Early History of the International Sculpture Center | Part II

Elden Tefft

First office of the i.s.c. on the KU campus

Between the years 1960 and 1974 the world of sculpture changed dramatically.  Those changes continue to resonate in our world today.  The transformation that sculpture went through didn’t necessarily happen in Lawrence, Ks. but Lawrence was where the people responsible for these new outlooks came to present and argue and find out whether their ideas belonged under the banner of sculpture.

From its conception as a tradition laden “how to” conference on bronze casting it morphed into gatherings that touched on lasers, computer generated sculpture, plastics of all sorts, inflatable sculptures, environmental installations, conceptual art, sound installations, kinetic sculptures, artificial intelligence machine sculpture, and on and on.

The genesis of the ISC was shaped in Lawrence, Ks. in those years and from those beginnings the organization has thrived.

The first conference that preceded the ISC was held in Lawrence on April 1 and 2 of 1960.  It was called The National Bronze Casting Conference.  Bronze casting was the topic and the participants stuck to the topic. The talks were on wax patterns, sprucing, investment, burnout, pouring, chasing and patina.

To our contemporary ears this seems quite sedate but for its time this was very revolutionary.  The idea that bronze casting could be taught in an academic setting was something quite new in the world of sculpture. The foundry process had been cloaked in a world of trade secrets and the sculptor was completely dependent on the foundryman.

This was also a time in art criticism when the direct carve school of was prevalent.  That the sculptor had to be hands on throughout the whole process.

Eldon Tefft brought together people from across the country to challenge this status quo.  The purpose of this conference was to put the skill of bronze casting into the sculptor’s hands.

The second conference in April of 1962 and the third conference in March of 1964 followed the format established in the first conference of talks on foundry technique.  The talks became more specialized and included talks on foundry technique from other countries giving an inkling of the “international” part of the organization that evolved.  But the emphasis of these early conferences continued to be bronze casting technique. The aesthetics of sculpture are not mentioned at all.

Eldon Tefft

The fourth conference held in Lawrence in the spring of 1966 followed this same set of parameters, talks on technique and particular problems of bronze casting, but then in a final panel discussion led by the University of Kansas Professor, Bernard, “Poco” Frazier the tenor of the conferences was changed.  Frazier very deliberately declared that the discussion would not be technique oriented but about the “aesthetic soul”.  And the panel members responded. From this discussion at the end of the fourth conference the direction of the I.S.C. is drawn.  In this panel, the future of sculpture is articulated.

The talk was long and varied and touched on subjects that are relevant today such as what monuments should be about. “They will be monuments to values. Monuments to ideas, not to persons nor to events.”

A favorite example is Frazier saying,” I am going to suggest that whatever our society amounts to in the future, however overpopulated and overcrowded and overbearing, there will perhaps be more and more need for a private space, a special place, an intellectually sacred place where the individual can somehow or other look into his own heart to see what he actually is. I strongly believe that the descendant of what we now call the sculptor, will be the man who has the skill to design these special places where the soul can go.”

At the end of this panel discussion it was brought up that the conferences needed to change.  That being a conference on bronze casting had run its course and that it needed to expand and that some sort of organization should be established to further that objective.  This is the real moment when the ISC emerged.

The fifth conference held in May 1968 responded to this change by being mostly about plastics, but interspersed with the talks on plastics were once again foundry techniques but also exploratory talks on computer sculpture, the oculiform in Northwest native sculpture, the sources and control of light, and kinetics.  The organization was now called “The National Sculpture Center”.

The sixth conference in April 1970, begins with a loving call for the reevaluation of stone carving, something that could easily be tauted today.   New appreciation for this ancient art.

The conference continued with talks on plastics, metal, color in sculpture, lasers, magnetics, and computers.

The last panel discussion included Paolo Soleri talking about his visionary work in Arizona, and Isamu Noguchi giving a talk on his approach to his art.

The seventh conference in 1972 furthered the exploration of new forms of sculpture with talks on glass manipulation, underwater sculptures, computers, environmental art, and the introduction of the idea of “Public theatre growing out of sculpture.”

The eighth conference in April, 1974 hits on the now usual topics, plastics, light, sound, motion, theatrical sculpture, and computer art.

The emphasis on new technologies and how they were changing art was responded by the famous art critic, Harold Rosenberg, who gave the keynote address on “The Philosophy of Old and New Materials.”  “At bottom the issue of old and new materials in art has to do with apprehending the poetry of modern life…. The earliest expressions in wood, stone bones and hair are still mixed into his nature.  For the individual, in certain moods, all the materials become equally contemporary, and the one thought that ought never be put aside is that it is for the individual that art exists.  Without him the most perfect art, most effectively produced, would be a meaningless pile of artifacts raising questions as to why it is there.”

The conference ended with what was now a tradition, a panel on the future of sculpture.  The lifelines of this closing ceremony once again asked that the conference be less technique oriented and more involved in the core of communication as an artist.  An audience response, “I do get a little bit puzzled by the shop talk that goes on here.  Because people are so unsure about the symbol making function of sculpture making. Everybody, you know, clings in desperation to the plummary, the tools and the computers, or whatever.  I am just registering a protest about why we cannot begin to talk a little bit more conceptually.”

Robert Mallory concluded the conference by saying, “Regarding the future orientation of these conferences, a number of points come to mind.  First, these conferences, while retaining their basic technical orientation, might well be enlivened by introducing topics and issues along the lines suggested by those who have spoken from the audience.  For there is no denying that the most significant aspect of art has to do with its complex of symbolical, expressive and formal properties which are served and actualized by the materials, tools, and processes that are used.  Next, I would recommend that the N.S.C. in expressing its policy and orientation through these conferences, retain a primary commitment to sculpture as object making or at least to sculpture as fundamentally visual, spatial and sometimes kinetic experience whose proper constituency is sensibility and emotion, not the gymnastics of abstract thought.  Put another way, art talk should not be confused with art making, even though talk of the right kind can be a powerful generator of authentic art.”

With that this early history of the ISC that happened in Lawrence Ks. came to a close.  The ninth conference in 1976 was held in New Orleans and it wasn’t until today that the conference returned to its roots.

These early conferences were conceived and presided over by our founder, Eldon Tefft.  Lawrence was his home from his childhood until his death at age 95.  He would tell stories of these early conferences and regarded the participants as honored guests of Lawrence.

Eldon’s legacy in Lawrence is wide spread.  There are sculptural traditions here that are derived either directly from him or through his students.

The artistic character of Lawrence, Ks. has thrived, not least from its history of being the birthplace of the I.S.C.

By Karl Ramberg

2 responses

  1. Thank you for this history of ISC. This article erases all of my insecurity about my love of sculpture!
    Yes….in 2017 …….I Almost thought traditional sculpture was dead. I can see that Sculpture is Alive and well!
    I am proud to be a member of ISC. My work is mostly plaster Sculpture but I have used many materials in the past. When I view all of the other sculptors of ISC, I am impressed and elated! Right On ISC!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: