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.
While monumental strides in the 20th century advanced our understanding of what sculpture could be, 21st century artists have pushed those boundaries even further — by harnessing new technologies and ways of thinking to explore the human psyche, socio-political issues and shared histories in their works.
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 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.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘Martin Kippenberger’s Martin, Into 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.
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.
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.
‘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.’