by Penelope Curtis. Yale University Press, October 2017. 324 p. ill. ISBN 9780300227222 (h/c), $45.00.
Reviewed January 2018
Informed by postmodernist and post-structuralist methodologies, Penelope Curtis, director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, explores the fundamental formal characteristics of three-dimensional objects throughout history in Sculpture: Vertical, Horizontal, Closed, Open. Curtis identifies the distinct modes of categorization, imposed by traditional art historical methods, that have come to inform our understanding of sculpture. Though Sculpture is largely comprised of British works, Curtis draws unlikely comparisons by liberally selecting examples from different time periods and with divergent functions. The objects range from Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square to thirteenth-century figural effigies, from Oscar Wilde’s tomb to contemporary conceptual installations. By identifying the basic underlying similarities in this compilation of seemingly disparate objects, the author argues for an expanded framework for what constitutes sculpture.
Sculpture is divided into five chapters, the first four devoted to two sets of binary characteristics—vertical and horizontal, closed and open. The concluding chapter, “Ensemble,” challenges these reductive formal qualities by unveiling their intersections, and investigates how these intersections are activated by the objects’ relationship and interaction with both viewers and other objects. By contextualizing static form, the author generates overarching themes that unify an array of three-dimensional objects, regardless of their temporal origin or their relationship to the art world.
The book very much reflects the author’s curatorial methods in her former position as director at the Tate Britain, where she oversaw a controversial reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection that departed from conventional art historical categories and minimized explanatory text. Similarly, the text in Sculpture is sparse, often occupying less than half a page. The sporadic progression from spread to spread creates a punctuated rhythm, causing passages to seem like collections of random facts. Though the author provides some historical background for each object, the transitions often feel hasty and the analyses incomplete. This can be explained, in part, by the author’s own admission in the preface of the book that specimens were selected according to her own personal connections to them. Consequently, readers may feel particularly sensitive to the abrupt shifts in discussion.
Ultimately, Sculpture is an aspirational project. Despite its lack of traditional essays and its unconventional organization, the book is valuable for its experimentation and its macro arguments.
The book is formatted in the style of a collection catalog and contains black and white illustrations, endnotes, an index, and comprehensive photo credits. Sculpture would be an appropriate addition to art libraries serving art history faculty and students, especially those specializing in British art, sculpture, and postmodernist methodologies.