Sculpture Carves Its Own Niche

A Dallas businessman hopes his stunning collection will help bring 20th-century sculpture out from painting's shadow

The first thing you notice is the dazzling light. Inside the white coil of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where ramps spiral like a chambered nautilus, the central skylight is usually blocked to protect delicate paintings.

But with "A Century of Sculpture: The Nasher Collection," the current exhibition, "I had them open the skylights and let the natural light shine in," says Raymond Nasher. The Dallas businessman (who formed the collection with his late wife, Patsy) wishes to expose as brightly as possible the glories of 20th-century sculpture.

The goal: to change modern sculpture's status as painting's misunderstood stepsister and let the light of appreciation glow.

The show displays 105 sculptures from the past 125 years. With examples of all the major movements, it serves as a virtual survey of modern sculpture, from Rodin to the present. By touring the exhibit, even those who don't "get" why metal plates on the floor constitute sculpture can understand the century's constantly evolving developments.

"The body always expresses the spirit for which it is the shell," according to Rodin, whose late 19th-century sculpture made a decisive break with the classical tradition. Rodin's "Monument to Balzac" portrays the great writer as a volcano of creativity. The bronze statue leans back as if about to erupt. Its tilt demonstrates how form expresses spirit rather than actual appearance.

The great masters of Modernism are represented by Picasso, Brancusi, and Matisse. Picasso's cubist "Head (Fernande)" recalls an important turning point in art history. Cubism expresses the 20th century's loss of certainty. "Head" shows the slice-and-dice tendency to fragment mass into many discontinuous facets. Cheeks become intersecting planes rather than coherent forms.

Unusual among the carved or cast Figurative works is Medardo Rosso's fragile "The Golden Age," consisting of wax over plaster. The dual bust portrays a mother kissing her child in a composition of total togetherness. The two heads melt into a silky, reflective ball of light to express the essence of maternal love.

Brancusi's "The Kiss" brings sculpture into the realm of semiabstraction. The lovers merge into a block, out of which emerge arms and rudimentary features. Lips and eyes literally fuse in an image of unity. Inspired by primitive woodcarvings, Brancusi abstracted subjects to their essential nature.

Matisse"s "Large Seated Nude" is like a three-dimensional odalisque. She leans into space in an unstable pose that, nevertheless, conveys indolence and ease. The elongated body is reduced to basic shapes, like Matisse's arabesque line in his paintings.

Raymond Duchamp-Villon's "Large Horse" represents Futurism's love of technology and speed. The horse is all curves and planes, as if twisted into a corkscrew of contained energy.

Constructivism is represented by Naum Gabo's "Linear Construction in Space #1," a work of plexiglass and transparent nylon filaments. Infatuated with the Machine Age, Gabo desired to "use space as a new and absolutely sculptural element." He equated new materials with the new era after the Russian Revolution and open forms with utopian possibilities.

Henry Moore pioneered the constructive use of negative space, combining volumes and voids in a flow of inner/outer harmony. Before the 20th century, sculpture dealt with mass. An innovation of modern sculpture was to treat solids and holes as equivalent entities. In Moore's "Three Piece No. 3: Vertebrae," knobs and hollows interlock rhythmically like the ins and outs of brass knuckles.

The postwar sculptor who most fully exploited the materiality of space was Alberto Giacometti. "Bust of Diego" shows how texture conveys psychological reality. Its ravaged surface seems not so much modeled as eroded by anxiety. Giacometti's sliver-thin figures are almost worn away to nothingness.

The fanciful dream forms of Surrealism appear in sculptures by Joan Mir and Max Ernst. Mir's "Moonbird" defies logic, with its playful horns and dopey wings.

Taking the abstracting tendency of Brancusi to its ultimate are sculptors like David Smith, Barbara Hepworth, and Martin Puryear. Postwar sculptors jettisoned depiction of the body, making abstract form express emotion. Smith's welded constructions paralleled Abstract Expressionist painting, as he "drew" in space with wire and sheet metal.

One of the most successful pieces in the exhibition is one of the most abstractly evocative. Puryear's "Night and Day" consists of a wooden arc painted half white and half black. The white side of the semicircle rests on the ground, solid and stable, while the black half dangles in the air, suggesting a lynching. The lack of balance in this simplest of forms raises a host of questions about race relations. White and black share the same curve, the African-American sculptor implies, but there is no equilibrium.

Reacting against the ouster of recognizable imagery, Pop Art doted on humble objects of consumer culture. Claes Oldenburg's seven-foot-tall "Typewriter Eraser" exaggerates scale to make us see daily life anew. Each curved bristle is a steel rod the size of a garden hose.

In contrast to the irony of Pop and the agony of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism flaunts the austerity of solid geometry. Using modular industrial units, artists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre aimed, as Sol LeWitt said, "to engage the mind rather than the eye or emotions."

To illustrate that simple shapes can convey complex experiences, Mr. Nasher urges visitors to peer inside Judd's untitled piece, which looks like a shelf mounted on the wall. Belying its blank exterior, inside the hollow rectangle a prism of colored bands appears.

Nasher encourages viewers to walk on Andre's 36 flat squares lying on the floor like a chessboard. The collector makes the point that sculpture requires interaction: It came down from the pedestal "to become part of our lives."

Sculpture also comments on human life in Magdalena Abakanowicz's "Bronze Crowd." Created by the Polish artist soon after the overthrow of communism, the 36 headless figures allude to the blind submission required by repressive regimes. Yet the figures' backs are concave shells, or nests hiding secret life.

Spanish painter Salvador Dal said, "The least one can expect of sculpture is that it stand still." Alexander Calder's dancing mobiles rocked that expectation. The story of 20th-century sculpture is of constant reinvention. In their quest to surprise, sculptors never stand still.

* 'A Century of Sculpture: The Nasher Collection' remains at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through June 1. The exhibit marks the premiere of the Nasher collection.

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