The sculptor as herdsman

SCULPTURE doesn't just sit around filling up space. It energizes and defines it, carves it up and redistributes it, and transforms it into something dynamic and almost tangibly real. Not every piece of sculpture, however, utilizes or affects the area around it in the same way. The differences, in fact, are striking, and range from the massive manner in which the Egyptian sphinx dominates its space to the restless, purely linear manner in which a Calder mobile continually redefines both its formal identity and the space it occupies as it moves around and around, in and out, at the instigation of a breeze or a finger's gentle push.

And then there are the exceptional three-dimensional pieces, Michelangelo's ``David,'' for instance, or Brancusi's ``Bird in Space,'' that are so holistically conceived and artfully crafted that they electrify the spaces around them and make the works themselves more crisply alive than inanimate objects have any right to be.

The list of such interrelationships is long and impressive. They run the gamut from sculptural forms that invade space by thrusting themselves into or against it (Ernst Barlach's ``The Avenger''); that lovingly enfold it (Henry Moore's 1934 ``Two Forms''); or that compartmentalize it (Sol LeWitt's ``Open Modular Cube''); to those that agitate it (Jean Tinguely's motorized kinetic sculptures); or charge it with psychological overtones (Alberto Giacometti's ``City Square'').

Twentieth-century artists, in particular, have paid an enormous amount of attention to the many subtle and dramatic ways in which sculptural objects and space can be made to interact. Major movements, from Constructivism to Minimalism, have made that one of their primary concerns, and quite a number of sculptors have achieved fame and fortune by pushing their investigations in hitherto unexplored directions.

Richard Lippold, for instance, found a way to intermesh object and space by fashioning fragile, shimmering geometric forms out of thousands of gold and silver wires. Dan Flavin, on the other hand, created an entirely new sculptural environment with the help of colored lights and neon tubing. And Christo, as almost everyone knows, produces his highly regarded works by wrapping everything from buildings and bridges to tiny islands in one or another form of plastic fabric.

Probably the most revolutionary and open-ended method is the one best represented by James Turrell and Robert Irwin. Both utilize a carefully orchestrated interplay of light, space, and form to create highly charged visual environments that challenge the viewer's habitual way of looking at and responding to art. The hoped-for result is a heightened level of awareness, as well as a deeper understanding of the nature and implications of the creative act.

Less dramatic but no less effective is an approach that has won increasing favor over the past two decades. It calls for a number of separate but identical items to be placed together in a prescribed fashion and within a defined area. These can be stationary, such as large metal rods or carved boulders set into the earth. Or they can be mobile and consist of small, handcrafted pieces easily moved about on a floor or table. But whatever form they take, they must all be alike, occupy their space as a close-knit group, and make their point collectively rather than individually.

The result can be deeply moving, as in Magdalena Abakanowicz's ``Backs,'' an installation of 80 life-size, hollowed torsos - each headless, armless, and legless - made of burlap stiffened with glue. Individually, each figure is mildly interesting. Collectively, they produce a haunting, otherworldly effect, due at least partly to the fact that they appear to be deep in prayer or meditation.

The result can also be purely formal or conceptual, as is the case with Walter De Maria's ``Lightning Field,'' which occupies part of a valley floor 200 miles southwest of Albuquerque, N.M. It consists of 400 stainless steel poles, each sharpened to a needlepoint and set in the ground along a precisely measured grid exactly one mile long. Described this way, ``Lightning Field'' may sound dull, but it isn't, for every one of these poles is a potential lightning rod, and the electrical effects during a storm can be quite spectacular.

Increasingly, however, this method is applied to work that is colorful and lighthearted. Leslie Bohnenkamp's charming groupings consisting of small paper sculptures standing anywhere from an inch to a little more than a foot in height are good examples. They are designed to balance on the floor and to resemble living creatures, designated by the artist as ``herds.'' A roomful of these sculptures, each group painted a different color and looking expectantly toward something unseen, might not be exactly what a traditionalist would describe as art, but from a modernist point of view, they most certainly are.

Unlike Bohnenkamp's earlier, individual pieces, which were more than 6 feet tall and made of fabric, these little figures are constructed of paper and are then painted with watercolor. That they are so small and fragile gives them an air of vulnerability that adds immeasurably to their charm. Few art lovers can resist them, and even art critics and curators have been known to smile at the sight of them.

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