Exploring the Relationship of Death, Sculpture, and Modernity

Left, Cleveland Museum’s Rodin, damaged by a “rebel” bomb in 1970 (according to police, the perpetrators were a faction of the Weathermen, possibly the same individuals killed in a bomb-making accident in New York City that same year, though no one was very charged); right, the Star Wars Death Star destroyed by the Rebels. (juxtaposed by author)

This week, we are pleased to publish an essay written by sculptor and blogger John Powers about the relationship of death, sculpture, and modernity.

While Powers is widely known for his intense focus on Star Wars as a cultural touchstone of the last fifty years (his blog is called Star Wars Modern and he has published an influential essay titled “Star Wars: A New Heap” in Triple Canopy), his writing also explores the boundaries of sculpture, architecture, and art in general within the bigger project of modernity. He is an engaging writer who often mashes up the worlds of high and low culture with an ease that demonstrates his vast knowledge and comfort with ideas, and he often juxtaposes images to create meanings that go beyond the text.

His latest essay, “Art, Not Suicide,”  takes on a major theorist of modern sculpture, Rosalind Krauss, and his writing both illuminates and calls into question the blind spots in her ideas. Her influential essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” is the starting point for Powers’s exploration of the ominous — if largely ignored — role of death in modern sculpture. In his extensive intro to the series, which he published on his blog (Part One, Part Two), he writes:

When you think about it, it is about time someone make that claim, death is central to the modernist project. The Historian TJ Clark writes in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism that:

… the modernist past is a ruin, the logic of whose architecture we do not remotely grasp. This has not happened, in my view, because we have entered a new age … On the contrary, it is just because the ‘modernity’ which modernism prophesied has finally arrived … The intervening (and interminable) holocaust was modernization.

Keep in mind that painting dies every two or three years. God dies with the regularity of clock work, but only once a decade. The author hasn’t come up dead since the early 1990s, but we’re all still talking about it like it was yesterday. So it stings that sculpture has never come up dead. Google it. You get 322 results, which is as close to zero as you can get with a Google search. A search for “painting is dead” nets 76,700 results. “God is dead” a solid 466,000 hits. “Death of the Author” 1,330,000. “Postmodernism” (the claim that modernism itself is dead) about 2,900,000 results (0.33 seconds). Those are all proper returns for a search. Hell, even “dick is dead” gets 64,388 more hits than “sculpture is dead.”

Left, Rosalind Krauss’s diagram of Postmodern sculpture, based on the mathematical logic called the “Klein group.” Rosalind Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths”(1985) (via ; right, John Powers redraws the diagram. (via (click to enlarge)

The idea for this series began a year and a half ago when Powers imagined reworking the Klein group diagram from Rosalind Krauss’s “Expanded Field” essay to describe the visual program of Star Wars. What came out of that idea was this series.

For those unfamiliar with the “Expanded Field” essay, I would highly recommend reading it (here’s a PDF) before reading this series but it certainly isn’t required reading.

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