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DUCHAMP WON,
PICASSO LOST

by James Croak
 
Judith Collins, Sculpture Today, Phaidon, 454 pp., $69.95.

I once joked with a Brit writer at the Art Basel Miami Beach solstice that I could teach 20th-century art history in four words: "Duchamp won, Picasso lost." Only for amusement, I am sure, he published my wisecrack in the London Financial Times and my inbox began spewing flames as if I had pulled a Christopher Hitchens and smacked Mother Teresa. "Just what did you mean by that?" was the typical query from an atypically civil writer.

Picasso is my metonym for the modernist adventure that sought essentialism through personal exploration and intuition, mostly in flat art -- painting, drawing, photography, lithography and the like. Though modernism was not entirely limited to these forms, the supporting critical theory can certainly be described as such.

Picassoís antagonist, Duchamp, dumped painting and its attendant verbiage early on, announcing instead a democracy of all objects and producing a new form of sculpture often made of commercial goods. Any insight into an invisible world that we ascribed to an object, he demonstrated, was an arbitrary designation. It would take the rest of us a very long time to arrive at that point, about six decades in all.

But by the 1970s, Duchampís triumph was complete. Artists abandoned painting and turned to physical object-making of a distinctly ironic flavor. These objects seemed almost random. Maybe it was something that resembled someone, or not, or that performed a function, or not, or that you could stick in your pocket, bulldoze into the ground or drag from an airplane. It could be figurative, or found, or both, or filthy or shiny, home-made or machine-made.

"Rather surprising things have come to be called sculpture," a bewildered-sounding Rosalind Krauss remarked in October magazine back in the 1970s. Yes, indeed, the modernist leash slipped off and the pack galloped away in all directions. And in the chase, as it turns out, the author Judith Collins truly knows her subject.

A senior curator at the Tate Gallery in London, Collins has written a large survey entitled Sculpture Today. The latest in Phaidonís series of popularizing art surveys, Sculpture Today documents the bewildering array of sculpture produced since the end of modern painting, a time she places about 40 years ago. I showed her massive volume to several learned colleagues, noting that there was really nothing like it while hoping that someone would counter with titles of similar surveys, but as no one did, Iím confident Collins alone has delineated this period.

The material in Sculpture Today is vast, 40 years vast. I thought I was on top of this subject, but I had to think again: I knew less than half the images. Her text is an accompaniment, typically descriptive and accessible, perhaps a tad chatty, but it moves along nicely. Collins is no scribbler who would "equate obscurity with profundity," as Arthur Danto once put it; if youíre looking for a faddish new costume of words to dress up some visual flourish, you wonít find it here. What you will find is page after page of jaw-dropping photographs of staggering creativity.

Once, such undertakings were organized by chronology and perhaps location. More recently, art surveys are more likely to be structured according to themes and subjects, Thus, Sculpture Today is organized into 18 sections delineated by appearance and intent, with topics such as the figure, gravity, cultural diversity, memory, and so on. Collinsí gestalt holds well and does not interfere with a smooth explication of the various efforts of physical reflection and communication held by the umbrella term of each chapter.†

Especially good is her prominent inclusion of many not-so-well-known artists whose work precedes and often resembles the subsequent art made by famous artists, so much so that the reader should examine pointedly the caption to every picture to correct what are sure to be many wrong first impressions. Talent unearthed rather than merely assembled.

Given the scope of this book it would have been useful to have a longer lead-in chapter rehearsing the sculptural developments of the first two-thirds of the past century. Collinsí short six-page intro made me dizzy, posing works of Duchamp next to ones by Brancusi as if they were drinking buddies instead of different sides of a shooting war. Also, I made no head count but the book does seem heavy on Brits, but that is forgivable as Collins is an expert on that field and, frankly, sculptors from the British Isles have done more of the heavy lifting than those of many other locales.

These minor concerns aside, Sculpture Today is an important survey, both useful and reflecting high production standards. As a volume for sculptors, collectors, critics, historians, curators and all the others who constitute the ever-enlarging art world, it is the most comprehensive reference available for all those surprising things that have come to be called sculpture.†


JAMES CROAK is a New York sculptor whose work is currently on view at Winston Wächter Fine Art.