Inspired Advice on Looking at Sculpture

BOOKS: REVIEW

HOW TO LOOK AT SCULPTURE, by David Finn. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 144 pp. $12.95. FEW ``How To'' art books are worth recommending. Most are simplistic or patronizing, were written by individuals with only a superficial understanding of the art or craft involved, or deal exclusively with technical matters.

A most welcome exception is David Finn's ``How to Look at Sculpture,'' a recently published, 144-page, beautifully illustrated paperback introduction to the joys of sculpture.

In it, photographer/sculptor Finn discusses the differences between sculpture and other art forms, points out how best to respond to works in the round, and analyzes a number of the world's finest sculptures from the days of ancient Egypt to the present.

In addition, he examines the issues of artistic greatness, pinpoints many of the major differences between modernist and traditional sculpture, and offers a running commentary on what to look for in both familiar and unfamiliar works.

Best of all, he illuminates his text with 116 of his own sharply defined, revealing color and black-and-white photographs. Some show the works in their entirety; others zoom in on a detail or a particularly fascinating surface area, and others still examine such well-known sculptures as Michelangelo's ``Awakening Slave'' and Henry Moore's ``Two-Piece Reclining Figure: Points'' from totally unexpected angles.

Finn's writing style is simple and direct, his approach informal. For example, he writes: ``A sculpture exists in space like a human being, or like a mountain, tree, or cloud, and it needs to be approached as a terrain that must be explored in order to be fully appreciated.''

Or: ``Essential to the appreciation of sculpture is light. Whether the light is coming from the left or right, the top or the bottom makes a crucial difference in the appearance of the forms. Soft light helps you appreciate subtle undulations; strong, direct light accentuates dramatic details.''

Throughout this remarkable little book, Finn's attitude toward sculpture is that of a lover toward the object of his devotion. One senses, in both his prose and his photography, a profound, lifelong quest to see, touch, and absorb everything the significant sculptors of the past and present experienced and embodied in their work. He may have his favorites and be fully aware of qualitative differences, but he makes no judgments on the basis of style or technical approach.

Michelangelo's marbles may cause his heart to leap as the work of no other sculptor can, but he also writes clearly and movingly about the art of Bernini, Donatello, Claus Sluter, Canova, Rodin, Marini, Moore, Brancusi, Calder, Noguchi, and numerous others.

Only a passionate lover of the art could have written, as he did in the following passage, of the experience of touching several of Michelangelo's late sculptures he was photographing:

``Suddenly, an idea came into my head: perhaps I could touch them and feel with my fingertips the breathtaking texture of the stone, the sweeping forms flowing up and in and around, the ridges and bumps and smoothed out parts that made up the surfaces of the sculpture. ... So I did, with indescribable rapture. I thought that no other sculptor could have created what I felt in those miraculous stones. There must have been a heavenly spirit in Michelangelo's fingers as they guided his tools, and I felt that spirit now transmitted like electric impulses through my fingers into my heart. I ran my hand again and again over those surfaces I could reach. It took only moments, but it was a timeless experience.''

``How to Look at Sculpture'' is studded with numerous other accounts of direct experiences with three-dimensional works of art.

Finn's primary focus, in fact, is on the immediacy, the intimacy of the encounter between art lover and sculptural object. ``Get involved,'' he keeps telling his readers in so many words. ``Engage the work as completely, as lovingly as you can. Study, touch, walk around, and identify with it - and, if possible, try to sense the artist and his intentions and sensibilities behind the carving or cast. Do that, and then, and only then, will you be able to look at sculpture and begin to see it as it really is.''

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