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What Is_?Sculpture

The What Is_? Programme provides an introduction to some of the key concepts and themes in modern and contemporary art for all audiences.


This introductory text provides a brief overview of sculpture. Art terms are indicated with an underline and their definition can be viewed by hovering the cursor over the term. They can also be found in the glossary. 

Sculpture is the term used to describe three-dimensional artworks. Traditionally, sculpture was created using permanent materials such as stone, metal, clay, ceramic or wood although works made from durable material such as stone were more likely to survive over time whereas sculptures made of wood such as Totem Poles were less likely to survive. Contemporary sculpture can be made from any kind of material: stone, metal, light, sound, found objects, people or even the site itself. It can also comprise no materials. Sculptures can be permanent such as the monumental sculptures and statues honouring famous people and events, situated in prominent positions in city spaces. They can also be Ephemereal Temporary, Performative or Transient depending on the artist’s intentions, the context in which the sculpture came about and its purpose. Sculptural forms can be found in many cultures dating back to prehistoric times. In some societies sculptures took the form of figures such as Statues or Reliefs while in others they took on more abstract forms such as Obelisks, standing stones or pyramids. The size and function of sculpture varies considerably depending on the context, materials and purpose. Traditionally, religious institutions, rulers and wealthy individuals were the main commissioners of sculpture. Sculpture in the form of statues, Votives and shrines were commissioned to decorate palaces and sacred spaces such as churches, temples or tombs or to communicate a religious message, especially to a non-literate public. The form and presentation of sculpture was also influenced by religious prohibitions as religious institutions were the major Patrons of art.

Figurative representation is prohibited in Judaism and Islam resulting in Aniconism and a preference for abstract and decorative sculptural forms. Figuration played an important role in Christianity evident in some of the innovations in sculptural practice during the Renaissance. However, even within Christianity there have been periods when figuration has been rejected resulting in Iconoclasm, the destruction of figurative images of religious figures. Sculpture, especially Monumental sculpture, was also created for political purposes, to communicate a particular message such as triumph in battle or to reinforce the wealth and status of a ruler. Rapid social, political, economic and cultural changes towards the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century influenced changes in the form, practice and purpose of sculpture. Prior to this period, sculptural training and practice was quite prescriptive: artists trained in academies and followed strict guidelines with regard to the form, subject and presentation of their sculptural works. Traditional sculpture tended to be figurative and created in a limited range of materials such as stone and bronze; therefore, the techniques of carving, modelling and casting were essential skills for a sculptor. However, new developments in technology, in particular Photography and Film, meant that traditional concerns with naturalistic representation in drawing, painting and sculpture could be discarded in favour of more innovative and experimental approaches. Artists began to experiment with different types of materials and techniques reflecting their own interests and concerns.


Innovations associated with early Avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Suprematism, Constructivism and Surrealism resulted in the use of new materials and subject matter and the emergence of new Abstract forms. Artists also began to experiment with Found objects and Readymade objects and also with the new forms and materials derived from industrialisation. Emerging trends towards Abstraction in Modernist sculpture emphasised consideration of the formal aspects of the artwork separate from its context. Innovations in sculpture were also influenced by new forms of public sculpture and memorialisation in the twentieth century in the aftermath of two world wars. Although figuration remained the dominant form of commemorative sculpture, new forms of memorialisation such as the Cenotaph employed the ambiguous vocabulary of modernist abstraction seeking an alternative to earlier celebratory and triumphal forms. Developments in Architecture and increased urbanisation and modernisation resulted in increased public spending on the built environment and a growing awareness of the role of sculpture in public spaces. This also generated new opportunities for artists to create large-scale sculpture in public spaces.

Developments in Minimalism, which favoured sculptural forms and focused on the material conditions of the artwork, shifted attention from representation to experience. They also expanded the possibility of sculpture in terms of its materials and construction, employing industrial materials and modes of fabrication During the 1960s and ‘70s, prompted by social, cultural and political changes, new forms of practice such as Environmental Art, Land Art, Installation Art and Site Specific Art emerged providing new modes and contexts for sculptural practice. Emphasising the relationship of the art object to its context and challenging its status as a commodity, these new forms of practice presented alternative ways to produce and display artworks outside the museum or gallery space such as in the landscape. Encountering a sculpture in a field or in an open public space is a different experience to encountering a sculpture in a gallery space. They also extended the possibilities for sculptural practice in terms of materials, subject matter, location and audience engagement. Informed by developments across a range of theoretical disciplines such as Poststructuralism, Feminism, Postcolonial Theory, Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory, artists devised temporary, textbased and performative sculptural practice. Innovations in Conceptual Art shifted emphasis from the tangible art object to the concept, so that an idea or set of instructions could comprise an art work rather than a physical object. Advances in technology, particularly in Film, Video and Digital Technology, the Internet and Social Media have further expanded the possibilities of sculptural practice into the realm of the Virtual and performative. Employing found, mass-produced, impermanent and Appropiated objects and materials, contemporary artists continue to explore and expand the boundaries of sculpture in terms of form, materials, location and timeframe. Despite the expansion of the possibilities of sculpture beyond its physical properties into the more ephemeral space of ideas, sound, movement, light and virtual reality, the term sculpture continues to be employed to describe the construction and situation of an artwork in space.


Reading List

Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, London: Verso, 1998.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Gregory Battock (ed.), Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968.
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses Du Réel, 1998.
Martha Buskirk, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2003.
Frances Colpitt (ed.), Abstract Art in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Claire Doherty, Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004.
Editors of Phaidon Press, Vitamin 3-D: New Perspectives in Sculpture and Installation, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2009.
Steve Edwards and Paul Woods (eds.), Art of the Avant-Gardes (Art of the Twentieth Century), New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 2004.
Anne Ellegood and Joanna Burton, The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture. Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2007.
Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
Hal Foster, Rosalind E. Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois & Benjamin Buchloh (eds.), Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmdernism, New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Francis Frascina & Charles Harrison (eds.), Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
Francis Frascina & Jonathan Harris (eds.), Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts, New York: Icon Editions, Harper Collins, 1992.
Jason Gaiger (ed.), Frameworks for Modern Art (Art of the Twentieth Century), New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with The Open University, 2003.
Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art, London: Phaidon, 1998.
Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965 -1975, Los Angeles and Cambridge: Museum of Contemporary Art and MIT Press, 1995.
Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Cambridge MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.
Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and Jason Gaiger (eds.), Art in Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
David Hopkins, After Modern Art 1945-2000, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press, 1977.
Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.
Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another, Site Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.
Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Thomas McEvilley, Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, Allworth Press, 1999.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routledge Classics, 2002.
Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Alex Potts, The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
John B. Ravenal, Artificial Light: New Light-based Sculpture and Installation Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2008.
Anne Rorimer, New Art in the 60s and 70s: Redefining Reality, London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
Brandon Taylor, Contemporary Art: Art Since 1970, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2004.
Linda Weintraub, Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary Society, 1970s – 1990s, Litchfield, CT: Art Insights Inc., 1997.




Lecturer Sinéad Hogan’s essay, What is Sculpture? provides an overview of sculpture, identifing some of the challenges in attempting to define this broad and evolving subject. The essay includes examples of artists and art works, some of which are included in IMMA’s Collection. By focusing on IMMA’s Collection we hope to draw attention to the range of sculpture in the Collection by artists such as Ulrich Rückreim, Janet Mullarney, Michael Warren, Aleana Egan and Antony Gormley. We also hope to highlight the potential of IMMA’s exhibitions and Collection as resources for further investigation and enquiry into the subject of sculpture.




What is Sculpture? Soundcloud




Important Notice


We would like to advise our visitors that our Main Reception area is closed for renovation from 22 April until mid-June.  A temporary reception is open on the ground floor next to the original main entrance. While we prepare to open our next exhibition Hilary Heron: A Retrospective on 24 May, there are two exhibitions to see Derry Film & Video Workshop and Self: Determination: Artists Commissions. IMMA’s gardens and café are open to the public.