What Is Sculpture? Four Curators Try to Define an Elusive Art Form

Lucy Raven: Ready Mix, 2021, video; at the Dia Art Foundation, New York.

Karen Lemmey
Curator of sculpture, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

For a long time, sculpture was simply defined as an artwork that occupies three dimensions. On a basic level, this remains true. But since the beginning of the 20th century, sculptors have made serious play of problematizing sculpture’s third dimension, deftly manipulating it to be ever more elusive and illusionary, as if to draw attention to the instability of what had been, for millennia, the defining characteristic of their art form. A sculpture’s third dimension can be barely measurable or even just implied; purely optical; kinetic, and thus variable; or only fully realized once the work is installed.

Senga Nengudi’s “R.S.V.P.” series, begun in 1977, is made with stretched pantyhose and sand, and can shrink down to almost nothing after commanding space and sparking wonder in a gallery. Carl Andre’s 1997 series “Voltaglyph” best meets its 3D potential when someone stands on the metal plates the artist has placed on the floor. Fred Wilson’s mirrors are neither concave nor convex, yet reflect a tremendous depth of field that changes dramatically with whatever and whoever shares their space.

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