Art History Modern Sculpture
Caterina Y. Pierre
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0111


Modern sculpture is historically defined as sculpture beginning with the work of Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) and ending with the advent of Pop Art and Minimalism in the 1960s. Alex Potts’s 2001 discussion of the historiography of modern sculpture is integral for an understanding of the media, period and methods used by key artists. While it is now seen as cliché to begin the Modernist movement in sculpture with the work of Rodin, in his work one does begin to see tendencies that will become characteristic of modern sculpture, such as a new interest in the fragment, in particular the bodily fragment; surface treatment and expressive surface detail; an attention toward movement; a symbolic merging of the interior expression of a figure and its exterior depiction, or what was referred to by Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957) as an “essence”; and a greater consideration of abstraction, fragmentation, and non-representation in sculptural objects, that is to say, a conscious movement away from academic realism and idealism. Sculptors during this period also placed emphasis on design, form, and volume over the representation of a specific subject. The use of materials not traditionally used in final sculptural concepts became more evident, such as the use of clothing, textiles, and other mixed media as seen in the Little Dancer at Fourteen (1878–1881, National Gallery, Washington, DC) by Edgar Degas (1834–1917). The fusion of human and machine elements is seen during the Machine Age period, such as in the works of Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916) and Jacques Lipschitz, 1891–1973, and distortion and fragility appear in works from the interwar period, as in the works of Medardo Rosso (1858–1928) and Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966). The influence of art from outside the Western, that is, European, tradition became highly influential to sculptors at the turn of the century and can be seen in sculptures by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). Materials that had not been used for fine art sculptures in the immediate past and newly invented materials, such as plastics, began to be used, by artists including Naum Gabo (1890–1977) and Antoine Pevsner (1884–1962). Materials that had been used in the past gained greater significance in the modern period such as aluminum (Isamu Noguchi, 1904–1988), electricity for lights in sculpture and for motorized movement (Camille Claudel, 1864–1943), iron (Julio González, 1876–1942), lead (Aristide Maillol, 1861–1944), steel and welded metals (David Smith, 1906–1965; Julio Gonzalez, 1876–1942), wood (Constantin Brancusi, 1876–1957), and found objects (Louise Nevelson, 1899–1988). While there are examples of moving sculptures made by earlier sculptors such as Antonio Canova and Lorenzo Bartolini that we would today think of as kinetic sculpture, both the suggestion of movement in sculpture and actual moving sculptures became more prominent during the first half of the twentieth century (Alexander Calder, 1898–1976; László Moholy-Nagy, 1895–1946) and led to a greater use of movement technology in the second half of the century. The tension and reaction between the positive image and the negative space that surrounds a work of art played a significant role as well, and this can be seen especially in the early work and “space drawings” of Giacometti, Picasso, and David Smith (1906–1965) and in the sculpture of Jean Arp (1886–1966), Henry Moore (1898–1986), and Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975). These artists, alongside many others including Alexander Archipenko (1887–1964), Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876–1918), Max Ernst (1891–1976), Henri Gaudier-Brezeska (1891–1915), Gaston Lachaise (1882–1935), Henri Laurens (1885–1954), and Aristide Maillol (1861–1944), made the most significant break with sculpture of the recent past, freed it from its dependence on anatomy and its servitude to architecture, and pushed the medium further than any generation since the sculptors of the early Renaissance. The major movements within this period include Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Cubism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Dadaism, Futurism and Surrealism.

General Overviews

There are an enormous number of books that cover modern sculpture, both in and out of print. Potts 2001 notes that “a distinctively modernist tradition in sculpture first properly established itself in the art world in the 1930s” (p. 145). In addition, Potts discusses Burnham 1978 (cited under Materials and Techniques), Giedion-Welcker 1937, and Read 1956 as the core texts that established an understanding of modernist tendencies in sculpture. Many of the books still in print listed here are standard texts that are commonly cited on the subject that were originally published forty or fifty years ago. Their availability is a testament to their importance in the historiography of modern sculpture, but they have also been challenged and revised by more recent publications. Curtis 1999, for example, is a recent and inexpensive introduction that is useful for students and scholars new to the subject. Elsen 2001 is a standard text, originally published in 1974 and still in print; however, the images remain in black and white, which could have easily been revised and which weaken the more recent publication slightly. Krauss 1981 is a seminal text that refutes Elsen’s dominance in the field of modern sculpture and presents a discerning study of specific artists and objects from a theoretical point of view. Read 1956 and Read 2007 are thematic, rather than chronological, texts on modern sculpture, originally published in 1964, and it contains some artists in the last chapter who have not fully withstood the test of time; however, it is still useful for undergraduate courses and introductory reading as a part of the historiography of modern sculpture that can been approached with questions and analysis. While it is no longer in print, Selz 1968 interestingly and importantly pulls the discussion of modern sculpture into the period before Rodin and remains useful for that point of view—in other words that the question of when does the “modern” period of “modern” sculpture really begin and why it would start in one decade or century over another. The history of sculpture in general has always been problematic for scholars, not only in placing it into its proper historical place, as the artists and the objects do not always conform to the stylistic periods defined and set in the traditional canon by painters and painting but also in the medium’s three-dimensionality, its relation to place and space, and its significance within the fine arts, which has traditionally given preferential treatment to painting and painters; Trier 1962 deals with the issues and problems of sculpture. Tucker 2002, like Elsen 2001 and Read 2007, is a reprint of an often-cited text on sculpture, but in this case written by a sculptor. It suffers, like most of the older books, from poor illustrations not updated in the newer editions and a bias toward male artists; however, Tucker’s discussion of Brancusi’s sculptures at Tîrgu Jiu and the final chapter, entitled “Gravity,” still holds together well. Wagner 2005 explores modern sculpture through three British modern masters and is a fine introduction to the plastic arts in England during the period. Curtis 2008 explores the important and interconnected relationship between sculpture and architecture. Todorov 2014 discusses the roots of “elemental sculpture,” or the relationship between sculpture and natural elements.

  • Curtis, Penelope. Sculpture 1900–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Provides an overview of the major artists and themes of modern sculpture. Inexpensive and readable, it is ideal for undergraduate courses. Contains many illustrations in color. Also see Textbooks.

  • Curtis, Penelope. Patio and Pavilion: The Place of Sculpture in Modern Architecture. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008.

    The book is an overview of the role of sculpture within modernist architecture and is a study of the relationship between the two media. Chapter topics include case studies such as the work of Georg Kolbe (1877–1947) in Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (1929), the work of Lucia Fontana (1899–1968) at the Milan Triennale in 1936, and a study of the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden in New York in 1953.

  • Elsen, Albert E. Origins of Modern Sculpture: Pioneers and Premises. New York: George Braziller, 2001.

    Originally published 1974. Covers topics such as the “crisis” of sculpture prior to the First World War, the nude, meaning and metaphor, portraits, and the use of abstraction. In contrast to some of the other selections here, Elsen presents works primarily from the 1890s through 1918 only.

  • Getsy, David J. Sculpture and the Pursuit of a Modern Ideal in Britain, c. 1880–1930. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.

    This anthology covers the sculpture of the key figures and issues in British modern sculpture, including an essay on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s (1891–1915) Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound written by Jon Wood.

  • Getsy, David J. “Tactility or Opticality, Henry Moore or David Smith: Herbert Read and Clement Greenberg on the Art of Sculpture, 1956.” In Anglo-American Exchange in Postwar Sculpture, 1945–1975. Edited by Rebecca Peabody. Los Angeles: Getty, 2011.

    A critical discussion of the opposing views on postwar sculpture of Read and Greenberg.

  • Giedion-Welcker, Carola. Modern Plastic Art: Elements of Reality, Volume and Disintegration. Zurich: H. Girsberger, 1937.

    Expanded and republished in 1955 as Contemporary Sculpture: An Evolution in Volume and Space, Alex Potts cited this book as one of the first to attempt to define modern sculpture.

  • Krauss, Rosalind. Passages in Modern Sculpture. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1981.

    Presents a theoretical overview of the major sculptures and sculptors of the modern period, including discussions of Rodin, Futurism, Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, welded sculpture, and extends the discussion of modern sculpture through conceptual shifts of the 1970s.

  • Potts, Alex. The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist. Oxford: Yale University Press, 2001.

    Includes chapters on “Modern Figures,” “Modernist Objects and Plastic Form,” and “Modernist Sculpture,” and within those chapters, discussions on the historiography of modern sculpture and the works of Rodin, Brancusi, and David Smith.

  • Read, Herbert. The Art of Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1956.

    An analysis of sculpture history and theory from prehistory to Read’s own day. The book is a compilation of Read’s Mellon lectures that he gave at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 1954. The book’s emphasis on tactility was challenged by the American critic Clement Greenberg in the latter’s review of the book in the New York Times Book Review in 1956. Numerous reprints.

  • Read, Herbert. Modern Sculpture: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007.

    Originally published 1964. A survey introduction to modern sculpture, with an emphasis on British sculpture. Discusses the medium from Rodin to the early 1960s. Also see Textbooks.

  • Selz, Jean. Modern Sculpture: Origins and Evolution. New York: George Braziller, 1968.

    Complete survey of modern sculpture, tracing the movement further back than the work of Rodin, to the mid-nineteenth century. Includes a biographical dictionary of sculptors, especially interesting because some of the names are today wholly forgotten.

  • Todorov, Todor. Elemental Sculpture: Theory and Practice. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.

    While the text focuses on contemporary sculpture, Todorov discusses the roots of the relationship between sculpture and the natural elements and explores the works of Hepworth, Moore, and Calder, among others.

  • Trier, Edward. Form and Space: The Sculpture of the 20th Century. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962.

    Rather than focusing on style progression as do most other texts covering this material, Trier presents an overview of important “problems” in modern sculpture, such as those of form, meaning, and purpose.

  • Tucker, William. The Language of Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.

    Originally published in 1974 as Early Modern Sculpture, this is one of the standard texts on this material. All 155 illustrations remain in black and white. However, chapters cover major male artists such as Rodin, Brancusi, Picasso, González, and Matisse.

  • Wagner, Anne Middleton. Mother Stone: The Vitality of Modern British Sculpture. The Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

    Covers a more concise period than the above texts (1910–1935) and focuses on three British moderns, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Jacob Epstein. While it lacks a bibliography, it contains substantial references in the endnotes.

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