Nathan Slate Joseph: Pure Pigment, Constructed Form

Pigment has played an important, if often overlooked, role in the history of sculpture. Ancient sculptures were once brightly colored, but weathering soon eroded almost all of their painted surfaces. Many medieval sculptures were stripped of paint in the 19th and 20th centuries, when most critics considered polychromy in sculpture to be unacceptable. This negative view was largely determined by the apparent material purity of surviving classical sculptures and by the white marbles carved since the Middle Ages by sculptors who were strongly influenced by those antique remains. Nevertheless, the academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme tinted one of his marble statues (Tanagra, 1890)—for he recognized that this was in full accord with ancient Greek practice and added a life-like quality to his figure—and Picasso painted bronzes (Glass of Absinth, 1914) in order to mask the precious metal and its venerable artistic history, thereby attacking the material’s supposed integrity and offending the bourgeoisie. There are, of course, other ways of introducing polychromy into sculpture, namely by including materials of different colors into the same work, like Phidias in his (long lost) colossal Athena of ivory and gold and Bernini in his Tomb of Urban VIII, a composite work of bronze and white and dark marble. But the use of color applied in the form of pigments to the materials of sculpture is particularly pertinent to a discussion of the recent work of Nathan Slate Joseph.