Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 22, 2019
Penelope Curtis Sculpture Vertical, Horizontal, Closed, Open New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2017. 324 pp.; 290 b/w ills. Hardcover $45.00 (9780300227222)

Sculpture Vertical, Horizontal, Closed, Open is based on the five lectures, collectively titled “Sculpture on the Threshold—An Enquiry into the Underlying Forms of Sculpture,” that Penelope Curtis delivered as the 2015 Paul Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in London. The framework of the lecture series, given biennially since 1994 by selected leading scholars of British art, accounts for the specific national focus of the book, though at times it seems incongruous for a project concerned with identifying something akin to a universal vocabulary of sculpture. Curtis justifies this exact issue in the preface, writing that beyond the parameters of the lectures, the works illustrated and discussed throughout the book are “known to me personally, and the personal aspect of the project is part of its wider import. My argument is that, though my specimens are specific to me . . . they have sufficient validity to be effectively interchangeable with others” (vii). There are close to three hundred sculptures of all shapes, sizes, and materials illustrated in Curtis’s book, eloquently utilized in the service of her broader arguments, but she really is not concerned with any individual work as such. This not a book about sculptures, but about Sculpture.

In this regard, Sculpture Vertical, Horizontal, Closed, Open recalls another compendium of Mellon Lectures: Herbert Read’s The Art of Sculpture (London: Faber & Faber, 1954). The book published Read’s Andrew W. Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 1954, and like Curtis’s, similarly attempted to identify the essential qualities of sculpture. The monument also figured heavily in The Art of Sculpture as did bold, thought-provoking claims about the medium overall, but whereas Read located sculpture’s specificity in the tactile, Curtis focuses on its inherent liminality, its unavoidable and unique in-betweenness. She builds her argument around the concept of thresholds and through what she identifies as four key qualities of sculpture—vertical, horizontal, closed, open—devoting a chapter to each. Curtis is quick to distinguish that in structuring the project around these categories, “The book has not set out to identify or analyse all the qualities of sculpture, but rather to suggest a framework that underlies sculpture as whole” (vi).

These categories and their subsequent chapters are presented as pairs. The first two explore the vertical and the horizontal, “the marker and the marked,” which “both congregate around the subject of death” (110). Chapter 1 begins with the quality perhaps most associated with sculpture. Monumental columns, statues of the human figure, and even the far more primordial form of the tree share a similar vertical orientation. The shortest of the four main sections, this chapter looks past the desire to erect something and instead examines the “functional verticality” of columns, plinths, crosses, beacons, and obelisks as markers of place and memorials to human existence. Chapter 2 shifts to the horizontally oriented forms of tombs and tomb monuments, effigies, and reclining figures as well as the literal ground including the earth, floors, and the inscribed stones, plates, and material interventions made on and within them. Running throughout this chapter is a compelling evocation of sculpture’s static inertia and its ability to reinforce the threshold space or “nexus between sleep and death” (72). Some of the most arresting points in this chapter as well as in the other main three occur when Curtis makes overt connections between contemporary sculptures and more historic objects, for example, her discussion of disappearance in both Alison Wilding’s low, horizontally oriented abstract sculptures like Coldface (1997, exhibited at Karsten Schubert, London) and the tomb chest of Nicolas Grene from the late fourteenth century (64–5,  Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Exton), or the “bed-like quality of the grave” as made physically manifest in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Sleeping Hermaphrodite (1620, Louvre Museum, Paris), and Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Mattress) (1991, Museum of Modern Art, New York) (70–1).

The second couplet explores the closed and open qualities of sculpture, shifting the focus from its physical demarcation of space to its more conceptual, volumetric effects. In chapter 3, Curtis explores the ideas of containment and content. Beginning with the sculptural representations of Pandora’s box, medieval caskets, and reliquaries, she maneuvers into a broader discussion of the human body, both its figural representations as “container” and its containment within objects like tombs and coffins. Curtis writes, “The rectilinear tomb chest is, I would argue, clearly present as an archetypal sculptural form” (146)—an assertion fortified not only by the inclusion of works like a sarcophagus from the early fourth century, but also Robert Morris’s Box for Standing (1961, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid) and Whiteread’s Monument (2001), as installed on the “Fourth Plinth,” in London’s Trafalgar Square. The chapter concludes by expanding the discussion to other box-like forms—vitrines, shelters, huts, and metal and wood chests—and their protective or embalming connotations. Whiteread is evoked multiple times throughout the book, especially in this chapter, as a “sustained interpreter” of the “play of container to contained, and notably the human contained” (157).

If in chapter 3 the focus was on the “preservation of content, physical and conceptual,” the next chapter seeks to examine sculpture’s openness, its existence as a “place of change” and “passage” (182). Chapter 4 investigates the liminal status of forms like archways, gates, monument markers, doors, and ecclesiastical porches as well as the perhaps less expected fireplaces and mirrors. When sculpture is understood and experienced as a literal threshold, as something crossed or entered, it not only requires a “shift in behaviour” and a bifurcation of physical space, but acutely activates the space around it. Chapter 4 reads as the most speculative, with the broadest leaps—not all of which are convincing—and in the process foregrounds the slippage between or glossing over of disciplinary boundaries that occurs throughout the book. There is much to be admired in a book about sculpture that draws naturally from the fields of architecture, decorative arts, and material culture writ large, but such fluidity sometimes flattens the effectiveness of the specific subjects discussed.  

Chapter 4 for example, concludes with a discussion of fireplaces and mirrors, a comparison justified by Curtis writing that her “sense” was that they “belong together, and not merely in a domestic sense, but in the sense of something altogether grander” (242). Curtis highlights Rosemarie Trockel’s 2012 exhibition A Cosmos (initiated by the Reina Sofia, Madrid), which incorporated glazed ceramic representations of both in a powerful suggestion of “things that might open, if in different ways” (242). Trockel’s ceramic fireplace frame and Joseph Wilton’s chimneypiece (ca. 1775) or Anish Kapoor’s Turning the World Upside Down (1995, exhibited at Fondazione Prada) and a mirror created by or after Thomas Chippendale (ca. 1765, Victoria and Albert Museum, London), may all share similar essential attributes of sculpture, but they also operate and were made with far different intentions. Curtis, though, is not concerned with historical context or time, but in the timelessness of sculpture’s spatial activation. In discussing an ornate, gilded mirror from ca. 1720, for example, she writes, “Why is this object fascinating? I think both because it provides a frame for the unframeable; for time, weather, wind, smoke, pressure, and because it creates a sculptural passage, a kind of egress, out from the confines of the drawing room” (225).

In the fifth and final chapter, titled “Ensemble,” Curtis explores the intersection of the four concepts examined in the preceding chapters. When they “come together,” according to Curtis, the connection between sculpture and ceremonial or commemorative space is made manifest and the sculptural experience fully engendered (252). The immense, essential power of sculpture for Curtis, is its ability to serve as a threshold, a physical and conceptual space of transition. As she outlines, this is evident in both sculpture’s ability to “hover between one state and another” (vi) and its unavoidable evocation of the passage between life and death—“the threshold,” Curtis concludes, “that holds the promise of something beyond itself, because as sculpture is always close to death, it is also close to life” (290).

Overall, Curtis’s writing is clear and eloquent throughout even if it does retain the pace and tone of a lecture. She deftly moves across centuries and types of sculpture, grappling with a complex range of ideas, references, and rhetorical moves. Such breadth demands much of the reader and also some latitude. As with a lecture, the copious illustrations throughout the text prove crucial, but Curtis only briefly discusses each referenced work, and while her knowledge and familiarity with them is clear, readers less familiar with British sculpture may miss the presence of more contextualization. Further, even with her acknowledgement in the preface regarding the nationalistic narrowness of the artworks she uses to illustrate her argument, the universal claims of the condition of sculpture argued through such a narrow lens, and one overwhelmingly imperialist in its tradition, at points come across as jarring. Curtis, however, does not seek to make claims about “all sculpture,” but rather the persistent, constant existence of sculpture, of that which is “in front of us, below us, withheld from us or open to us” (290). Sculpture, for Curtis, is a “threshold that holds the promise of something beyond itself” (290). While perhaps better suited to the format of a substantive lecture series rather than a book, Sculpture Vertical, Horizontal, Closed, Open is an all-too-rare theoretical examination of sculpture and its persistent, diverse existence as a distinct medium and mode of experience. 

Marin R. Sullivan
Independent Scholar