Sculpting Space at the Norton Simon: A Look at the Exhibit "Beyond Brancusi"
Beyond Brancusi Creates a Sculptural Playground
Bird in Space, 1931
on view in the Norton Simon's 20th-century gallery
Constantin Brancusi's Bird in Space looks less like a bird and more like a feather. The Romanian-born artist worked in Paris through the early half of the 20th century and cast the sculpture in two materials: marble and bronze. He worked both of those materials to a high shine. The figure draws the eye up and up, mimicking a bird in flight and illustrating Brancusi's idea that "what is real is not the external form, but the essence of things."
Bird in Space is a distillation of the artist's signature style: understanding of materials, work that reflects (literally and figuratively) its environment, shapes that interact with space. In Beyond Brancusi: The Space of Scultpure, an exhibit at Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum, Brancusi's exploration of space and material is taken up by a handful of the sculptors who came after him.
Leah Lehmbeck curated the exhibit and says Brancusi did for sculpture what Picasso did for painting: take it out of the figural into something more abstract that requires the viewer to give the work some of its meaning. The idea for Beyond Brancusi came to Lehmbeck when she was new to the museum and just getting to know the Norton Simon's collection. She spotted several pieces of sculpture made by artists working in the later half of the 20th century -- artists whose work is marked by shared concepts reminiscent of Brancusi. "A lot of these artists knew each other and each other's work." says Lehmbeck, "They created all these branches and the trunk of the tree is Brancusi."
Some of the branches are made up of artists who focused on working a material, like Brancusi did. Although while Brancusi worked in wood, stone and metal, it was a more modern California industry that influenced the materials used by DeWain Valentine: aerospace. Lehmbeck says that Valentine got to know the materials being used in aerospace production and then adapted them for his own purposes ("his notebooks are full of different chemical formulas"). His 1968 work Large Wall is included in the exhibit.
Large Wall, 1968
DeWain Valentine (American, b. 1936)
Cast Polyester resin
"It weighs a ton," says Lembeck, "a literal ton." But in Valentine's hands, this giant slice of polyester resin became something else. "He was a surfer, so he was really familiar with sea and sky and he brought that to this piece, giving it an expansiveness that makes it seem so much lighter than it is."
Robert Morris (American, b. 1931)
Other artists in this exhibit show Brancusi's influence in work that collaborates with its environment -- like the giant swath of vented felt designed by sculptor Robert Morris. "With the Morris piece, as soon as you hang it, it starts to change. The gaps in the felt get bigger. It looks different now than when we hung it and it will continue to look different as time passes."
Donald Judd (American, 1928-1994)
Another piece that uses the environment as a material is Donald Judd's Untitled from 1969. The piece consists of stainless steel units coated in blue Plexiglas and stacked vertically up a wall with a specific distance between each unit. Judd created 10 units altogether, but the height of the gallery ceiling determines how many can be shown at once. In Beyond Brancusi, the ceiling allowed for a total of 8 to be mounted.
Larry Bell (American, b. 1939)
Brancusi once said of his sculptures, "I don't care what they reflect, as long as it is life itself." Some of the art in Beyond Brancusi takes this literally. "Larry Bell's cube is coated in [the metallic alloy] Inconel," says Lehmbeck, "but it's made of glass. So you can look through it and you can also see yourself reflected back at you." In this way, the cube is animated by the life around it.
Lehmbeck says that many of the sculptures in the exhibit ask the viewer to be a part of the artistic experience. "They're really meant for you to walk around. When there's no front or back, it's up to the viewer to decide where it is in space." That sense of engagement is part of Brancusi's legacy, but it also makes the exhibit feel welcoming. Says Lehmbeck of the pieces in Beyond Brancusi, "you don't have to have any deep knowledge of art history. They're approachable. That's the point, really."
Beyond Brancusi: The Space of Sculpture is on view at the Norton Simon through January 6, 2014. Click here for more on the Norton Simon Museum.