Unmonumental: The object in the 21st Century

The essay ‘Art Creates its own Viewers’ is an insightful survey of contemporary sculpture and it’s history; authored by writer and curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA New York – Laura Hoptman. Early pioneers who employed the strategy of using found objects were Picasso (collages), Duchamp (ready-mades) Rauschenberg (combines) as well as artists associated with Dada, notably Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters. Surrealist objects trouvés were another early expression, for example Joseph Cornell’s mysterious and highly personal box constructions, which consisted largely of objets trouvés.  These were first presented in the context of Surrealism in 1936, at the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition at MoMA in New York. I have written a summary of the essay for future reference.

Notes, paraphrases and paragraphs from;

Unmonumental: Going to Pieces in the 21st Century.

By Laura Hoptman

Art Creates its own Viewers

After a hiatus of close to 40 years sculpture is again leading the contemporary art discourse.[1] Not all sculpture but a particular kind that isn’t cast, carved or moulded but rather is characterized by being glued, tied together, built and sewn. There are many components, found, some made, some are detritus. Two distinct but intimately related ideas: assemblage and unmonumentality. The former, a strategy to achieve the latter. [2] Precedents are found in European experiments of the first to decades of the twentieth century. Jean Dubuffet named it assemblage in the 1950’s. Put forth as an artistic strategy by William Seitz in an exhibition called “The Art of Assemblage” that opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961 accompanied by a catalogue and a symposium.[3] Pablo Picasso’s pre-1914 experiments in collage were used as an origin myth along with a close ancestry in Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, as well as Dada and Surrealist objects trouves. Contemporary sculpture differs from these earlier forms of assemblage primarily because contemporary sculptures have adopted the method of juxtaposition of forms, rather than a compositional blending of them.


Bicycle Wheel

Marcel Duchamp

(American, born France. 1887–1968)

  1. Metal wheel mounted on painted wood stool, 51 x 25 x 16 1/2″ (129.5 x 63.5 x 41.9 cm)

The apex of assemblage in late 1950’s to early 1960’s would be Rauschenberg’s series of Combines. Hybrids of painting and sculpture they contained the ‘stuff of everyday life’. Hoptman writes, “The artist himself has been adamant that connections between elements in most of his work were aleatory, stressing that the magic in his work was the ability to turn familiar objects into mysterious ones through juxtaposition.[4]

Cage a friend and mentor of Rauschenberg, memorably compared the structure of a Combine to that of a newspaper. He wrote, “There is no more subject in a Combine than there is an a page from a newspaper. Each thing that is there is a subject. “[5] “A combine and by extension assembled art, was less a representation of a world filled with a chaos of information, than an actual piece of it. No metaphor, no allegory could compete with a shard of actual evidence of an irrevocably shattered society.” [6]


Gold Standard by Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925-2008). 1964. 85 x 142 x 51 1/4 in Oil, paper, printed reproductions, clock, cardboard box, metal, fabric, wood, string, shoe, and Coca-Cola bottles on folding Japanese screen, with electric light, rope, and ceramic dog on bicycle seat and wire-mesh base.

“The organization of disparate pieces into a coherent narrative is one of the crucial distinctions between twentieth and twenty first century assemblage”.[7] Although like their predecessors they are amalgams of discrete objects, the structure of the sculptures of the twenty-first century resemble not a newspaper, but a page out of McSweeneys magazine, with it’s individual stories and articles printed in multiple typefaces and interrupted with footnotes, rhetorical inserts and illustrations “ [8] organization has superseded chance in these works.


Artist: Carol Bove, American, born Switzerland, born 1971
Setting for A. Pomodoro
Concrete, wood, steel, driftwood, glass, peacock feathers, and gold
182.88 x 243.84 x 365.76 cm (72 x 96 x 144 in.) base: 20.32 x 121.92 x 243.84 cm (8 x 48 x 96 in.)

Hoptman explains that compositionally these new sculptures are holistic, in the sense that discrete objects coalesce into a single form, a narrative told with clarity. [9] Despite that fact that they look like they are about everything, these contemporary assemblages are each about something specific – from the simultaneously aggrandizing and abnegating self-homage’s of John Bock, to Martin Boyce, Eva Rothschild and Carol Bove’s chronicles of a vain glorious descent of modernist aesthetics from the theoretical ether of a utopian future to the realpolitik of a backyard barbecue in the suburbs, circa 1979.”[10]


APRIL 01 – MAY 01, 2004
Installation view

Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York

Hoptman argues that today’s sculptors, the interest is not to expand the notion of what sculpture, or even art, can be. The more urgent battle lies with the works’ engagement with the larger issues of contemporary life in a straightforward manner that eschews art-about-art battles with form and instead concentrates on content. [11] Adopting what is basically the traditional definition of sculpture – a three-dimensional form in space – some contemporary sculptors have harnessed the very thingness of their work literally to hold up the poster, slogan, photograph or other obviously narrative element of their obdurately object-orientated sculpture. [12] As an example artist Lara Schnitger, who stretches fabric remnants, banners and flags across delicate wooden armatures to create airy, colorful kiosks, or Tobias Buche, who appropriates billboard hoardings as a support for collections of magazine and newspaper images. This is message art that is as far from a rebus as it is from an allegory. They are literally signs of the times.[13]

Hoptman comments that while it would be a mistake to fall into the “physiognomic fallacy,” [that is to assume that artistic form is a direct reflection of the nature of society that produced it], is too simple to regard contemporary visual culture as a mirror. However if it does not reflect nor comment upon the disorder of the world, the language of assemblage, is undeniably a result of it.[14] Contemporary assemblage, as the work most emblematic of the zeitgeist, the work that fulfills the criterion of cultural relevance, is clearly a metonym of the moment it comes from. Whereas, Dada, Surrealism and their neo-avant garde epigones, were described by literary paradigms such as metaphor and it’s more capacious relative allegory. The twenty-first century version of assemblage is particularly suited to the metonymic paradigm because not only does it incorporate pieces of the situation it describes, but each sculpture itself narrates the world, albeit in a précis.[15]

Going to Pieces

It can be done as a direct act or

contact with the moment, and that moment

is the moment you’re awake and moving. It

all passes and is never, true, literally,

as the present again, leaving more work

to be done.

(Robert Rauschenberg)


First Landing Jump



Cloth, metal, leather, electric fixture, cable, and oil paint on composition board, with automobile tire and wood plank


7′ 5 1/8″ x 6′ x 8 7/8″ (226.3 x 182.8 x 22.5 cm)

In the first decade of the third millennium, by dividing the information world into pieces and compiling bits of information into particular narratives, we have been able to make comprehensible the relativity that is the result of endless choice.[16] It is still popular for exhausted critics to characterize recent assemblage as adhering to a kind of “anything goes edict of post-Duchampian sculpture.” But the fact is the best of this work is highly organized – or in its visual arts translation, composed – into narratives that are more often than not participatory in contemporary artistic as well as political discourse.[17] It is impossible, for example, to enjoy Sam Durant’s enormous mobile, created entirely of found objects, for its elegant spoofing of modernist aesthetics without also sustaining the shock that the elements of the sculpture’s construction, when taken together, constitute a complete kit for a violent street protest. This kind of work has no time for allegory, which in Walter Benjamin’s memorable phrase “reduces itself to a melancholy gaze over a landscape of ruins.” It is not about a million-piece puzzle that is the contemporary global situation. It is a piece of that puzzle.[18]


The Wreck, 2005

Plastic, pins, photographs, paper, soft pastel, bamboo, expanded polystyrene, floral foam, acrylic paint, string, glue, wire; 96 x 96 x 42 inches

Courtesy the artist, Andrea Rosen Gallery, and Regen Projects

Hoptman explains that unmonumentality is meant to describe a type of sculpture that intentionally lacks the qualities of the monumental [massiveness, timelessness and public significance], as opposed to being against these values or anti-monumental.[19] Some works make direct reference to the destruction of the symbols of artistic permanence for example Elliott Hundley’s toppled column or Urs Fischer’s melting female nude.[20] Others, by appropriating the style of the 1980’s appropriationists subtly lay waste to the notion of stylistic periodization.[21]


Sarah Lucas

Year of the Rooster 2005© Sarah Lucas, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

Physical fracture is common to the new sculpture, but stylistic and ideological fractures are equally ubiquitous.[22] Those sculptures that are collections of artefacts are on the one hand personalized to a level unprecedented in recent sculptural memory and on the other most intentionally un-private. In this respect they situate themselves as part of a culture in which opinions, not to mention categories – cultural, political, sexual, what have you – are increasingly customized and compartmentalized but also increasingly made available to an international audience of billions.[23]

While an argument can be made that some of the most interesting sculptures of the last five years have in common an aesthetic of assemblage, hybridity and fracture this does not imply that this mode is aesthetically dominant. As Richard Huelsenback observed at the symposium for The Art of Assemblage forty-five years ago, “Fracture works against the notion of hierarchy.”[24] Contemporary sociologists and cultural commentators who claim that a fragmented culture undercuts the community of opinion and dispenses with the necessity for a hegemonic style, a shared icon, a hit have echoed this idea.[25] In a world of make your own teleology, style is just another collage element, joining appropriated motifs, personal fetishes and objects, found and made.[26]

[1] Hoptman, 2007,p.128.

[2] Hoptman, 2007,p.128.

[3] William C. Seitz, The Art of Assemblage, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961,p.6

[4] Hoptman, 2007,p.132 Rauschenberg, in a comment during “The Art of Assemblage” symposium, likened this to a perfect crime.”

[5] John Cage, “On Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work,” Metro, vol. 1,no. 2 (1961), pp.36-50 (as quoted in Seitz, The Art of Assemblage, p.116)

[6] Hoptman, 2007,p.132.

[7] Hoptman, 2007,p.132.

[8] Hoptman,2007,p.132.

[9] 2007,p132.

[10] 2007,p.132.

[11] 2007,p.137.

[12] Hoptman, 2007,p.137.

[13] Hoptman, 2007,p.137.

[14] 2007,p.137.

[15] Hoptman, 2007,p.138.

[16] Hoptman, 2007,p.138.

[17] Hoptman, 2007,p.138.

[18] Hoptman, 2007,p.138.

[19] 2007,p.138.

[20] Hoptman, 2007,p.138.

[21] Hoptman, 2007,p.138.

[22] Hoptman, 2007,p.138.

[23] Hoptman, 2007,p.138.

[24] Hoptman, 2007,p.138. Quoting Richard Huelsenbeck as quoted in Leggio and Franc, “The Art of Assemblage: A Symposium,” p. 132.

[25] Hoptman, 2007,p.138. More recently, this idea was put forth by Chris Anderson in an article in Wired magazine and later developed into the best-selling book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Hyperion, New York, 2006.

[26] Hoptman, 2007,p.138.

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