Abstract Sculpture
Origins, History, Types of Concrete Non-Objective Art.

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Abstract Sculpture (c.1900-2000)


Cubism: Revolution in the Early 20th Century
Futurism: Its Influence on Kinetic Art
Dada Abstract Sculpture
De Stijl
Avant-Garde Abstract Artist Groups (1930s)
Organic Abstraction
Neo-Dada: Assemblages & Self-Destructing
Abstract Metal Sculpture


Abstract Sculptors (1900-2000)
Abstract Art Movements
Abstract Painting
Best Sculptors (500 BCE - present)
History of Sculpture


Locking Piece (1963-4) London.
By English sculptor Henry Moore.

Sun Feast (1969) Private Collection
by British modernist Anthony Caro.

The Dachau Memorial (1968)
A chilling work of Holocaust art
sculpted by Nandor Glid.

For two essays on sculpture
appreciation, please see:
How to Appreciate Sculpture
3-D art from Stone Age to 1850.
How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture
19th/20th century sculptors.

Basso, Alto, Relievo works,
see: Relief Sculpture.
For freestanding works,
see: Statue.
For terminology,
see: Plastic Art.

For a list of the world's top 100
3-D artworks, by the best sculptors
in the history of art, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

For different types of 3-D
carving, see:
Stone Sculpture
Granite, limestone, sandstone
and other rock-types.
Marble Sculpture
Pentelic, Carrara, Parian marbles.
Bronze Sculpture
Lost-wax casting method,
sandcasting, centrifugal casting.
Wood Carving
Chip carving, relief carving of
softwoods and hardwoods.

Introduction: 19th Century Sculpture: Figurative and Functional

Nineteenth century sculpture was figurative and functional, and was dominated by the growing materialism of societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Probably the lion's share of all sculptural commissions was directed towards the commemoration of important figures (eg. The Albert Memorial in London), events (eg. emigration to America, The Statue of Liberty) or places (eg. Washington, the US Capitol building; Paris, the Arc de Triomphe). Ironically, however, the growing functionality of art - most visible in the skyscraper architecture of late 19th century America, which required no internal or external sculptural decoration - may have helped to pave the way for the introduction of abstraction. But before this could happen, the stranglehold which traditional academic art maintained on the theory and practice of painting and sculpture, needed to be broken. Picasso and Braque duly obliged.

Cubism: Revolution in the Early 20th Century

The invention of Cubism (fl.1908-14) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) rocked the art world to its foundations. Here was a form of abstract art which (in its painting) rejected linear perspective and focused entirely on the picture plane. Despite the new semi-abstraction introduced in The Kiss (1907, Muzeul de Arta Craiova) by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1956), and in Crouching Figure (1907, Museum of Modern Art, Vienna) by Andre Derain (1880-1954), nothing had ever been seen like Cubism, before. Although painters were the first to apply Cubist principles, sculptors weren't far behind. Works became more geometric; perspective became flattened and more fragmented. Soon, a whole new series of 3-D works began to emerge. Examples include: Woman Walking (1912, Private Collection) by Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964); The Rock Drill (1913-14, MoMA, NY) by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959); The Large Horse (1914, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) by Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918); Man With Guitar (1915, MoMA, NY) by Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973); Fruit Dish with Grapes (1918) by Henri Laurens (1885-1954); Head of a Woman (1917-20, MoMA, NY) by Naum Gabo (1890-1977); and Torso (1924-6, MoMA, NY) by Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962).

Cubism was too radical to become part of the creative mainstream. Even so, up to 1920 it dominated the avant-garde artistic community where non-representational art gained a firm foothold.

Futurism: Its Influence on Kinetic Art

Italian Futurism (fl.1909-14) was not unaffected by the Cubist revolution (especially in its painting), but its overall focus was different. It aimed to highlight the dynamism, technology and speed of the modern world. The pre-war sculptural masterpiece of the movement was undoubtedly Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913; casts in MoMA NY, Tate London and elsewhere) by Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916). However, the movement's greatest effect was on the development of Kinetic art, so Futurist sculpture embraces works like: Bird in Space (1925-31, Kunsthaus, Zurich) by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957); Rotative Plaques (1920, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven) by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968); Kinetic Construction (1919-20, Tate Collection, London) by Naum Gabo (1890-1977); Aluminium Leaves, Red Post (1941, Lipman Family Foundation) and Arc of Petals (1941, Guggenheim Museum, NY), both by Alexander Calder (1898-1976) the inventor of mobiles; Relief Mobile 5 (1954, Musee d'Art Moderne, Saint-Etienne) by Pol Bury (1922-2005); and Signal: Insect Animal of Space (1956, Tate Collection, London) by Takis (Panayiotis Vassilakis) (b.1925).

Dada Abstract Sculpture

The Dada movement (1916-24) was too anti-art to exert widespread influence. Even so, it did have a significant impact on the type of material from which art could be made. Whereas previously, most sculpture had been carved or cast from wood, stone, clay or bronze, Dada promoted the use of non-traditional materials, including various types of metal, cardboard, rubber, wire, textiles, concrete, glass and general refuse. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of Dadaist sculpture is the "Merzbau" construction by Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948). In addition, the avant-garde "ready-mades" created by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) - such as Bicycle Wheel (1913, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris), Bottle Rack (1914, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) and Fountain (1917, copy in Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) - were also quintessential Dadaism, in that they undermined the conventions of academic art.

Constructivist Abstract Sculpture

Abstract sculpture before, during and after the First World War continued to be heavily influenced by avant-garde developments in Paris, but also in pre-revolutionary Russia, where artistic and political fervour fused in modernist schools like Rayonism, Suprematism and Constructivism. The latter - the only one of the three to involve 3-D art - urged sculptors to construct (not carve, model or cast) structures out of industrial materials (metal, glass, plastic). The style is exemplified in works such as: Construction No.557 (1919) by Konstantin Medunetsky (1899-1935); Tower of Fire (1919-20) by Johannes Itten (1888-1967); Monument to the Third International (1920, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) by Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953); and Spatial Construction No.12c (1920, MoMA, NY) by Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956). Brancusi's The Endless Column (1938, Targu Jiu, Romania) might also be included in the category of Constructivist sculpture.

De Stijl Abstract Sculpture

During the 1920s in Holland, geometric abstraction reached its zenith in the De Stijl movement (1917-31), which initially promoted Neo-Plasticism - invented by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) - and Elementarism - founded by Theo Van Doesburg (1883-1931), the man who also coined the term concrete art. De Stijl enjoyed a relatively strong following in architecture, painting and among modern designers such as those at the Bauhaus Design School, but not among sculptors. Meantime Paris remained the undisputed centre of abstract art, not least because it attracted refugees from the totalitarian states Russia and Germany, where abstraction was banned as bourgeois or degenerate, respectively. Two important groups for abstract artists, which sprang up in Paris during this period were Cercle et Carre and Abstraction-Creation.

Avant-Garde Abstract Artist Groups (1930s)

Cercle et Carre (1929-31)

Cercle et Carre (circle and square) was an exhibition group (and journal) for both abstract sculptors and painters, formed in Paris in 1929 by the critic Michel Seuphor (1901-99) and the painter Joaquin Torres-Garcia (1874-1949). Its main focus was geometrical abstraction but it remained open to all types of non-representational work - a weakness which prompted Theo Van Doesburg (1883-1931), the high priest of geometric or non-objective art, to launch his own review called Art Concret, in 1930. Cercle et Carre held only one exhibition, which took place at Galerie 23 in April 1930, but it was the first ever art show devoted exclusively to abstract art. Over forty artists participated, including Kandinsky (1866-1944), Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965), Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), and others.

Abstraction-Creation (1931-36)

Cercle et Carre lasted less than two years. It was superceded in February 1931 by a new association known as Abstraction-Creation, which was devoted solely to non-objective (geometric) art. Founder members included the Belgian sculptor and painter Georges Vantongerloo, and the French painters Jean Helion (1904-87) and Auguste Herbin (1882-1960). Later members featured the cream of European abstract sculptors, such as Jean Arp (1886-1966), Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962) and his brother Naum Gabo (1890-1977), El Lissitzky (1890-1941), Alexander Calder (1898-1976, Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). Abstraction-Creation held a number of group exhibitions, and published an illustrated journal once a year (1932-6) called Abstraction-Creation: Non-Figurative Art. An example of Abstraction-Creation sculpture is Endless Ribbon (1935) by Max Bill (1908-94), the Swiss ex-Bauhaus sculptor. This work exemplifies the Mobius concept of a surface which becomes a spatial structure by being twisted 180 degrees around its lengthwise axis. This results in the mathematical paradox of a strip which has only a single surface and edge but takes the form of a continuous loop. Although supposedly restricted to geometric abstraction, many of Abstraction-Creation's members moved on to non-geometric art forms, such as organic abstraction and kinetic art.

Unit One (1933-5)

Another association of abstract artists was formed in Britain in 1933, under the name Unit One. Members included the leaders of modern British sculpture, namely Moore and Hepworth, as well as the painter Paul Nash (1889-1946). In April 1934 the association published a book called Unit One: The Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, timed to coincide with their one and only group exhibition at the Mayor Gallery, London: the show later toured to Belfast, Swansea, Liverpool and Manchester. Despite the book and the exhibition, the group had no manifesto or program, in fact it embraced both abstraction and Surrealism, two styles which were promoted at separate exhibitions in London, in 1936. As a result, it was always going to be a struggle to maintain a focused group identity, and Unit One duly dissolved in 1935. Nevertheless, it had a significant impact on British avant garde art of the mid-1930s, for which see also the St Ives School (c.1939-75).

Organic Abstraction and Surrealist Fantasy (1930-onwards)

Inspired by natural forms, biomorphic/organic abstraction in sculpture is exemplified in works such as: Human Concentration (1934, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) and Demeter (1961, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem), both by Jean Arp (1887-1966); Mother and Child (1934, Tate Collection, London) by Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975); Abstraction (1940, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe) by Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986); Crouching Woman (The Farewell) (1940-1) by Henri Laurens; and Two Forms (1966, Soraya marble, Staehein Private Collection, Zurich) by Henry Moore (1898-1986). One of the most powerful Surrealist sculptures is Woman with her Throat Cut (La Femme Egorgee, 1932, Private Collection) by Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). A metamorphic crustacean woman with her throat slit lies on the ground in a convulsion combining the act of love and the death throes. More whimsical Surrealism is represented by sculptures like Figure with Umbrella (1931) and Object (1936), both by Joan Miro (1893-1983); Moon Asparagus (1935) by Max Ernst (1891-76); and Eyes, Nose and Cheek (1939, Tate Collection, London) by FE McWilliam (1909-1992).

Post-War Abstract Sculpture (c.1945-65)

Despite the efforts of various abstract artists and groups, figurative art remained predominant during the inter-war years (1920-40). However, the impact of World War II on fine art was profound, not least because there were very few powerful images left in people's minds that were either non-violent, or at all meaningful following the Holocaust and the huge numbers of war dead. (See also Holocaust art 1933-45.) Photography and film footage had also started to captivate the public imagination, allowing less space for hand-made figurative pictures. As a result, abstraction suddenly took off, at least in painting. American abstract expressionism led the way, paralleled by Art Informel and Tachisme in Europe.

Neo-Dada Abstract Sculpture: Assemblages

In contrast, abstract sculpture followed a slightly different course. Rather than focusing on non-figurative subject matter, it concentrated on materials, hence the emergence of Assemblage Art - a form of three-dimensional visual art made from everyday objects, said to be 'found' by the artist (objets trouves). Popular in the 1950s and 1960s in America, assemblage effectively bridged the gap between collage and sculpture, while its use of non-art materials - a feature of Neo-Dada art - anticipated the use of mass-produced objects in Pop-Art. Assemblage sculpture is exemplified by the works of Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), such as Mirror Image 1 (1969, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), and by Jean Dubuffet (1901-85) and his Monument with Standing Beast (1960, James R. Thompson Center, Chicago). The idiom was considerably boosted by an important exhibition - "The Art of Assemblage" - at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, in 1961.

Other examples of the Neo-Dadaist-style "junk art" include Hudson River Landscape (1951, Whitney Museum of American Art) and Australia (1951, MoMA, NY), both by David Smith (1906-1965); Untitled (wood, metal pieces, nails) (1960, Museum of Modern Art NYC) by Jesus Rafael Soto (b.1923); and certain "combines" by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), such as First Landing Jump (made from: painting, cloth, metal, leather, electric fixture, cable, oil paint, board) (1961, MoMA, NY). Untitled (industrial felt) (1967, Kunsthalle, Hamburg) by Robert Morris (b.1931) is a further example of the use of unusual materials in sculpture, as is the minimalist Monument For Vladimir Tatlin (neon-lighting tubes) (1975, Musee National d'Art Moderne, George Pompidou Centre) by Dan Flavin (1933-96).

Dada also exalted nonsense-art, and what is more absurd than a sculpture that self-destructs? No doubt this was an important element in the philosophy behind the work of Jean Tinguely (1925-91), the unsurpassed master of self-destructing sculpture, whose masterpiece is generally reckoned to be Homage to New York (1960, Museum of Modern Art, New York).

An excellent example of abstract pop sculpture is the word art genre adopted by Robert Indiana (b.1928) in his series of LOVE sculptures.

Abstract Metal Sculpture (1960-onwards)

The 1960s also witnessed the beginning of a new broad tradition of metal sculpture, ranging from the portable to the monumental. Such works included: Sculpture For a Large Wall (1956-7, MoMA, NY) by Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923); Midday (1960, MoMA, NY) by Sir Anthony Caro (1924-2013); Die (1962, MoMA, NY) by Tony Smith (1912-1980); Broken Obelisk (1963-9, MoMA, NY) by Barnett Newman (1905-70); Storm Angel (1973-4, Square Chabas, Chalon-sur-Saone) by Mark Di Suvero (b.1933); and a number of works by Eduardo Chillida (1925-2002), culminating in his coastline sculpture Wind Comb (1977, Bay of San Sebastian, Spain).

Minimalist Sculpture

Minimalism, a reaction to the ever more complex variations of abstract expressionism, was a purist movement which extended across painting, sculpture, architecture and design. It sought its own artistic truth in a variety of ultra-simplified geometric-style structures, typically made from industrial materials. It remains one of the most obscure forms of contemporary art. Minimalist abstract sculptures include: Cage II (1965, MoMA, NY) by Walter de Maria (b.1935); Serial Project I (ABCD) (1966, MoMA, NY) by Sol LeWitt (1928-2007); Equivalent 1 (1966-9, Kunstmuseum, Basel) by Carl Andre (b.1935); and Untitled (Stack) (1967, MoMA, NY) by Donald Judd (1928-94). For so-called 'post-minimalist' sculpture, see works by Eva Hesse (1936-70).

Monumental Abstracts

Postmodernist art is obsessed with impact, and creating a piece of monumental sculpture is a good way to achieve it. The genre has been championed by several artists, including: Allen Jones (b.1937), see Dancers (1987, Cottons Atrium, London Bridge City, London); Richard Serra (b.1939), see The Matter of Time (2004, Guggenheim Bilbao); Jonathan Borofsky (b.1943), see Walking Man (1994-5, Paula Cooper Gallery, NY); and Anish Kapoor (b.1954), see Marsyas (2002, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London).

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