Sidney Geist: Selected Statements

On His Way of Life

I have spent the last twenty-seven years making sculpture, looking at it, reading and thinking about it, and, in the past eight years, occasionally writing about it and teaching. There have been in this time no lapses from this way of life except for a period in the Army during which I spent 1944–1945 moving slowly across Europe and gaining much firsthand experience in rubble and ruins.

On the Definition of Sculpture

I don’t think that every object, however ingenious, interesting or diverting, is sculpture, at the same time that I realize, definition of the term being what it is, that such a statement is an act of arrogation. There is a whole class of three-dimensional things which I can only call objects, not sculpture. These objects are often sculptural, that is, like sculpture in one of their aspects, and so are an automobile, a pebble and the Great Stone Face. In the same sense, a woman may be statuesque and still not be a statue....

[S]culpture...what is it? It is a figuration with a presence, a thing of ancient lineage, learned about always from previous sculpture, and the idea so passed on to anyone who can get it. The idea is maintained by an act of arrogation, as I have said, but one that is no more exceptional than that by which the makers of objects dub their work sculpture.

On the Influence of Idiomatic American Art

For several years there probably wasn’t a month when I didn’t go to the basement room of the Museum of Natural History and see the Northwest Coast Indian sculpture. I got to know every piece. My work doesn’t show it in design, but I thought that my feeling for wood, a certain weight, was indebted to that work—and to American folk art, some of it so pretty it looked like candy...

On Being a Self-described “Neolithic Sculptor”

[T]hat’s a true joke. I don’t like machinery. I don’t use machinery. For years I couldn’t afford to buy a machine. I work in everything on the other side of the bronze age: wood, stone, and clay.... There’s nothing in my work a neolithic artist couldn’t reproduce. I guess it’s metal-working that I can’t stand—the mechanism, masks, all the tools.... And people are doing wonderful work in metal.... I can’t even get into soldering as a prelude to studying welding. I have always been aware that I was modelling in an old material, clay, and working those other old materials, stone and wood. Yet I never felt that I was behind any kind of aesthetical eight-ball. I always thought the modernity or the currentness of the work didn’t depend on the material.

On the Sculptural Virtues

[I]t is wise for sculpture in general to avoid the most ordinary onslaughts of the contingent.... It should, for example, declare its difference from other objects, and offset the possibility of mistake as to its identity. It should repel the possibility of being used in some fashion or of being grasped like an object of use. It should demand and deserve special attention.

On the Variety of His Work

In my sculpture I have never dwelt for long on a theme or type of structure or formal mode.... If the exhibition looks, at first sight, like a group show, I am that group. I don’t feel fragmented or at odds with myself, and look forward to other work in other directions.

On Colored Sculpture

What is lost if the color is removed or bleached out? What is left?

What if the color is changed?

What if the patterning is changed?

Does a change in color alter a work radically or merely put it into a different key, as in music?

Switch the color of any two pieces. Try two other pieces. Does the integrity of the sculptures survive this game? Are your ideas of necessity in art reinforced or put in question?...

Think of a colorless form; color it. Think of a colored form.

My color was always bright and hard.... I thought that a new piece of painted sculpture should look as new as a Brancusi. This brightness often had a shocking public effect; what surprised me was that it often had a humorous effect too, and that may well have been caused by a union of serious form and gay color.

On the Tone of His Work

After a while I realized there was no fighting it. My serious came out humorous.

On Substance and Sculpture

Materials have sensuous qualities and structural properties, but no intrinsic artistic content, and a mystique of material is limiting, delusive and finally a concern of craftsmen. “Love of material” is a psychological, not a sculptural, affair; “truth to material” is a truth which changes from style to style and sculptor to sculptor. Materials are only more or less useful, more or less adaptable to certain ends. Beyond that, a simple negative principle comes into play: it is unwise to violate the structural properties of a material if a sculpture is to exist at all.

On Carving and Fate

Carving is a delicious process for me. I don’t know why it should be. I come from a middle-class family, where nobody carved. My father was a tailor-designer. It’s mysterious how one gets to be a sculptor...there’s so much trouble to it. Yet, some of us get into it and do it against all the odds. Carving is a great pleasure.... It’s just the most charming way to use your body and your mind. You can make mistakes, but eventually you’re not a carver if you make the really serious mistakes....

[Can one] get better with practice?

Maybe. The reason I say “maybe” is that if you’re going to be a carver—I’ve seen people who never did it before pick up the tools and do it. There isn’t that much to teach. I’ve taught a few people to carve, but it only takes five minutes. There’s nothing that you can teach after that.

On Artistic Sensibility

What does “sensibility” mean?... [W]ith reference to the arts...the same meaning it has outside the arts—“an acuteness of feeling” (Webster).... The sensibility of an artist in particular is manifest in the way he feels the materials he handles...the physical manner in which he delivers himself....

Sensibility is given to few and, if not given, can be developed only with difficulty. It has not been distributed democratically.... Clearly it is annoying to the many to raise the issue. As though sensibility were good enough for the French, perhaps, but not for us who are interested in other things. In what? In revolt, in freedom, in action, in the loose wrist? Revolt that is not supported by sensibility is insignificant, that is to say, gratuitous, dull and meaningless....

On When He’s Happiest

When I have a hammer and chisel in my hands, working.

On the Position of the Artist

It used to be thought that the artist was a person with a special gift of the hand and of the heart. It was thought that this gift imposed a responsibility, and that this responsibility lay somewhere between that of a priest and that of a scientist. But it has become dangerous to raise these issues at a time when art has become a domain for self-expression and a technique for therapy. The question of talent would only induce a sense of shame; the question of responsibility would add an unbearable burden.

On Those Questions

The world is daily being stuffed fuller of objects—useful, useless, dull, decorative, cute and clever; it is not too much to expect of the sculptor that he add to this catalogue an object glowing with wonder or mystery.

Is it too much to ask that a painting be well done?

On the Mind of the Artist

Submerged beneath the public styles, schools and theories of art, independent of isms and unamenable to criticism, is the private mind of the artist. This is the realm of fantasy and desire, of dream and obsession, of secret need and stated program, of Idea and idée fixe. It is the part of art that gives resonance to structure and meaning to the marks and shapes the artist makes: it is the part that is “impure.” In the vast field of broken idols, worn-out legends, and obscure signposts, it erects its own myth.

On the Character of the Artist

[A]rtists are different from anyone else.... I must agree. I wish only to suggest that book-keepers and professional wrestlers are also different from anyone else....

The artist as seer, the artist as clown, the artist as maladjusted man—they all exist. But there are also the physicist as seer, the architect as clown, the mathematician as maladjusted man.... [C]ertainly mathematics and physics are as “expressive” as the arts. But while very few people know anything about the sciences, everyone, of course, knows about the arts....

Far from being a clown, a wise child, a non-conforming egotist, the artist is a constructor....

The artist is a maker; he makes a new world; new because the old one doesn’t work anymore, or is boring, or doesn’t do what he wants it to do....

In the psychoanalytic-expressive cloud that envelops current thinking on the work of art, the artist asks to be regarded clearly as a constructive imagination, no more nor less healthy, no more nor less a special case, than any other.

On His Way of Life (Moving Slowly across Europe, 1944-45)

I would draw or paint on anything I could get my hands on. Sometimes I drew on the back of candy boxes or ration cartons.

On the Definition of the Artist

Anyone whose chief reason for living is art.

Sidney Geist, Aphorist

Nobody likes a coterie unless he is a member. (1953)

The search for truth should start from one’s own talents. (1953)

The taste of one good man is as valid as the taste of angels. (1953)

The pure desire to explore new media is as provincial as the desire to paint a tropical paradise, as unforgivable as ignorance, and as insular as innocence. (1953)

To insist that man lives and dies as he always did is to sing a song that has lost its meaning. (1953)

Art is the child of art. (1953)

Definitions come and go, often telling more about the definer than the thing defined. (1953)

Even the best idea is not a painting. (1954)

Time for the artist is not what he sees it to be on the front page of the newspaper, but what he finds it to be within the realm of his own work. (1956)

You mean a sculpture can be three hours long? (1961)

There is no danger of saying too much. There is always the risk of saying the wrong thing; the danger is only of saying nothing. (1962)

The pursuit of joy in art imposes problems on the artist: he must be in the proper mood. (1968)

Logic is a narrow bed. Art is a big bed. (1939)