbing work. Life casts have also been instrumental in an explosion of self-portraiture by artists such as Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn.

The chapter “Design and Handmade” usefully draws attention to the often sceptical fascination of recent artists with design and craft objects, and with architecture. Architectural structures by Anselm Kiefer and Diana Al-Hadid are effectively ruins, while many others are follies or labyrinths. Moszynska might have pointed out that the influence works both ways, with asymmetrical “sculptural” architecture—by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and so on—being the most prestigious contemporary architectural type of all.

One disappointing aspect of the book is the brevity and even-handedness of the discussions of individual artists, which can make the writing a bit condensed, flat and list-like. For all the manifest faults of Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, 1964—Moszynska’s famous predecessor in the “World of Art” series—he did at least try to pick winners (among younger artists, Eduardo Paolozzi got the thumbs-up and four illustrations) and was opinionated about his likes and dislikes (“there is no Goya or Grünewald among these sculptors in metal”). Here, only one artist—the glorified fairground entertainer Anish Kapoor—is granted two illustrations: a concave stainless-steel mirror piece in a park, and Orbit, 2012, his roller-coaster-style tower for London’s Olympic Games. Still, in timeline fashion, he is as good a representative as any of our age of folly.

Sculpture Now, Anna Moszynska, Thames & Hudson, 232pp, £9.95 (pb)

The writer is an art critic and historian, and the author of The World as Sculpture (1999)

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