Sculpture today: Somewhere between enclosure and expansion

What notions do we agree on today about the term “sculpture”? Painting is easily defined. Sculpture, on the other hand, does not refer, even etymologically, to a single category: to sculpt originally meant to notch, to carve in stone, but modelling, which is just as ancient a technique, is classified under the same rubric. Before the 20th century, sculpture was statuary, a monument or relief. After Rodin, it became nomadic, abstract; it introduced space within masses, it was constructed, it was assembled. In the late 1970s, Rosalind Krauss 1 accused American critics of historicism when they employed the word “sculpture” indiscriminately for practices such as walking, making corridors with video monitors or digging lines in the desert. She saw this as “manipulation” to reduce the strange incongruity of these approaches to a reassuring known quantity, and she proposed the concept of an “expanded field,” opening up all the interferences among space, site, marking, architecture and landscape. During these same years, the term “installation” began to appear in magazines to describe the layout of exhibitions and, soon, to define the artworks that used this spatial context. “Since then, the distinction between an installation of works and ‘installation art’ proper has become increasingly blurred.” 2

Sculpture; sculpture in the expanded field; installation: this terminology, which suggests continuity from a mass around which one walks to a spatial dispersion of readymade or fabricated elements, remains a convenient classification for critical information. But what does it say about the meaning of recent works that we tend to think of spontaneously as sculpture even though they do not reject certain principles of installation, such as those of Lara Almarcegui, Leonor Antunes, Katinka Bock, Thea Djordjaze, Tatiana Trouvé, Jeppe Hein, Guillaume Leblon, Mark Manders, Oscar Tuazon, Neïl Beloufa and many other less well-publicized artists? What is it that increases the renown of an artist of the preceding generation such as Manfred Pernice? If we agree with Krauss that the word “sculpture” refers not to a universal category but to a historical convention in which modes can change, we therefore have to take a second look at its variations since the 1960s and 1970s (years to which today’s sculpture deliberately refers).

The notion of the “expanded field” covered only some of the approaches of the 1960s and 1970s, which, even as they questioned industrialization, consumption, politics or the environment, were also presented as research on the definition of sculpture, often motivated by a desire to push its boundaries to the extreme. One of the clearest examples of this is Carl Andre’s plates on the ground, which he accompanied with his famous aphorism “sculpture as place” – that is, place as a third dimension of sculpture, after form and structure. Visually, his place-plates verge on the pictorial. But we cannot deny their other properties, so widely agreed on throughout the history of sculpture that they seem ontological. The plates, simply placed on the ground, are nevertheless volumes the viewer feels when walking on them. The viewer crosses a space determined by the plates, perceiving his or her weight on the slightly unstable squares, so that he or she can imagine their different densities. He or she feels their gravity. Because they are almost pictorial, the place-plates show these three physical properties all the more, through contrast. Because painting, like other surface arts – photography, video, writing – tends to make it so that the spectator obscures his or her body and earthly condition, as well as the physical nature of the space.

In any case, this search for definitions, leading to the “expanded field,” resulted in potentially everything being eligible to be called sculpture. The definition stayed as such until that of installation, which deliberately immerses the viewer, always addresses his or her physical presence,3 strongly highlights the spatial component and often uses readymades as volumes.

Since the 1960s and 1970s, sculpture’s transition to its expanded field or to installation thus is a matter of degree but also of the artists’ intended meaning, according to the historical, geographical or political context. In the 1980s, for example, there was a return to the single volume that the viewer walks around, and to traditional practices. While not taking a nostalgic approach, artists referred to the effectiveness of bronze or of carving and their capacity for renewal (Flanagan, Baselitz, Balkenhol). But on the whole, sculpture was limited to more compact forms, collectible although often imposing, proposing works made in series, objects offering prestige and a capacity for representation (Lavier, Steinbach, Koons). Sculpture displayed the rising power of the market, the Western world’s artificial aspect and manufactured comfort. Installations, insufficiently marketable because they were ephemeral, fragile or too dependent on their site, became rare. But after the momentary collapse of the market in the early 1990s, installation returned to prominence, with works emphasizing continuity with the viewer’s life. For instance, Angela Bulloch’s ottomans and lights pulsating like breathing, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s blankets on the ground and popcorn dispensers, Jorge Pardo and Joep Van Lieshout’s works questioning design and Dominique Gonzalès-Foerster’s “rooms” seem to propose a particular moment in the visitor’s life. Similarly, Liam Gillick’s ceiling, by all appearances, is a movable sculpture of coloured Plexiglas, in the concrete or minimalist tradition, but is accompanied by a scenario that transforms its phenomenological reception into a narrative interpretation of place and slips into the viewer’s mental flow. The captivating quality of Claude Lévêque’s “fins de fêtes” arises from their atmosphere of unity in diffused light that lets one’s attention vacillate but is very affective. The unity, however, is composed of diverse debris, tinsel and broken beer bottles.

The installations of the time thus offered both a global and fragmented vision of the world, and most sought to integrate and modulate the viewer’s presence. In Postmodernism, Jameson, with his notion of “total flow,” describes a fairly analogous phenomenon to characterize the effect of video and television, which in his view are emblematic of postmodern media – whereas cinema, a modern medium, established an interruption, extracting it from the flow of the present and returning it reflexively to images. Jameson completes his analysis with the poststructuralist notion of “text,” which he distinguishes from “artwork:” artistic productions are, he writes, “superimposed on each other by way of the various intertextualities, successions of fragments, or, yet again, sheer process,” whereas “the autonomous work of art thereby – along with the old autonomous subject or ego – seems to have vanished, to have been volatilized.” 4 Many installations of the 1990s were presented as temporary, highlighted zones within the total flow of an unstable subjectivity (its stability dismantled by the artificialization of the body, sexual indeterminacy and other factors), possibly accompanied by sounds encouraging perceptual hesitation. Even reduced to one element (is Cattelan’s work a sculpture or an installation?), these works refuse to close in on themselves and become monumental. They resonated with the behaviour developing through the Internet, dependent on the individual’s solitary relationship to the screen combined with the scrolling fragmentation of places, textualities and endlessly superimposed images. The installation was the new perception of a world both intensely unified and breaking the ego into pieces through its dispersed appeal for attention. Since 2000, a large number of post-colonialist artists have conveyed this globalized and fragmentary world (Yinka Shonibare, Pascale Martine Tayou, and others).

Today, installation is still a current form, as this mediatized world, dissolved into images and textualities, persists. Installation work presents enough advantages so that artists who claim to be sculptors don’t exclude it. For example, Manfred Pernice, who re-examines the column or the merit of furniture as sculpture or pedestal/sculpture, is more than willing to “install,” for a solo exhibition, readymade objects mixed with volumes of furniture-sized proportions in a space unified by an orange carpet. The installation, evoking an everyday environment, thus invites visitors to seek the familiar in the artist’s other, more abstract productions. In general, the autonomy of the sculpture, as the modernists conceived of it, has been dissipated with the almost complete disappearance of the pedestal. Even autonomous-seeming monumental works, produced as prestigious objects by artists knowing how to measure out criticism and provocation, have been conceived of within a certain contextualization. Thus, the globalized world likes Koons’s Balloon Dog, as well as Adel Abdessemed’s giant skeleton, Habibi, and his bronze Coup de tête, because they are marvellously adapted to their images disseminated in the media. In spite of everything, today’s installations have been drawn toward productions that I would call relative autonomy, seeking a bit of independence vis-à-vis their spatial context and the present. On one hand, it is clear that the art market (the artists’ need to earn a living) has transformed installations into arrangements that can be set up differently. On the other hand, it is likely that there are other reasons for the rise to prominence of works that are termed sculptural.

The title of Tatiana Trouvé’s exhibition, A Stay between Enclosure and Space, seems to describe the best situation for rethinking this art form. Trouvé reuses bronze and stone in movable units (for example, her rocks covered with padlocks). She combines them – or not – with tall architectural structures, making relationships between unusual scales perceptible, and plays with the strangeness of the site, using diffuse lighting or revealing spaces behind partitions. Mark Manders also establishes unusual relations of scale when he reduces the expected size of his statues to 88 per cent, or when he builds factory chimneys sized to match his heavy conference tables. The Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes takes up the proportions of modern architecture, while her spatial structures visually convey shifted references to Carl Andre, Robert Morris or, through the use of semi-flexible materials (leather), Eva Hesse. She thus activates the relationship between our bodies and materials in space at the point where minimalist and antiform movements – which sought to place bodies in a world remodelled by the norms of international architecture – left off.

Aside from scale, the physical presence of materials weighed down by – or defying – gravity has become a sculptural quality that is widely used. Katinka Bock (Berlin), for example, uses unfired clay or terra cotta, producing all the artisanal gestures that have served sculpture (bending, rolling, and so on), as if to seek out its properties anew. In doing this, she often rediscovers the forms of the expanded field or more precisely, the moment when minimalism yields the field to Arte Povera. In the exhibition Pour un art pauvre at the Nîmes museum of contemporary art in 2011,5 her series of small, juxtaposed models emphasized the architectural articulation between floor and wall, referring to Andre’s line of bricks with this revealing arrangement of the space. However, Bock’s modules, cube-shaped like small paving stones, were composed of ceramic and covered to varying degrees with blue glaze: they also were deformed by manipulations and firing. Every day, the last of the ninety-four cubes was moved to become the first, inscribing time in this line titled Kalendar. The previous year, Bock had paid the “metal square” an even more dubious tribute with a work that seemed to be a copy by an evil-minded student: although the proportions of the pieces in her Consolation Puddles seemed similar to Andre’s, she mocked the original by having one row with one too many plates, and the other row with two too few. And the plates themselves, made of terra cotta deformed by firing, rebelled against the geometric formatting by holding puddles of water on their very uneven surfaces.

The French artist Guillaume Leblon also explores the block of clay, as well as wood, string, paper, glass, cardboard, through the transitions from minimalism to its contestation by antiform and Arte Povera. Today, making a fairly large cube inevitably makes us think of Tony Smith’s Die. The one that Leblon made in 2006 is still one of his most striking works. Titled National Monument, it shares with Die a tonality that is funereal due to its muteness, whereas its proportions, which are precisely “monumental” – the edge of the cube measures 2.75 metres – link it structurally to architecture. This aspect, conferred by its concrete-grey tonality, was accentuated during its first presentation 6 in a poorly lit place without much space. Made of clay, constantly dampened with spray and enveloped in white cotton, it was a closed world, swaddled like a mummy and at the same time alive with all its modelling potential. In Nîmes, where Leblon was also present, the revealed his fascination for another sculptural procedure, bronze casting, and in particular the archaic method of sand casting – he spoke of an “embrace” between the flow of metal and the sand of a beach. The pictorial result of the technique was shown in wall/paintings (standing rectangular volumes). In the same exhibition, it was above all the work of Thea Djordjaze, a Georgian artist living in Berlin, which took on the often-complex relationship between sculpture and colour. Added colour can, in fact, conflict with the colour of the materials and reduce their physical intensity. Inversely, the dependence of volumetric quality on ambient light risks being at odds with a search for the pictorial. In Djordjaze’s works, colour – dense blues, mustard yellows – disrupts the viewer’s sense of scale and space. Often distributed in wide swaths or on a carpet that cancels the wall–floor angle with a curve, the colours contrast with the fine black metallic structures that draw out an impeccable and suggestive geometry – with volumes of furniture dimensions (often made of plaster) – spaces for living, though distanced by Mondrian-like precision. Thus, in a stricter, less playful manner than Tatiana Trouvé, but with a sort of comparable muteness, Djordjaze’s “sculpture” is situated between private withdrawal and expansion, capturing space as a material on its own.

These works draw on the premises of “sculpture in the expanded field.” Some revive the ontological quest, but as if for pleasure, as if one had to regularly verify over and over the potential of simple sculptural activities: understanding weight, material, space and volume. In challenging the relationships of scale and the tactile materials that are both current and diversified, they accentuate what the media world conceals in the face-to-face between individuals and their screens (computer, telephone, television): the shifting of bodies in physical spaces not formatted at 16/9, a touch not limited to the plastic of the keyboard, a reminder that the world is not only composed of ready-mades, but is constructed. Extracting the body from immersion in installations, sculpture, through its relative autonomy, reorganizes the reflexive critical distancing in the face of our addiction to the present “continuous flow.”

Translated by Käthe Roth


Sylvie Coellier directs the Laboratoire d’Etude en Sciences des Arts (LESA EA 3274) at Université Aix-Marseille in Aix-en-Provence, where she is a professor of contemporary art history.


  1. Krauss, Rosalind. “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, vol. 8, Spring 1979, 30-44.
  2. Claire Bishop. Installation Art: A Critical History, New York: Tate Publishing/Routledge, 2005, p. 6.
  3. This is a constant pointed out by Bishop, ibid.
  4. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 2003, p. 77.
  5. Organized by Françoise Cohen, then the museum’s director.
  6. In the former CREDAC site in Ivry-sur-Seine, near Paris.