A LIFE IN SCULPTURE
Carolyn Miner is a scholar, researcher and independent curator of sculpture who is known for her creativity, wide-ranging interests, deep knowledge of art, and her commitment to engaging audiences. She was the Robert H. Smith Curator of Sculpture at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, a Specialist at Sotheby’s London, a Curatorial Fellow in the Department of Paintings and Sculpture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a Research Associate in the Department of Sculpture at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Where did you study?
I did my undergraduate studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine and my graduate degree at the Courtauld in London.
You were the Robert H. Smith Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the National Gallery in Washington DC from 2011-2014 and then you left. Why?
For my entire adult life I have been focused entirely on my career, as a specialist of sculpture, to the distraction of everything else. I wanted to take a pause to reflect and to start a family.
And you went to London. Why?
There are two reasons. First, for a personal reason as my feet have always felt comfortable on European soil (at the time whether the UK was part of the EU was not up for debate). Second, for professional reasons as London is the most dynamic city in the world for the study of sculpture. It is also the center of the sculpture trade.
In a world of contemporary art and fashion and where paintings and drawings are at the center of attention, what drove you toward sculpture?
It is an intrinsic part of me. It wasn’t a choice. Since I was in school, I was always attracted by the three-dimensional: from geometry, to physics to architecture to sculpture. I suppose it is the way in which I see the world. I also find that sculpture is the more imaginative art. Looking at a sculpture demands creativity on behalf of the viewer and I have always enjoyed creative pursuits. But as far as fashion and trends, they are cyclical. I never saw a reason to bend to them. Early in my career early-modern sculpture was more in fashion and recently contemporary sculpture is more popular.
You have a vast experience as a scholar, a researcher, a curator and you have written numerous articles and edited books. What are you working on now?
I am curating an exhibition and writing a book on James Balmforth. He is a young British sculptor who I discovered while working as the first curator for The Line (a sculpture walk in east London). I commissioned a monumental sculpture by him, which is now installed at the Royal Docks. I strongly believe that he is one of the most talented emerging sculptors today. What I find particularly compelling about him is that although his work is profoundly current, it is also entrenched in the past. The publication investigates the dialogue between his work and historical and contemporary sculptors who preceded him from Cellini, to Giambologna, to Bernini, to Rodin, to Serra, to Sterling Ruby.
You edited a book published by Skira and Sotheby’s, The Eternal Baroque, which is an homage to Jennifer Montagu. Why?
Practically, because I was asked by Guilhem Scherf, a curator of sculpture at the Louvre. Personally, because there is no scholar of sculpture that I admire more than Jennifer. It was challenging. Prior to the publication, I specialized more on Mannerist (Giambologna, Susini, Tacca) and Neoclassical (Houdon, Thorvaldsen and Canova) sculptors. And yet, since editing the publication, I have come to favor the Baroque over any other period.
Is Jennifer your mentor?
I have learned so much from her. I admire Jennifer for her tenacity and scholarly rigor. She has taught me to approach sculpture in a different way–to not simply look at a sculpture in a vacuum but to understand the artist, the workshop and how a sculpture was made. Jennifer is a marvelously pure academic, who has spent her entire career at the Warburg researching and writing. I enjoy scholarly work immensely and it is a large part of what I do; the other half of what I do is to interpret art for the public through exhibitions and publications.
You wrote a book for Thaddaeus Ropac gallery on an Anglo-Indian sculptor, Raqib Shaw and you are currently working on a catalogue of the Italian medals for the Frick Collection in New York. This is somehow a very eclectic vision?
In 2002 after I left the Courtauld, I worked in the sculpture department at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Nicholas Penny, the former director of the National Gallery in London was visiting the museum and advised me to make sure that I didn’t just specialize in one type of art and to follow another artistic interest as well. At the time, the contemporary art scene in LA was in a nascent but exciting moment and so I decided to pay keen attention to contemporary art. Since then, while I was professionally specializing in sculpture from the medieval period through the early 19th century, I was personally following contemporary art. Over the last five or so years I have enjoyed merging the two interests: making old master sculpture more relevant through its engagement with contemporary art and vice versa.
Sculpture is a very ancient craft that has existed for thousands of years. Sculpture was created at different times for different purposes: religious, commemorative, celebrity, and for museums or collections. Where does sculpture stand today?
Right now is the moment of public art. I would imagine if we were to look back a hundred years from now on today, the works that will be best remembered are those made for the outdoors. David Smith and Richard Serra were pioneers in this respect and the trend can been seen through the popularity of projects like the High Line in New York, The Line in London, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Cass. Commemorative public art became terribly out of fashion 40 or so years ago. The great modern and contemporary sculptors from Giacometti to Calder to Richard Deacon to Donald Judd etc. generally scaled their work to fit within interior environments. Now that has changed and more sculptors are conceiving their works on a larger scale and bringing them outdoors. Often it means that the relationship between sculpture and architecture is more clearly linked. Even though they were designed by architects, the Serpentine Summer Pavilion and Houses are perfect examples of how fine the line between sculpture and architecture can be. I would consider them sculpture.
What is the difference between painting and sculpture?
There are many differences and many similarities between the two, all of which have been discussed and debated since the paragone. My short answer is that sculpture is more durable and resilient. It is more likely to withstand the ravages of time.
The market for contemporary art in general is very high. Is it the same for sculpture that is not contemporary, and what do you think about it?
For superlative Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical or 19th century sculpture by big-name artists the market is as strong as ever and record prices continue to be broken. But the market for good, interesting sculpture from these periods has decreased in value considerably. Less people are keen to have old master sculpture in their homes or to collect in this area. I believe taste will change and prices will go up again, but I am not convinced that the market will become more liquid as sculptures continue to be purchased by museums and then are not resold. All and all, it is a good time to collect in this area. There is a lot of opportunity to bring extraordinary things home, but it takes passion and a desire to look and learn.
If you had to make your own ideal sculpture collection, what would you like to own?
I will limit myself to three, otherwise we will be here all day. Tullio Lombardo’s Bacchus and Ariadne in the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna. Matteo Civitali’s St. John the Baptist at the Bode Museum, Berlin and Picasso’s Absinthe Glass at MOMA. There would also be a Canova in there, Houdon’s Bust of Gluck and an Antoine portrait bust, Giambologna and Antico bronzes, something by Julio González, Medardo Rosso, Donald Judd and Richard Serra. Oops, that is definitely more than three.
What are your future plans?
It should not surprise you that I plan to continue to devote myself to sculpture, in all its many forms.
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The Line is London’s first dedicated modern and contemporary art walk