Sculpture has come a long way over the last century. Once synonymous with statuary and monuments—the kind of triumphalist hunks of stone or metal seen in public squares around the world—the medium has evolved in the hands of modern and contemporary artists to become something much more personal, intimate, engaging, and thought-provoking. It has also become eminently accessible for the average collector, who no longer needs a sprawling estate or massive courtyards to own stunning pieces. For a primer on the basics of collecting contemporary sculpture, we spoke to SculptureCenter executive director Mary Ceruti—whose Long Island City institution has been pushing the vanguard of the medium forward since its founding in 1928—about what aspiring collectors should look for in a piece, how it can be displayed in their home, and why sculpture should be a part of their everyday lives.
What advice would you give someone who is interested in adding sculpture to their collection?
Well, I think I would give the same advice to somebody who wanted to collect sculpture that I would to anyone who wanted to collect art in general, which is to look at a lot of work and figure out what attracts you and what you’re interested in, and then familiarize yourself and become comfortable with what excites you about different works. With sculpture, I would tell people not to be afraid, that it comes in all sizes and all materials, so it can fit in someone’s life in different ways. One of the things that I have personally always found exciting about sculpture is that it occupies the same space that we do, so you have a physical interaction with it that you don’t with all other art forms, say video art and photography. So some people worry that they don’t have room for sculpture, but I think if they look around their house they’ll find that they have all sorts of objects that may or may not be functional—vases of flowers, souvenirs, and other decorative objects. So you could easily make room if you decide that is something you’re excited about and want to live with. People can always find places in their homes.
SculptureCenter has been an innovative presence in the art world by taking a broad view of sculpture, encompassing not only physical, three-dimensional works but also photography, video, text-based work, and other forms of art. How would you define sculpture?
I have two ways to answer that. At the SculptureCenter we purposefully don’t define sculpture—we don’t have a definition that we work with—because we allow the artist to define it for themselves. So programmatically we work with every media, and in every given exhibition there might be painting, video, and photography as well as what we think of traditionally as sculpture. That’s because even though we’re called SculptureCenter, we’re not so interested in protecting the territory of sculpture—we’re more interested in looking at what’s happening in contemporary art from the perspective of sculpture. I think that’s an important thing to do, because there are artists who call themselves sculptors and make objects and three-dimensional things and are also working in video, photography, film, and performance. But sculpture itself has specific requirements: it takes up space in a different type of way than other art forms do, and then the artist is grappling with very specific things like gravity, mass, weight, volume, and surface-to-structure issues that are inherent to making sculpture. As for what’s happening in contemporary sculpture, you often can’t summarize it. There are still artists who have things fabricated, there are still artists who make things with their own hands, there are still artists who cast or mold or carve. All of these processes are completely present in the field right now, and all of those modes of production are still active.
And then you have someone like Lawrence Weiner, who describes himself as a sculptor even though most people think of him as a text artist. It can be confusing.
That is a critical position that he takes, and which I support in the same way in the same way that someone like Joseph Beuys is a sculptor and Matthew Barney has always made a point of calling himself a sculptor even though he increasingly works in film and performance. That’s the prerogative of the artist, to identify him- or herself in that way. And there are interesting reasons for that, to rethink the way that artwork occupies that space. If you saw Lawrence’s show at the Whitney Museum, it was very sculptural. There was a lot of text work there, but it very much was about a spatial understanding of the space, and the text unfolded in the space—that’s always been critical to his work.
To look at it from the opposite perspective, if one were to see a piece of pottery side by side with a piece of ceramic sculpture, how would one be able to tell the difference between the two?
I would say that a big part of that is the context in which the artist and the audience are experiencing that work. I think a very contemporary example is Shio Kusaka, who makes these gorgeous, gorgeous ceramics, some of which maybe lean toward the functional and are certainly beautiful examples of ceramics, but she has completely positioned herself within the fine-art context rather than craft. So is it about intention? Kind of, and whether someone sees their work falling within the craft conversation rather than a contemporary art conversation. But certainly at this moment artists are all over ceramics and glass, making a lot of very interesting work that draws on the craft tradition and acknowledges the craft tradition within those objects—like Josiah McElheny and Fred Wilson. So in the end, from a collector’s point of view, it doesn’t really matter if it comes from the craft world or the art world if it’s something that you enjoy, that you respond to, that has an aesthetic presence that’s important to you. There has been a sort of professionalization of the collector that requires collections to have some sort of thematic thread and have some kind of conceptual cohesiveness, and I think for some people that’s a completely valid way of going about collecting art. But it’s certainly not necessary. The main thing is that people find things that are meaningful for them, and that they have their own reasons for wanting to live with these things. And artists themselves are good examples of really great collectors whose collections may be completely eclectic.
Looking back on the past couple of decades, there have been a number of very discrete and important art movements when it comes to sculpture, like Land Art, Minimalism, and Finish Fetish in the 1970s. What are some of the more recent movements in sculpture that are important to understanding where the medium lies in the art landscape today?
There are a few things going on—there’s not one dominant movement taking place. We’re seeing a lot of artists working by hand right now, and I think the artist’s hand has become important. In 2005 we did a show called Make It Now that looked at the anti-monumental, with artists drawing on historical sculptural influences but in decidedly unmonumental ways. Then, of course, there was the New Museum show Unmonumental that summarized a similar trend, which we’re actually seeing a little less of now—that kind of assemblage of degraded material that is about the detritus of the world and the lack of cohesion in our narratives. That isn’t to say that now you get fully-formed, cohesive narratives presented through sculpture, but I think we are starting to see more of personal narratives coming through that present a more direct interaction between the artist and their materials, with artists responding to the materials in the way that they’re developing their work. Poetry is playing more of a role in sculpture now than it used to. Also, there’s less fear of the figure, even though it’s coming through in oblique ways—it’s not like classical figural sculpture. But you think of people like David Altmejd and Sarah Lucas who are working figuratively even if they’re not representational. For a long time the figure was shunned from contemporary art discourse, but it’s there again. It creeps in. But then there are a lot of artists working in very conceptual modes, from Walead Beshty to John Miller. So at any given moment you can cite artists working in different ways.
Art movements in general seem to have ebbed.
I think so. As modernism itself ebbed and everyone sort of agreed that we lived in a postmodern moment, those kinds of movements dissipated because, for one, things are happening very quickly, but also I think there’s also less of an effort to take a syncretic approach to what’s happening. I think people recognize that there’s a lot of diversity in the practice, and that maybe that’s a positive thing, so people are more hesitant to make these overarching statements about “this is the dominant thing that is happening.” Because we know that for as many dominant approaches there are as many artists out there doing something that is completely the opposite, and in a year or two that might seem more current to the discourse. So there’s a reluctance to name things too quickly.
What should one take into consideration when regarding a piece of sculpture?
You should walk around it, of course, and see it in a 360-degree context. Then you should think about how it relates to the ground and the space around it—that’s always an issue for a sculptor. The other thing that I think is great about sculpture and that I think is important when you’re collecting sculpture on a smaller scale—things that can fit on a table, or a shelf—is the fact that you can pick it up and hold it, and it has weight. It’s an amazing thing. For instance, Ugo Rondinone’s cast-bronze apple is painted very realistically, so that when you apprehend it you absolutely mistake it for an apple. But it’s cast in bronze and it’s filled with lead—it weighs so much more than you would expect, so it’s a very strange experience when you pick it up. This kind of haptic experience is something that only sculpture offers you, and only the collector gets to experience the piece in that way.
The pedestal is also important, since the decision of whether to use it or not was a major consideration in the development of 20th-century modern sculpture, when its removal signaled “a kind of sitelessness, or homelessness, an absolute loss of place,” according to Rosalind Krauss’s seminal essay on contemporary art, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.”
That’s right. You needed the pedestal, and then you had to get rid of the pedestal. And that basic relationship of the sculpture to the ground is an issue that artists still grapple with—whether it belongs on a pedestal or not. Because a pedestal is a framing device and a display devise, and especially now it becomes very self-conscious to use the pedestal. But while it might make some artists unhappy, there are really pragmatic reasons why people might want to use pedestals in some cases. Certain museums that get a lot of traffic might want to put certain sculptures on the floor because that’s the way the artist intended them and that’s the way they look best, but you can’t risk it. And collectors have an interest in protecting their work, so sometimes they have a need to do it. I have also seen plexiglas boxes around some sculptures that are placed on the floor even if they are not supposed to be displayed in such an isolated and rarified way, but there are reasons you might want to do that with the work. I think collectors want to be respectful of the best scenario for displaying the work, but they also recognize that they have a responsibility to take care of the work. So I would be hesitant to complain about faux pas on the part of collectors in that way.
What about outdoor sculpture? What kind of considerations should collectors be aware about when it comes to placing work outside?
I am always talking to artists about making outdoor work. For a lot of reasons—it’s expensive, it requires different materials, the public art landscape is not very interesting for artists right now—outdoor sculpture is not something that a lot of artists are pursuing, and I think there are a lot of people who would like to have outdoor work. Not everybody has an estate in Connecticut, but I think a lot of people do have outdoor space somewhere, and that’s where they would really love to have sculpture. Often there are sculptures that look like they could go outside because they are a reasonable size or scale, but just because it is made out of concrete or metal doesn’t mean that it can be placed outdoors, because sculpture has to be made in a certain way to be able to withstand exposure to the elements. So collectors have to be aware and ask questions about that, but I also think there is a lot of opportunity out there for outdoor sculpture, both for the collectors and for the artists. And there are a lot of younger artists who are making art that could be made to work outdoors if they knew that somebody wanted it, but it’s hard for them to put their resources into it because it does tend to be more expensive in terms of production.
What are some of the ways that people live with sculpture? How do they incorporate sculpture into their homes, and into their lives?
It’s as simple as putting a sculpture on your side table, or a piece in a fireplace, so that almost everywhere you look there is something unusual. Like putting a sculpture in the entrance hall so that when people come in they encounter it. I’ve seen the whole gamut, and it’s only limited by the collector’s ambition and imagination.
In the context of art history, sculpture has played an integral role in the development of contemporary art, and it is incorporated into every important museum collection in one way or another. Would you recommend that people buy sculpture when they are considering building a collection?
Absolutely. The only reason someone who is really interested in contemporary art wouldn’t collect sculpture is because they have some prejudice about how much space they have, which I think they could get over. Since the field of sculpture has expanded to engage almost all the other media, it’s so much a part of the contemporary art discourse that to ignore it is to ignore a vast part of what contemporary art is about. You can’t really avoid it.
In a funny way, that puts a positive spin on Barnett Newman’s famous quote that “sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting.”
It’s true—it’s unavoidable! And that’s not a bad thing.
Do you have a sculpture collection of your own?
I’m not a collector as a person, but I do have some things that artists have either given me or that I’ve traded with them over the years. Every now and then, though, I’ll buy something, and I have been fortunate to be on the list for the Peter Norton Family Christmas Art Project, so I have a lot of those limited editions around my home.
How do you display it?
Almost all of it is on shelves or maybe the occasional tabletop. My living spaces are kind of small, so I don’t have floorspace. I also have a child, so I have to be careful about that. My story about the one that got away was years ago when I was at a benefit auction when a Gedi Seboni sculpture that I loved came up, and nobody knew who he was at that point, but we had just shown him. Nobody was bidding on it, so it was not expensive at all, and I debated and debated and debated and I decided not to get it, because it had a branch and a piece of wood and I was just worried that I didn’t have anywhere to put it where it wouldn’t get destroyed. Although we should ask Gedi, because he’s got a couple of kids. [laughs]
Aside from SculptureCenter, what are a few of your favorite places to see sculpture, in New York and outside the city?
I would certainly include the Noguchi Museum, which is a really beautiful space in the middle of New York City, and they do really nice programming, with concerts on Sundays and a fantastic garden. Then the Storm King and Dia: Beacon trips are unmissable. I’m delighted that Madison Square Park is running a sculpture program—they commission works on a large scale and they’ve done some really good projects. Also, I think people should just look around. There are all sorts of opportunities in the city to find sculpture, with the Tom Otternesses in the subway on 14th Street. And I sit on the Park Avenue Sculpture Committee, so there is rotating sculpture on the Park Avenue medians. The New York City Parks Department is actually very supportive of sculpture too, so it’s all around us if you pay attention. Then Marfa is <em>the</em> pilgrimage, and Lightning Field and Spiral Jetty are all on my list of must-sees, and also the Louisiana Museum in Denmark is a beautiful museum that is right on the water and they have important sculpture that is sited wonderfully. I’d also say that the Taj Mahal is worth a trip, even that really counts as architecture. Then the other one that is on my list is Bernardo Paz’s Inhotim in Brazil, which makes a huge commitment to sculpture and installation on a large scale that is conceived to be shown as a whole. It’s definitely a destination.