A sculptor's eye on mass production

MASS production is one of the great transforming influences of modern times, and artists, like the rest of us, have responded to its vast outpouring of identical objects in a variety of ways. Some 19th-century artists chose to emphasize their connectedness with ancient Greece and Rome, or with the Gothic style of the Middle Ages. Their studios were islands of refuge from the factory system, spots where everything was to be done by hand in something like the old way. Another approach was to use the power of machinery to serve a romantic imagination. The American artist Joseph Cornell could not experience the life of the European upper class. Nor could he draw or paint pictures of the world he daydreamed about.

But he could buy old ballet programs and hotel letterheads and books and maps, and so he could make an imaginary world out of machine-made objects and images. Cornell was able to turn away from the diminished world he lived in precisely because the mechanical printing press offered images of great richness at a cost within the reach of everyone.

For Picasso, among others, the trick was to keep the manufactured object but change its meaning. In one of his many assemblage sculptures he put a bicycle saddle and a pair of handlebars together to form a bull's head. The bicycle was a recent invention; the bull referred to primordial instincts. Picasso's joke depended on the bull's horns remaining recognizable as handlebars.

For such artists as the Constructivists in Europe and Russia and the Precisionists in America, the world needed more bicycles and fewer references to ancient myth. During the teens and '20s of this century it could be argued that people needed more of everything, and mass production seemed to promise a better life for the average person. Many artists took up simplified, mechanical forms for ideological reasons. They perceived handwork, and the suggestion of hand-work in art, as a reminder of social ineq uality; the rich could afford beautiful craftsmanship only because workers were so badly paid.

A more recent attitude is found in the sculpture by Robert Hudson pictured on this page. Educated after World War II, making his debut as an artist during the '60s, he could see America's vast industrial machine as a producer of junk as well as prosperity. Hudson is an inveterate scavenger, and his welded-steel sculpture is made of discarded pipes and other objects originally made for some useful purpose.

Hudson does not simply put together recognizable objects to elicit ready-made associations. He paints his found objects in ways that obscure or make light of their original forms, just as warships have been painted in dazzling patterns to make their outlines less recognizable.

Painting on steel allows Hudson to make industrial junk uniquely his own. The sculpture here is in many respects abstract painting in three dimensions. Hudson uses scrap metal almost as if it were blank paper or canvas, easily assimilated to his purposes because he can take it for granted.

His freedom to play with existing forms reflects an even-tempered acceptance of his environment, both natural and man-made. It is a tribute of sorts to post-industrial America that Robert Hudson seems equally at home in the forest, the museum, and the junkyard.

Twenty years of painting and sculpture by Robert Hudson are represented in a show organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it appeared in the summer before going on tour.

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