The communicative potential of non-figurative sculpture

Kamen Tsvetkov

University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy (UACEG)


Abstract: Every piece of art affects the perceiving consciousness through images satisfying its aesthetic and cognitive needs. These images act as an intermediary through which a viewer moves from the real world of his own existence to the imaginary world of an artistic work. Different forms of art develop the artistic image through their own specific means – words, shape, motion, while a viewer perceives them by their senses – sight, hearing, and touch. Over the ages, art has always been engaged in fulfilling tasks of a pronounced social character whose implementation requires a proper sign system through which the artist reaches the viewer’s mind. That is why for centuries the main goals set by artists themselves have been achieved by motifs borrowed from nature. However, since the age of Modernity, artists have been expertly using abstract means to imply their messages.

The paper aims to

  • provide a brief review of the changes Modernity brings about in a social, economic and artistic sense in a global and a European perspective

  • formulate an analytical approach to examining the communicative effect of non-figurative sculpture

  • draw conclusions about the potential of contemporary non-figurative sculpture to engage audiences in communication about aesthetic and social values.

Key words: non-figurative sculpture, communicative function of artistic works, traditional and contemporary artistic communication.

Communicativeness of figurative images in works of art

As noted by Marie-Dominique Popelard, “communication” as a concept, whether verbal or visual, does not simply mean transfer of information, nor is it an individual act. Communication is mostly an interpersonal relation and a shared responsibility for content jointly produced by at least two participants [1]. In the field of fine arts, communication is mainly a process resulting from the complex relations between a viewer and a piece of art in which different information and interpretations are designed and superimposed. This leads to a consensus between the content of the emotions or the ideas generated by a viewer with those encoded by an artist in the visual message they produce – a consensus based on principles not only in the sphere of fine arts but also of semiotics, psychology of perception, sociology and aesthetics. Both the author’s and the viewer’s participation in this process requires the use of a semantic system which allows the process to take place. This means that it should be accessible and should respond to the internal imagery already constructed by each of the parties involved.

Considering the role of the image as the main instrument of visual communication in the field of fine arts, Jacques Morizot defines the following properties related to its perception.

  • An image is objectively informative as it provides information about the depicted object. In figurative art, an image provides information not only about the external characteristics of the depicted object but can also be defined as better or weaker than another one depending on the accuracy of the idea it creates.

  • An image not only recreates the reality surrounding the artist but also reveals its views and attitudes towards it.

  • An image also works on a psychology level, influencing our entire psychological life. The act of watching is directly related to the mental abilities of man both in cognitive and affective terms [2].

Due to the fact that human consciousness perceives objective reality interpreting it through personal experience, the use of recognizable images in the sign system of figurative art is understandable. On the one hand, a realistic image enables an artist to recreate a certain reality, revealing not only details of the context in which a certain piece of art is created, but also demonstrating the artist’s personal attitude to the problem concerned. On the other hand, the image-reflection allows a viewer to interpret both the cognitive content of the piece of art and its authors position regarding the depicted image.

Prerequisites for nonfigurativism in visual arts

The processes observed in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a period called Modernism, create a number of preconditions that lead to a change in both the human consciousness and the perception of the surrounding reality. This change, which covers all spheres of human activity, is manifested in the field of visual arts. One of these manifestations is the very emergence of non-figurativism in the first decade of the 20th century.

The prerequisites for its emergence, as well as for the radical turnaround in the development of visual arts that subsequently ensued, are due to various factors but they can generally be divided into two main categories – those that are outside the field of art and those developing in the field of art itself.

Visual art as part of the cultural context of an era is invariably related to other areas of human activity, which explains to a great extent the socio-economic and political nature of a number of prerequisites that predetermined certain aspects of its development at the beginning of the 20th century.

The rapid technological progress and industrial development, the introduction of new technologies and materials into industry and everyday life, the construction of a broad information network (facilitated by the creation of the radio, the telegraph and the telephone) – all these innovations which appeared almost within a decade of each other, radically changed the look of the so-called modern world.

At the same time, the strong impetus for industrial development led not only to enthusiasm as a consequence of the economic upturn but also to a strong spiritual tension caused by both the ultimate material division in society (especially in large megacities) and the many devastating military conflicts which were took place in the first decade of the 20th century.

Along with the socio-economic and political prerequisites which are relevant to the ensuing turnaround in the development of arts in the early 20th century, there are prerequisites which develop in the field of art itself. On the one hand, these are the artistic institutions that support the postulates of academic art – academies, museums, state collections, etc. In a sense, Modernism in fine arts is thought to have been a reaction on part of its representatives against the conservatism zealously defended by these institutions. The opposition to such a policy resulted in the creation of a number of spaces which were alternatives to formal institutions. They became cultural centers that generated micro-societies, which was of great importance for the development of innovative quests in a number of artists over this period. For example, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the Salon d’Automne (Autumn Salon) and the Salon des Indépendants (Salon of the Independent Artists) were founded in Paris along with a number of private galleries which provided a forum for authors with vanguard views such as Bertha Weil’s and Ambroise Vollard’s galleries and Gertrude Stein’s art salon.

Another prerequisite for the ongoing turnaround in the development of visual art which led to the emergence of non-figurativism at the beginning of the 20th century is the creativity of artists working on the border of the two centuries. Despite the fact that they remained in the field of the figurativism and were frequently acclaimed by the authoritative artistic institutions of the time, some aspects of the work of authors such as Auguste Rodin, Aristide Maillol and Edgar Degas had a great influence on the generation of processes in Western European art and sculpture in particular. These aspects largely determine the direction of the further development of Western European sculpture.

As a result of all the changes that occurred during Modernism, the pursuit of objectivism gradually gave way to highly expressed subjectivism. The removal of art from objective reality, artists refusal to confess any social ideals as well as their strong desire to recreate only their own emotional world impose the need for a new plastic language that corresponds to the new quests.

Communicative specifics of non-figurativism in 20th-century sculpture

Non-figurativism, as a phenomenon in visual art occurred after the first decade of the 20th century. It led to additional requirements for the parties involved in the communication process in the visual perception of a piece of art. Those requirements relate in particular to the presence of a certain sensitivity that facilitates encoding and interpreting intellectual or emotional messages in the absence of a recognizable image. The manifestations of such a sensibility on the part of artists are expressed in the application of compositional techniques, which allow visual communication to happen through a very conditional iconography.

In the field of non-figurativism, the thing that characterizes these techniques as specific, is the level at which the communication between an artist and a viewer occurs in the process of visually perceiving a certain artistic work. Unlike communicating through recognizable images which the consciousness interprets with greater ease, communication through non-figurative images relies heavily on their associative or suggestive potential. As noted by Valentin Angelov, sometimes „…a viewer (or a reader) does not accept a piece of art intellectually, i.e. does not accept its ideas, ideals, views, opinions, etc. He denies them or argues with them… but unexpectedly to himself, he falls into the emotional and sensory sphere of the work[3].

Generally, the peculiar compositional techniques used by a number of non-figurativists in 20thcentury sculpture comprise the elements of the shape, its external characteristics and its visual perception on part of a viewer.

Their manifestations are expressed in:

  • reducing the volume and visual mass as main characteristics of the shape

  • using the immanent properties of materials such as the main means of influencing a viewer’s mind

  • reconsidering the potential of exhibiting sculptural work

  • utilizing the potential for impact on the perceiving consciousness, possessed by the movement.

The experiments in the field of the non-figurative sculpture are the reason for the emergence of ideas that are in a complete opposition to the generally accepted views on the role of some external characteristics of shape in constructing artistic images. Concerning various aspects of the shaping process, these views were proclaimed in a number of manifestos and have become the subject of research in a number of theoretical surveys. One of the first papers proclaiming such ideas is the Realist Manifesto also known as the Constructivist Manifesto, published in Moscow in 1920 [4]. Although the ideas highlighted in this text do not undergo great development over time, or as Herbert Read notes “the followers have to embrace these principles and to improve their application” [5], their influence on the development of fine arts is indisputable. One such principle, exerting great influence in terms of the integrity of the perception of sculptural work, is the significant reduction of the volume and the visual mass of shape. The first examples of the use of such an approach were witnessed in the work of Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner, Alexander Rodchenko, Pablo Picasso, Julio Gonzalez, and later in those of Richard Lippold, Kenneth Snelson, Jesus Rafael Soto. The reduction of the volume and the visual mass as basic features of the shape enables us to gain comprehensive information about the spatial development of its components, their internal organization and interrelation, which, as Rosalind Kraus notes, is largely the cause of integration of movement, space and time in the visual perception of sculptural work [6].

The use of the immanent properties of materials as a means of influencing a viewers mind can be considered in two aspects. The first relates to the use of the potential opportunities to manipulate the perception achieved through the contrast between some external characteristics of the shape and the perceiving consciousness’s pre-constructed perception of the qualities of the used materials in which the shape is realized. The second one examines the potential for sculptural work to exert an impact on the perceiving consciousness through the very properties of the materials used.

The approach which puts the external characteristics of the shape in opposition to the properties of the material in which it is realized is based on the knowledge and experience of the perceiving consciousness. As Rudolf Arnheim notes, perception, and in particular, aesthetic perception is a cognitive process, and as such requires a viewer’s active participation. This engages a viewer’s knowledge, experience and ability to decode artistic messages [7]. A similar approach is used in a number of works by Constantin Brancusi, Meret Oppenheim, Eva Hesse among others.

The substantial properties of the materials used as a prerequisite for the impact of sculptural work on the perceving consciousness are largely related to the texture of materials and to some of their physical properties in which the shape is realized. Metal, for example, has the properties to be polished, melted or bent, and each of these properties is capable of inducing suggestions at a different associative or suggestive level in a viewer’s mind. For example, Eduardo Chillida applies a similar approach in many of his works which the mostly influence viewers by cutting and bending massive metal plates.

Further evidence of the purposeful drive to influence the perceiving consciousness through the potential of the properties of the used materials can also be seen in the principles applied by Richard Serra, who verbalized them in an interview at ART21.v“When I first started, what was very, very important to me was dealing with the nature of process. So, what I had done is, I’d written a verb list: to roll, to fold, to cut, to dangle, to twist. And I really just worked out pieces in relation to the verb list, physically, in a space. Now, what happens when you do that is, you don’t become involved with the psychology of what you’re making, nor do you become involved with the afterimage of what it’s going to look like. So, basically it gives you a way of proceeding with material in relation to body movement, in relation to making, that divorces from any notion of metaphor, any notion of easy imagery.” [8]

Anish Kapoor’s sculptures are based on similar principles, take for instance C–Curve, which is exhibited in Kensington Park in London. In these works the impact on the viewer is achieved mainly by the properties allowing to bend and polish stainless steel.

In their turn, the techniques based on exhibiting sculptural work as a basic tool for influencing the perceiving consciousness can be put into two groups:

  • techinques that eliminate the clear boundary between a piece of art and the environment in which it is exhibited

  • techniques in which the exhibition is based mainly on a viewers subconscious causing certain associations and suggestions.

The essence of the techniques that remove the boundary between sculptural work and the environment in which it is exhibited lies in achieving a synthesis between the form that materializes an artists message and the space in which it is exported – a synthesis that turns an architectural environment into an essential element of a piece of sculpture. Early examples of the application of such a technique are found in constructivists works – Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, for example, and later in the works of Richard Sera, Donald Judd, etc.

On the other hand, the communicative ways in which the mode of exhibition is mainly directed towards a viewer’s subconsciousness, causing different associations or suggestions, rely primarily on ideas that proclaim the subconscious as a main source of art. Works by Alberto Giacometti, Marcel Duchamp, Merret Oppenheim and Hans Arp provide evidence of the use of such a technique in the non-figural sculpture of the 20th century.

In a historical perspective, movement has always been present in a certain form and has always been of interest to artists, both as a means of encoding certain information and of recreating various emotional states. Given the peculiar approaches to impacting the perceiving consciousness used by representatives of 20thcentury non-figurative sculpture, it is essential for the process of communication between the artist and the viewer, to use actual movement. Alexander Calder notes that Just as one can compose colours, or forms, so one can compose motions.” [9]

In the process of perceiving form visually, actual movement refers to a change in the position of the elements that constitute the form. Although in 20th-century sculpture early experiments with the use of movement can be seen in works of representatives of Dadaism and Constructivism, kinetic art emerged as a strand of its own only in 1955 with the opening of the Le Mouvement exhibition at Dennis Renee Gallery in Paris.

As a tool that manipulates a viewer’s perceptions, in kinetic sculpture movement is a consequence of a touch or a movement of air masses – such as Alexander Calders mobiles or a number of works by George Rickey and Martha Pan, for example. In other cases, movement is mechanized, for example in the works of Nicholas Schoffer, Jean Tinguely, etc.


The idea that the sculpture of the 20th century, and in particular its non-figurative expressions, requires a plastic language that allows for communication during the visual perception of a piece of art at a new and different level. It leads to various and often extreme experiments that distinguish themselves from any traditions inherited from the past. Although many of these examples can be seen as a result of an intuitive impulse on an artist’s part, the work of many representatives of 20th-century non-figurative sculpture displays specificities in their approach to the perceiving consciousness, which are to a large extent a consequence of the careful study of perception as a psychological phenomenon. These specifics cannot be related to a particular artistic trend. They rather concern the construction of shape, the use of its potential of its external characteristics to influence and the way in which the elements are integrated in one whole. The plastic language of non-figurativism which includes recognizable images, indeed poses some difficulties in the process of communication between an artist and a viewer. The contextual contact is a precondition for a much broader field of interpretation that requires greater preparation, deeper knowledge, and experience from a viewer. This largely reinforces a viewer’s position as an equal party in the process of constructing the content of a certain work.


[1] Поплар, М.-Д. (2012). Комуникационна ли е естетиката? Моризо, Ж. и Р. Пуиве (2012). (ред.) Речник по естетика и философия на изкуството. София; „Рива“, 274 – 277.

[2] Моризо, Ж. (2012). Какво може да каже един образ?. Моризо, Ж. и Р. Пуиве (2012). (ред.) Речник по естетика и философия на изкуството. София; „Рива“, 351 – 355.

[3] Ангелов В. (1972). Изкуство и комуникативност. Промени в структурата на естетическото възприятие. София: Наука и изкуство, 98.

[4] Gabo, N. with Pevsner, A. (1920). Realistic Manifesto (Realisticheskii Manifest). Second State Printing House, Moscow.

[5] Read, H. (1964). A Concise History of Modern Sculpture. London: Thames and Hudson, 97.

[6] Krauss, R. (1981). Passages in Modern Sculpture. Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press. 61 – 62.

[7] Арнхейм, Р. (1974). Изкусство и визуальное восприятие. Москва: Прогресс, 11.

[8] Richard Serras interview for ART21. (2001). ( Retrieved on 22.12.2017).

[9] Calder, A. (1933). Modern Painting and Sculpture. Exhibition catalogue. Pittsfield, Massachusetts: Berkshire Museum, 6.


Сп. „Реторика и комуникации“, брой 33, март 2018 г.,

Rhetoric and Communications E-journal, Issue 33, March 2018,

Special Issue“Dialogues without borders: strategies of interpersonal and inter-group communication”, 29 – 30 September 2017, Faculty of Philosophy, Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, Sofia, Bulgaria