The problem is, we don't have the right word for what we are making, those of us dealing in some way with the figure in sculpture. "Sculpture " has become so general a term, including performance with the actual human figure, photography, video, installation, and various forms of spectacle -- I've heard it described by a distinguished curator as "everything that is not painting." Very little is made now that could be classified under the literal root meaning of the word -- carving or engraving. "Statue" as the term for sculpture is now applied only to the specialized practice of public monuments to celebrated politicians, athletes and other heroes; there's still a lot of this work being commissioned, almost all of it routine, some barely competent.
To my mind, this is a pity. When it was in general use, "statue" applied to all sculpture of the figure, because the human figure and perhaps animals were the only subjects of sculpture. But inherent in the word is the idea of standing. To set a stone upright in a cleared space can be seen as the first sculptural act. Standing implies consciousness. The upright stone acquires a meaning that separates it from other stones before it is shaped into an image, a statue.
The very first sculptures I modeled were figures, but I never formally studied figure sculpture. The living model seemed too complex and mysterious to make an objective equivalent of in clay. Then, when I understood that the subject of sculpture itself could be an object, and that it could be made of the common materials of the everyday world, it was a revelation. Like much of the new object-sculpture of the 1960s, my work rejected almost every trace of the human image, even that fundamental verticality. You couldn't even tell what it was made of. It rested on the floor and occupied the space of a person standing opposite, but it was emotionally distant, an object made to be seen and not touched. Later I became concerned with how we see, and made steel and wood sculptures framing an open center that challenged the perceptions of the onlooker. I wanted them to be more than visual puzzles, and turned to the ambiguous narratives of Kafka and Borges for parallels. It was important to me that the physical structure of each piece was clearly evident, as well as how it stood or rested on the ground, whatever the ambiguities and distortions of the onlooker's visual field.
It was as if in the process of working I had separated four fundamental aspects of sculpture: How does it stand? What is it made of? How do you see it? And finally, what is it, its identity? I was looking for a way to start over in sculpture from the beginning, using clay and plaster, materials that are in themselves formless, or waiting to be formed, when I saw the Riace bronzes, restored and first publicly exhibited in Italy after some two thousand years on the sea bed. The impact of these two figures was tremendous; they had an immediacy, a dramatic presence, that united the four elements --- the alertness of their stance; the bright bronze inlaid with copper, silver, and stone; the urgent address to you, the spectator; and the identity. But beyond being two fierce naked men modeled at the moment when naturalism had just emerged from archaic geometry, nothing more is known - they have no history, no context. To me they seemed like guardians, and so I named a series of sculptures, the first modeled life-size sculptures I made, as a tribute to them. My sculptures were simple, slab-like, upright things, not figures in any descriptive sense, except hopefully in their frontal address to the onlooker, their suggestive presence.
As I continued to work in clay and plaster, I felt I could let go of the remaining architectural framework, and allow the substance and volume of the material itself to determine the image in relation to my body as the sculpture came into being. I wanted these sculptures to be sensed internally by the onlooker, through the body, rather than interpreted by the eyes and mind. Yet I felt that each had an identity, and needed to declare itself separate from the others, and from naturally occurring rock forms, meteorites, etc. So I gave them names, the names of the earliest gods of the Greeks, for whom there were no conventional images, but there were powerful myths - stories about the beginning of things, of how the gods and the human race came into existence.
The sculptures often start with a small fragment of material picked up from the studio floor that suggests part of the human body-- a closed fist, a bent knee, a shoulder, a foot, the torso. These ideas develop in larger studies, in drawings, and over time into life-size or larger-than-life plaster sculptures. These then, because of their bulk or the way they stand or sit, may become virtually whole figures themselves. At this point the convergence with myth occurs, mostly from Western classical sources, but also as retold by modern writers. Thus the sculpture Leonidas, which started as a found image of a foot, became a sculpture that seemed to me like the torso and thighs of a wounded male figure (as in The Dying Gaul.) Somehow in my mind this connected with the betrayed hero of Isak Dinesen's story The Cloak; and also with Kafka's Prometheus, punished for betraying the secrets of the gods to men by eagles feeding on his liver as he was clamped to a rock in the Caucusus. In his agony he becomes one with the rock, his crime eventually forgotten, and everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair...There remained the inexplicable mass of rock. --The myth tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable. *
William Tucker, 2013
* Franz Kafka, Prometheus, Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir and Tania and James Stern, Schocken Books, 1971