For many centuries, sculptures were seen as figures encased in a block of marble, which an artist’s skill with a chisel was able to set free. Once created, these figures were set on high pedestals where they were admired, and almost worshipped, by man.
One of the greatest contributions to 20th century art was when those pedestals were done away with. At the beginning of the 20th century, artists such as Medardo Rosso and Auguste Rodin were amongst the first to try this, an example being The Burghers of Calais by Rodin, where the figures appear to be walking on the ground. Sculptures were no longer seen as monuments that had been set in a specific place with a clear meaning. From then on, sculptures rose directly from the ground, climbed up walls or were suspended in the air. In 1909, Pablo Picasso sculpted the head of a woman to which he applied the first notions of cubism. Julio González was the first to use wrought iron in sculptures in order to -as the artist himself said- “draw in space”. The sculptural ensemble that was created by Constantin Brancusi at Targu Jiu is made up of three sculptures: “Table of Silence”, “Kiss Gate” and “Endless Column”, and was in fact a forerunner of “Land Art”. Alberto Giacometti turned around the rudiments of Miguel Ángel’s sculptures, which were based on removing material until a sculpture was achieved, to move onto a technique that consisted of adding material until a human figure was obtained. And so, the first step had been taken and 20th century artists were to find very different ways to innovate in the field of sculptures, so that they were no longer seen as monuments set at a distance from the public, but as works of art that interacted with the spectator.
The work of Bill Thompson (Ipswich, United States, 1957) has, without doubt, inherited this new conception of sculptures, while being a result of the industrial and technological progress of the 20th century. Thompson grew up in New England (United States) surrounded by landscapes characterised by dull muted colours. As the artist himself says, “when I visited New Mexico for the first time I realised what I had missed: the ever-changing highly saturated colours of the Southwest made a great impression on me. Some years later, my interest in colour would intensify to the point of leading me towards my current constant tendency towards monochrome”.
Unlike other artists, the landscape surrounding this artist (who still lives in New England) prompted him to escape from it and find colour that was so evident in other places. This was how Thompson came to use car paints in his work. Thompson’s work begins when he is faced with one of the most industrial types of material that artists work with today: polyurethane foam. A rectangular block of foam upon which he uses a complex and laborious process to free figures conjured up by his imagination.
The artist draws, cuts and polishes the foam until it takes on the required shape, organic shapes that remind us of amoebas, which he then covers with several coats of car paint. It is here that the artist finds the saturated colours that were missing from the landscapes of his childhood. Fuchsia, red, purple, blue, green… all shiny and polished like the surface of cars. In fact, the artist gives his work names such as “Avent”, “Wrangler”, “Corsair”, “Gulf”, “Slider”, “Cobra” and “Flame”. Names which, in many cases, have a double meaning as they could be an allusion to the shape recreated in his work and also to the different models of cars.
Thompson’s work, like that of many American artists, is the result of the industrial and technological processes that have made the country what it is today. One of the characteristics of North American art of the second half of the 20th century has been to erase the artist’s physical mark. Not only does this refer to conceptual art, but to sculptures in general. At the beginning of the century, the marks of the artists’ hands were evident in the work they produced -such is the case of Giacometti and Lipchitz-, even though they used materials such as bronze. From the 1970s onwards, however, artists such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre sought industrial finishes in their work in which the mark of the artists’ hands could not be seen. But, this is something that is apparent on the other side of the Atlantic however, for example in the German artists Georg Baselitz and Markus Lüpertz, as they use an axe to carve blocks of wood to create their sculptures.
But even though the processes used can be industrial or manual, the important part is still the idea and the end result. Thompson has appropriated industrial processes, such as car paints, to achieve a clearly recognisable personal style. His work takes the form of pleasing shapes where saturated colours come together upon perfectly polished surfaces, a long call from the work of the pioneer sculptors. They did not have the current technological advances, but they were fully aware of the fact that sculptures had to step down from their pedestals in order to engage in a personal dialogue with the spectator, just like these organic shapes by Thompson that cover the walls of our homes. In his work, Thompson finds beauty in the seduction of curves and the attraction of colour in works that remind us simply of the fact that we are human, that man is the only being capable of creating images and gaining pleasure from them.