Sculpture with a Wink and a Grin
Lights went on in the showroom and the sculpture gleamed on pedestals. It was marble sculpture, rare nowadays when most experiments are in iron or synthetic materials. The artist’s latest production was a series of pieces in which geometrical shapes were fused in curious ways. Cubes seemed to be pregnant with spheres; spheres were transfixed by pyramids. They were pleasantly curious, sometimes reminiscent of those wooden puzzles you used to spend Christmas afternoons putting together. One perfect ball, mounted on a marble wedge or inclined plane, seemed unexplicably not to roll off.
The visitor walked around the figures. He felt watched.
“Would you like to see a program?” A well-dressed lady, probably the gallery owner, believed he needed help.
The program had photographs of some of the works on exhibit, plus excerpts from critiques that used terms from geometery, architecture, and philosophy. On the back was a long, triumphant list of the artist’s exhibitions and prizes. The visitor looked through the program but showed no enlightenment. The lady seemed to understand.
“Do you know Ingorance?” she asked. “He’s so funny.” And recalling his funniness she smiled. “This one”—she pointed to a stone pyramid with little half-spheres seeming to flow out of it like soap bubbles—“is my favorite. Ingorance calls it ‘Pharoah’s Bath’”.
With funny names Ingorance had given his works another, a conceptual, dimension. Even without their titles there was something comic about many of them: the pregnant cube seemed tired with its load; the peak of a pyramid had apparently been bitten off, just as that occasionally happens to a loaf of bread on the way home from the bakery.
The visitor smiled to show the lady that he found the works clever.
He had never heard of Ingorance, which ignorance she seemed to pardon. Apparently she believed that on their own the statues couldn’t be rightly understood. The key was the artist’s ingenious explanations and clever stories. The key was the artist himself.
The visitor didn’t know any artists personally so this way of understanding their works was new to him. All the great painters and sculptors he knew were long dead and anyway their work seemed to speak completely for itself—or rather to show itself just as it wanted to—no more, no less. You wouldn’t have wanted to hear that loud Cellini praise his own things. And it would have been embarrassing to have Michelangelo in the room while you contemplated his work because you could feel he didn’t want to be there.
The visitor had seen his art in museums, not galleries; and museums were places of silence and respect, like churches. The fact that the works were by the hand of men who had died gave them special dignity and even impeded fair criticism out of piety.
In a museum a work sits by and waits to be admired because the artist’s reputation was long ago established and it is up to the viewer to discover for himself what the whole world already knows.
But a gallery is not like a museum.
In a gallery the works have to come towards you a little and, as it were, introduce themselves. Long titles help orient the possible buyer: captions, philosophical reflections, quotations of praise from a published critique. The living artist seems to stand, often literally does stand, beside his work. He explains it and brings it to life. Many buyers welcome the explanations, as well as the curiosity or prestige of acquaintance with the artist himself, because the work which they are buying, perhaps as an investment, is as dumb and mysterious as the Sphinx.
“If you like, you can meet the artist tonight. He’s coming here to talk with one of the buyers at seven.”
“Thanks. I’ll try to make it.”
But the visitor didn’t go to meet Ingorance, though the program said he was a real character. He dressed in black and carried a silver cane and was known to behave like a clown at his exhibitions. To the visitor his works were entertaining but their incongruities and little ironies seemed a meagre meal. True, they tickled the mind and here and there skimmed the heart (a smile, a groan, a cringe); but they kept closed the door to the world inside him—the world of memory, of joy, of hope. He had been looking a long time for a work that would do that.
[Note: As far as I know, there is no such sculptor as Ingorance and none of the works of sculpture described here actually exist.]