Notas afines a tres [Notes on Three]

First published in Spanish in Correspondencias: 5 Arquitectos, 5 Escultores, Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo, Madrid [cat. exh.], pp.17-19
Also published in English as Notes on Three in Juan Muñoz, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. in association with The Art Institute of Chicago [cat.exh], 2001, pp. 56-57


In the beginning was the menhir. Allow us the scientific fiction to assert that thermodynamics begins after the menhir materializes. To be precise, its second law, the one about entropy: the progressive erosion and disordering of matter and mind, or in its vernacular translation we call oblivion. The menhir, a unique volume erected in space, neither covers nor shelters. Nothing supports it; it supports nothing. A sculptural element above all others, perceiving it is like perceiving a moment in time. Whatever practical purpose it may have had, if it ever had one, has been forgotten.

Face-to-face with spatial infinity, primitive man raises up a stone (for us, a sculpture). Next to it, he raises another (still a sculpture), and on top of the two he sets a third, in this way inaugurating formal disorder. Roof, arch, or burial site, the dolmen, because of oblivion and the passing of time, became a symbol of its own architectonic mystery.

It is possible to imagine the great Chilean painter Roberto Matta taking his son for a walk through the streets of Paris, where he lived for a time. It is equally possible or fictitious to imagine that during one of those walks the boy would take a special interest in the complexity of the flying buttresses and arches at the church of Sacré-Coeur. Allow us to imagine, in the permissible exaggeration of fiction, the moment when he, now inside, observed, with special devotion, the rose window, which, in the manner of an epicentre, simultaneously unites and divides the church’s interior light. Years later, Gordon Matta-Clark, former architecture student, conceived sculpture as the act of cutting a series of circles into the guts of several abandoned buildings, right through the walls and floors. This action, which allowed light to pass from one side to another and also from the fifth floor to the basement through these ellipses and circles incised into the structure, might well be taken as a warning to those who imagined a possible dialogue between the practitioners of both professions.

Sculptors have repeatedly suggested setting aside the nominal reason why the Guggenheim Museum was built in order to present it in terms of its vacuity. Frank Lloyd Wright himself clearly hinted at this notion because of his obvious disdain for the objects that were to occupy it. This central work of modern architecture is actually a grand sculpture that renders non-viable any work that occupies it. In Wright’s hands, a museum for modern art became a self-referential sign that pointed to its modernity and its art at the cost of suppressing its character as a museum.

The centrifugal movement of its interior seeks to absorb the art shown there and succeeds in imposing itself on it. At the Eduardo Chillida retrospective, his works, even those that share the building’s spiral form, had to assert more than ever before their centripetal and interior space. Faced with the same challenge, Joseph Beuys directed that the light levels and the temperature of the building be lowered.

Any museum is designed to house paintings on its walls and, between its walls, sculptures. Of all extant museums, one alone seems to have been built with the respect its immobile inhabitants demanded. Even so, when Richard Serra erected his seventy-ton sculpture a few metres away from the Berlin Nationalgalerie designed by Mies van der Rohe, his attitude was clear. For his work to be constructed, the structure of the building had to be reinforced, which he allowed to be surmised as more a result of Mies’s short-sightedness than a conditioning factor about the potential of the sculpture. Of course it is also true that Mies, a major influence on Minimalism, always favoured anthropomorphic or decorative sculptures in the mode of Henry Moore in order to emphasize the abstract clarity of his structures.

When Piano and Rogers cancelled the installation of a huge steel curve, another work by Serra, in the area adjacent to the Centre Georges Pompidou, arguing that people would not be able to pass through to the nearby subway entrance, the sculptor jokingly responded that perhaps what the architects really meant was that in order to enter the subway, people would have to walk around the sculpture.
On the other hand, when Serra refused to place two huge pieces in the Western Plaza (Washington, D.C.) because he believed that his language was being manipulated and presented as columns, the architect Robert Venturi declared that he could use the language of any artist or even that of the devil himself any way he chose.

Over the course of the history of modern art, whenever we find a possible rapprochement between architecture and sculpture, there spontaneously arises a great difficulty in uniting both visions of space. Let us say that what is understood as space is the multiplicity of up and down, inside and outside, full and empty, shadow and light, right and left, opacity and transparency, along with difficulty and surprise. (Perhaps the difficulty does not arise out of the space itself, the weight, volume, or even the surprise.) Ultimately, the conflict between both activities lies in the necessary social utility of architecture and the absolute uselessness of sculpture. Nevertheless, let us say once more that among all the arts, these two begin and end in their concern with space. Inhabited space, uninhabited, or to-be-inhabited space; even space as a metaphor.

But between space and the attitude with which architects and sculptors contemplate it, there stand a third element: the observer. To say that architecture belongs to daytime space and sculpture to nocturnal space would be once again to exclude the observer. It is better to restore his role to him and declare that any form in space is understood in relation to the dimensions of the human body. Every object around which and within which we move is perceived beginning with the size of our own organism and its limits. Interior and exterior limits, like arches, in the face of which the only thing we can do is circumvent or cross them.

I have chosen two museums as a meeting place to explain certain divergencies. Let the intentions of two creators in both disciplines illustrate the necessary collaboration of the viewer: on one hand, Peter Eisenman’s House XI, where he created a glass room, visible but inaccessible, a metaphor about shared habitation, a plastic theorem placed in the radial epicentre of the house. On the other, a work by Joel Shapiro, the house in the centre of the rectangle, tiny, well established in its setting but at the same time fearful of slipping off one of the corners. Everything a house symbolizes is there.
Vasari writes that one day Francesco Parmigianino decided to paint his own reflection in a convex mirror, so he ordered a carpenter to make him a wooden sphere the same size as the mirror. When it was finished, he cut it in half in order to paint on it. If, helped by Alice’s pill, an imaginary traveller could enter Shapiro’s house and find there Eisenman’s closed room, he would certainly see through the glass Parmigianino’s wooden sphere before it was cut.

It is true that even today glances are exchanged, but discerning the continuous divergence between architecture and sculpture presupposes understanding that both the active spectator and the traveller, like the two groups of creators, share a concept of space common to all three.