Plaster in the Nasher Collection

Nasher Sculpture Center
May 10, 2016 6:34PM

In the summer of 2016, the Nasher Sculpture Center will focus a permanent collection installation in the Lower Level Gallery devoted to artists’ use of an ancient material also embraced by modern and contemporary artists: plaster.   

Made of ground or powdered limestone mixed with water, plaster was used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, although it was associated with architecture and painting as much as sculpture.

Plaster is a remarkably versatile material. As a wall covering, it becomes a smooth surface for the creation of paintings. Poured into molds, it can replicate three-dimensional objects. As a material worked directly, it lends itself to both additive and subtractive approaches – that is, artists can add more plaster to a sculpture to model it further, but they can also cut or carve into it, as if it were stone. For sculptors working in the more pliable medium of clay, making a plaster cast of the finished work allows them to preserve it in a less fragile substance. Less expensive than bronze, a plaster cast can also serve as a preparatory step in producing a bronze sculpture, becoming the source for a mold.

Painted plaster sculpture has existed since as early as 7,000 BCE, although plaster became truly widespread as a sculptural material in the 19th century. In art academies, for example, artists studied plaster casts of classical sculptures. Even as artists such as Auguste Rodin began to turn away from academic studies in favor of live models, they embraced the versatility and accessibility of plaster as a way of working through ideas. Completed plasters could then be exhibited in hopes of attracting patrons who would pay to have them executed in more durable, and expensive, materials. Artists have also often made, and kept, plaster casts of their own work, in order to have the objects close to them, for further thought and inspiration. In some cases, they have cut into the casts and reconfigured them, creating a new work in the process.

Many of the plasters in the Nasher Sculpture Center’s permanent collections are casts made or authorized by the artists. Also on view are two new acquisitions by George Segal and Manuel Neri. George Segal drew upon plaster’s role in the making of casts—both artistic and medical—to make casts of family members and friends using plaster-impregnated bandages. From the resulting casts, he made molds that yielded plaster sculptures. In the case of Manuel Neri, he modeled and then cut directly into pieces of plaster, hewing them as if they were wood. Segal often left his plasters white, but also painte the plaster on occasion, as in the Nasher's Woman with Shopping Bag. Neri regularly painted his plaster sculptures, animating the surface and complicating how the viewer perceives its facets.

—Catherine Craft, Nasher Sculpture Center Curator 

Plaster in the Nasher Collection is on view from July 23 – October 9, 2016 

Nasher Sculpture Center