CFP: ’Touch-Space‘: The Tactile Imagination in Contemporary Sculptural Practice

Conference Wednesday 22 March 2023, University of Leeds

This conference is the last in a collaborative season of research events programmed by the Henry Moore Institute in partnership with the University of Leeds. The impetus for the research season is the forthcoming launch of the University of Leeds’ digital exhibition on Herbert Read (1893-1968) and enhancements to its Herbert Read archive.

This one-day conference seeks to examine the continued currency of Read’s assertion that the most important qualities of a sculpture are those which are tactile: its surface, its weight, mass and volume. Read’s contention is not that we need all literally touch a sculpture, but that our ability to imagine these qualities and be moved by them is one of sculpture’s key fascinations.

In a 2011 essay art historian David Getsy describes an entertaining aesthetic quarrel between Herbert Read and the eminent critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994). Their correspondence was prompted by the publication in 1956 of Read’s The Art of Sculpture and its ambition, as described by Getsy, ’to establish a systematic and prescriptive theory of the medium’. The argument put forth by Read, which incensed Greenberg, was for the primary importance in sculpture of the tactile, the qualities encompassed by Read by the term ‘ponderability’. In Chapter 4, he is perhaps most distinct and didactic: ’The specifically plastic sensibility is, I believe, more complex than the specifically visual sensibility. It involves three factors: a sensation of the tactile quality of surfaces; a sensation of volume as denoted by plane surfaces; and a synthetic realization of the mass and ponderability of the object.’ Greenberg, a firm adherent to the optical in art, responded, ’I have heard of no one who lets his pleasure in a piece of sculpture wait upon his handling of it, and of very few who have succeeded in actually touching most of the pieces they admire.’

The twentieth century saw a rich and wide variety of sculpture produced which chimes imaginatively with Read’s words. Examples can be found throughout Fauvism, Vorticism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada and Surrealism, and including work more difficult to categorise such as Kurt Schwitters’ (1887-1948) remarkable small-scale plaster sculptures made in the 1930s and 40s. This continued into the latter half of the century with Claes Oldenburg’s (1929-2022) ‘soft sculptures’, Mike Kelly’s (1954-2012) blankets and stuffed toys, and the felt and fabric work produced by Louise Bourgeois well into the twenty-first century. More recently, as demonstrated in the Henry Moore Institute’s exhibition programme, such concerns can be seen in the work of artists including Michael Dean (b. 1977), Paul Neagu (1938-2004), Rasheed Johnson (b. 1944), Senga Nengudi (b. 1943), Alena Matĕjka (b. 1966) and Lungiswa Gqunta (b. 1990).

In this conference we intend to support research into the ways in which other contemporary artists are interpreting and reimagining tactility and we seek papers, though not exclusively, on the following subject areas:

  • The Artist: the tactile maker; collaborative sculpture; the importance of touch in process and curation
  •  Material and Surface: the cultural and social qualities of materials; subversive materials; domestic materials; skin as surface – the body as material; dematerialised sculpture and tactility
  •  The haptic imagination: memory, experience and sculpture; the ‘expanded field’ and the haptic imagination
  •  Space and context: virtual sculpture; the impermanent, entropy and the role of documentation
  •  Mediation: tactile interaction in the gallery space; tactility, sculpture and visual impairment

Deadline: 5pm 30 January

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