A Tradition of Revolution

Jed Morse

Modern art has been shaped by “individual decisions to reconsider the complex possibilities within the traditions available to them.” - Kirk Varnedoe

In a 1996 interview with Steven A. Nash, who would soon become the founding director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, Raymond Nasher described the collection of modern and contemporary sculpture that he and his late wife Patsy had amassed as “a representation of revolutionary ideas in sculpture.” Over the past 150 years, artists have continuously reevaluated conventions and accepted practices in an extended period of cultural innovation, with each one pushing against the achievements of the preceding generation or striking out in new directions altogether. Many of these advances in art have mirrored the simultaneous, rapid pace of change in science, technology, and society—as new ideas flourished in the world, artists responded with exciting innovative artistic forms. The constant push to forge new paths expressing the human experience in the modern age can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in the medium of sculpture.

In his 1990 book A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern, renowned curator Kirk Varnedoe used as a model for the kind of cultural innovation that occurred—and continues to occur—from roughly 1860 on, the inscription on a plaque commemorating the invention of the game of rugby, at the Rugby School in England in 1823. The stone marker honors William Webb Ellis, “who with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his hands and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the rugby game.” This “fine disregard for the rules” of his time also describes the impulse that serves the creation of important shifts in art. Varnedoe adopted this model of innovation because it highlighted not only bold, individual acts, but also rational responses to the context in which those actions were taken. Modern art has been shaped, Varnedoe argues, not “in the wholesale overthrow of all conventions and the protean creation of wholly new form, nor in the impact of alien influences from outside the Western world,” nor by “the grinding-wheel of local social forces,” but, instead, by “individual decisions to reconsider the complex possibilities within the traditions available to them.” It is this complex interweaving of individual ingenuity in response to personal and collective circumstances that continues to drive innovation in art.

Just as the Modernist impulse of Rodin and other artists who freed the figure from the duty of historic, narrative, and symbolic representation eventually yielded post-Modernist practices claiming performance, the physical landscape, and even the artist’s own body as sites of artistic exploration and significance, artists today continue to expand and question the boundaries of sculpture in an effort to create meaning for a world that continues to develop new definitions of identity, experience, and reality.

The Nasher Collection embodies a compendium of these far-reaching, richly varied ideas. This summer’s selection includes Medardo Rosso’s radical experiments with the casting process to express the ephemerality of experience at the dawn of the 20th century; the seismic shift caused by Pablo Picasso’s development, along with Georges Braque, of the visual language of Cubism around 1909; Naum Gabo’s use of newly developed, space-age materials to express the technological ethos of the age, effectively dematerializing sculpture; the ever-finer distillation of form to its essence beginning with Brancusi and running through Minimalism to the present moment; as well as the experiments of artists like Ana Mendieta, who carved forms into the Earth itself, removing them from the refined confines of gallery and museum and returning sculptural creation to its primal source. Artists working today continue to pursue many of these developments, adding their unique, contemporary perspectives and broadening the potential meanings of the forms.

A Tradition of Revolution presents cross sections of the Nasher Collection and sculptural innovations of the past 150 years within the context of concurrent philosophical, scientific, and societal shifts. Ranging from the beginnings of Modernism in the work of Rodin, Gauguin, and others to radical experiments in the present day, the exhibition also includes works never before seen at the Nasher and several recent acquisitions.

Nasher Sculpture Center
2001 Flora Street
Dallas, Texas 75201
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