In Two Worlds: The Graphic Work of Modern Sculptors

Sculptors work in two worlds – the physical and the purely visual. The passage that they make between these two realms, through the medium of drawing and the other graphic arts, reveals much about the nature of their art. The sculptural imagination is often distinct and different from that of painters and graphic artists. The nature of sculpture is that it must respond to space, changing points of view, gravity, and material presence. Even though other arts share these elements, sculpture’s distinction is that it is actual. As American painter Ad Reinhart quipped, “a sculpture is something that one backs into while looking at a painting.” While two-dimensional art presents a window on an illusory world, sculpture stands in ours. The imagination required of both the maker of sculpture and viewer is directed toward experiencing the object as both material object and as metaphor, as thing and idea. Sculptors must straddle this platonic divide.


The relationship between sculpture and drawing is the relationship between two kinds of seeing, two kinds of imagination. That sculptors have always drawn in preparation for their work is to be expected. The richness and variety of the other ways in which sculptors have used graphic work, however, is surprising. What becomes clear in looking at the work in this exhibition is that the direction of the relationship is not one-way. Not only does drawing precede and direct the sculptural work that follows, but sculpture, just as often, becomes the inspiration for drawing. This exhibition of works by sculptors from Rodin to the present investigates the complex interaction of works in two and three dimensions. Some sculptors seek a solid, muscular density in their drawing to reflect their interest in materiality. And others find in drawing freedom from the constraints of physicality, gravity, and the opacity of form. This gives many sculptors’ drawings what the critic Colin Eisler called “a cursive, spaceless, calligraphic quality.” The choices that sculptors make in three dimensions are often very different than the ones they make in two. The graphic work of the artists in this show reveals the breadth of these differences.


The work in this exhibit divides itself into several categories. The first is pure drawing, done for its own sake – for love of close observation and description. There are several examples of this kind of drawing here including those by Auguste Rodin, Alberto Giacometti, and John Wilson. The directness of each of these examples and its independence from sculpture show off the artist’s urge to engage the visual world.


Another kind of observed drawing in the show are studies before or during making. This group encompasses both formal, highly developed work as well as more rapid, casual sketches. In both, the artist investigates the subject of a sculpture. Among these drawings are notebook pages, figure studies, and detailed looks at parts of the whole, but they all lead directly towards the three-dimensional piece. Examples include the work of Alexander Archipenko, John Crawford, Henry Moore, Seymour Lipton, David von Schlegel, and Dimitri Hadzi. A subset of this category includes a number of works that are plans before making. These are often highly detailed and exist for their value in envisioning finished works and in guiding the execution of complex technical procedures. As such, the works here by Richard Fleischner, Jackie Ferrara, Isamu Noguchi, and George Rickey often resemble architectural drawings and serve similar functions.


Another group of images falls under the heading of works after sculpture. These works include renderings of finished sculptures, the use of sculpture in other representations, and re-inventions of forms initiated in three dimensions. These works are often more polished than preliminary studies. Responding to one’s own work after the fact and seeing in new ways through graphic representation allows for developed thinking. Some examples of this type of work are Louise Nevelson’s seriograph, Tony Cragg’s etching, Robert Cumming’s color woodcut, and Naum Gabo’s series of monotypes. Prints by sculptors often reflect a financial necessity. Sculpture is expensive. Sculptors sell far few works that artists who work in two dimensions. Collectors often have room on a wall and not enough space for an object. In response, sculptors frequently choose to make graphic representations of their three dimensional work.


Finally a major category of sculptor’s drawings is one I will call sculptural fantasies. These are of particular interest because they show the artist working free from the preparation for individual works or projects in a world of his/her imagination. These works refer to the issues of sculpture—form, space, and material—but do not depend on their practical definitions. Here the sculptor acts with purely graphic intentions, parallel to the world of three dimensional but focused on the success of the work on its own terms. Of course, many sculptors have been painters and vice versa. One need only think of Picasso’s cubist paintings and the sculptural universe they evoke. The sculptural fantasies here include the work of David Smith, Kiki Smith, Louise Nevelson, Martin Puryear, Bryan Hunt, and others.


The sculptures in the exhibit have been chosen for their relationship to the graphic work of each artist even if the correspondence is not direct. Where we have the drawings for sculptures in the show (vonSchlegel, Fleischner, Nash, etc.) it is worth looking for both similarities and differences between them. Where the examples are more distant, it is interesting to see the individual expressing related ideas, variants, and settings.


Special thanks for the planning and preparation of this exhibit to Susan Danly, Curator of American Art at the Mead Museum. I would like to thank Martha A. Sandweiss, Director of the Mead, for her support of this project. We are also very grateful for generous loans from the Smith College Museum of Art, the University Art Gallery at the University of Massachusetts, and the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. Their staffs have made finding the work for this show a pleasure. Thanks especially to: Sol LeWitt for his own work and loans from his collection; George Rickey, John Crawford, and John Wilson for the loan of their work; Thomas Whitney for his generous loans and support; the Knoedler Gallery; the Isamu Noguchi Foundation Inc; the estate of David Smith; and the students of my Basic Sculpture Class who executed the LeWitt wall drawing and arranged the Nevelson sculpture.


Timothy J. Segar