Making sculpture make sense Essence: The heart of the form is elusive, but not inaccessible, and anyone can get it

Instant Culture

January 11, 1998|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Even if you've never set foot in an art museum, it's a safe bet that you know something about sculpture, be it from making snowmen as a child or looking at the statues in your neighborhood park. Such oft-reproduced masterpieces of Western art as Michelangelo's "David" and Rodin's "The Thinker" are every bit as much a part of the common stock of cultural memory as the "Mona Lisa."

Yet sculpture has long taken a back seat to painting in the collective consciousness of art connoisseurs. Generally speaking, important sculptures don't cost as much as important paintings (not quite as much, anyway), in part because they frequently exist in multiple casts made from the artist's original work; as a result, wealthy collectors, most of whom buy with at least one eye on the market, are less likely to specialize in sculpture. Where collectors go, the public eventually follows, which is why Pablo Picasso is a household name and Alberto Giacometti isn't.

But great sculpture is in no way inferior to great painting. Indeed, the physical presence of a sculpture - its touchability, so to speak - may well make it more immediately intelligible to the novice than a painting of comparable vintage and significance. What's more, the existence of numerous authentic copies of such triumphs of the sculptor's art as, say, Degas' "Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot" (casts of which can be seen in many of America's larger museums) means you don't have to catch the next plane to Italy to find out what sculpture is all about: A simple train ride will do quite nicely.

So will a quick drive to the nearest bookstore. For even though the three-dimensionality of sculpture necessarily limits the extent which it can be "reproduced" by a flat photograph, the happy fact remains that there are plenty of first-rate books about sculpture, many of which are ideally suited to the needs of budding gallery-goers eager to set forth on the road to cultural awareness. Here are six books - all but one available in paperback - that, taken together, will tell you who's who, what's what and where's where in the world of sculpture:

* Full Circle: David Finn has spent more time looking closely at great statues than anyone now alive. He has, by his own reckoning, "taken tens of thousands of photographs of sculpture for over 25 books, which is probably something of a record." Finn's "How to Look at Sculpture" (Abrams, 144 pages, $14.95 paper), illustrated with his own exquisite photographs of some of the most famous statues in the world - among them Michelangelo's "Moses," Donatello's "St. Mary Magdalen," Cellini's "The Nymph of Fontainebleau," Canova's "Three Graces," Rodin's "Hand of God," Brancusi's "The Muse" and

Giacometti's "Diego" - is without question the best introductory book about sculpture currently in print.

Of particular value is the clarity with which Finn summarizes the distinguishing features of his favorite art form: "When you walk by an important sculpture in a museum, in front of a building, in a city plaza, or in a park, you are passing something that can open your eyes and mind to a new world. If you give it only a quick glance you will surely miss the experience. But if you stop, look carefully, walk around the sculpture, and watch it change as you see it from different angles, you will be able to make some astonishing discoveries. ... A sculpture exists in space like a human being, or like a mountain, tree or cloud, and it needs to be approached as a terrain that must be explored in order to be fully appreciated."

* The Lost World: When we think of sculpture, most of us think first of the ancient Greeks, whose unprecedented technical skill marked a turning point in the evolution of Western art. But their statuary, for all its self-evident beauties, is deceptively difficult to comprehend. To the Greeks, sculpture was not "art": it was, rather, a tool of religious observance. In order to get a better

sense of what these extraordinary statues really meant to their makers and owners, you can do no better than to read Nigel Spivey's "Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings" (Thames and Hudson, 240 pages, $24.95 paper). Spivey, who lectures in classics at Cambridge University, combines an appreciation of the aesthetic aspect of Greek sculpture with a profound understanding of its complex cultural context.

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