Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Public Sulpture in the Pop Period

A Short History of Sculpture

Sculpture began in pre-history.  From that period, it mostly represented known forms like animals and the human body.  In Western cultures, the highlights came from the Greeks, the Romans and the Renaissance, deifying beauty and religious imagery.

Then, as nation states formed and battled each other, sculptures were employed to elevate leaders and warriors.  This reached its apex in the 20th century with depictions like the one below, which glorified human monsters like North Korea's Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il.

This rather ruined the deal, although it persists in certain places to this day.

Non-hack sculptors continued to produce works of integrity -- Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi -- and a contemporary favorite of mine, M.J. Anderson, an Oregonian  illuminates human meanings she discovers in marble.

Pop! -- Sculpture in the Late 20th Century

As literal representation gave way to abstract expressionism, sculptors also worked in this area.  But what really set the sculpting world going was Pop Art.

You know Pop.  Its famous early practitioner was Andy Warhol, who gave us images of Campbell Soup cans, three-dimensional Brillo boxes and artificially color-enhanced photographs of famous figures.

The adoption of identifiable imagery -- without the burdens of myth, religion, politics and hard-to-decipher abstraction -- recognized the beauty (or at least the centrality) of small things.  It made its own statement by making those things large.

Pop, shorthand for popular culture, gratified viewers by elevating images they recognized.  After tangling unsuccessfully with abstraction, people unschooled in the fine arts appreciated pop, if only because, finally, they were being let in on the joke.

Since then, big pop sculptures have been a big, big thing in public spaces (among others.)

Certainly the most famous practitioners of scaled pop sculpture, at least in the U.S., have been Claes Oldenburg and his late wife, Coosje van Bruggen (who died in 2009.)

Here are some of their famous works.

The "Batcolumn" in downtown Chicago.

"Clothespin" in downtown Philadelphia.

One of four statues known appropriately as "Shuttlecocks" outside a museum in Kansas City.  Each is between 17 and 18 feet tall.

"Spoonbridge and Cherry" a 7,000-pound sculpture with a fountain that spurts occasionally from the end of the cherry stem, in Minneapolis.

"Free Stamp" in Cleveland.

"Crusoe Umbrella" and "Plantoir" in Des Moines.

"Flashlight" at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  (It is much too subtle for the Vegas Strip.)

"Split Button" at the University of Pennsylvania.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  It is interesting to see the mundane in elevated form.  It invites consideration of many things -- chiefly, the imprint of commercial design on virtually every aspect of lived modern life.

Tomorrow:  One pop design that went too far.

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