Form as Carving
Carving is a process of subtracting form from a solid block of material by the techniques of cutting, chiselling or filing. Stone and wood are the principal materials used for carving, each of which has its own qualities, strengths and weaknesses as a medium.
AGESANDER, POLYDORUS, and ATHENODORUS (1st Century B.C.)
Laocoön and his Sons, circa 42-20 B.C. (marble)
The Laocoön is a marble sculpture just over two metres high that dates from around 42-20 B.C. Its tortuous form provided the model for the visual description of pain and suffering in Western Art. The Laocoön is such a unique image that it is not until the art of Michelangelo, more than 1500 years later, when we next encounter sculpture of comparative expressive power.
This sculpture tells the story of Laocoön, a priest of the god Neptune, who warned the Trojan authorities about the grave danger of an immense wooden horse that had been left behind by the Greeks after their ten year siege of Troy. The Trojans believed that it was an offering to the goddess Athena in reparation for the damage done to her temple during the war. Laocoön, however, had guessed that the wooden horse concealed Greek soldiers within its body and was part of a cunning plan to gain entry to the city. Before he could convince the Trojans of his belief, the Greek god Poseidon sent two sea serpents to kill him and his sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. The sculpture depicts the horrific scene of their death as they are bitten and crushed by the serpents.
The Laocoön group, which is carved in a style known as Hellenistic Baroque, is believed to be based on an earlier bronze from Pergamon from around 200 B.C. It was considered by Pliny the Elder in his 'Historia Naturalis', the earliest surviving book on the history of art, to be 'a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of statuary' . Pliny attributes the work to three artists, 'Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes'. Due to its complex form, the sculpture has been built from seven interlocking sections making it difficult to identify the individual contribution of each artist.
MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1475-1564)
Pietà, 1498-99 (marble)
Michelangelo Buonarroti was present in 1506 when The Laocoön was unearthed on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. Its dynamic figures had a major influence on the depiction of the human form in his mature painting and sculpture. The twisting torsos of the Sistine ceiling 'Ignudi' and the central figure of Christ in the 'Last Judgement', along with the unfinished 'Slaves' for the tomb of Pope Julius II are all testament to the deep impression that the Laocoön made on Michelangelo.
By the age of twenty three Michelangelo had already demonstrated his sublime skill in the carving of the 'Pietà', a sculpture that could match the naturalism and emotional expression of the great Hellenistic masters. Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary and biographer of Michelangelo wrote in 'The Lives of the Artists', 'one cannot but wonder how the hand of the artist could in so short a time and so perfectly have made such a divine work; it is indeed a miracle that a formless block of stone should be shaped to a perfection that nature herself is scarcely able to create in flesh.'.
MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI (1475-1564)
The Atlas Slave, 1525-30 (marble)
Unlike the sculptors of the Laocoön, who would have carefully planned their approach to a work in order to correlate the connection of its interlocking parts, Michelangelo intuitively carved his sculptures from a single block of marble. He would chisel directly into the block from the front towards the back, slowly releasing the form that was trapped within the stone. Michelangelo is often quoted as having said, 'Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.' Nowhere is this more evident than in his four unfinished sculptures of the 'Slaves'. Not only do these sculptures illustrate Michelangelo's carving technique, but like all great art they have a resonance beyond their original subject matter.
In the 'Atlas' slave, named after the Titan who supported the heavens on his shoulders, you can feel the colossal power of the figure as he struggles to free his form from the stone block. The unfinished subject of this work, frozen in the midst of the creative process, is no longer simply the image of a slave. It has become a universal and timeless metaphor for the creative force at work, literally the crystallization of creativity itself. 'The marble not yet carved can hold the form of every thought the greatest artist has.' 
WORKSHOP OF TILMAN RIEMENSCHNEIDER (1460-1531)
Pietà in the Franciscan Church of Würzburg, 1510 (painted wood carving)
Photo: © Hajotthu
Wood and stone are the most traditional of sculptural materials due to their natural availability. As wood is a less durable material than stone, fewer examples of wooden sculptures have survived from the earlier eras of art. Wood has also tended to be the medium of the artisan as fine artists and their clients have favoured more permanent materials such as stone and bronze. There are, however, some notable exceptions to be found in artists like Tilman Riemenschneider, the outstanding German sculptor who worked in the northern Bavarian town of Würzburg.
Although the painted wooden 'Pietà' by Riemenschneider is dated later than Michelangelo's version of the subject, it still retains that stiff angularity of the earlier Gothic style whose popularity prevailed for longer during the Northern Renaissance. Most wooden sculpture of this period was also painted with descriptive color and gilding to increase its realism and grandeur. The production of a sculpture in Riemenschneider's workshop was a collaboration between the master, his apprentices and the artists who painted the work. Consequently, it is difficult to discern which parts the master worked on but his quality control over the final product is unmistakable.
SENUFO MASK (Carved Wood)
Photo: © Roman Bonnefoy
At the start of the 20th century African masks were collected by artists like Picasso, Matisse, Derain and Modigliani who were inspired by their bold visual impact and unusual sculptural form. Picasso, in particular, saw the potential of incorporating their striking imagery into his own work in an attempt to revitalise the tired tradition of figurative art. Although these artists had no great appreciation of the cultural values of African masks, they sensed that the creative approach of the tribal artist opened the door to a wider exploration of the relationship between the form, medium and content of an artwork. The result was a cross-cultural fertilization of the 'classical' with the 'primitive' which gave birth to Cubism, Fauvism and Expressionism as well as influencing some of the more mystical elements of Surrealism.
The form and content of an African mask were alien to the conventions of academic realism and as such, they offered a new freedom of expression to the contemporary artist. For example, mask imagery was often multi-layered, combining human and animal features in one design to symbolize an ecological balance. Masks were also a vigorous statement about experience, more than they were a response to what the artist had observed. Modern artists recognized the creative potential in this conceptual approach and were eager to explore it in their own work.
Tribal masks were mostly used in ceremonial dances as a channel of communication between the natural and supernatural worlds. Wood, the most common material used for making masks, was chosen not only for its abundance in the forest but also for its quality as a spiritual medium. Some tribal artists would take time to pay their respects to the life-force of a tree, requesting its permission to be cut down and used to make a carving. They felt that the tree had its own soul and that its wood was the natural host for the spirit of their work. This kind of holistic approach to carving invested the form of a mask with a certain integrity that reflected contemporary ideas about 'truth to materials' where the sculptor respects the natural properties of wood or stone and allows them to show through in the finished work.
The adoption of these so-called 'primitive' conventions by modern artists actually widened the parameters of artistic creativity and encouraged a more experimental attitude to the development of the form, medium and content of an artwork.
HENRY MOORE (1898-1986)
Reclining Figure, 1936 (elm wood)
The sculpture of Henry Moore links the 'classical' with the 'primitive' and the figure with the landscape in an ambiguous relationship of form and space. You can see all these elements working simultaneously in his wood carving of a 'Reclining Figure' from 1936.
The 'classical' in this sculpture lies in its subject matter which references numerous works of art from different eras stretching back to Greco-Roman antiquity. The 'primitive' element was inspired by the reclining pose of Chacmool figures, Pre-Columbian statues that date back to around 900 A.D.. Moore's admiration of 'primitive' art was not confined to African culture, but also included Pre-Columbian and Oceanic art. 'The distinguishing quality of most primitive art is the intense vitality which it possesses, because it has been made by a people in close touch with life, who felt simply and strongly, and whose art was a means of expressing vitally important beliefs, hopes and fears.' 
'There are universal shapes to which everybody is subconsciously conditioned and to which they can respond if their conscious control does not shut them off.'  As you walk around Moore's 'Reclining Figure' you register an impression of the sensual curves of the female form: the angle of a shoulder as it balances above the prop of an elbow, the line of a back which glides into the swell of a hip and the bulge of a thigh which flexes at a bulbous knee. On the same walk around the work, the ambiguity of these undulating forms may assume a geological metaphor where the figure adopts an Neolithic quality, like a stone that has been worn smooth and hollowed out by centuries of erosion. With another perceptual shift you may discern the configuration of a landscape where the form of the sculpture takes on the nature of hills, valleys, canyons, cliffs and caves. This synthesis of figure and landscape is one of the major themes of Henry Moore's work.
'Reclining Figure' is also an exemplary illustration of 'truth to materials'. Its skillful carving and polished finish highlight its wood grain which behaves like an ingrained drawing that defines the contours of its form.
Form as Modelling and Casting
Modelling is a process of adding form which is traditionally applied with malleable materials like wax or clay. Modelling offers the sculptor more freedom of expression than carving due to the tactility of its media, its speed of application and the adaptability of its techniques. Unlike wood or stone, if you make a mistake in your work you can scrape it out and add fresh material or smooth it down and start again.
Modelling is often a transitional phase in the development of a sculpture. Models in clay or wax, which are soft materials, are usually cast in harder materials like bronze, plaster or reinforced plastics to give them a more durable finish. Good casting can give a perfect reproduction of the surface of the original model.
AUGUSTE RODIN (1840-1917)
Call to Arms (detail of foot), 1878 (Cast Bronze)
In our detail of Rodin's 'Call to Arms', which was originally modelled in clay before it was cast in bronze, you can see the vitality and physicality of the artist at work in the energetic imprints of his fingers and hands as he pushes and pulls the clay over surface of the sculpture.
AUGUSTE RODIN (1840-1917)
Call to Arms, 1878 (Cast Bronze)
Auguste Rodin stands at the cutting edge of modern sculpture in a similar position that Claude Monet holds in relation to modern painting. As Monet was captivated by the changing effects of light on color, Rodin was fascinated by the changing play of light across the surface of a sculpture and how that generated the internal energy of the work.
Since the heights of Michelangelo's mannerism and the baroque dramas of Bernini, the power of sculpture as a creative force had gradually diminished to the level of the academic and the ornamental. Rodin's career as a sculptor followed a conventional path until 1875 when he visited Italy and saw the works of Michelangelo. These had such a profound effect on him that he declared in a letter to his assistant, the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, 'My liberation from academicism came through Michelangelo, who by teaching me rules diametrically opposed to those I had been taught, freed me....' . What Rodin learned from Michelangelo was how to use the human form as a vehicle for emotional expression. Onto the academic rigour of his early training, Rodin grafted the distortion and exaggeration of Michelangelo's mannerist style, the evocative potential of his 'non finito' (Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures) and an expressive modelling technique whose rippling surface lit up his figures with an animated interplay of light and shade. While Michelangelo had carved his figures in stone, Rodin modelled his in clay and it was the fluidity of this material that sparked life into his turbulent forms.
'Call to Arms' was originally designed as a competition entry for a monument to commemorate the defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war but the conservative jury rejected Rodin's sculpture as too radical in its concept and technique. However, the work was later cast in 1920 as monument to the French soldiers who fought at Verdun during the First World War. It comprises two figures emerging from a 'non finito' base and back. The lower is a wounded soldier who represents the victims of war and the upper is a Génie ailé (winged genius) who symbolizes the liberty gained through the heroic sacrifice of those who died. Both figures also reference existing icons of sacrifice and liberty: the soldier is remarkably similar to the figure of Christ in Michelangelo's unfinished 'Rondanini Pietà' in the Duomo in Florence, while the winged genius recalls the 'Genius of Liberty' in Francois Rude's relief of 'La Marseillaise' on the wall of the Arc de Triomphe.
Rodin's figure of the winged genius from 'Call to Arms' reappears as an independent form in 'The Spirit of War', a freestanding sculpture of 1883. Rodin often recast figures and used them in different configurations and contexts, an approach to composition that was adopted by many 20th century artists.
ALBERTO GIACOMETTI (1901-1966)
Grande Tête Mince (Head of the artist's brother, Diego Giacometti ), 1954-55 (cast bronze)
Alberto Giacometti had a direct line of artistic descendance from Rodin having studied under Antoine Bourdelle, a former assistant to the sculptor. Rodin, who always worked from life models, had sought to reflect the vitality of the human form through the play of light and shade on his vigorously modelled surfaces. Giacometti, working from both life and from memory, turned the expressiveness of sculpture up a notch by tirelessly modelling and remodelling his subject in an attempt to shape the essence of a figure in a single form.
Giacometti's earlier work was first associated with Cubism, then Surrealism, followed by the influence of the spindly Etruscan bronze votive figures that contributed to his mature style. He claimed that his work of this later period was motivated by witnessing the death throes of his neighbour, Tonio Potosching, in the days before and hours after he passed away. He describes this traumatic event in ‘Le Rêve, le Sphinx et la Mort de T', a bizarre essay for 'Labyrinthe', the art journal published by Albert Skira in 1946: ‘Standing motionless by the bed, I looked at the head which had become an object, a little box, measurable and insignificant. At that moment, a fly approached the black hole of the mouth and slowly disappeared inside.’  This surreal encounter deeply affected his daily life as he experienced disturbing episodes where he envisaged all those around him as lifeless. The existential gap that he perceived between the state of 'Being and Nothingness'  became the theme of his work for the rest of his life. He tried to exorcise his psychological trauma by pursuing the elusive spirit of his subject matter rather than simply describing its physical presence.
When Giacometti started a work like 'Grande Tête Mince' he worked from both the model, in this case his brother Diego, and from his imagination. He would eagerly shape and reshape the head in his search for that ephemeral spirit of 'being'. Giacometti always worked directly in front of the model, so intensively fixed on a perpendicular perspective that his observation and insight concentrated his vision into the pinch-edged form that we recognize as his style. He later tried to explain the artistic struggle that he experienced in this approach, 'The more I looked at the model, the more the screen between his reality and mine grew thicker. One starts by seeing the person who poses, but little by little all the possible sculptures of him intervene. The more a real vision of him disappears, the stranger his head becomes. One is no longer sure of his appearance, or of his size, or of anything at all. There were too many sculptures between my model and me. And when there were no more sculptures, there was a complete stranger that I no longer knew whom I saw or what I was looking at.'  There comes a point in this process where Giacometti exhausts all configurations and possibilities and has to accept a conclusion that is subjectively felt as much as it is objectively observed. The elusive spirit of Giacometti's work is discovered when he achieves that point of balance.
CLAES OLDENBURG (b.1929)
Giant Gym Shoes, 1963 (plaster and enamel paint)
Photo: © Suzanne DeChillo
Claes Oldenburg is a Pop Artist who used humour as an antidote to the self-indulgence of late Abstract Expressionism. Where they looked inside and searched their souls for creative inspiration, Oldenburg looked outside to the aesthetic wasteland of the consumer culture as the subject for his art.
The technique of 'Giant Gym Shoes' is parody of late Abstract Expressionism. First, Oldenburg dramatically enlarges the size of the shoes as a critique of the relationship between the large scale and significance of their artwork. Next, he models their form in the most elementary manner possible using scrim soaked in plaster over a basic chicken wire frame, a comment on the crudeness of their technique. Finally, he caricatures their spontaneous expressiveness in a slapdash simulation of the Abstract Expressionist painting style.
Oldenburg has an amusing sense of irony in the contradictions between his medium and its subject. He subverts the expectation of our senses by making soft objects like the gym shoes out of a hard material like plaster, and hard objects like a drum kit out of soft vinyl cloth. He also plays with the scale of his subjects which lifts them out of context, forcing us to reappraise their form.
Form as Construction
Constructed form refers to the various techniques you can use to build a sculpture. A work may be constructed from a single material or may explore an interesting combination of different materials. The rise of constructed form in sculpture is a 20th century phenomenon that is due to the development and production of new materials that offered a fresh creative challenge to artists.
NAUM GABO (1890-1977)
Head No.2, 1916 (Cor-ten sheet steel - copy of cardboard original)
Constructed metal forms in sculpture developed as the direct influence of industrialization processes in the early years of the 20th century. The economic and social changes in Russia at this time gave rise to Constructivism, a revolutionary style of abstraction that reflected a Utopian belief in technology.
The sculptures of Naum Gabo are among the most lyrical examples of Russian Constructivism. Their origin lies in Analytical Cubism but Gabo's constructivist refinements created a more elegant fusion of sculptural and structural forms. His idea was to develop a mode of construction that would define the space of a form as opposed to its mass which had been the preoccupation of most earlier sculpture. He later summarized this approach in an essay that he published in 1937, 'Up to now, the sculptors have preferred the mass and neglected or paid very little attention to such an important component of mass as space.......We consider space from an entirely different point of view. We consider it as an absolute sculptural element, released from any closed volume, and we represent it from inside with its own specific properties.' 
The spatial language that Gabo used to create works like 'Head No.2' was derived from the type of 3-dimensional models used by mathematicians and architects. Gabo constructed the work using a framework of planes that penetrate and organize the space that exists within its mass. The edges of the planes delineate the form of the head and unite its internal and external space.
DAVID SMITH (1906-1965)
Cubi XII, 1963 (stainless steel)
David Smith, one of the greatest American sculptors of the 20th century, originally trained as a painter. He was inspired to explore the possibilities of welding as an expressive medium when he was introduced to the welded sculptures of Pablo Picasso. His development of this technique led him through a range of subjects and styles culminating in the 'Cubi' series of his later years. Like many cubo-constructivist influenced artists he evolved an abstract language of form which, in the case of the 'Cubis', explored the delicate balance between mass, space and surface. It was not only Picasso's welding technique that inspired Smith, but also his ability to to develop a series of works by arranging and rearranging forms to discover the dynamics of their relationship.
The 'Cubi' series comprises twenty eight stainless steel sculptures built from geometric forms. They are all titled with Roman numerals, Cubi VI, Cubi VII, Cubi VIII and so on, but they are not numbered in any chronological order. In each work Smith delicately balances and counterbalances their weighty forms with the critical precision of a house of cards where one ill-considered element of the composition would break the tension and destroy the dynamics of the group. The interaction between their positive mass and negative space heightens their spatial drama. He adds to the action with the abstract calligraphy of expressive lines drawn on the surface of the forms with a hand grinder. These burnished marks lighten the mood of the work by glittering in the light to conduct the reflected colors of their environment.
Form as Light and Space
Light has long been an important element of art. Just think of the stained glass windows of the great European cathedrals, the glow of gold leaf in Gothic art, the dramatic chiaroscuro of Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Constable's skies and Turner's sunsets, the scientific analysis of color in Impressionism and the radiance of a Mark Rothko to name but a few.
However, light as a medium in art is a relatively new genre which, after a few experimental forays in first half of the 20th century, found a footing in the Light and Space movement of the 1960's and 70's. This was a loosely associated group of artists from Los Angeles who used materials like glass, neon, fluorescent lighting, plexiglas and acrylic resins to project and reflect light and color to transform our perception of space.
JAMES TURRELL (b. 1943)
Skyspace, 2004 (light installation)
James Turrell, who was at the forefront of the Light and Space movement, explores the optical and emotional properties of natural and artificial light to create a sublime visual experience. His work is a mixture of technology and the transcendental but it remains historically part of that Romantic tradition which Isaiah Berlin described as 'a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, ..........a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.' 
Turrell is known for his 'Skyspaces'. These are architectural installations on specific sites around the world that frame an expanse of sky on a ceiling by masking the surrounding area. With a careful balance of proportions, transitional ambient lighting, comfortable seating and no visible edge to the opening, Turrell creates an intangible portal to the heavens that stuns the observer with a mystical vision of 'the spiritual side of light.'
Form as Land Art
Land Art, also classified as Earth Art or Earthworks, took sculptural form out of the galleries and into the landscape using the natural materials of the locality to create the work. Such artworks are often designed for a particular site which may be small or vast in scale. Sometimes they are ephemeral forms, eroding or decomposing naturally in their environment. Although monumental 'earthworks' have been built since ancient times for socio-religious purposes, the land art of the 1970s was motivated by two main factors: the limitations of the gallery system and a desire to collaborate with nature as the core of creativity.
ROBERT SMITHSON (1938-1973)
The Spiral Jetty, 1970 (6650 tons of mud, salt crystals and black basalt rocks)
'The Spiral Jetty' by Robert Smithson is probably the most famous and most influential earthwork in modern art. It is 15 feet wide and projects 1500 feet into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Smithson built this structure in three weeks using a bulldozer and dump trucks. He chose the site for its magical ambience as the lake changes color from a pink to lilac to red due to the build up of beta carotene in the high salinity of its shallow water. What he particularly sought was 'landscapes that suggest prehistory. As an artist it is interesting to take on a persona of a geological agent and actually become part of that process rather than overcome it.'  Not only does the work look prehistoric but the symbolism of its spiral also incorporates the myth of the lake: the early Mormon pioneers believed that the Salt Lake was connected to the Pacific ocean by an underground channel that influenced its fluctuating water levels. The torque of Smithson's spiral is a metaphor for the ebb and flow of this force. In actuality, the lake is fed by three rivers but has no outflow to the sea and its water level rises markedly in wet years and falls during dry years. It is also affected by evaporation and the volume of water that is diverted for agricultural and urban uses.
By 1973, three years after the Spiral Jetty was built, the water level rose again, eventually submerging it to a depth of around sixteen feet. Robert Smithson never saw the work again as he died in a plane crash that year while surveying sites for another work. By 1993 the jetty reappeared, encrusted with sparkling salt crystals. It had taken on his 'persona of a geological agent and actually become part of that process'. It is a dynamic form in a dynamic environment that is now, in equal measure due to the untimely death of the artist and its remote location, a bucket list destination for artistic pilgrimages.
Form as Kinetic Art
The genre of kinetic art, which involves the movement of form, began to evolve in the early part of the 20th century when Dadaism widened the frame of reference as to what could be considered art. 'Bicycle Wheel' (1913), an upturned rotating wheel mounted on a stool by Marcel Duchamp, could be regarded as the first kinetic artwork although that was not the original intention of the piece.
The potential of technology to induce motion as a key element of an artwork was the main influence on the development of kinetic art. It charged the work with a spirit of modernity, an essential hallmark of the avant-garde at the beginning of the modern era. Early Constructivist works like Naum Gabo's 'Standing Wave' and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's 'Light Space Modulator' may be technologically primitive by contemporary standards, but they opened artists' eyes to the possibilities of movement and light as components of form in art.
ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976)
Six Dots over a Mountain, 1956 (painted steel)
Photo: © Gryffindor
At the start of the 1930's Alexander Calder brought a sense of humour and playfulness to art in America with the introduction of his constructivist influenced 'mobiles' - painted metal sculptures with moving parts that were incorporated as elements of their construction and composition. Naum Gabo had previously explored the concept of kinetic sculpture with his 'Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave)' of 1919-20 which was operated by an electric motor. The great advantage that Calder's 'mobiles' had over Gabo's 'Standing Wave' was that they were naturally propelled by air and did not need a separate power source. Their elegant construction technique allowed Calder more scope to focus on their aesthetic form, unhampered by the necessity to find a wall socket or disguise a cumbersome battery.
Alexander Calder created two different types of mobiles: 'hanging mobiles' which were suspended from the wall or ceiling and 'standing mobiles' which moved in relation to a fixed base. As the components of a Calder 'mobile' ease into action, the changing relationships of their colors, shapes and form echo the graceful and fluctuating dynamics of natural motion. His inspiration for their colors and shapes evolved from a witty combination of Mondrian's pure abstraction with the biomorphic forms of Joan Miró. Although Calder's 'mobiles' have these obvious influences, they are not simply animated versions of a Miro or a Mondrian. They are an assimilated concept that is immediately identifiable as Calder's work and very much part of the American idiom of cut, bolted and welded steel sculpture that influenced many sculptors of the 20th century including his fellow American, David Smith, and the British artist, Anthony Caro.