by Robert Slifkin, Princeton University Press, November 2019. 248 p. ill. ISBN 9780691192529 (h/c), $37.50.
Reviewed January 2020
Barbara Opar, Librarian for Architecture, Syracuse University Libraries, firstname.lastname@example.org
The New Monuments and the End of Man focuses on how key modern artists reengaged with the sculptural monument, imagining a future fraught with technological change and the possibility of war and destruction. Robert Slifkin is adept at capturing the mindset of the artists and a world in flux, in what is a dense but compelling text. The author reminds us that perceived threats of nuclear annihilation influenced the artists’ different approaches to sculpture as much as any art trend.
Influences on post war art, such as emigres haunted by concentration camps, are discussed in the first chapter. Recurring themes include physical decay and ruination, seen as wormholes in the work of Raoul Hague or industrial-looking metalwork by Theodore Roszak. Sentinels by David Smith and Seymour Lipton, while aligning with the past, look to a threatening future. This theme is continued in chapter two, where the author describes how sculpture begins to surpass or equal painting. This sculpture, engaged with its surroundings, incorporating images from commercial and industrial sources, employs a new materiality. Direct welding techniques allowed for greater freedom of expression, often manifested in violent underpinnings. Slifkin notes: “The often-remarked-on structural openness made possible by the welding technique promoted new ways of perceiving three-dimensional art.” Examples cited include the dynamic and somewhat architectural work of Herbert Ferber and the fluorescent lights of Dan Flavin.
Key to the traditional monument is durability, thus its long association with monumentality. An association with site and a link to representational significance is important. The late 1960s saw the sculptural object linked in new ways to its environment as seen in the work of Robert Smithson. New monuments tried to divorce themselves from any commemorative function or even permanence. Chapter three explores these ideas as well as entropy, especially in relation to Smithson. The ruin is also a significant theme in the work of Smithson and thoughtfully described in chapter four.
Among the issues explored by the sculptors of the 1960s are credibility and its gap, including Donald Judd’s criticism and sculpture. Judd cited works he admired as “credible” and, in his own work, established credibility by using nontraditional materials and rejecting any recognizable imagery. In his art, often labelled confrontational, Judd breaks down distinctions between painting and sculpture. The last two chapters of the book explore this minimalist concept as well as the idea of the empty room where the gallery space becomes part of the exhibition.
Slifkin, surprisingly, does not include a bibliography in his work, though each chapter includes extensive notes.
While the overall theme of the book is dark, the author presents an evocative view of the art, the artists, and the context, making this book valuable for academic libraries.