(Return to Part 7)
Constantin Brâncuşi, Bird In Space (1923); Robert Morris, Greene Gallery installation (1964)
More often than not, when I tell people the kinds of materials I use now, there is an uncomfortable moment when I have to choose to race ahead and explain myself more fully or allow the conversation to awkwardly drift to another subject. In most people's minds bronze is the gold standard of sculpture; venerable, stable, trusted. It conjures an aura, not of originality or authenticity, but of authority. By uttering bronze, I was associating my work in their minds with images of kings on horseback, portrait busts of Burghers and Birds in Space. Thousands of years of men with beards in one syllable. Even coming from a destitute 22 year old living without running water at the end of a dirt road, it was clear people believe you mean business if you call out bronze as a medium; which is why I gave it casting it.
At first glance the arts might seem to have been in a situation like religion's. Having been denied by the Enlightenment all tasks they could take seriously, they looked as though they were going to be assimilated to entertainment pure and simple, and entertainment itself looked as though it were going to be assimilated, like religion, to therapy. The arts could save themselves from this leveling down only by demonstrating that the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from any other kind of activity... Kantian self-criticism, as it now turns out, has found its fullest expression in science rather than in philosophy, and when it began to be applied in art, the latter was brought closer in real spirit to scientific method than ever before... Scientific method alone asks, or might ask, that a situation be resolved in exactly the same terms as that in which it is presented.
Had Greenberg been more consistent a proponent of purism in sculpture as he was in painting, he would have made a point of following a tendency in the history of modern sculpture towards the ‘essential conventions’ of the medium equivalent but opposite to that which he deemed prevalent in painting. He would then have closely watched the reduction of the sculptural practice to questions of matter, tactility, mass, and weight, which are ‘essential’ to sculpture as flatness is to painting. Had he done so, even skeptical as he was with regard to the kind of minimal art that had its origins in monochrome painting, it is probable that he would none the less enthusiastically have endorsed the art of Carle Andre or of Richard Serra. But he hasn’t.
Leaving singular aesthetic judgment aside, the reason [Greenberg was not a consistent proponent of purism in sculpture] is probably that Greenberg has always been convinced that sculpture never had to fear its proximity painting in the way painting had, for its own survival, ‘to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture.’ If sculpture had anything to fear, it would more likely have been its excessive proximity to architecture; that is why, according to him, the tradition of the monolith was driven to its ultimate conclusion by Brancussi after whom the best modernist sculpture (David Smith and Anthony Caro included), far from fencing off the pictorial, incorporated openness of form, textural effects, color, and, more generally the opticallity that characterized modernist painting.