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BMA’s modern sculpture examines the “abstract”

By NATALIE BERKMAN | September 30, 2010

Currently showing at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is a special exhibition that attempts to address the increasing amount of abstraction — both in concept and technique — in the field of sculpture.

The exhibition, Advancing Abstraction in Modern Sculpture, features chef-d’oeuvres of abstraction from such masters as Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner, Hans Arp and Louise Nevelson, whose works are from the 1920s to the 1970s.

Everyone has an intrinsic conception of abstraction: For example, if a picture looks like a blue rectangle, one could say it is abstract, but what does “abstract” really mean? What is the purpose of abstraction? Where did all of this begin?

In addition to displaying ground-breaking abstract art, the BMA helps art lovers understand the answers to these difficult questions.

First off: What is abstraction? If something is abstract, it is thought of apart from concrete realities, specific objects or actual instances. So, as for art, these are the paintings and sculptures that do not even begin to resemble what one actually sees in nature.

According to the exhibition, abstraction has been significant in figurative sculpture since Paleolithic times.

One can easily see such abstraction by looking at the “Venus” of Willendorf, a statue figure of an extremely overweight goddess of love.

This type of abstraction was not fully formed until the 20th century, however, when “artists felt free to abandon the figure altogether and develop fully abstract or ‘non-objective’ sculpture.”

The best part of this exhibition is that it is both fun and informative. Even if one thinks he cannot possibly understand abstract sculpture, the descriptions on most of the pieces explain their purpose and the artist’s original intent and inspirations.

For example, with English artist Henry Moore’s piece, entitled “Mother and Child” (1939), one’s first impression is that the sculpture is a strange sort of deformed harp constructed entirely of bronze and cotton string.

The piece, however, is intended to convey a sense of two figures bound together “both literally and metaphorically,” with the idea stemming from a group of mathematical models Moore saw at a science museum. Ultimately, it can be enjoyable to try to find the mother and child in the deformed harp using the description.

Another interesting piece is Emil Cimiotti’s “Forest.” The German artist’s methods and concepts were influenced by the existentialist movement in philosophy and literature.

As a result, he tries to express the “simultaneity of existence and not being.”

According to him, “these are mountains that rise from no plain, trees that never grow, clouds that will never pass over us.” Basically, his forest looks like a strange conglomeration of leaves and some stumps.

Naum Gabo’s “Construction with Alabaster Carving” is a transparent structure with a carving in the middle. The American artist, who was born in Russia in 1890, “We renounce in sculpture, the mass as a sculptural element.

It is known to every engineer that the static forces of a solid body and its material strength do not depend on the quantity of mass.”

Several of these abstract pieces, such as those of Gabo and Moore, draw from math and science, while others are inspired by the philosophic spirit of their time.

Obviously, the turmoil and aftermath of the two World Wars led to an abstraction of thought, and logically, of art, but in addition to the turmoil, the technological advances of this age were staggering. Thus, as life and impressions changed, the art changed as well.

American Ibram Lassaw constructed an abstract solar system that almost dominates the room.

This open, 3-D grid of copper alloy is built on a wire armature and welded together, activated by molten marks. The effect is that of an unstable, wobbly solar system, and this piece might just be the least abstract in the room.

Advancing Abstraction in Modern Sculpture is a temporary exhibition for anyone who has ever stared at a piece of abstract art for a few minutes, and walked away confused.

Not only does it provide a history and descriptions of the art, but it yields a wide selection of abstract sculptures from a wide range of artists.

The pieces are diverse, inspired by many fields, and bound to appeal to almost every major field at Hopkins, or at least intrigue for a few minutes. The exhibition will show through Feb. 20, 2011.

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