ON ESTHETIC COMPOSITION
By Robert Segal
Im not keen to proselytize the worn cliché "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". It is certainly through the eye we behold beauty, but the physiology of the eye and the visual cortex are principally shared among us and most people respond to composition in the same way, contrary to the clichés' gist. Of course many artists are not preoccupied with esthetics. They engage in a host of other preoccupations, storytelling, political commentary, symbolic gestures, or attempts to communicate a variety of feelings or ideas. Sometimes non-esthetic motives are combined with an attempt to convey them in an attractive manner, sometimes purposely not. Sometimes, especially in the case of Sculptors, only the act of creation is considered of import. As each artist must choose his or her focus, I have attempted to distill that very essence which is what we find esthetically pleasurable. I am of a mind that this is a most enduring and valuable contribution for an artist to make and at the end of this road lay greater understanding of our humanity. One person's "Ego" art is often another man's garbage, which says nothing to diminish the importance of an artist creating for the self. For some it is all that keeps them from depression or worse. And if more people took to making art rather than beating their wives the world would be all the better for it. Novelty and whimsical art has a place too.
Unfortunately, sculptors, for whom mastery of spatial composition is at the nexus of their profession, have contributed little information to help the layman better understand what makes one sculpture more pleasing to look at then another the way Hans Hoffman did for painting. This is most unfortunate, not only for the layman but also for many artists who themselves could benefit from a more concrete understanding of good design. A little knowledge can go a long way to making the experience of sculpture and other art more comprehensible and encourage a sense of relatedness. That can only come from a conscious understanding of universal human esthetic predilections. Paradigms of art fossilized in the halls of art museums or the fawning of critics can never dictate our innate responses. We must learn to understand this if we are to sort out for ourselves an apprehension of esthetic constants.
Most who are acquainted with contemporary sculpture are familiar with the works of Brancusi and other fabulously well-known sculptors such as Moore, Hepworth and Arp. There are many other far lesser known artists who have worked with nonobjective form, some better, some worse, lost in the desert of anonymity that curse those who missed the publicity boat, art-scene bigwigs or historical opportunity that catapulted those few to fame and fortune. It is important that the layman be informed early on that the achievements of artists do not necessarily correspond to their celebrity. Fame is a product of the machinations of the politics and business of the art world and repute is often at odds with what is enduring or qualitative in art. In fact much art that attains fame is even amongst critics thought abysmal. The "fame game" in art often mimics a religion that depends on mindless gullibility for devotees. What makes something beautiful or otherwise significant is not who made it, but the effects of what it is and that can be found in the obscure as well as the renowned. For the purposes of this discussion I'll refer to "big names" only for their utility to help illustrate a point in light of their familiarity to most readers without intending any endorsement of their supremacy.
I'll attempt here a brief introduction into the elements of good design as I view them, as pertains to the composition of form among freestanding sculpture. While figurative work suffers from limited design potential dictated by the human form, works of this kind may be analyzed by the same criteria as nonrepresentational forms. I abandoned the figure in my early years of research owing to the vast potential for design supremacy of nonobjective shapes.
For the sake of discussion Ill posit that what is pleasing from our observation, devoid of association, is to be equated with good design, that is, what is visually pleasing or for that matter beautiful is as such good design. This is to be distinguished from the concept of good design as it applies to arranging the engine compartment of a car for better accessibility and so forth. Consider the common egg. If you take one out of your refrigerator and study it for a bit you may notice that it is a rather pleasing form to look at and certainly it is not far from the "Newborn" of Brancusi. What is it that makes it so? What makes the egg good design? The humble egg incorporates a balanced integration of a few structural characteristics that are observed relatively free from visual distractions by virtue of the good craftsmanship of nature, a reasonably uniform surface and singular color that corresponds to the singularity of the form.
The egg may be seen to comprise from one viewpoint, the side, a profile that is ever changing, a fluid topography that requires of us a time to pour over this surface for us to "read" it. Owing to the continuity of color and absence of surface irregularities our eye is allowed to "flow" over the contours. If we rotate the egg to observe it from the end view, the profile becomes a relatively perfect sphere. So what we have here is in one and the same shape a static geometric form and a fluid altering form in a balanced synthesis. There is then a tension and yet an agreeable repose of these disparate elements in that simplistic mass that is quite elegant. The "beauty" of the egg becomes thus more transparent, the clean presentation of unique and dissimilar or opposite structural elements in a state of equilibrium.
Further analysis of the egg reveals a balance between the overall shape as a singularity and the components that we discern it comprises - the smaller components beginning to alter it, stretch it out of shape identifiable within its periphery. Of course this is an interpretive idea, but the structural presence is not. It is a human habit to attempt to resolve amorphous forms into regular geometric shapes probably in our attempt to register in memory or conceptualize its identity or to aid in a rapid interpretation of the object. Thus forms may be used which incorporate both suggestive geometry and fluidity to satisfy both the need for interpretive interest and character identification.
Now Brancusi, in his "Newborn" takes the egg a step further and incorporates additional impositions on the egg shape that adds a message (birth) but further adds interest to the composition by yet adding more shape elements (facet, sharp edge etc.). With a planar break in the topography he introduces the identification of reflective surrounding space, a new and significant visual component, ever so carefully in a balance with the essential egg shape so as not to obliterate the essential character of the egg.
So what we have here is an illustration of a basic rubric of good design of nonobjective forms, the synthesis of a variety of visual components in a state of equilibrium. Make it too thin or too thick, too long or too short, too complicated or too simple, too flat or too curved or monotonous etc. and you have a compromised design.
There is a lot of inept design focused sculpture out there. Sometimes it sells well anyway because the public is impressed with its other distractions, often the flash of a highly polished surface or a sensual surface pattern inherent to the material it is constructed of such as a fine marble or well figured wood. Patina or an inclusion of superficial texture sometimes helps to obscure inadequate design. But there is no substitute for excellence of design. While the reflectivity of polished stainless steel and such may catch the eye initially, it fails to please over time. Good design pleasures us in a much more enduring way as it satisfies our longing for balanced states and fulfils other needs for stimulus that are fundamental to our physiologic yearnings. The maximum of visual stimulus by the inclusion of varied spatial and chromatic components in a balanced synthesis takes the prize, yields the greatest pleasure.
My work is predicated on this theory that truly beautiful sculpture depends far more on design then on effects alone e.g. the vivid translucent color, sparkle or reflective surfaces commonly found in expensive glass art. While these effects are an exciting constituent, they will of themselves fall short of reaching the level of an awesome visual experience that will enrich the senses over time unless these stimulating elements are arranged in excellent composition. It is not unlike a dance of spectacular leaps and bounds that is poorly choreographed. This is why glass art is often characterized as lovely, but shallow. I have had to sacrifice some of these delightful effects in order to concentrate on excellence of design. Glass, where vivid color and translucency can be worked does so at the expense of controlled design. It is simply too difficult to control blobs of molten glass as one can work a wax model and especially so to control the disposition of color as well in such a manipulation. Glass is most often an "art" of effects. Arguably, this is why many construe glass art to be more a craft than fine art.
A lot of sculptors today work in sheet steel and aluminum because it is easy to construct large unique pieces that endure well outdoors at low cost. Some use simplistic gimmicks e.g. constructing with tubes and cables that is even cheaper and can fill large spaces. But double curved surfaces and other vital design elements are sacrificed by these artists and viewers echo the results by their boredom.
I believe that excellence of design supercedes any message or sentiment as the most enduring source of joy art can provide for human kind. There are more aspects to good design such as rhythm, flow and counterpoise, not to mention multi view integrity and proper transitions of components. I have only hoped here to initiate the observer into the mysteries of design for sculpture that is the focus of my work. I hope these notes help you enjoy my work as well as that of others. If you are a student of sculpture I hope they will stimulate your inquiry into the essence of art and design so that the choices you make in the pursuit of your art are ones made in the light of knowledge and understanding.