Essential Books: 7 Critical Overviews of Modern and Contemporary Sculpture

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There’s an old joke describing sculpture as the thing you bump into while backing away to look at a painting. While the gag reflects the long-held bias that sculpture is somehow secondary to painting, this wasn’t always the case. During classical antiquity, three-dimensional representations of the body were considered the truest mirror of nature, and the rediscovery of sculptural fragments amid ancient Roman ruins launched the Renaissance. However, during the 17th century, France’s Académie Royale formalized art training and prioritized painting over sculpture, even to the point of reducing the latter to a pedological tool (in the form of plaster casts of classical statuary) to teach drawing. With the 19th and 20th centuries, though, the academic strictures that had limited art were upended by an avant-garde determined to close the gap between art and life. Sculpture became a critical component to this endeavor and remains important for art to this day, as you’ll see by checking our list of the best overviews of modern and contemporary sculpture. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)

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1. Judith Collins, Sculpture Today
Published in 2014 as one of Phaidon’s best-selling contemporary art surveys for general readers, Judith Collins’s Sculpture Today offers a comprehensive overview of the past 50 years of sculpture. Collins’s account starts at a point that she describes as the end of modern painting after nearly a century of revolutionary stylistic changes, from Cubism on. As the 1970s dawned, sculpture and sculpture-adjacent practices became the primary mode of expression for what became known as the dematerialization of the art object—a somewhat ironic term, given that the genres that emerged (earthworks, installations, body art, and the expansion of Duchamp’s “readymades”) were three-dimensional in nature. Using concise and easily accessible language, Collins, formerly a senior curator at London’s Tate Gallery, focuses on how the innovations of ’70s sculpture were assimilated between 1975 and 2007 and became the foundation for medium today.
Purchase: Sculpture Today $59.00 (new) on Amazon

2. Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture
As the cofounder of the theory-laden quarterly October, Rosalind Krauss was at the white-hot center of the critical discourse driving the art world at a time when such discourse still mattered. Originally published in 1981, Passages in Modern Sculpture is a classic example of 20th-century art history in which sculpture inexorably develops from figurative to abstract—a progressive model that was already out of fashion when the book came out. Kraus presents a series of case studies beginning with Auguste Rodin’s relief The Gates of Hell (1880–1917), which she cites as a decisive break with sculpture’s narrative tradition. She then covers breakthrough accomplishments by other major figures—Brancusi’s Bird in Space, Picasso’s Construction in Metal Wire, Duchamp’s Fountain—before moving on to the work of coevals such as Carl Andre, Michael Heizer, and Robert Morris. Though obviously of its time, Krauss’s book is an important milestone in art historiography.
Purchase: Passages in Modern Sculpture $39.95 (new) on Amazon

3. Jon Wood and Julia Kelly, Contemporary Sculpture: Artists’ Writings and Interviews
Though the contemporary art world seems awash in paintings, sculpture remains a vital expression, especially in the realm of public art, which has become increasingly prevalent over the past several decades. This volume, whose 2020 publication was overshadowed by the lockdown following the outbreak of Covid, uses interviews with artists or statements by them to explore sculpture’s continued relevance—not only in the public sphere, but in wide-ranging studio practices spanning everything from traditional statues and portrait busts to photography and performance. The book contains 50 texts related to artists from Europe (Germany and the United Kingdom in particular), the United States, and Asia, featuring, for example, discussions of material and methods with such established names as Katharina Fritsch, Thomas Schütte, and Paul McCarthy. Highly readable with a format that allows readers to dip in and out, Contemporary Sculpture explores its subject in the artists’ own words.
Purchase: Contemporary Sculpture: Artists’ Writings and Interviews $50.94 (new) on Amazon

4. Ina Cole, From the Sculptor’s Studio: Conversations With 20 Seminal Artists
Another book compiled from interviews with artists, From the Sculptor’s Studio is a U.K.–focused look at contemporary sculpture featuring conversations with 20 internationally renowned figures including Anthony Caro, Antony Gormley, Mona Hatoum, Anish Kapoor, Cornelia Parker, and Rachel Whiteread, among others. Author Ina Cole is a noted writer on modern and contemporary art and a contributing editor for Sculpture, a journal affiliated with the International Sculpture Center in the United States. She takes readers behind the scenes, visiting her interlocutors’ studios as they weigh in on their ideas, processes, and approaches to mounting exhibitions. The talk often revolves around specific works that are among the most seminal sculptures produced since the millennium, accompanied by reproductions, many of them double-page spreads. The 165 color images also include portraits of the artists. Cole herself contributes an introductory essay that explains her selections and their representation of current sculptural trends.
Purchase: From the Sculptor’s Studio $42.49 (new) on Amazon

5. William Tucker, The Language of Sculpture
A British critic and an artist, William Tucker brought his experience with sculpture to bear on this key study of the medium published in 1985. Tucker was essentially a late modernist who emerged in the 1960s with geometrically abstract objects that won the attention of no less a figure than Clement Greenberg in the United States. Tucker’s reputation as a vanguard artist would prove short-lived, however, as his kind formalism was eclipsed by radical genres such as Minimalism and Arte Povera. In this book, Tucker ascribes two major characteristics to sculpture: gravity, meaning literally the attraction of a sculptural mass to Earth; and light, which reveals the object to the viewer. Another way he might put it is that sculpture is the interaction between material and form. It’s a conservative view out step with the theories of the 1970s, but one that remains relevant to Tucker’s analysis of Rodin, Brancusi, Picasso, and Matisse and their roles in the furthering of 20th-century sculpture.
Purchase: The Language of Sculpture from $57.00 (new) on AbeBooks

6. Glenn Halper and Twylene Moyer, A Sculpture Reader: Contemporary Sculpture Since 1980
This compendium published in 2010 contains 42 essays by a varied group of contributors that originally appeared in the pages of Sculpture magazine over its first 25 years, providing a tour d’horizon of three-dimensional art from that period. The writings focus on works of individual artists rather than on overarching trends or movements, which is just as well since the latter were no longer pertinent by that point. Still, this anthology offers sharp critical insights into the state of the medium at the turn of the millennium, even if its practitioners’ aims were somewhat diffuse compared with those of their 20th-century counterparts. The book suggests that the open-ended nature of today’s sculptural practices has its virtues, as illustrated here by in-depth discussions on the work of internationally celebrated art stars such as Ann Hamilton and Olafur Eliasson, along with many other important names.
Purchase: A Sculpture Reader $29.95 (new) on Amazon

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7. Roxana Marcoci, The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture: 1839 to Today
This volume accompanied a 2010 MoMA survey on the relationship between photography and sculpture—a symbiotic pairing that dates back to the invention of the camera itself. Early on, portrait busts, statues, and architectural friezes lent themselves naturally to photography because, unlike human sitters, they didn’t squirm, a plus when film technologies required prolonged exposures. And while critics contended that photography signaled the demise of art (or the loss of its aura, per Walter Benjamin), artists—sculptors in particular—began to use photography to extend their practices in various ways. Rodin hired photographers and orchestrated dramatic lighting of his works to document them. The images that Brancusi took of his sculptures in his studio became artworks themselves. Later, photos served as stand-ins for ephemeral or site-specific genres like earthworks and performance. With 300 pictures by more than 100 artists, this book offers a fascinating look at an underappreciated aspect of modern art history.
Purchase: The Original Copy $55.00 (new) on Amazon


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