The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Beyond Modern Sculpture by Jack Burnham (1969)

Artforum, Vol. 7, (May 1969) pp. 70 - 71. Book review.

Beyond Modern Sculpture is a strange book. It seems to be about a very modern type of sculpture which employs materials related to science and technology. As such it is aggressively up-to-date and indeed looks to the future, as the title implies (assuming "beyond" means "ahead in time," not "over in the next county," or some such). But if Beyond Modern Sculpture was really about technologically implemented light and movement (hereafter L&M) sculpture it would have more and better photographs and more specific description. It would be a "coffee table" book, part of the "museum without walls." It is not such a book. As I read it, or tried to read it, it came to me that I was not reading about modern sculpture or art or science or technology. All the things illustrated by photographs or represented in the text are mere agents of an overriding thesis. Lurking behind this thesis and supporting it is a spirit of dank and adamant primitive mysticism.

Mr. Burnham can describe things well. He has a feeling for sculpture and an ability to verbalize important physical features. But the writing is strikingly eccentric and uneven. Generality, defense and rationalization abound. Parts of Beyond Modern Sculpture are quite unreadable. Some sentences dissolve under the pressure of locating subject and predicate. Even the parts of the book marked by clarity are awkward. Getting through the first chapter is like kicking free out of a room full of Jello. The whole book fades in and out of an expressed delirium which puts off close reading. The text resists penetration. In fact, Beyond Modern Sculpture seems not meant to be read for literal information; it is best to read on top of the text, to float above the turgid opaque sentences and the snappy techno words and let the bits of electricity and plastic come up to you. Soon you'll hear a soft voice whispering an insistent message: light, movement, modern, good... It's pure hypnotic propaganda. The intended function of the book is to convince the reader to identify sculpture quality with specifiable process and form.

That's the real problem, the fatal flaw. Every page exudes the notion that certain forms, materials and processes guarantee art quality and conversely certain other forms, materials and processes guarantee artistic failure, that old methods and materials are no longer suitable for good art and that good sculpture from now on must consist only of the particular materials, organizations, couplings, successions, formal variety, arrangements and appearances described in Beyond Modern Sculpture. This is not said outright because it is obviously ridiculous. It pervades the book like perfume pervades a handkerchief. All the weight of the book stands behind this central proposition. The irony of this brand-new book with the hyper-modern subject matter is that it is spiritually archaic. From the jungle to Freud and Darwin to present-day science the whole force of enlightened thought has extracted human qualities from inert things and invested them in humans. To be modern is to be totally responsible. Art quality is the consequence of the art-making activity of an artist, not of the use of "magic" forms and materials. Despite its up-to-date face, Beyond Modern Sculpture is a tract, a quasi-religious, irrational appeal, a final solution to the dark mysteries of art quality. The only really modern part of Mr. Burnham's thesis is the use of the idea that a particular kind of dramatic innovation insures art quality, an idea very much in vogue today. Revolution is big press in every phase of our life. But as an art-making idea it is old-fashioned. Sculpture quality came together with violent innovation 40 or 50 years ago. Now it finds itself in quieter company, like the rather conservative Cubist sculpture of Anthony Caro. Times change.

Mr. Burnham's approach suffers from a logical fault that is more serious than modernness. An art movement is by nature undefendable, because it cannot be presented as a definable whole. Cubism, for example, is not good or bad. It isn't even a thing; it is the name given to the style of a number of similar-looking works of art. It may be necessary to make Cubism specific in a literal context to get a point across, but this hypothetical use cannot bring it into being. After any particular presentation Cubism must go right back to its less definite form. But Mr. Burnham stoutly believes in the reality of his various synthetic lumpings-together and has worked up a number of very intricate arguments based on these alleged actualities. Thus the book becomes an elaborate room without walls to support it.

A third defect, which is mortally damaging, even if in a spirit of excessive tolerance we forget the first two, is that the L&M sculptures described and illustrated in the book, to uphold the thesis therein, are not much good as art. A sculptor's work is bad because he is a bad sculptor, of course. But the L&M sculptors seem to insure the mediocrity of their work by means of an ingenious, albeit unconscious, mechanism, which I will try to explain.

As I have said, a work of art is the result of art-making activity by an artist. This activity is a series of choices enacted to construct a certain kind of physical object. Art quality "comes out" of a work as a reflection of the artist's activity. A great work of art always reflects a high density of choice; the visible features of such an object indicate that a lot of deciding has gone into its ancestry and immediate genesis. Since art-making is a physical building process, the simplest basic units of construction will lend themselves most readily to the making of the most complex and highly developed art. This is in line with plain material facts. A more complex house can be built from bricks than, say, motorcycles. The simpler a unit is the more easily it can be handled and the more quickly it will fit an invented scheme. Also, the intense pressure the best artist will put on his work, the rough working-out, giving everything a chance, quite naturally breaks up pre-existing involved units of material or process, as would a hammer pounding a rock into sand so that the sand can be re-formed into something new.

It has been my experience that most "new material" artists are lazy. They don't want to put on the pressure. They abandon great art, but would like to appear to be great artists. So they turn from making a thing to convincing an audience, from construction to theater. The best way to convince an audience is to give them what they want. The current vogue in "advanced" art is obvious, aggressive, "shocking" newness. So the "new-material" artist reaches out for a ready-made, already complex unit of construction, laden with cultural meaning. This unit will hamper thorough working-out; it is already too much its own thing; it's hard to handle, hard to fit in, too unyielding to accommodate any idea that may spring from the brain. That's why so many L&M sculptures are so dumbly simple, so raw and unpressured by any working-out, so dependent on dull, unfinished structural ideas. That's why they never amount to much as art.