What Is Abstract Sculpture? - Definition & Famous Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Sometimes art doesn't resemble anything in the real world. Have you ever stood in front of a piece of sculpture and wondered what on earth the artist was thinking? In this lesson, we'll explore abstract sculpture and look at a few examples.

Changing the Definition of Sculpture

Before the 20th century, all sculpture was figural, meaning it resembled a person, animal or thing that could be seen in the real world. Sculptures were used to commemorate events like battles, portray famous people, or decorate the fronts of buildings. Most sculptures were carved from stone or modeled in clay and then cast in bronze. Artists made many painstaking studies and preliminary models before beginning a sculptural work.

In the early 20th century, artists like Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi began experimenting with different styles of art. They rejected the idea that all art had to rely on forms resembling objects or things and wanted a new way of creating art for the modern age. They abandoned realism in favor of abstraction, in which their art no longer was tied to subjects referencing the real world. Some artists specifically explored the use of different materials, while others searched for ways to convey their own thought processes and emotions.

Abstraction in Sculpture

An example of abstract sculpture is Brancusi's Portrait of Mlle Pogany, done in 1912.

Constantin Brancusi, Portrait of Mlle. Pogany
Constantin Brancusi portrait of Mlle Pogany

The title says it's a portrait, and it's made of marble, a traditional sculptural medium. However, in its focus on geometric forms and reduction of recognizable human feature to symbols, it's a far cry from traditional portrait busts of the time. Brancusi abandoned the idea of making preparatory models for his work, instead immediately carving into the marble and allowing the art object to emerge organically.

In 1917, artist Marcel Duchamp submitted a sculpture into the Society of Independent Artists and caused a scandal. He took a ceramic urinal - as in equipment used in public restrooms and a mass-produced object with crude connotations - and declared it art. He used the term readymade as a way of describing the work. Duchamp's piece was rejected from the show and caused an uproar, but it stretched the boundaries of what could be considered art. Duchamp tossed aside traditional definitions and expectations of art, and his readymades became some of the most influential sculptures of the twentieth century.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain

Other artists of the time like Alexander Calder took common materials and constructed works that moved, creating kinetic sculpture. These works could move on their own without a separate source of power. Calder invented the mobile, and his massive moving works of art can be found in airports and public spaces throughout the world.

Later Examples of Abstract Art

Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, artists continued to pursue abstraction. They made art from new materials like plastics, assembled sculptures from found objects (everyday objects given new meaning by being put into artwork, an idea that grew out of Duchamp's readymades), and created works of increasing size and weight.

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