Nasher Sculpture Center Announces First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone

Groundbreaking exhibition presents ancient tools and gathered objects as evidence of the earliest forms of artistic intention  DALLAS, Texas (October 19, 2017) – The Nasher Sculpture Center announces First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone, an exhibition exploring prehistoric tools and collected objects as evidence of the beginnings of artistic intention and craft. The show is on view January 27 - April 29, 2018. The exhibition is the product of a unique curatorial collaboration between Los Angeles-based artist Tony Berlant and anthropologist Dr. Thomas Wynn, Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. 

First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone is the first museum exhibition to present ancient handaxes as works of art. Traditionally understood as the longest-used tool in human history, the handaxe is equally fascinating for its non-utilitarian, aesthetic qualities. While handaxes are not rare—millions have been discovered throughout the world—First Sculpture will present a refined and exemplary collection of these objects, which date from 2.5 million to 50,000 years old, as evidence of the earliest forms of artistic intention. The exhibition highlights the aesthetic qualities of each stone and provides crucial historical and scientific information to give the viewer a deeper understanding of human history, as well as an enriched appreciation for humankind’s early ability to sculpt beautiful objects. Whether carved from visually interesting stones using stone flaking techniques, called knapping, or rendered at unusual sizes that would inhibit use of the object as a tool, a case can be made for the handaxe as the first sculpture our prehistoric ancestors conceived.

“We believe imposing these basic ‘good forms’ [on the handaxes] must have been a pleasurable activity—making an artifact that was symmetrical or resembled a sphere gave the stone knapper more pleasure than making an irregular form,” note Berlant and Wynn. “This impulse to impose form became a significant motif in human evolution.” 

The exhibition also explores figure stones—naturally occurring stones that carry shapes and patterns that resemble human or animal forms, especially faces, and which were gathered by prehistoric people. The stones, which sometimes show evidence of modification, indicate an inclination to recognize figuration within nature much earlier than has been generally accepted. “The human mind evolved to be sensitive to aesthetic phenomena,” say curators Berlant and Wynn, “and stone artifacts trace some of this evolutionary history.” 

First Sculpture is an unprecedented exhibition, looking to the origin of art-making at its most fundamental levels—the drive to make something beautiful or the inclination to acknowledge beauty within nature itself,” says Nasher Sculpture Center Director Jeremy Strick. “As such, this collection of works casts a new light on the history of art, suggesting that the primal need to create and collect beautiful objects has even deeper roots that we ever imagined.” 

The exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated, scholarly catalogue published by the Nasher, with a central essay co-written by exhibition curators Berlant and Wynn, as well as a preface by renowned American scientist, Jared Diamond.

First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone is made possible by the Eugene McDermott Foundation and the Lyda Hill Foundation, with additional support provided by Nancy O'Boyle, Betty Regard and the Museum of Street Culture.

Two brown oval handaxes, the left is more textured and the right has a hole