When contemporary artists want their work to have an air of tribalism or antique cults, they generally end up producing sculpture. The wish to give modern art a mythic dimension sometimes gets in the way of the forms we see in front of us. And at times artists believe the mere presence in a gallery of hunks of wood or metal, clay or stone will work more magic than it really does. But there’s a sense in which the artists have been right to take up sculpture, for sculpture keeps eluding the modern tradition of art created for exhibition. Sculpture can force the viewer into the position of an idol worshipper; you share real space with real objects, which is why the great modern sculptors’ studios—those of Brancusi, Picasso, and Giacometti, for example—have the feel of cult sanctuaries.

More often than painting, modern sculpture suggests fundamental dissatisfaction with the...


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