Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997), Martin, ab in die ecke und schäm dich (Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself), 1989. Wood, metal, styrofoam, foam rubber and clothing.

Changing perspectives: artists who pushed the boundaries of sculpture

Christie’s specialists spotlight artists, from Marcel Duchamp to Urs Fischer, who challenged the age-old medium. Illustrated with works offered in 20th and 21st Century Evening Sales in New York

For centuries, sculpture was an excruciatingly physical process defined by elegantly carved or expertly cast renderings of political figures and religious icons. From ancient stone carvings and the Venus of Samothrace  to Michelangelo, Auguste Rodin and Marcel Duchamp, the medium is one of the oldest yet most developed art forms.

Exploring everything from found objects to three-dimensional abstraction, artists of the 20th century advanced our understanding of what sculpture could be. Meanwhile, artists of the 21st century have harnessed new technologies and ways of thinking to push those boundaries even further.

Marcel Duchamp

Rejecting the traditions of the established art world, Marcel Duchamp recalibrated the accepted notions behind the art object through his ground breaking readymades. One of the century’s most influential artistic developments, the readymade allowed him to elevate the conceptual value of an artwork: the found object became a work of art because the artist deemed it so.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), De ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (La Boîte-en-valise), Series A Untitled. Valise 16⅛ x 15 x 4 in (41 x 38 x 10.2 cm). Box 15¼ x 14⅛ x 3 in (38.9 x 35.7 x 7.6  cm). Untitled 7½ x 6 in (19 x 15.2  cm). Sold for $2,070,000 on 13 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), De ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (La Boîte-en-valise), Series A Untitled. Valise: 16⅛ x 15 x 4 in (41 x 38 x 10.2 cm). Box: 15¼ x 14⅛ x 3 in (38.9 x 35.7 x 7.6 cm). Untitled: 7½ x 6 in (19 x 15.2 cm). Sold for $2,070,000 on 13 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

In the 1920s, Duchamp decided to abandon art in order to focus on chess. However, in 1941 he announced the release of a new work, De ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (La Boîte-en-valise). It would come to include 69 objects spanning over 25 years of the artist’s career.  

‘Duchamp’s landmark compilation of his own museum as a portable miniature blurs the boundaries between original and copy,’ explains Vanessa Fusco, Co-Head of the 20th Century Evening Sale. ‘In the Boîte-en-valise, Duchamp presents the viewer with a compact retrospective of his paintings, drawings, readymades and other objects, amounting to a nearly comprehensive inventory of his significant oeuvre up until that time.’  

Duchamp decided to leave war-torn France in the spring of 1941. Masquerading as a wholesale cheese merchant, he was able to smuggle enough items out of Nazi-controlled Paris to complete 50 boxes. The materials were shipped to New York, where Duchamp would continue to assemble his Boîte-en-valise in 1942, allowing his influence to spread to a new generation of American artists.  

‘Duchamp undermined the autonomy and sanctity of the art object, upholding the duplication and display of his past works as artworks in their own right,’ describes Fusco. ‘There was nothing like it before, and there has been nothing like it since. The ramifications of Duchamp’s ideas are everywhere evident in the art of our time, from Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes to Gerhard Richter’s Strips.’

Louise Bourgeois

While she’d been known in artist circles for decades, Louise Bourgeois first drew international attention in 1982, at the age of 70, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened the first ever retrospective of her work. Bourgeois’ status in the canon was further cemented, however, when she began creating her famed spider sculptures in the 1990s.

Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Spider V, 1999. Steel. 21 x 38 x 44 in (53.3 x 96.5 x 111.8 cm). Sold for $5,550,000 on 11 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Spider V, 1999. Steel. 21 x 38 x 44 in (53.3 x 96.5 x 111.8 cm). Sold for $5,550,000 on 11 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

The spider emerged as an intensely personal motif for the artist, who widely acknowledged they were an ode to her mother, Joséphine, a seamstress who repaired tapestries in the family’s textile workshop outside of Paris.

‘Few artists have dealt with issues surrounding the complexities of motherhood in a deeper way than Bourgeois,’ explains Sara Friedlander, Deputy Chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art, New York. ‘Her spiders crawl into our subconscious and spin webs of memory, emotion and the psychology of the human mind.’

Rooted in her own turbulent childhood memories, Bourgeois’ spiders adopt the opposing roles of architect and destroyer, protector and a predator. Frozen between fight and flight, Spider V (1999) has the ability to evoke both extreme fear and great reverence.

Spider V  in particular is very special in both its uniqueness and steel medium. She is solid and yet on the move. She is haunting and yet profoundly comforting. This is the type of object I would wish to live with forever,’ concludes Friedlander.

Martin Puryear 

Distinguished by their consummate craftsmanship and elegantly abstracted forms, Martin Puryear’s sculptures are richly ambiguous objects that simultaneously emphasize the process of their creation and the simplicity of their shape.

Martin Puryear (b. 1941), Empires Lurch, 1987. Painted ponderosa pine. 62 x 44 x 24 in (157.5 x 111.8 x 61 cm). Sold for $687,500 on 13 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York
Martin Puryear (b. 1941), Empire's Lurch, 1987. Painted ponderosa pine. 62 x 44 x 24 in (157.5 x 111.8 x 61 cm). Sold for $687,500 on 13 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

‘Smoothly constructed out of ponderosa pine and painted with a subtle green tinge, Puryear’s Empire’s Lurch confronts the viewer with a great visual weight in a human scale,’ explains Emily Kaplan, Co-Head of the 20th Century Evening Sale. ‘The work is from Puryear’s “duck decoy” series, which was originally exhibited at McKee Gallery in 1987 – the year it was created.’  

While investigating many of the same notions surrounding art and objecthood as his 20th century Minimalist counterparts, Puryear’s practice is rooted in human interaction and his unique ability to fuse craftsmanship with history.  

‘Using simple forms that are both familiar and yet disconnected from reality, Puryear is able to pique the viewer’s curiosity,’ Kaplan continues. ‘The abstracted form of Empire’s Lurch also bears resemblance to an iron bollard, used to anchor slave trade boats. In this way, the work reflects Puryear’s belief that empires involved in the slave trade sow the seeds of their own collapse.’ 

Martin Kippenberger

Martin Kippenberger’s MartinInto the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of  Yourself  stands as one of the great art objects of the last fifty years,’ explains Ana Maria Celis, Head of the 21st Century Evening Sale in New York.

Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997), Martin, ab in die ecke und schäm dich (Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself), 1989. Wood, metal, styrofoam, foam rubber and clothing. 70⅜ x 26 x 14⅛ in (178.8 x 66 x 35.9 cm). Sold for $9,520,000 on 11 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York
Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997), Martin, ab in die ecke und schäm dich (Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself), 1989. Wood, metal, styrofoam, foam rubber and clothing. 70⅜ x 26 x 14⅛ in (178.8 x 66 x 35.9 cm). Sold for $9,520,000 on 11 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

Now icons of contemporary art, the Martin  sculptures were ironically made in response to an article by the critic Wolfgang Max Faust, who had blasted Kippenberger as being both cynical and infantile, calling him ‘little more than a petit-bourgeois German trying to make his mark.’

Rather than contesting his critic’s accusations, Kippenberger — who famously lived his life through his art — responded with his own, self-punishing, sculpture. Assuming the pose of a naughty schoolboy, the series of six sculptural self-portraits began with the work, picture above, in 1989. Other examples are housed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and Glenstone, Potomac.

Placing his back to the viewer, he upholds the notion of the artist as a misunderstood outsider while mocking his critic’s bourgeois values and upending traditional sculptural perspective.

‘Transcending the time-honoured limits of traditional self-portraiture, the Martin  sculptures capture the irreverence that marked the very essence of Kippenberger’s practice — and that of an entire generation that followed,’ Celis adds.

Urs Fischer

A leading artist from his generation, Urs Fischer's extensive body of work ranges from sculpture to painting — and even NFTs. Regardless of medium, the artist’s work can be seen as an extensive encyclopaedia of everyday objects that make up and define the human experience.

Urs Fischer (b. 1973), Things, 2017. Milled aluminum, steel, power magnets and two-component epoxy adhesive. 126 x 204⅜ x 118½ in (320 x 519 x 301 cm). Sold for $3,630,000 on 11 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York. © Urs Fischer. Courtesy of the artist. Photo Stefan Altenburger
Urs Fischer (b. 1973), Things, 2017. Milled aluminum, steel, power magnets and two-component epoxy adhesive. 126 x 204⅜ x 118½ in (320 x 519 x 301 cm). Sold for $3,630,000 on 11 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York. © Urs Fischer. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

‘I just use stuff that’s around me,’ he has explained. ‘And those objects, those domestic images, as you call them, are made in human scale, so they can also be related to humans. They’re made by humans and for humans. They speak about us. And they are things you are bound to deal with.’

A maelstrom of everyday objects — a photocopier, lawnmower, high-heeled boot and potato chip bag, among them — make up the diverse but recognizable lexicon of contemporary items that punctuate the artist’s 2017 sculpture, Things. But at the centre of them all is a glowing, life-sized rhinoceros, a powerful symbol of stamina and strength, and the perfect anchor for the items that balance on top of, collide into and seemingly emerge out of its resilient figure.

El Anatsui

Nigerian-based artist, El Anatsui is known for transforming ordinary materials into beautifully complex sculptural assemblages. From his celebrated ‘cloth’ series, New Layout (2009) is composed of hundreds of liquor bottle caps that have been intricately folded and woven together with copper wire.

El Anatsui (b. 1944), New Layout, 2009. Found aluminum bottlecaps and copper wire. 88⅝ x 119⅜ x 5⅞ in (225 x 303 x 15 cm). Sold for $1,950,000 on 11 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York
El Anatsui (b. 1944), New Layout, 2009. Found aluminum bottlecaps and copper wire. 88⅝ x 119⅜ x 5⅞ in (225 x 303 x 15 cm). Sold for $1,950,000 on 11 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

‘I can’t help but characterize the striking yet graceful physical form of New Layout  as an allegory for the artist’s role in advancing sculptural practice — firm, yet poised in motion for future possibilities of change,’ explains AJ Kiyoizumi, cataloguer for the 21st Century Evening Sale.

Drawn to materials that represent the history of Africa, Anatsui’s bottle caps are culled from the distilleries of cheap African liquors. The artist’s chosen medium not only forms a dazzlingly vibrant tapestry, but also stands as a poignant reminder of the impact of globalization and consumerism on the West African cultural landscape.

‘El Anatsui is a disruptor — he has liberated his practice from conventional media and categorization and broadened our understanding of contemporary sculpture,’ Kiyoizumi continues. ‘His glimmering visions created from found bottle caps are both expressions of centuries-long craft traditions, as well as literal gestures of contemporary consumption.’

Damien Hirst

At 23 feet high, Damien Hirst’s towering The Warrior and the Bear (2017) was such a central piece of the artist’s 2017 landmark exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable  at the Punta della Dogana in Venice, it greeted visitors on entering the first gallery.

Damien Hirst (b. 1965), The Warrior and the Bear, 2015. Bronze. 280¾ x 102⅜ x 79⅞ in (713 x 260 x 203 cm). Sold for $3,450,000 on 11 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York
Damien Hirst (b. 1965), The Warrior and the Bear, 2015. Bronze. 280¾ x 102⅜ x 79⅞ in (713 x 260 x 203 cm). Sold for $3,450,000 on 11 May 2021 at Christie’s in New York

The artist’s most ambitious undertaking to date, the exhibition revolved around a fictional shipwreck of Hirst’s own creation: Each of the works represented a once buried treasure from a mythical barge that had been transporting the fantastical collection of Cif Amotan II – an anagram for ‘I am a fiction.’

From the fabled wreck, Hirst presented a wondrous trove of artefacts that represented both ancient and contemporary cultures, from Medusa to Mickey Mouse. The Warrior and the Bear  conjures ancient Greece by evoking the coming of age ritual of arkteia, where young girls would imitate female bears in a sacrificial dance.

Seemingly rescued from the ravages of time, the salvaged cargo is covered in barnacles and brilliantly coloured corals — fitting for the Young British Artist known for halting deterioration in formaldehyde tanks, as he muses on time, decay, death and history.