Last Saturday, curator and Artforum editor-at-large Jack Bankowsky moderated a roundtable on “Sculpture after Sculpture” (more on the title in a moment) at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, in anticipation of his forthcoming three-artist survey of the same name at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm this October. The three artists, Katharina Fritsch, Jeff Koons, and Charles Ray, are united by work that is, in Bankowsky’s words, “pointedly figural, quotidian in reference, and resolutely sculptural”; work that, when it emerged in the 1970s, was “all but unimaginable as the shape of serious art to come.” Thus the organizing question for the roundtable: How did we get to the point that figural sculpture seems viable and significant again?
The “what’s changed” as suggested by Bankowsky includes minimalism, industrial production, and the legacy of the readymade; but the speakers, who each gave a ten minute talk devoted to an “epiphany, quandary, or suspicion” that these three artists raised, focused as much on economic, political, and technological changes as on art history. The roundtable might have been better named “Production after Production.”
The panelists themselves formed a forceful and not unpolemical group: sculptor Charles Ray himself; Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf, (who is currently working on the first American museum restrospective on Koons’ art); Isabelle Graw, critic and founder of Texte Zur Kunst; Michelle Kuo, Editor-in-chief of Artforum (who previous collaborated with Rothkopf on a special issue devoted to artistic production); and critic and art historian Michael Fried. What follows is a summary of each of their ten-minute talks.
Michelle Kuo traced Koons’ increasingly technological ambitions in producing his work, from laser scanning to CT scanning using X-rays. Using Koons’ current experimentation with volumes of clustered, mapped, three-dimensional “voxels” (as opposed to two-dimensional pixels), as an example, Kuo showed that Koons is at the the limits of scanning technology, using it to create “the effect of infinite customization: of information, materials, and machines themselves.” Kuo aligned Koons’ practice with current and emerging models of making that reject regular, reproduced likenesses—both part of minimalism’s legacy and the history of industrial mass production—pointing to the future of digital fabrication with its focus on customization: the made-to-order versus the readymade. Koons, she closed, suggests the form of the commodity, “not as it was but how it will be.”
Michael Fried focused on the work of Charles Ray: “one of the few sculptors of the last decade I admire completely without reservation.” After narrating his own controversial career as a critic and art historian, Fried contextualized Ray within the achievements of high modernism, comparing Ray’s figural sculptures directly with Anthony Caro’s abstract ones. For Fried, the key issue at play with Ray isn’t figuration or reproduction, but rather what Ray has done to “imbue the work of art with an extraordinary density of aesthetic (not necessarily technological) intention.” Speaking of Ray as one in a long line of artists Fried admires, he ended simply by saying that in each case “the artist’s will has been absolute.”
Isabelle Graw gave a historical materialist account of recent figural sculpture. Drawing from her recent Art and Subjecthood chapbook, she offered the strongest political account for the return of the figure in recent art: “The human figure is a problem related to the new economy, which aims squarely at human resources.” Taking as evidence the proliferations of mannequins in recent art, which she labeled “quasi-subjects,” whose “suggestions of liveliness” are also “suggestions of value,” Graw drew on what Fried called minimalism’s “latent anthropomorphism.” Graw argued that objecthood is really subjecthood in disguise—the minimalist encounter akin to feeling “crowded by the silent presence of another person.” In our post-Fordist economy, which aims at our “affects and desires,” Graw read the ubiquitous mannequin as commodified quasi-persons, both lifeless and seeming to be alive and therefore deeply valuable in the new capitalism.
Scott Rothkopf was the only panelist to deal directly with art historical precedents, asking when the last time before the mid 1980s it was that figural sculpture was seen to be significant. Arguing that placing the “last gasp of figurism” in the early twentieth century or even somewhat later with Surrealism leaves out a lot of the story, Rothkopf used the extensive collection of twentieth century figural sculpture at the Whitney to give examples, from Squirer and Lipton in the 50s, Marisol and Peter Hujar in the 60s, as well as some of the more “embarrassing” artists in later decades: all remnants of a period when advanced three dimensional art was supposed to be abstract, deskilled, and minimal. What does it mean, he asked, that the criticisms of this art—that it was too illusionistic, anthropomorphic, well-crafted—would be defanged by Ray, Koons, and Fritsch? He put forth as a hypothesis the way each of these artists works from found things (a renewed interest in the readymade) to bespoke items, allowing the readymade to slip back into sculpture: “from a useful thing into a symbolic thing.” Each of these three artists, Rothkopf concluded, have “a sixth sense”— both for making ordinary things blossom into archetypes” as well as for “the capacity for an object to absorb our seemingly limitless projections.”
After an hour of theoretical arguments, Charles Ray‘s seemingly modest discussion of two ancient Greek sculptures and how they make him feel reminded us of the fundamental power of the human figure in space. He began with the ancient Greek kouros, admitting he visits one particular statue at the Met often, and spoke of how, “none of us can experience it as the ancient Greeks did,” and its original purpose has fallen away. However, he still finds it to be “completely contemporary, one reason simply being because we can still see it.” The statue reminds Ray that he also is a “a relationship of parts, a manifold.” “I have to remember, as Richard Neer once told me, that these figures were the only smooth thing in a really rough world. I think about our own rough world. I’m looking for an equivalent to a smooth thing. It has tumbled into time.” He turned briefly to another ancient work at the Met: a grave stele of a girl holding and kissing a bird, where her contact with the bird comprises the only truly three dimensional part of the piece. “I’m not saying the sculptor was thinking about space—it was put there artistically. But the flowing of space around the mouth offers a very philosophical physics of space.”
Later, during the Q&A, Ray had perhaps the most quotable moment of the night: “Michelangelo said you’ve got to make a sculpture that you can roll down a hill without the arms breaking off. I think about that a lot now: What are the arms now? What’s the hill? How do I make a work of art dynamic without “electrifying” it?” This challenge felt as rigorous as any of the political, technological, and aesthetic arguments about contemporary figural sculpture introduced throughout the afternoon.
“Sculpture after Sculpture” was presented at the Art Center College of Design on March 1, 2014.
Monica Westin is a PhD candidate and University Fellow at the University of Illinois in Chicago’s English Studies Department, and a founding member of UIC’s Rhetoric Society of America chapter.
 Duane Hanson, George Segal, Edward Kienholz