Funny Peculiar: Humor and Sculpture in Modern Art and After Minimalism

The first joke a baby gets is always the same: mild alarm followed quickly by extravagant reassurance. The baby laughs rapturously at the absurdity of being afraid. When we grown-up babies enjoy our more or less sophisticated derivatives of peek-a-boo, what is funny is still the idea that we were about to be frightened or humiliated. Our laughter, too, sings of security triumphant.

Cady Noland: Publyck Sculpture, 1993-94. Mixed-media installation.

Chemically, humor probably entails a spurt of fight-or-flight hormones and neurotransmitters that, revealed to be unnecessary, are experienced as bonus vitality, overflowing in gratuitous pleasure.

Different levels of putative threat occasion different types of humor. Wit, fastest and shallowest, remedies mere discomfiture. We are at a loss. In a flash, we master the situation. Black or gallows humor, slowest and deepest, grins at real trouble. We feel doomed. We are doomed, but absurdly. The world is insane. Conceiving this, our intellects rejoice even as our hearts sink. We are not secured against fear, but against loss of self-possession through panic.

Nearly all deliberately manufactured humor offers images of indignity happening to others. We are secure because we are not those unlucky people. As Mel Brooks observed, “Tragedy is when I get a paper cut on my little finger. Comedy is when you fall in a manhole and die.” The Brooks line, which cracked me up when I first heard it, conjoins wit and black humor: wit’s mastering economy and black humor’s travesty of an actual horror, here the moral horror of selfishness. Of course, Brooks offers himself up as the butt of the joke: he’s worse than you and me, though along lines we recognize in ourselves. He plays the clown, in a word.

Humor is more than an element of Western modern sculpture. It is a condition. Modern sculpture emerged as a pratfallen art, born of catastrophic indignity-unlike painting, whose present disarray (along with sculpture’s present, remarkable prestige) is of recent date. Modern times divorced painting from most of its former functions but preserved it as a picture on the wall. Modern times stripped sculpture of its physical identity as an object destined for a particular pedestal or niche. Lacking architectural integration, sculpture commenced to wander around bumping into things, clownishly.

David Hammons, Flying Carpet, 1990. Persian rug, wire, and fried chicken, 113 x 185 x 4 in. Jack Tilton Gallery, New York.

I have in mind the best modern sculpture: arch like Brancusi, sardonic like Duchamp, black-humorous like Giacometti, antic like David Smith. In their aesthetics, these great artists accommodated and capitalized on modern sculpture’s itinerant state. Their candor triggered-and triggers still-the anxieties followed by mysterious reassurances that are humor in action.

Like favored siblings, meanwhile, modern painters who already possessed framing-edge security were accorded special indulgence of the studio pedestal. From Degas and Matisse through Picasso and Miro to de Kooning, moonlighting painters enjoyed credible extensions of sculptural tradition denied to any major sculptor after Medardo Rosso. (An exception like Maillol proves the rule.) Sculptors have had excellent reason to resent painters.

Unsupported by convention, a sculpture must anticipate and forestall the questions that we reflexively direct toward any obtrusive object of uncertain utility. Roughly, this inquiry consists of: What is that? Why is it there? When will it go away? If these questions so much as arise in an honest viewer’s response, the game is lost. There must be an immediate engagement, even if hostile, that amounts to acceptance of the sculpture’s givenness.

Constantin Brancusi, Portrait of Nancy Cunard (Sophisticated Young Lady), 1925-27. Walnut on marble base. Nelson-Atkings Museum of Art.

Painting proposes imaginary, alternate universes, for which there is infinite room in the world. Sculpture intrudes a new object on a universe already full of objects, from galaxies to fingernail clippers. A bad painting is a bore. A bad sculpture is a scandal.

The strongest alternative to humor as a survival mechanism for modern sculpture has been second-order seriousness, adapted from some charismatic ideology: revolutionary triumphalism for Vladimir Tatlin, vatic humanism for Henry Moore, mandarin formalism for Anthony Caro, squinting post-structuralism for Sherrie Levine. Ideology in art often makes a brilliant effect when new. But as a creative resource, it has the shelf life of milk. Humor lasts longer.

I hope it is understood that I do not make a case for second-order humor: parody, burlesque, caricature. Jokey treatments of jokey subject matter make for trivial (though perhaps harmlessly enjoyable) art, indistinguishable in any definitive way from pop-cultural animation, puppetry, and cartooning-not to mention lumpen, gray-area genres like ceramic figurines, dolls, mannequins, and taxidermy.

Alexander Liberman’s 1965 photograph of David Smith’s sculptures at Bolton Landing, New York. Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York.

But it is time to mention precisely those gray areas, which inform so much first-order humor in contemporary sculpture. Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, Charles Ray, David Hammons, Cady Noland, and Bruce Nauman objectify and transform the content of debased genres. The allusive works of these Americans and of European masters, including the Englishman Richard Deacon and the Swiss Franz West, make the present era in sculpture the most richly humorous ever.

The apotheosis of humor in contemporary sculpture-defined broadly as three-dimensional work, often with a fourth dimension introduced by motors, lights, or video-owes everything to the most humorless revolution in art history: Minimalism.

Richard Deacon, Art for Other People #21, 1986. Mixed plastics and steel, 1 x 2 x 6 ft. Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

Minimalism regained architectural integration for sculpture at the cost of everything else that sculpture had been about. Donald Judd revived the givenness of the pedestal and the niche/ relief by making them identical with the sculptural object. For hardcore Minimalists, sculptural presentation and sculpture are one. Synthesizing Duchamp’s careful confusion of art and objecthood, Brancusi’s anticipation of base-as-sculpture, and the worldly program of the Bauhaus, among other modern brainstorms, Minimalism launched the most nearly universal aesthetic dispensation since the Baroque.

In a certain light, the victory of Minimalism, which after only three decades still expands year by year, can appear grandly comical itself. It is a scenario from George Herriman: the perversely erotic brick with which the shameless Ignatz Mouse of specialized avant-gardism clonks the fatuous Krazy Kat of liberal culture while the indignant Offissa Pup of conservative culture splutters. Welcome to the millennium.

Most successful sculpture since Minimalism has been sculpture by default. It doesn’t look like sculpture-or does in pointedly misleading ways-but our experience of it finally touches the places in us that sculpture touches. It is a shaggy-dog story, if you will, whose punchline turns out to be: sculpture lives!

Consider a classic work by Charles Ray, the most acute aesthetician among sculptors today. “Ink Box” (1986) does look like a sculpture, specifically, a handsome, Judd-type cube colored glossy black. Its sleek surfaces beg to be stroked. Besides being a violation of art-space etiquette, touching it is unwise, because the cube’s solid-looking top is actually liquid newspaper ink, one of the world’s dirtiest substances. When I first saw Ink Box, unguarded in a Los Angeles gallery, the room’s white walls were streaked with distraught smears of previous viewers’ miscreant fingers.

Jeff Koons, Puppy, 1997. Live flowers, earth, wood, and steel, 472 x 197 x 256 in.

The humor of “Ink Box” is practical joking that reflects on the whole social and spiritual contract between art and people after Minimalism. It is mainly witty, with a gallows aftertaste. It does a lot with a little. In this it is similar to Richard Deacon’s intermittent series of awkwardly scaled floor sculptures, which have the look of small-industrial fabrication. “Art for Other People” (1982-90), Deacon dubs these works, stirring in their presence a sort of epistemological seasickness. (I think of a definition of poetry by Paul Valéry: “addressed by someone other than the poet to someone other than the reader.” I think also of Marcel Duchamp’s self-composed gravestone epitaph: “After all, it’s always the others who die.”)

The blackest of sculptural humorists, Bruce Nauman, equates art-viewing with entrapment in double-binds. His stunning works with the taxidermy forms of animals simultaneously deliver maximum charges of pathos and of formal detachment that feel like cruelty. His video-installation masterpiece, “Clown Torture” (1987) makes a raucous and profound spectacle of the futility of human activity, here in a particular guise of humor itself. In Nauman’s work, clowns try to amuse while telling circular stories or performing routines devised by the artist, without end. Life’s a joke. Then you die.

David Hammons, “House of the Future”, 1991. Reconstructed house in Charleston, South Carolina. Jack Tilton Gallery, New York/H. Mark Weidman.

It’s only art. It is art absolutely. The negative and positive connotations of art status occur together-occasioning high, even sacred humor, laughter of the gods-in the best works of Ray, Deacon, Nauman, and many other contemporaries. Sculpture reigns today not because it offers answers but because it sharpens questions. It meets our need for visceral acknowledgment of our routine discomfiture and sometime terror. Sculpture can do this now, as painting rarely can, because of the conflation of art and social space brought about by Minimalism.

Cady Noland, (installation view, foreground) Your Fucking Face, 1993-94, and (background) Gibbet (with flag), 1993-94. Both mixed media. James Dee.

Think again of the baby, that champion laugher in the face of life’s worst possibilities: helpless falling, abandonment. A culture that preserves the gift of the baby’s laughter into adulthood and at the highest levels of artistic sophistication does well and is likely to survive. Laughter of even, or especially, the darkest tincture is a sound that faith makes. Seeing how we cannot go on (to paraphrase Samuel Beckett’s great comic formulation), we go on. Something about us will have delight no matter what.

Peter Schjeldahl writes on art for the Village Voice and other publications. His collections of criticism include The Hydrogen Jukebox.