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Minimalist sculpture: the consequences of artifice

Penny, John Edward (2002) Minimalist sculpture: the consequences of artifice. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.

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This study, "Minimalist Sculpture: The Consequences of Artifice", was initially prompted by the wish to examine the case for a materialist approach to modern sculpture. Such an inquiry needed to address not only the substantiality of material and its process, but also the formative role of ideology on those choices of governing materials and procedures. The crux of this study began as, and remains, an inquiry into physical presence, and, by extension, the idea that Minimalist sculpture somehow returns the viewer to the viewer. At the core of any materialist position is the certainty that experience contains an element of passivity. If nothing exists but matter and its movements and modifications, then consciousness and volition depend entirely on material agency. The hierarchy of such a scheme underpins the socio-economic and cultural level with that of the biological, and, in turn, the biological with the physical. However, perception is not a matter of automatically recording external stimuli, but requires active elaboration. A hermeneutic process, therefore, is not one of unbridled pure thought; rather, it requires the recognition of an external and constant measure that gives form to thought. Recourse to the 'given' fact of an external reference, therefore, depends upon a relationship between materiality and signification-the resultant heuristic method of perceptual hypothesis that is established remains perpetually open to questioning. C.S. Peirce is invaluable to this study in providing a theoretical framework for these considerations. The manner in which modern sculpture was realized experienced a decisive change with the emergence of Minimalism. The dominant aesthetic of Vitalism was brought into question as never before by the materialist programme set in motion by Minimalism. The key issue of adherence to a Vitalist or Minimalist aesthetic is invaluable when clarifying the position of artists such as Tony Smith and Robert Smithson. Earlier sculptural forms generated by Constructivism utilized aspects of industrial mimesis but did not engage with sheer physicality to the extent that Minimalism did. One reason for this major difference was the consideration accorded to scale rather than size by the Minimalists. Such a consideration of scale and the experience of spatio-temporality, understood as inextricably part of the sculptural situation, gave rise to site-specificity and its ramifications as Minimalist concerns. Approximately the first third of this study examines Vitalism as the dominant and enduring theme and background for modern sculpture. Vitalism formed an inherited intellectual situation that was directly challenged by the materialism of the Minimalists. In the second part of the study, Barnett Newman and Constantin Brancusi provide the two central historical precedents for the re-introduction of the precinctual into contemporary sculpture. Newman's interest in place as a spatio-temporal experience, and his extension of the artwork to include the interstice between the viewer and the artwork was an extremely important step for Minimalism. Brancusi is of interest mainly for his addressing of temporality as a sculptural concern, and the relationship of material to place. 11 His early use of assemblage, as a method of drawing with materials in space, facilitated not only the Minimalists but also modern sculpture at large. A section of the study is devoted to the sculpture of Richard Serra and the idea of critical distance, something that he shares with Newman. This intellectual attitude aids Serra in his declaration of the space of sculpture as parallel to, and critical of, its context. The work of Robert Smithson is examined in the light of site-specificity and ubiety, and, in particular, his use of symbols as structural prompts. Smithson's dystopian Futurism is examined as a significant way of helping to draw the distinction between his intellectual position and that of a Vitalist. The study concludes with a consideration of contextualization in general, and of Maya Lin's site-specific memorial to the causalities of the Vietnam War. What has emerged from this study is that precinctual space was firmly re-established in contemporary sculptural practice by the Minimalist sculptors. I have used the term ubiety to describe the re-emphasis, and re-emergent awareness, of place as an interstitial space that was associated with the Minimalists. Ubiety is understood to be the condition of being in a particular place, and comes from the Latin 'where'. In contrast, ubiquity is the condition of being everywhere. In the light of ubiety, sculpture, particularly site-specific sculpture, is discussed and understood as a spatio-temporal event.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures (Leeds) > Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies (Leeds)
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.629066
Depositing User: Ethos Import
Date Deposited: 11 Feb 2016 10:15
Last Modified: 11 Feb 2016 10:15
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/11333

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