For millennia, plaster has attracted artists through its remarkable versatility. Derived from ground or powdered limestone mixed with water, plaster was used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, although it was associated with architecture and painting as much as with sculpture. Poured into molds, it can replicate three-dimensional objects. As a material worked directly, it lends itself to both additive and subtractive approaches: artists can add more plaster to a sculpture to model it further, but they can also cut it apart or carve into it, as if it were stone.
For sculptors working in the more pliable medium of clay, making a plaster cast of the finished work allows them to preserve it in a less fragile substance. Less expensive than bronze, a plaster cast can also serve as a preparatory step in producing a bronze sculpture, becoming the source for a mold. Although plaster sculpture has existed since as early as 7,000 B.C.E., its use became truly widespread in the nineteenth century. In traditional schools for the fine arts, for example, artists learned anatomy, art history, and principles of artistic composition by studying plaster casts of classical sculptures. Even as artists—particularly, Auguste Rodin—began to turn away from academic studies in favor of live models, they embraced the versatility and accessibility of plaster as a way of working through ideas. Completed plasters could then be exhibited in hopes of attracting patrons who would pay to have them executed in the more durable, and expensive, materials of marble or bronze. Artists have also often made, and kept, plaster casts of their own work, in order to have the objects close to them for further thought and inspiration, as in the case of Rodin’s heads of Hanako and Balzac and Willem de Kooning’s Clamdigger
Modern and contemporary artists have also played on the varied associations, artistic and otherwise, that plaster possesses. Just outside the gallery, Medardo Rosso’s The Golden Age and Pablo Picasso’s Flowers in a Vase offer unconventional takes on the use of plaster, with Rosso subverting the lost-wax process of bronze-casting by preserving the wax shell to be “lost” and reinforcing it with plaster, and Picasso creating his flowers by casting them from baking molds for the French bread brioche. In Manuel Neri’s case, he modeled and then cut directly into pieces of plaster, hewing them as if they were wood. George Segal drew upon plaster’s role in the making of casts—both artistic and medical—to cast family members and friends using plaster-impregnated bandages; he then sometimes painted the resulting sculptures, as in the nocturnal scene inhabited by Woman with Shopping Bag
. Sculptors continue to use plaster in creative ways that draw on both tradition and innovation, with the Nasher’s selection reaching from Rodin’s nineteenth-century experiments to Thomas Houseago’s monumental Yet to be titled (peeking figure)
Of the many distinguishing characteristics of the Nasher collection, its holdings of work in plaster is one of the more surprising. Due to its supreme utility and low cost, artists and collectors alike perceived plaster as a lesser or less desirable material. Even as artists in the twentieth century began to warm to plaster as a finished, rather than preparatory, material, collectors were still slow to follow. Raymond and Patsy Nasher, however, delighted in the way the material revealed the details of its making, either by the artist’s hand or the foundry. The plasters by Neri and Segal are recent acquisitions, on display for the first time at the Nasher Sculpture Center, as is the Houseago, a promised gift.