The Pliable Plane: The Wall as Surface in Sculpture and Architecture, 1945–75 by Penelope Curtis (MACK, $40.)
What is the obvious but overlooked link between the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux and the sandcast bas-relief sculptures of Constantino Nivola, Paul Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture Building, and Mary Martin’s relief for the Sixth World Congress of the International Union of Architects? The answer, contends art historian and curator Penelope Curtis, is the wall and its use as a surface—an approach shared by sculpture and architecture to such an extent that, as explored in this generously illustrated volume, the two could almost be said to have become one over a 30-year, postwar period.
As Curtis explains in her introduction: “I want to argue that sculpture borrowed so successfully from architecture that we tend to overlook these links.” She sets up her thesis regarding this close relationship via a particularly high-profile example from the 1950s: the siting of Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure in front of Marcel Breuer’s UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. Curtis succinctly charts the journey of ideas and materials that Moore undertook for the commission. Particularly fascinating is how the sculpture jettisoned the curved-wall backdrop of early maquettes and responded directly to the majestic sweep of Breuer’s concrete and glass building. As Curtis explains, “in the end [Moore] had no more need of the curve. The curve was the building…”
Curtis stresses that inspiration and ideas flowed in both directions. Breuer and Moore influenced each other—Moore even decided to use the same Travertine stone with which Breuer clad the building’s end sections. This symbiotic interaction between disciplines, linked by the practical reality and aesthetic idea of the wall, provides a fascinating thread throughout the book.
Presented in four chapters titled “Cave,” “Cast,” “Clad,” and “Closed,” The Pliable Plane begins with an account of Moore’s wartime “Shelter” drawings in the London Underground (used as a bomb shelter), the curved tunnels and cave-like atmosphere providing a link to the Lascaux paintings. Curtis next turns her attention to the memorial created at the site of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre outside Rome and the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation in Paris. In these subterranean settings, architecture becomes increasingly sculptural, and walls act as symbolic enclosures, monuments to memory. By the end of the chapter, we are inside the wartime bunkers of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall, their smooth, sculpturally seductive concrete surfaces belying the violent tyranny they were constructed to support and defend.
Materially, concrete—and the many and varied architectural forms it has enabled—dominates the book, perhaps unsurprisingly bearing in mind the time period covered by Curtis. In the final chapter, subtitled “New Ways With Walls,” the proliferation of glass-clad, curtain-wall structures takes us on an especially thrilling ride that encompasses the United Nations Secretariat Building, the Seagram Building, Pepsi-Cola’s New York headquarters, and the “glassy and illusionistic” world of Jacques Tati’s 1967 film, Playtime. The 1960s and ’70s works of artists such as Ronald Bladen, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Larry Bell, and Thomas Schütte are all touched on here, yet a painted Anni Albers screen print from 1984—part of her “Wall” series, based on images of Mexican brick walls—provides the book’s full stop. It demonstrates, Curtis concludes, “the ambiguity of the wall as a structure and as a covering, as something with or without texture, as a plane, stretched horizontally, or as a stack, built up from below.”