Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender David J. Getsy 392pp, Yale University Press, 2015
The new conditions of sculpture that emerged in America in the 1960s were both contentious and transformative. Running concurrently with the ‘expanded field’ of sculpture was a shift in understandings of gender identities, and an emerging recognition of gender’s transformability. Aiming to expand on this convergence, and taking as its departure a growing number of scholars in the field of art history and transgender theory such as Jay Prosser and Jack Halberstam, Getsy’s book charts the way of David Smith, John Chamberlain, Nancy Grossman and Dan Flavin in their attempts to elaborate a theory of gender’s multiplicity and mutability in their work. Rather than revealing biographical secrets about the artists’ lives, Getsy prefers to focus on their artistic practices and the rhetorics they employed, distinguishing between the materiality of the sculptures themselves and the artists’ sexuality, gender, and bio-political concerns. This preference is reinforced by his consideration of artists ‘for whom gender and sexuality were not necessarily stated or primary terms of investigation’ (2). Yet, the analysis frequently references biographical accounts such as Smith’s and Grossman’s relationship, and Flavin’s difficulty with homosexuality. Moreover, the theoretical model of transgender capacity from which Getsy draws (described as having ‘the potential for making visible, bringing into experience or knowing genders as mutable, successive, and multiple’ (34)) fits oddly with, and seems to disclaim, these very bibliographic sources. Nevertheless, this book provides an energising interpretative lens for these four case studies, in which the human body and its metaphors were at issue.
Drawing from David Smith’s assessment of his own work, offered in an interview with poet and curator Frank O’Hara in 1964 (‘Well, they’re all girls, Frank …. I don’t make boy sculptures’ (44)), the first chapter maps the overlooked role O’Hara played in Smith’s career between 1961 and 1965. However, any engaging discussion of larger questions about gender assignments raised by this puzzling statement is short in coming. Alongside O’Hara’s anthropomorphic interpretation of Smith’s sculptures as ‘figural presences’, Getsy argues that Smith’s remark was an uncharacteristic simplification of his sculptures, which not only invoked a dimorphic account of gender but ran counter to his pursuit of formal and semantic openness (54). Accordingly, Getsy stresses the unrecognisability of Smith’s sculptures as any given gendered nomination and concludes that these visualise differently the category of the human.
John Chamberlain often spoke about his sculptures’ reliance on an analogy of the sexual fit; correspondingly Getsy’s discussion of their technical and conceptual processes focuses on the way Chamberlain joined disparate elements together, through the related term of coupling and how this operates on multiple material and conceptual levels. Getsy underscores the materiality of the works without failing to account for the referentiality of their titles and their figural and sexual metaphors. Drawing on Chamberlain’s interviews and his ambiguous manner of introducing genders, Getsy then considers the way gender becomes implicated in these metaphors. However, the weight given to authorial intent here becomes paradoxical given that Getsy states: ‘[i]n no way did he espouse a critique of gender when he talked about his work’ (137). The leap Getsy thus makes from sexuality to gender is problematic; only by implication striking a chord with transgender theory’s espousal of critiquing gender dimorphism.
The next section examines Nancy Grossman’s engagement with abstraction and assemblage between 1965 and 1967, which complicated gender specificity and proposed new ways of understanding the sexed body. Getsy underlines the mutability of the body inherent in these assemblages of leather assembled with scrap metal, car parts and rubber, creating ports, interfaces and openings that allowed for multiple points of contact and allusions to sexual intercourse. More clearly than elsewhere, Getsy manifests a relationship between Grossman’s work, transgender considerations of the sexed body, and the question of gender’s identification with sexual organs. His close analysis of these assemblages provides a welcome framework to re-interpret Grossman’s leather-clad head sculptures in the context of S&M and feminism in the 1970s.
Getsy finishes with a consideration of Dan Flavin’s Icon series, but his ultimate goal here seems obscure, arguing that their titles (dedicated to his friends and interlocutors) infer homosexuality. Flavin’s reference to his brother’s homosexuality seems to underscore his unease with a sexuality perceived as deviating from masculine norms, rather than any kind of inclusivity for his work. It is unclear how transgender theory, as mapped out in the introduction, would be a useful interpretative lens, given that it appears only briefly at the end of this analysis.
Abstract Bodies’ emphasis on the history of transgender issues so eloquently outlined in the introduction, becomes somewhat diffused over the course of the four case studies. Notwithstanding, Getsy’s book has successfully argued the case that these artists’ engagements with abstraction prompted a spatially imaginative formulation of the body, and alongside handsome images, provides a provocative heuristic lens.
But it remains unclear just how much these engagements correspond to the new forms of embodiment that have come to be called transgender. It demands more primary research with lesser known narratives, as well as examples of artists who more manifestly address transgender in 1960s America.