Modern sculpture, in its invariable distance from classical and/or realistic forms, tends to relate aesthetics more open to viewer interpretation. As the work of Henry Moore and David Smith illustrates, there is a greater opportunity for viewer perception to derive meaning when detail, or even relation to known form, is disregarded. At the same time, some modern sculpture, as in that of Kiki Smith, makes more definitive statements through representation that relies on the familiar, or the altering of the familiar. Given the inherently dimensional and tactile nature of sculpture, the choice of material is also a significant element in how the artist elects to set forth a vision or idea. Nonetheless, what is common to all modern sculpture, and in the case of David Smith’s Cubi, Henry Moore’s Recumbent Figure, and Kiki Smith’s Untitled, is the use of the medium to challenge perception and trigger a range of interpretative reactions.
With David Smith and Moore, there is what may be called the “traditional” intent of modern work as generating a variety of meanings. Both Cubi and Recumbent Figure refuse, in a sense, to convey anything specific; the former as an assembly of geometric shapes, and the latter as simultaneously human form and expansive landscape, seem to deliberately defy established ideas of form itself. They present to the viewer possibilities and, if Moore’s sculpture more offers a familiar presence, each nonetheless demands participation from the viewer classical sculpture does not require. This is in fact the intent of the artists, an intent no less definitive because it so engages and relies on viewer reaction. Conversely, Kiki Smith’s Untitled nearly echoes classical sculpture in its intent to convey a distinct idea, and one generated by perfectly recognizable human forms. The viewer may perceive sorrow or majesty in Cubi, or an interesting parallel between the natural and the artificial, Similarly, Moore’s work may excite ideas ranging from an inextricable link between the human and the earth to sadness regarding the transience of all life. With Kiki Smith, however, stark despair dominates. Untitled is identified as a commentary on the AIDS crisis in the late 20th century (Author page), but the information is unnecessary; the tragic postures of the male and female excreting fluids are more than enough to present the fragility of life and the sadness of disease.
Then, just as painters select oils or watercolors as the suitable instruments for their art, so too is the choice of material critical for the sculptor, if not more so due to the multidimensional aspect of the art. In all three works discussed, material is pivotal in furthering the artistic intent. The sheer modernity of Cubi, for example, virtually demands metals, which are then altered to add interpretative potentials. David Smith’s metallic surfaces are far from pristine; the marks of the sculptor are clearly visible and inevitably change the way light falls on the geometric shapes (Author page). This changes the innate nature, or typical perception, of metal itself, adding a quality of change to what is generally seen as a metaphor for what does not change. Similarly,
Moore’s use of stone goes to a sense attached to his Recumbent Figure; namely, the flow of the curves as created in stone conveys a powerful association between the human form and natural landscape. Moore chooses specific stone for different sculptures (Author page), which reinforces his work as inherently organic; if stone is lifeless, it is nonetheless natural, and this gives sculptures such as Recumbent Figure a kind of accessibility. A reliance on the organic as material may be seen as well in Kiki Smith’s Untitled. Beeswax is the material, which carries with it a pliability, if not vulnerability, absent from stone or steel, and this greatly emphasizes the intent of relating the human condition as so physically vulnerable.
A criticism commonly leveled at modern art is that meaning is too diffuse or lacking. Such a view, however, ignores the work of sculptors like Kiki Smith, who create art which, if modern in style and radical essence, nonetheless presents definite ideas as emphatically as classic sculpture. Then, the very ambiguity presented by David Smith and Moore has a meaning unto itself, in that it demands engagement, bringing the viewer into the artistic process of attaching meaning. Materials, as noted, play a significant role as well in reinforcing all the intents. David Smith’s Cubi, Henry Moore’s Recumbent Figure, and Kiki Smith’s Untitled, while greatly different, all use the medium of sculpture to challenge perception and trigger a range of interpretative reactions.
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