In the middle of the Norton Simon Museum's 20th century gallery stands a six-foot-tall sculpture from 1931 called Bird in Space (above). It's by Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi, who lived and worked in Paris, where he redefined the meaning of sculpture for his contemporaries and future generations of artists alike.
There are more than 30 different versions of the piece rendered in different proportions and with different materials such as wood, marble and, as with the Norton Simon piece, polished bronze (the museum's is one of the bigger sizes).
"It anchors this whole wing, really," says Leah Lehmbeck, a native Angeleno with an undergraduate degree from Columbia and a PhD in Art History from NYU. She lives in West Hollywood with her family and works as a curator at the Norton Simon, the same museum where she once wrote a high-school AP art history paper on a painting by Picasso.
"Brancusi is always positioned as this forbearer of Modernism," Lehmbeck says. "He's the one that kicks it off, much like Picasso. If you're in an Art History 101 class, that's the example they give."
Lehmbeck is the curator of "Beyond Brancusi," a showcase of 20th-century sculpture with 19 pieces by artists who all took their cues from Brancusi. She first had the idea for the exhibition when she came to the Norton Simon five years ago and became acquainted with the museum's permanent collection down in the vault. That's where she spotted four giant boxes wrapped in white Tyvek. Curious, she asked the collections manager what they were, and he casually mentioned that they were pieces of a Donald Judd sculpture. Lehmbeck made a mental note to one day contextualize works like Judd's, once she recovered from the initial shock of learning that such a treasure should be hidden from view.
"Brancusi always had a very interesting engagement with space and materials," Lehmbeck says. "I wanted to look at sculpture in the 20th century and extract how the sculptures that followed drew on those aspects." After working on the exhibition for a year and a half and giving birth to a baby midway, Lehmbeck is finally able to show us "Beyond Brancusi."
Before Brancusi, most classical and traditional sculptors focused on creating highly realistic interpretations of their subjects, one that reflected a traditional visual form, rather than a metaphorical one. Brancusi was the first to really devote himself full-time to producing sculpture that is, for lack of a better word, "minimalist," versus strictly representational. His unique vision and vanguard technique is what attracted many contemporary and future artists to Brancusi's singular style of sculpture.
Next to the Brancusi sculpture in the Norton Simon's modern and contemporary art gallery is another piece, White Gunas by Isamu Noguchi. (It's the only piece in the exhibition that's regularly on view at the museum.)
While there was no official apprenticeship, Noguchi worked in Brancusi's atelier -- an open place where artistic luminaries would come by to learn something from the master.
"As figures, they're the first ones who start to break through that mold and incorporate negative space," says Lehmbeck.
Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, the two British artists in the show, also began to pay attention to negative space.
"It was a big deal when Barbara Hepworth drilled through something and made the hole an actual part of the object," Lehmbeck says.
Given that most of the works are from the 1960s, it's interesting to note that the artists made the sculptures at the same time Andy Warhol manipulated commercial art into a form of fine art.
"They're both an interesting reaction to Abstract Expressionism, in different ways," Lehmbeck observes. "They [both] used materials that they didn't have to chisel away at or modify in that sense. They didn't have to manipulate [the material] in the traditional way."
That is to say, they used stuff like industrial felt, aluminum, plexiglass, plastic, neon tubes and other kinds of commercial material instead of simply carving away at stone, wood or clay.
Carl Andre referred to Brancusi as his "master" and believed that he was the first to examine, most fundamentally, how sculpture engaged with space. Indeed, Andre's aluminum floor piece (above) is all about the engagement of space, actually becoming part of the space itself.
"You're expected to walk on it, just like it's a carpet," Lehmbeck tells us. "Though in a hundred years, that might change."
Like Brancusi, Andre made several different similar pieces in other materials such as copper and lead. But no matter the material, the battle scars are meant to become part of the work.
Though, as Lehmbeck admits, "He never thought of high stiletto heels as one of those things that would be invented."
Many of the objects in the exhibition are what we'd call "minimalist sculpture," though most of the artists disliked the term, seeing it as reductive. So what did they prefer?
"They each made up their own vocabulary," Lehmbeck says. "They were highly attuned to defining themselves as not sculptors. They also didn't like the word 'sculpture,' because they felt it did refer to one of these self-contained, traditional objects. Robert Morris, who did the felt piece, was the most theoretical of all of them. But Judd and Andre all wrote quite a lot about sculpture, and thought quite a lot about it, and they defined it in their own ways. [Morris] referred to sculpture as 'unitary forms,' and Judd referred to them as 'specific objects.' And then Andre just wrote this equation that was 'sculpture equals form equals place.'
"So they all defined it in their own ways, but they came to accept the term 'sculpture' because they essentially redefined the term and it came to mean these kinds of things, so it didn't refer to a little Degas bronze, which is what I think they had in mind."
At the end of the exhibition is a room with works by California "light-and-space" artists, but while they're grouped together, it isn't because Lehmbeck thinks they needed a room of their own.
"People often separate the New Yorkers from the Californians, and there's much more crossover than that," she says. Oftentimes, the New York artists are considered more literal and the California artists are more insightful and/or spiritual but, as Lehmbeck points out, "It's not that simple." Both camps used material consciously, but the Californians did so more in an effort to play with the idea of illusion, engaging with space in a way that was a bit more a perceptual rather physical.
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So, why should people unfamiliar with art history and critical theory come see this show?
"I think it's visually spectacular," Lehmbeck says. "You'll get a lot more out of this show if you physically participate in it, which makes it more interesting, I think. And that's what you're meant to do."
And she's right. You can't walk on a Degas, but you can certainly walk on an Andre.