DMA Insight

From Object to Image: Sculpture, Installation, Media

The following is a 2007 essay by __Charles Wylie, "From Object to Image: Sculpture, Installation, Media," in Fast Forward: Contemporary Collections for the Dallas Museum of Art.

In thinking about sculpture in Dallas, the Nasher Sculpture Center inevitably springs to mind, not only as a great act of philanthropy to the city of Dallas, but also as a nearly ideal basis on which, in comparing and contrasting the Nasher's holdings with those of the Dallas Museum of Art, to consider the ways in which sculptors have used forms and materials in the past. The DMA has joined with its patrons in a loosely systematic attempt to continue and extend the great tradition of sculpture found at the Nasher. Part of this attention to the new has necessitated a reconsideration of what sculpture today is and can be, as artists have used a bewildering array of approaches to creating three-dimensional work, from film, video, and sound to LED numbers to store-bought candy.

David Smith's Cubi XVII (1965.32.McD) is a useful object to consider when thinking of the various paths sculpture has taken. This piece from Smith's famous Cubi series represents a crucial bridge between past and future. Smith's work in general as been compared to that of the abstract expressionist painters because of his use of large-scaled gesturelike forms that occupy space in the same way that Franz Kline's forms, say, occupy a wall; not to mimic painting, but to create works of resolutely abstract form that commanded the space around them, space that included the viewer. This sense of full three-dimensionality and one's relationship to it will reappear again and again as sculpture progresses up to the present day.

The artists who acknowledged the importance of viewer in relation to object were the minimalists. For some artists, in their use of certain materials placed in a particular manner, the encounter became even more active. Thus Richard Long creates a giant circle that nearly demands the viewer to walk around it to experience its structure and mass (1985.120), and Charles Ray provides a decidedly unsettling encounter with abstract form by placing industrial objects in precarious positions that could at any moment come undone, leading to potential harm (2001.264.A-E). Both Long and Ray arrange their forms in relation to one another in a contingent balance, and both employ multiple parts to create a whole.

As may be seen in the sculptures mentioned above, basic forms have fascinated artists ever since the minimalist era (and before, if one thinks of Brancusi, to name but one artist), and this holds true for contemporary artists such as Anish Kapoor, Martin Puryear, and Liz Larner. Kapoor created a giant, concave cone that hangs on the wall as a painting would but occupies space far exceeding the two dimensions of a stretched canvas (1993.85). Martin Puryear's sculpture likewise exhibits the artist's interest in a geometry of simple shape, but here the artist's handworking is apparent, as in the unevenly applied silver paint that imparts to the work a suggestion of a tin can or other such device (1987.350). Liz Larner, too, plays with basic forms—in this case that of the cube, the subject of countless paintings and sculptures of the modern and contemporary eras—by warping standard lines of two boxes, joining them in an eccentric composition, and painting them in subtle primary colors, all of which suggests a sense of organic growth or transmutation in a form that is normally decidedly staid and rigid (2011.11).

If abstract form has been a dominant aesthetic, recognizable objects, either found or handmade, have played an important part in sculpture's trajectory as well. In making their sculptures, artists relied on the fact that everyone brings to objects certain associations that are inescapable, and when these objects themselves seem to have a history and a certain relation to those around them, the impact can be startling and even unnerving in its uncanny, déjà-vu directness. For instance, Joseph Cornell's mysterious conglomerations of images and objects contained within the framework of a shallow box present any number of associations that almost seem to be illustrations of a dream (1976.73.FA), while Bruce Conner's assemblages play a similarly mysterious game in their accumulation of cast-offs brought together in a more deliberately icon-making way (2005.6).

Other artists, such as Chris Burden, have devised sculpture that provides an environment for viewers to experience rather than producing a single object. Burden has assembled an installation of hundreds of small cardboard submarines (1988.81). The accompanying text listing each submarine's name is resolutely neutral in its presentation of the bare physical reality of the actual number of submarines in the United States produced from the late 19th through the late 20th century.

Moving forward with the idea of sculpture as an environment are artists who have relied on the inured experience we have in watching television or going to the movies, by introducing the moving image into their work. Electronic imagery has entrenched itself as a viable artistic tool that reflects and extends the role of media on the world stage and within our more immediate environments. There are artists who have literally combined the sculptural tradition with the moving image; and single- and multi channel video and film installations have entered the mainstream. For example, Bruce Nauman's use of video and sculpture set the stage for an immersive aesthetic that demanded the full physical participation of the viewer as spectator and subject of a work of art (2004.5.A-F); Bill Viola's work similarly pioneered the role of the image as an overwhelming presence that had to be literally confronted (1998.190.A-P), while Eija-Liisa Ahtila employs a deft placement of screen and image to examine psychological states (2002.52.A-N).

The path sculpture has taken from the lone object to the room-scaled installation, from a relatively uniform conception of object confronting viewer to the conception of immersion within an environment, is one that charts the rise of electronic media as a vehicle for addressing art's traditional concerns in new and profoundly intriguing ways. Combined with the collection of the Nasher Sculpture Center, the holdings of the Dallas Museum of Art and its patrons will provide audiences with a virtually unparalleled history of form, material, and experience in the art of the recent past and the present moment.

Adapted from

Charles Wylie, "From Object to Image: Sculpture, Installation, Media," in Fast forward: contemporary collections for the Dallas Museum of Art, eds. María de Corral and John R. Lane (Dallas Museum of Art ; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 223-227.