Monday, 21 March 2016

Moore and Minimalism

Giacometti and Moore were the sculptors Sylvester was most closely associated with. Both were primarily sculptors of the human body. The way Sylvester experienced their figurative work was inevitably affected by recognition of the human form- for example, they way that his posture stiffened involuntarily in the presence of a Giacometti sculpture.

His experience of abstract sculpture was often predicated on the way its physical form affected him in a similar way. For instance, in his 1967 interview with Robert Morris, Sylvester began:

'I have found with almost all the pieces that the kinds of feelings and muscular sensations that I have in front of them are the sorts that one has in looking at humanist sculpture and painting of the figure- that is to say, a very pronounced sense of one's own body and feelings about extensions of once's own body, the scale of it, all kinds of sensations of this sort referring back to one's body, such as one feels and is meant to feel in front of, say, a Michelangelo'.
(he later compares these sensations specifically to the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia)

Equally, in an essay on Richard Serra's Weight and Measure installation at the Tate Gallery in 1992, Sylvester compares encountering one of the two steel blocks with 'dancing with an unfamiliar partner who isn't ridiculously taller or shorter than yourself', before adding:

'I imagine that the short and the tall cannot respond to this work as others do: this applies to a lot of minimal art, the impact of which is so often bound up with its height in relation to ours'.

Or again in his 1999 interview with Rachel Whiteread:

DS: Do you have problems deciding the size of the works? Of course, if you are doing a bath, a mattress, or a house, it's given.
RW: Exactly. I don't think I have ever made anything that hasn't been related to my own physicality, my scale.
(Whiteread continues to talk about the 'human scale' in her Water Tower in New York).

I was just wondering how this related to Sylvester's writing on Moore, for instance, and it occurred to me that this sensitivity to scale was what he found lacking in many of Moore's larger works. This is from a 1996 text on de Kooning:

'When Henry Moore, reacting very positively to de Kooning's first sculptures- the thirteen hand-sized pieces that the artist made in 1969- suggested that some of the m could be enlarged to a monumental size, the advice was of course flattering. But it might have given de Kooning pause, because Moore's enlargements of his own work were notorious for the fallibility of his judgment as to how big they could afford to be. He often went too far, so that the result looks overblown; there is a certain tendency for his maquettes, made with his own hands as he worked alone in a small studio, to be more alive, more poetic, more compelling, than the big sculptures that came out of them.'

Sylvester was far from unusual in his belief that bigger wasn't always better in Moore's work, but whereas many objected to him relying upon big public commissions, particularly from the US, or selling his sculptures in various sizes, this wasn't Sylvester's objection. Indeed in his 1968 monograph on Moore, he gives Locking Piece as an example of 'one of the few images Moore has realized in both medium-size and large versions which works about equally well as both'. The issue was how far Moore had drifted from his 1937 statement that 'there is a right physical size for every idea'. In the 1960s, by which time Moore had completed some of his best-known public works, Minimalist artists such as Morris retained the sensitivity to scale which he thought Moore had lost. Not only did Sylvester interview Morris at the same time that he was organising Moore's 1968 Tate exhibition, he was already planning for the Morris exhibition which was to take place at the Tate in 1971 (although Sylvester ended feeling that his plans for an elegant retrospective of Morris' Minimalist works had been sabotaged by the participatory installation that Morris favoured.

What I like about Sylvester's writing on Moore, which can be followed from the early 1940s up to the 1990s, is how most of Sylvester's changing interests can be glimpsed in it somewhere. The 1968 catalogue is the best example of this- apart from the artists mentioned in the text, it seems clear to me that the text shows Sylvester thinking about Moore in relation to Minimalism, Oldenburg (in the 'Hard and Soft' section) and others.


  1. Hi James, I thought this interesting. However I'm not convinced that Whiteread is more sensitive to scale than Moore. When she says she hasn't made anything which didn't relate to her own sense of scale, or own physicality, this seems to me to imply a lack of sensitivity to scale. Her sculptures come with their own built-in sense of scale, one which has been pre-formed by the objects she chooses. Pretty much everyone in a society filled with chairs, rooms, mattresses is to some extent sensitive to their particular scale - in the sense of being unthinkingly aware of, and able to judge even small deviations from generally created norm. For Moore - and not just because of his idea about the rightness of size for any given idea, but for the more direct reason he has to create things that are not at a literal and familiar size - sensitivity to scale is an issue that it just isn't for Whiteread.

    And come to think of it 'sensitivity to scale' is quite a odd expression isn't it? Without extended explanation such as Sylvester gives is it any more meaningful than, say, 'rightness of form'? Does it just mean 'the right overall size' or, when it goes out of wack, 'the wrong overall size'? When I'm looking at a work of art, scale seems to me to a much more internal thing - i.e. the ability for the work to connect larger to smaller structures, or to hold larger against smaller. Which leads me to wonder whether it is best judged in relation to our bodies overall size? Although Minimalism does't give you very much else to think about, this seems unhelpful for considering Moore. Don't we have lots of different senses of scale (which Whiteread's sculptures short-cut to)? Perhaps imagine dancing with someone who was the right height, but who had hands hugely out of proportion to your own!?

    Fried on Caro's table-pieces - and on the means Caro employs to make them not seem like moquettes - might be interesting in this context.... Not that I'm just about to rush off and re-read him!

    1. Hi Sam, Thanks for commenting on these very rough speculations. Looking again I seem to be conflating two quite different things, Moore's 30s idea of there being a right physical size for every idea, and the maker's physical size being present in the work in some way. My reason for doing that was seemingly that Moore was an artist who did make these small maquettes whose sizes were governed by the amount of clay he could easily manipulate in his hands, or whatever, and that for Sylvester the viewer experienced a kind of empathy in looking at them that he didn't necessarily when the work was blown up to a much larger size. I see your point about scale for Moore being an issue it isn't for Whiteread (insofar as the quotation about physicality characterizes her work- it was a long time ago that she said that). But I still think Sylvester is right to wonder about how concerned about scale Moore was, which no doubt has a lot to do with context.
      'Sensitivity to scale' is an odd expression, but to be clearer I suppose you could put the question as: once you've made something in one size, why make it in another? Apart from financial gains etc, the answer is presumably that you think the work will do something different if you make it larger or smaller. And in a sense of course it will, but then does that difference merit the remaking of the work? This is why I love that Sylvester passage on Locking Piece, which I'll quote here at greater length:
      'The version 42 inches high relates itself to human scale as something to be manipulated: one feels one's arm muscles straining as if one were twisting it round to unlock the pieces. The version nearly 10 feet high gives an impression of impregnable density and overwhelming weight, also provokes the sort of wonder engendered by the walls of a fortress that it seems both a part of nature and man-made'.
      So I don't think, and I don't think Sylvester thinks, there's necessarily one correct size but that, if you work in the way Moore does, is there any sense about what the work does in different sizes to stop you just offering each one in a small, medium or large. And I don't think Sylvester is always using his body as the measure. Rather that in the case of Moore, the way that you can imaginatively explore the interior spaces of his works, for instance, varies a lot depending on the size of the work.
      As for Fried on Caro and how he devises way to stop his pieces seeming like maquettes, the more interesting question in this context would be: could Caro have made works of that size *without* using precautionary devices (handles etc), and still not have ended up with works that looked like maquettes? Ie could he have used the same vocabulary and structure as in the large works but communicated something different, as in the Locking Piece quote? In that sense it's the opposite problem to Moore.