Antony Gormley and Martin Gayford, Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now, Thames & Hudson, 2020 (image courtesy Thames & Hudson)

You could say that Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now by Martin Gayford and Antony Gormley, a book exploring the character, significance, and sheer longevity of the sculptural impulse over millennia, could not be more timely. Why?

Because sculpture is in crisis, and it is good to be reminded how important it has been throughout the history of humanity, how it has helped to define, and perhaps even immortalize, the very nature of our most profound self-searchings. And might yet do so again? We shall see.

Why such pessimism, though?

Anyone who has helped to judge or curate an open-submission, mixed-media exhibition will be aware that sculpture has been in crisis for a long, long time.

While there is always a superabundance of two-dimensional works of confidence and genuine quality to choose from in such exhibitions, anyone looking to balance it out with a range of sculpture of similar quality and ambition is likely to be bitterly disappointed.

Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now, page 12-13: “Parinirvana Buddha,” Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (11th–12th century), stone, length: c. 14 m (45 ft 111⁄4 in.) (photo credit: Pierre Vauthey/Sygma/Getty Images)

This year’s display the Royal Academy Summer — sorry: Winter, due to COVID — Exhibition is a case in point. Curated by Richard Deacon, one of our best living sculptors, the principal gallery given over to sculpture was almost laughably inadequate.

Was this Deacon’s fault? Very unlikely. There they were, a range of objects that looked undecided about which direction to move. Some appeared weirdly anachronistic, others rather tamely figurative or toying with some version of modernism. A few were just badly made. For them to be in the show at all suggested that they were the best possible choices from a rather poor bunch.

Shaping the World is composed of conversations between the English critic Gayford and the English sculptor Gormley, and the discussions range widely, from how bodies have been represented in space to issues of light and darkness, from clay and modeling to trees and life, from the body and the block to actions and events, from collecting and selecting to industry and heavy metal. 

Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now, page 121: Auguste Rodin, “The Hand of Rodin” (cast 1917), plaster, 61⁄4 × 9 × 33⁄4 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art (Photo credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Jules E. Mastbaum, 1929)

At the book’s close, Gormley makes this statement: 

Sculpture offers an opportunity to pause, suggesting a contemplative alternative, of itself contradictory, and an invitation to resist the powers that makes us into silent workers for a system of exchange of which no one seems to be in control.

It is a vaguely aspirational, idealistic gesture of a remark, in part at least throwaway, which has nothing whatsoever to say about the situation of sculpture now. Is the “opportunity” that sculpture is said to grant us really any different from what other arts might hope to do? Is not the suggestion of a “contemplative alternative” pure vapidity? And what exactly does “of itself contradictory” contribute to our understanding of that sentence? 

What, then, was sculpture before its crisis? That is the question underpinning the book. 

Sculpture is an ongoing dialogue between past and present, a form of ritual bonding between generations whose finest manifestations reach backward and forward. It is an art, first, of the very stuff of the earth — its clays, its minerals, its blocks of granite — and later, of the forge- and factory-made, meticulously planned fabrications or the detritus of daily life placed in uncanny and quickening juxtaposition.

Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now, page 62: Silbury Hill, Avebury, Wiltshire (c. 2400 BCE) (Photo © Clickos/Dreamstime)

We are told that the conversations in the book were conducted over a number of years, but the nature of the material discussed, and such a level of detail, makes it evident that the conversations have been amplified, tailored, improved, if not thoroughly burnished. No bad thing, of course. No one speaks off the cuff quite as intelligently as these two do.

Are voices ever raised in anger or disagreement? Too seldom, sadly. They are for the most part straightforward and even-tempered, with one speaker passing the baton to the other when he runs out of puff, who then fast-sprints with it a little further along the road.

Is there anything they differ over? Principally this: Gormley thinks that painting is something of a tired also-ran, and that sculpture is much the greater art. Gayford disagrees, but he always tends to disagree fairly politely, which is a bit of a shame. The book could have been improved with a little more testiness, a little more vigorous hand-to-hand combat.

Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now, page 240 and 241: Antony Gormley, Another Place (1997), permanent installation, Crosby Beach, Merseyside, England (Photo Credit: A Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council Commission. Photo: Stephen White. © the artist)

That being said, Shaping the World — and, in particular, the high quality of its arguments — should sustain a reader’s interest from first to last, and it is made all the better by the quantity and excellence of the many accompanying photographs. Seldom has the photographic element of a book shadowed the words so closely and so fully — and to a such positive effect upon the words, which together knit a coherent view of artworks that are often widely dispersed across the globe and chronologically far-flung.

And the irritants? Gormley’s works are on display far too often, as if to claim parity with everything cited here as key to sculpture’s long history.

And how do these two men differ in temperament? Gayford, art critic of the Spectator for many years, is more factually sober than Gormley, less given to emotional riffs. Gormley, on the other hand, is on the intuitive, if not mystical, end of the spectrum, seeing voids, meaningful absences, and sources of anxiety wherever he goes. He is a man who bestrides the globe on eggshells.

Is there a bit of windbaggery in Gormley? Undoubtedly. (I am still puzzling over the meaning of a remark he makes in this book about “the meniscus on the top of the absinthe” in Picasso’s “Still Life” of 1914). Having said that, the authors offer much knowledge, sound judgment, and good sense when they too are called for. 

Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now, page 357: Anthony Caro, “Early One Morning” (1962), steel and aluminum, painted red, 9 ft 6 1⁄4 in. × 20 ft. 4 1⁄8 in. × 10 ft. 11 1⁄8 in., Tate (Photo credit: Photo John Riddy. © Courtesy of Barford Sculptures Ltd.)

The analyses of the works of Brancusi in relation to their settings are excellent, and a reminder of the pivotal importance of the works of Medardo Rosso in the evolution of sculpture since the 19th century — singling out “Conversation in the Garden” (1896) for particular attention — could not be more illuminating. 

The issue that cries out to be addressed, and to which I alluded much earlier, concerns the future of sculpture: where will it go next and who believes in it to the extent that Gormley’s generation did?

Yes, we still have the likes of Phyllida Barlow, Anish Kapoor, and Richard Deacon among us, but who will come next? How many sculptors under 40 are mentioned in this book? (Answer: precious few.)

No matter how many hymns of praise this book might sing in defense of this great, humanity-defining tradition, who will in fact be listening or heeding?

Shaping the World: Sculpture from Prehistory to Now (2020) by Antony Gormley and Martin Gayford, published by Thames and Hudson, is available online and in bookstores.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...