Twentieth Century Stone Sculpture
"A few blocks of stone really carved are very nearly sufficient base for a new
civilization. The garbage of three empires collapsed over Gaudier's marble." 29
The above quote was made by Ezra Pound about his friend, the sculptor Henri
Henri Gaudier had a short life, having died in the first world war at the age of
twenty three. A short life, but within those few years Henri Gaudier was to build
the concept of modern sculpture with his stones.
How was he able to do this? By freeing the stone from man's self imagery and
returning to the self imagery of the stone. In fact, he was groping his way back to
Henri Gaudier in his formulation of sculpture called "Vortex" wrote “The fair
Greek saw himself only. He petrified his own semblance. His sculpture was
derivative, his feeling for form secondary. The absence of direct energy lasted for a thousand years."
and he ends by stating "We have crystallized the sphere into the cube, we have made a combination of
all possible shaped masses concentrating in them our abstract thoughts." 30
It is the beginning again of the philosopher's stone - that by re-arranging matter we will speed up the
workings of nature and arrive at a new mineral.
There is magic in the reworking. No matter how conscious I am in my own work with stone, and by this
I mean the way I arrange the forms, somewhere within me there is still a feeling of magic. It is a
mystery - suddenly before me is a whole new object; it doesn't look like sculpture, it just is.
And I have chosen stone for the same reasons Henri Gaudier did. It has the paradox of being both old
and new at the same time. I'm doing the same work that has been done for thousands of years but was
lost for the past 500 years. When Pound writes that new form is "an arrangement of masses in
relation. It is not an empty copy of empty Roman allegories that are themselves copies of copies. It is
not a mimicry of external life. It is the energy cut into stones, making the stone expressive in its fit and
particular manner. It has regard to the stone." 31
"Stone is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like flesh - it
should not be forced beyond its constructive build to a point of weakness. It
should keep its hard tense stoniness. " 32
This is the concept of 'truth to materials' first stated by the sculptor Henry
Moore. Around 1928 Moore began to make a habit of examining and collecting
pebbles. In 1932 he used a pebble, one with a hole through it, as a beginning for
a sculpture. In 1934 he made small biomorphic sculptures, taken from forms
found in nature, by working on found pebbles. He did not more than modify the
pebble's shape so that it is impossible to judge from the finished sculpture how
far the form was found, how far imposed. He carved a hole through the pebble in one case, but the hole
might equally week have been present in the pebble as he found it.
"Pebbles and rocks show nature's way of working stone. Smooth, sea worn pebbles show that wearing
away, rubbed, treatment of stone and principles of asymmetry." 33
After 1934, Moore's stone carvings generally reflect the study of "smooth, sea-worn pebbles" but still
tend to differ from the pieces which actually began as pebbles by having a sharp edge somewhere to
contrast with the smoothly modulated curves that might have been shaped by the sea. From 1936, the
sharp edges multiplied so that the carving became more angular than curvilinear.
"Rocks show the hacked, hewn treatment of stone and have a jagged, nervous block rhythm." 34 At
the time Moore made only one small piece with this "jagged nervous block rhythm." It wasn't until
1959 onwards, in his series of two-piece reclining figures that he made much of the idea of imitating
From this short study of Moore's development in his relationship to natural objects, we can see his
starting point the same as stated previously by Henri Gaudier, of going back to
early man's concept of the sacred in stones. For sculpture has a choice either to
be a sacred object or a mere knick-knack. Something approaching animism, the
primitive belief that material objects are inhabited by spirits, is implicit in his
doctrine of truth to materials. "One of the first principles of art so clearly seen in
primitive work is truth to material, the artist shows an instinctive understanding of his material, its right use and
It is interesting to note that recently Moore has questioned the system "truth to materials" as being too rigid. "I still think it is
important but it should not be a criticism of the value of a work - otherwise a snowman made by a child would have to be
praised at the expense of a Rodin or a Bernini." 36
When Moore did choose to make his "rock-like" sculpture, he chose not stone but a more tractable material, plaster. Plaster, a soft molding
material he wanted to render as hard!
Moore's work often fluctuated between abstractionism and representation. He often stated that abstraction was a flight from reality and perhaps
he wanted to reassure himself that his work wasn't an escape, and thus his preoccupation with natural objects.
Moore wanted his sculpture to look organic and hard. He wanted his sculpture to evoke images other than themselves, so that the shapes his
sculptures were derived from would maintain their mysterious ambiguity. Perhaps Moore's faith in the value of natural objects was enhanced by a
need to tell himself that his abstract forms were obeying some authority beyond that of his own instinct, were therefore not arbitrary, not products
of personal taste or fantasy, but were sanctioned by nature, did not merely represent his preferences, his decisions, his way of working stone.
"These abstract carvings have not really satisfied me because I have not had the same hold over them that I have as soon as a thing takes on a
kind of organic idea. I think of it as having a heady, body, limbs as the piece of stone I carved evolves from the first rounding-out stages it begins
to take on a definite human personality and character." 37
With this quote from Henry Moore I turn from his question on why he chooses certain materials to my own questioning of why I work in stone.
Why? I think a lot has to do with ability and ease. The technique of stone carving came easily to me from the first stroke of
the hammer to a chisel to the sound of the ping the stone made upon being struck. I felt as if I had always done such
things, as if I had been born with hammer and point, I knew the technique and I was free to follow any path my mind took,
often dictated by the feel of the stone.
I have worked on all stones and responded to the differences each stone asked for in the way of treatment. I love the
activity of cutting. I now no longer work in all stones, but have chosen limestone to express myself in. Its natural grey
color does not interfere with the forms. Often a pretty stone, such as marble, covers up bad forms because nobody really
looks at the forms and responds mainly to the veining ofthe crystals in the stone.
Limestone, a rough, ragged stone, bears traces of the sea; sea animals are locked and petrified within the crystal
It's American; the hills I was born in are made of limestone, and it gives me pleasure to work in Texas limestone. It's friendly and reminds me of
what my roots are sunk into.
Limestone has good tensile strength, allowing thin slab forms to be cut, and has the strength to withstand the noxious air of an urban city.
The dead weight of stone allows the sculptor to do incredible balancing acts. If the center of a balanced piece of stone is found, you are able to
suspend stone in the air. The straight drop of dead weight allows this. You can put a stone out of balance, but it will not slip and fall sideways, since
the weight can't fall in a sideways direction.
My ideas on stone have moved towards concerns with structure. Stone gives me the greatest freedom. I begin the construction in full three
dimensional forms allowing multiple curves on individual forms, and these in turn are grouped in a more complex arrangement.
Sidney Geist, in his book on Brancusi, sums it up in a beautiful way. Geist's book is one of the finest ever written on sculpture. Geist, himself a
sculptor, knows and understands in a way no art critic or historian is able to as he writes from the inside, and from his own experience.
"Sculpture should declare its difference from other objects, and offset the possibility of mistake as to its identity. It should recall the possibility of
being used in some fashion or of being grasped like an object of use. It should demand and deserve special attention. And it should be made as to
maintain itself in the world and its pristine state. In respect to this last condition, it is helpful for sculpture not to have large horizontal surfaces or
such concavities as will invite or accept other objects or hold snow, rain, or dust. To the extent that sculpture is deformed or invaded by nature, it
belongs to nature. Brancusian form is freed from nature. It is form seen by the light of human intelligence." 38
I am searching constantly for my own direction and trying to take in all considerations. I can understand Geist's approach to Brancusi, but I can
also understand Moore's and Smithson's re-sinking their work into nature, each in such a different way.
29. Pound, Ezra. Gaudier-Btzeska, A Memoir. New York: New Directions, 1970. p. 140
32. James, Philip. Henry Moore on Sculpture. New York: Viking Press, 1966. p. 69
36. Ibid. p. 7437. Ibid. p. 78