It’s so unusual to find a 464-page art history book written by a lone individual that out of curiosity I cast about for similar efforts from recent decades, finding only Irving Sandler’s The Triumph of American Painting and H.H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art. While not quite the latter, Sculpture Today probably exceeds the former in breadth and ambition and shares with both the cohesion offered by a single voice and the idiosyncratic viewpoint of a story told by one life, one way. Because it’s an individual conclusion, this large volume by British curator Judith Collins is a robust read with plenty to fight and argue about, to reflect upon, and ultimately from which to learn.
Collins tells a familiar story: the sequence of Modernist thought happened mostly in terms of flat art: certainly if Modernism was not entirely limited to these forms, the supporting critical theory is easily described as such. With few exceptions—Duchamp’s work of 1913 and the entire Bauhaus come to mind—Collins’s thesis is correct that the long primacy of painting, the manifestation of Modernism’s reductive sequence, gave way to the primacy of sculpture in the ’60s. Sculpture’s subsequent domination of contemporary art has continued for 40 years. I chuckled at her quotation from a bewildered Rosalind Krauss in a ’70s-era October magazine that some “rather surprising things have come to be called sculpture.” Yes, indeed, the Modernist leash slipped off and the pack galloped away in all directions, and in the chase Collins truly knows her subject.
Recent art books and shows have commonly been grouped by themes and concerns rather than the earlier technique of time and location; similarly Sculpture Today is organized into 18 sections delineated by appearance and intent, such as the figure, gravity, cultural diversity, memory, and many others. Collins’s gestalt holds together well and does not interfere with a smooth explication of the various efforts of physical reflection and communication held by the umbrella term of each chapter. I especially appreciated her prominent inclusion of many not-so-well-known artists whose work precedes and often resembles subsequent well-known works by famed artists, so much so that one will look pointedly at the credit on every page after having gotten many wrong on first impression.
Given the scope of this book, it would have been useful to have a longer lead-in chapter rehearsing the sculptural developments of the first two-thirds of the past century. The short six-page intro made me dizzy as it posed works by Duchamp next to works by Brancusi as if they were drinking buddies as opposed to two sides of a shooting war. That minor oversight aside, Sculpture Today is a major new work done in Phaidon’s high production standards, a volume for sculptors, collectors, critics, historians, curators, and others who make up the enlarging art world, a comprehensive reference for all those surprising things that have come to be called sculpture.
Sculpture Today by Judith Collins
London: Phaidon Press Inc., 2007.
Hardcover; 464 pp. (illustrated).