20 Abstract Expressionists Who Made Sculptures and Ceramics
“When an artist at the Eighth Street club talked about art and meant painting, Ibram Lassaw would get up and stomp out,” the prominent critic Irving Sandler told art historian Douglas Dreishpoon, according to Dreishpoon’s essay “Sculptors and Critics, Arenas and Complaints.” In the 1940s and ’50s, Lassaw’s frustration was shared among sculptors of the New York School who were largely overshadowed by their painterly peers. Take, for example, the iconic Life magazine photograph from 1951 of the “Irascible Group of Advanced Artists” who protested the lack of “advanced” art (later described as Abstract Expressionism) in a juried national exhibition at the Met. Pictured in Life are 15 painters, all sharply dressed, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Willem de Kooning; missing are all 10 sculptors who had also signed the open letter addressed to the museum’s president.
In part due to the lasting influence of powerful critics like Clement Greenberg, Abstract Expressionist sculpture has yet to earn the same level of recognition in the art-historical canon as, say, Pollock’s splattered canvases or Rothko’s color field abstractions. Born from the same artistic milieu as their painting peers, these sculptors were inspired by modernist movements such as Constructivism and Surrealism to experiment with new methods, materials, and proportions. Though the broad “Abstract Expressionist” label is itself widely contested, these painters and sculptors share both an avid interest in the monumental, the mystical, and the sublime—as well as an unmistakable desire to break free from art of the past.
Yet the innovative spirit of the mid-20th century was not limited to sculpture and painting. In the summer of 1953, while teaching at the experimental Black Mountain College, a young ceramicist named Peter Voulkos met avant-gardists of all stripes: the painter Robert Rauschenberg, the composer John Cage, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the poet Charles Olson. By experimenting with age-old techniques, Voulkos went on to transform his own field, helping to elevate ceramics from utilitarian craft to fine art, all while inspiring a generation of ceramicists to follow suit in what became known as the California clay movement. Below, we highlight 20 artists whose work aligned with the Abstract Expressionist movement, similarly going beyond the paintbrush to push art in bold new directions.
Though critics and scholars continue to debate the exact definition of Abstract Expressionist sculpture—with some arguing that it should only be considered a painter’s movement—most agree that Smith, of all the others, fits the label. Trained as a painter after starting a career in the automotive industry, Smith turned to sculpture in the 1930s, though he once said he didn’t recognize “the limits where painting ends and sculpture begins.” Inspired on a trip to Europe by the works of Pablo Picasso and Julio González, Smith was the first American sculptor to master the welded-steel technique, which consisted of forging together pieces of metal with a “filler” rod. His linear, somewhat figural “drawings in space,” as he called them, of the 1930s and ’40s later morphed into volumetric, architectonic works, such as his final “Cubi” series (1961–65). Those glistening, monumental stainless-steel structures now grace sculpture gardens and parks across the U.S. “I made them and I polished them in such a way that on a dull day they take on a dull blue,” he once said, “or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun, the glow, golden like the rays, the colors of nature.”
Nevelson is known for her monochromatic bric-a-brac sculptures of wooden scraps scavenged from junkyards and old buildings around New York. To obscure their original appearances, she spray-painted these assemblages, usually in black, which to her represented “the silhouette, or essence of the universe.” Nevelson’s fondness for wood stemmed from a childhood spent in her father’s lumberyard in Maine, where she and her family relocated after escaping persecution of Jews in Russia. Her magnum opus, Sky Cathedral (1958), is a monumental jigsaw-like construction of boxes filled with furniture parts, spindles, and various wooden remnants—something like the sculptural equivalent of Barnett Newman’s and Rothko’s sublime, mural-sized canvases for both its formal interest in flatness and scale as well as its imposing spirituality. As Nevelson once said, in her art she searched for “the in-between places, the dawns and dusk, the objective world, the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and the sea.”
One of the last living Abstract Expressionists, di Suvero—a member of the crane operator’s union—made “paintings in three dimensions” out of heavy metal and wooden beams abandoned on the sites of demolished buildings. Leaving these forms unpolished, he assembled them with chains, ropes, and double T-girders to create dynamic large-scale structures that echo the gestural nature of action painting. Today, di Suvero continues to produce sculpture from his New York studio, which has welcomed notable artists including Ursula von Rydingsvard and Heide Fasnacht. As a leading supporter of the city’s public art movement, he helped convert an illegal dumping ground in Long Island City to the beloved Socrates Sculpture Park, the city’s first outdoor sculpture park.
Dehner planned to study sculpture at the Arts Students League, but, turned off by the conservative offerings, she ended up pursuing painting and printmaking instead. It wasn’t until 1955, at the age of 54—four years after ending her tempestuous marriage to David Smith—that she returned to sculpture, the medium with which she would gain widespread recognition. Just two years later, Dehner was picked up by New York’s prestigious Willard Gallery. “I was never taught sculpture at all; nobody told me anything,” she once said. “I didn’t need it. The minute I had [the wax] in my hands, I knew what to do.” For the next three decades, Dehner experimented with an array of materials, starting with rectilinear, Surrealism-influenced cast bronze, which resulted in works such as her totem-like “Cenotaph” and “Ladder” series. In the mid-’70s, she made geometric wood sculptures layered with various shapes and symbols, some as high as 10 feet.
One of the most celebrated sculptors of the 20th century, the cosmopolitan Japanese-American Noguchi—who worked as Constantin Brancusi’s assistant in the late 1920s—fused Surrealism-inspired biomorphic forms with traditional Japanese aesthetics to create sculptures, furniture, gardens, and architecture that transcended stylistic categorization. “It has often been pointed out to me that when I have achieved a certain success of style, then I abandon it,” he acknowledged in his 1968 autobiography, A Sculptor’s World. “There is no doubt a distrust on my part for style and for the success that accrues from it.” Despite his spirit of independence, Noguchi’s ties to Abstract Expressionism are made clear in his large-scale abstract works—often sourced from natural materials, sometimes left in their original form—as well as his friendships with Arshile Gorky, de Kooning, and other notable figures from the movement.
Experimenting with abstraction as early as 1928—and thereby preceding the breakthroughs of his painterly counterparts—Lassaw is considered a trailblazer of abstract sculpture in America. Fusing Surrealism, Constructivism, and Cubism, he applied the same sense of intuitive, automatic craft to his weblike metal sculptures as Pollock and his peers did to their canvases. In a 1994 interview with the New York Times, Lassaw described his six-decade-long principle: “Whenever something becomes a representation...I know I must carry it farther. I want my sculpture to be only its self [sic], not something to be looked through in order to find the associative image.”
Influenced by the likes of Smith, de Kooning, and Franz Kline, Chamberlain crushed, twisted, and assembled scraps of discarded car parts to make colorful, dynamic sculptures, often of staggering height. Winning acclaim in the 1960s, Chamberlain was known to reject critical or intellectual interpretations of his work as a metaphor for American values; instead, he insisted simply that his materials were cheap and available and that he was attracted to their ostentatious colors. In New York, an ongoing show at Mnuchin Gallery explores the affinity between his collage-like assemblages with the spontaneous, vibrant brushwork of de Kooning, whom he met in the late ’50s.
Voulkos, founder of the midcentury “clay revolution,” is credited with radically reinventing ceramics, changing it from a studio craft with time-honored techniques and forms into a fine-art medium with the same level of abstraction and self-expression as painting and sculpture. Although he was trained in traditional pottery, Voulkos’s innovation was abandoning utilitarian vessels—which had to be thrown on a wheel in one piece—to instead build towering, abstract assemblages from various wheel-thrown constituents, the creation of which often required him to stand atop stools. In addition to joining parts with epoxy glue rather than kiln firing, he slashed and scraped his surfaces, decorating them with epoxy paints and ceramic glazes in vigorous brushwork à la Kline. A charismatic and inspiring teacher, Voulkos established a new ceramics department at the L.A. County Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design), where he had a lasting impact on notable artists, including John Mason, Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston, and many others on this list.
Coming from a wealthy Pittsburgh family, Callery moved to Paris in 1930, where she studied sculpture while befriending the likes of Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, and Picasso. (She also avidly collected their work, including some 23 by Picasso.) It was the Spanish artist who inspired her to see art in new ways. “What do you need a model for?” she remembers him asking. “You know that the human body has a head...and two legs.” With the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Callery returned to the U.S., meeting considerable success with her open, linear sculptures interlaced with exuberant stick-figure dancers. In addition to her career as an artist, Callery continued to collect, eventually becoming a powerful force in the art world. She helped finance Cahiers d’Art and was often commissioned to create public art installations. Throughout her life she drew on her wide social networks to connect architects, artists, and collectors alike.
Though he sketched and painted since the age of 12, Lipton, the son of a shop owner, originally pursued a career as a dental surgeon. After completing his degree at Columbia in 1927, he set up a medical practice; however, whenever he had a free moment, he would trade scalpels for sculpting tools in the small studio next to his office, where he could mold clay or whittle away at wood and stone. Metal would ultimately define his career in the 1940s, when he created interwoven, twisting metal forms to reflect the complex nature of the human psyche—always in a symbolic, rather than literal, fashion. “Art has a kind of sacred significance to me,” he once said. “I may be giving art too much importance in my own life or anybody else’s life, but I feel this deeply. If I weren’t an artist, I’d be a religious ascetic, a Rabbi maybe if I was born in Europe.”
Oddly enough, Ferber also studied dentistry at Columbia in the late 1920s. It was his anatomical drawing instructor who spotted his talent and encouraged him to take his artmaking further. Ferber promptly enrolled in night classes at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design. A member of the Irascibles, Ferber rejected the notion of sculpture as merely a composition of solid volumes, instead making open-form works that he described as “piercing” space. “The sculptor is too often seduced by form; space is the un-limit of his medium,” he wrote in the artist-run magazine Tiger’s Eye in 1947. “Space and Form take shape concomitantly in creating an arena where the creative personality of the artist is in anxious conjunction with his perception of the world around him.” Inspired by Julio González as well as the mystical aspects of Surrealism, Ferber made dynamic, steel-reinforced works suggestive of natural forms—from flora and fauna to fossils and figures in flight—such as Surrational Zeus II (1947), a bewildering contraption of organs and claws.
Immersed in the New York scene of the 1950s, when she was neighbors and close friends with Agnes Martin, Tawney transformed the traditional craft of weaving with what she called her “woven forms.” Unlike wall-hung, narrative tapestries, these abstract, amorphous forms were freely suspended in space. Often monumental in scale and interlaced with shells, beads, and feathers, her art took on a mystical quality—a “defiance of ordinary verbal communication,” she called it. “Art is always just beyond language. Each work seems to be called up from a bottomless chaos and despite the magic order it finds in the artist’s creation, retains always the memory of the original chaos to which it is destined to return.”
Though Roszak’s most famous work—the 37-foot aluminum eagle perched, in 1960, on the facade of the U.S. Embassy in London—is far from abstract, the Polish-American sculptor was constantly evolving his practice in response to new inspirations. Originally a painter and lithographer, Roszak transitioned to sculpture following an 18-month fellowship in Europe, where he became fascinated by Constructivism, the Bauhaus, and other European avant-garde movements, particularly the spellbinding paintings of Giorgio di Chirico. Following World War II, when he helped design aircraft for the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation in Newark, Roszak, like Smith, picked up the welding technique. Unlike his contemporary, however, Roszak’s work veered toward emotional and organic forms, rather than sleek and mechanical shapes. In a 1955 paper delivered at the Art Institute of Chicago, he wrote of his work: “The forms...are meant to be blunt reminders of primordial strife and struggle, reminiscent of those brute forces that not only produce life, but in return threatened to destroy it.”
Self-taught Hare, an American, was selected by André Breton to be the editor of the Surrealist publication VVV, where he worked with leading avant-gardists, including Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, in the 1940s. Hare was also immersed in the early AbEx movement, helping found the Subjects for Artist School with Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and William Baziotes in 1948. Though he produced colorful paintings, drawings, collages, and sculptures based on the Ancient Greek myth of Cronus, Hare is most remembered for his welded-steel sculptural abstractions of the 1950s in which abstracted biomorphic forms are suspended or interwoven in complex symbolic arrangements, as in The Dinner Table (1950) and Windows of Moons (1951).
As a student and close friend of Voulkos in the mid-1950s, Mason took active part in the ceramics revolution that brought the traditional studio craft into the avant-garde. His 1959 work Blue Wall is a definitive example of Abstract Expressionism’s impact on the movement. The monumental 21-feet-long piece was made by hurling immense amounts of clay onto heavy-duty easels, firing the finished individual sections, then arranging them together on the wall. Over his six-decade career, Mason has since become known for his conceptual installations assembled from found materials, as well as his jagged, angular ceramic sculptures. “I realized very early in my experience with clay: here was an endless story,” he said in 1997.
In the summer of 1958, Melchert, who had an MFA in painting, headed to Montana to enroll in Voulkos’s summer course in ceramics. Swept away by the radical, energetic techniques of his teacher, Melchert became Voulkos’s studio assistant at the University of California, Berkeley, later establishing his own program at San Francisco Art Institute. “Pete Voulkos was the one who really changed everything for me—the way in which he believed in doing things larger than you’re used to doing, so that you become physically involved,” Melchert said in a 2002 interview. “I’d go home at night and I’d just be physically exhausted, and I’d sleep wonderfully well. And it was energizing.” Now based in Oakland, Melchert has since veered from the lessons of Abstract Expressionism and toward works inspired by the conceptual art that flourished in the Bay Area in the late 1960s and ’70s. For example, incorporating the concept of building, he recently created works by breaking, drawing on, reassembling, and painting ceramic tiles.
San Francisco–based Nagle is known for his miniscule, china-painted ceramic cups with granular surfaces, vivid colors, and unsettling shapes, which, by the 1970s, had turned into body-and-extension abstractions. “You gravitate towards whatever moves you and then you run with it. It was all intuitive,” he once said. “I’m attracted to the format emotionally.” Though originally interested in music and jewelry, Nagle studied under Henry Takemoto and later exhibited alongside Mason, Melchart, and Voulkos, among others, in John Coplans’s 1966 show “Abstract Expressionist Ceramics.” Nagle’s diverse influences include pop culture, California design, 16th- and 17th-century Japanese tea ceramics, and paintings by Giorgio Morandi and Francis Bacon.
At Otis, Voulkos’s first student was Soldner, and the pair even went on to produce a prototype for the electric potter’s wheel. For his groundbreaking MFA exhibition in 1956, Soldner threw floor pots that nearly reached the ceiling and were painted in the style of Abstract Expressionism. Later, in one fateful studio session during the early ’60s, Soldner accidentally dropped a fired bowl in a heap of pepper-tree leaves, which set ablaze; to his pleasant surprise, the smoke left a crackled finish on his glaze. This new twist on the traditional Japanese raku tradition gave way to dazzling, iridescent works, which he called “pottery made within a mental framework of expectation, the discovery of things not sought.”
Honolulu-born Takemoto studied with Claude Horan and Josef Albers at the University of Hawaii before relocating to Southern California in the early 1950s to train with Voulkos at Otis. First creating large-scale pieces like Mason and his peers, Takemoto decorated his surfaces with painted or incised calligraphic patterns influenced by Abstract Expressionist painting as well as Picasso’s ceramic designs and traditional Asian ceramics, as in his 1959 work First Kumu, a bulbous stoneware vase adorned with swirling motifs.
“The look of my figures is abstract, and to the spectator they may not appear to be figures at all,” Bourgeois said of her “Personages” series of stacked, totemic structures created between 1946 and 1955. “They are the expression, in abstract terms, of emotions and states of awareness.” In the 1940s and ’50s, Bourgeois was linked to the community of French Surrealist emigrés living in Manhattan and Connecticut. Nevertheless, she also joined the American Abstract Artists Group and befriended and exhibited alongside de Kooning, Rothko, and Pollock (to some degree, in resistance to the Surrealists). However, her highly personal art ultimately transcends categorization.