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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Steel Sculpture

photo by Matt Faber
I'm Alive, 2005, Tony Cragg
Even though I love sculpture and have even tried my hand at it a few times (mostly in college) I must confess to being derelict in writing about it. That's ironic in that I've started including low-relief sculptural elements into my paintings. Yet, as a painter, I've watched in dismay as, just in my own lifetime, the painted image has declined in importance. In its place, as a choice mode of creative expression, sculpture, not to mention video and digital media, are having an ever more impressive impact on the arts. Insofar as sculpture is concerned, much of this rise to prominence has to do with the growing utilization by artists of an almost unbelievably wide range of viable and acceptable sculptural media. I've written about several such "new" media the past few months (too many to list here).
The Lady, 1967, Pablo Picasso, Chicago Civic Center Daley Plaza
One of Picasso's first steel
sculptures from 1928
For centuries sculpture had to be carved (or so it was thought), usually from wood or stone. Sculpture demanded a material that was ageless. Eventually, a growing knowledge of metalergy allowed bronze to be cast from molds utilizing wax and plaster. Then, in the first decade of the 20th century, little more than a hundred years ago, Pablo Picasso changed all that. He began to fabricate sculpture. The basic methods utilized went from subtracting materials from a whole to adding composite parts to create a whole. Sculpture has never been the same since. Picasso's fifty-foot-tall welded steel sculpture, The Lady (above) in Chicago's Civic Center Plaza is an enduring monument to this fundamental change. His first efforts in steel from around 1928 would seem to indicate he started small (left).
Tortois and Hare,
Michael Browne and Stewart Smith,
Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx, NY
In recent years there has been a veering away from the idea that sculpture must, by necessity, be enduring. Sculptors have embraced everything from snow to straw, including various foodstuffs, flowers, shrubbery, fabric, hair, even fire and water, none of which are likely to last more than a few months. However, on the other side of the coin, where "everlasting life" is deemed by the sculptor to be paramount, like Picasso, they tend to prefer steel. Steel is versatile. It's relatively inexpensive, attractive, it can be molded or welded, comes in a variety of colors and textures, not to mention the fact that it can be painted virtually any color. And, whether rusted or mirrored stainless, steel, with minimal upkeep, it is about as archival as any material known to man (even better than marble).

copyright, Jim Lane
A monument to the Finnish composer, Sibelius, Helsinki, Finland. More than a hundred steel cylinders make soft sounds in the wind. Nearby stands a steel sculpture of the composer's disembodied head.
Sliced Image and Steel Nut,
Park Chan-girl
Steel lends itself to abstraction or expressionism, or abstract expressionism (above), as well as it does to realism, environmental pieces, even fountains and massive monuments (or all of the above in a single piece). Some sculptors take pride in crafting their steel sculpture themselves while others, such as Picasso, simply build scale models then, adopting a post-modern mindset, let the experts do the dirty work. I might also add that, as with virtually all art one encounters with steel sculpture, what has become my favorite critical phrase, the "good, the bad, and the ugly." Fortunately, most of it is good. Some, in fact, is very good. Those are the ones I've included here...a steel sculpture sampler, so to speak.

Check out this wonder of modern sculptural science in Charlotte, North Carolina by Czech Republic artist David Cerny:



  1. Hi, Jim, I feel rather humbled by the appearance of my tortoise and hare piece along with such big names in contemporary art. This aluminum casting was designed by Mike Browne of NYC parks and built in my studio. It's the first of a number of big pieces I did for him. The rest are on Staten Island.

  2. Stewart--

    It's seldom that I hear from an artist I've featured. Thanks for your comment. I'm sorry for misspelling your name, I've corrected it. I guess I should have confirmed the kind of metal used as well. I also appreciate your inclusion of your website URL as well. It's been so long, I'm uncertain where I picked up the image but in any case, it added a nice whimsical touch to help me keep things light and fun.