Lead in Modern and Contemporary Art

Lead in Modern and Contemporary Art
Sharon Hecker & Silvia Bottinelli, Editors

Bloomsbury Press, London, 2021
280 pp., illus. b/w. Trade, $103.50
ISBN: 9781350196445.

Reviewed by: 
Brian Reffin Smith
August 2021

If we imagine an extremely light artwork, in fact one with no mass, such as an electromagnetic wave traversing a gallery, whose presence can only be sensed via a suitable receiver (the spelling checker suggested “a suitable reviewer”) and juxtapose that to a lead metal sculpture, along what dimensions might we distinguish them? We know that even the densest matter in the universe is not really matter at all, that size doesn’t matter and that life, the universe and everything are mysteries all the way down to the Planck constant. Of course, one can fold lead . . . so perhaps not mass, but presence, made vivid by the contradictory softness, pliability, malleability (able to be hammered into shape), ductility (well, allegedly; perhaps compared with a stone; it means able to be drawn out, for example into wire, and good luck doing that with lead) and low melting point. It is the only really heavy metal most of us encounter. Gold? Far heavier than it always looks in bank heists, but we don’t usually have kilos of it to carry (anyway noble metals aren’t all they're cracked up to be. I’ve worked with ruthenium and it’s a nasty, ugly metal which makes lead look angelic).

Since I am rather childish, I also enjoyed playing with the ambiguities of the word ‘lead’ itself. I can almost guarantee that after reading the book you’d be stuck to spell correctly the past participle of the verb ‘to lead’, in the sense of going first rather than the application of Pb sheets to a church roof, which latter would of course be ‘leaded’. What does a leader look like when your brain is consumed by the metal lead? The punning title of Richard Deacon and Bill Woodrow’s 2004 exhibition of wood and lead sculptures called ‘Lead Astray’ leapt falsely out of the excellent index as ‘Lead Ashtray’ and I thought why not. An actual Lead Zeppelin would surely collapse under its own weight. Or would it? A well-known search engine records a 1977 competition for a helium filled ‘lead balloon’ (like which bad jokes go down) where one rolled up a tree and drifted into commercial air space.

I suppose the art world could be divided into those who’d prefer to read a book about gold in art, and those more attracted to one about lead (count me in the latter group). Of these two poles of the alchemical spectrum, lead is surely the more interesting. Its materiality is evident, hidden by no economic aura or meretricious veil. It doesn’t shine for long. At least to British eyes lead is the colour of solid weather, of old pipes (again, the spelling checker suggested ‘old popes’, leaden magic at work) and church roofs; gold is just bling and surface and fools’ gold, even if that is iron pyrites. Pb is Anselm Kiefer. Au is Koons.

But poor old plumbum. No alchemist would try to change gold into it, though perhaps an artist would. Everyone knows how poisonous it is: kids licking lead-based paint or artists their brushes and so on. But that isn’t the metal itself, rather molecules containing it. It exerts an alchemical influence; it is mysterious, and its density seems to suck you in. Lead is its own metaphor. Again, not weight but... something else. Lead comes with a free gift (‘Gift’ in German means poison) - which is that it drags with it an interestingly charged political and social as well as metallurgical baggage, less superficial than Damien Hirst’s diamonds on a skull.

This could be said of many metals, but lead in particular seems at once banal and special. My earliest encounter with the metal was as an eight-year-old angler, using small lead shot as weights to keep the line vertically under water. The shot was partially split open to take the nylon line, like little Pacpersons, and then squeezed closed by biting them. I then experimented with melting them over a Bunsen burner and tossing the liquid metal into water where it formed fantastic shapes. Utilitarian, exotic, toxic as hell, able to ‘flower’ into aesthetic forms, it was all there.

There are many different approaches to lead in this eclectic look at the processes, psychology, material and conceptual acceptances and rejections (even) of what the metal has to offer. There might have been a section by a physical metallurgist putting lead into a wider scientific context, but aspects of this emerge in various of the chapters, especially that on Lead’s Historic Transformations by Spike Bucklow.

Marin R. Sullivan’s chapter on the ultimate fallibility of lead as a vehicle for a new American formal language for sculpture opened my eyes to the mid-20th century work of Herbert Ferber and Seymour Lipton, both dentists turned sculptors. They abandoned lead as a material because it wasn’t strong enough, turning to steel instead as did, twenty years or so later, Richard Serra and Carl Andre. Where later artists’ work was influenced by the material, Ferber insisted that his ideas influenced the material. I have a suspicion that perhaps lead (“Too soft” - Ferber) wasn’t in the end quite ‘American’ enough for some artists. One might also ask if their dental practice had any influence on Ferber’s and Seymour’s work (they had hardly any contact with each other, had no dental practice together though they both received degrees in dentistry from Columbia). Actually, the book is full of such pointers to potentially rich sidetracks, and this is one of its values: any general topic, like ‘modern and contemporary art’, poked at with a specific thing such as a lump of lead, will yield new knowledge, insights and problems. The question then is do these benign provocations arch back into art in some useful, solid way, and in this book they certainly do. There are useful notes to every chapter, entirely to the point.

One of the very interesting chapters is Jeffrey Weiss’s on Richard Serra’s early lead splash works. There you have, or would if they still existed, everything. The lightness of a splash, the solidity of lead, the process of melting it from solid to liquid, then the loss of energy as it solidifies. And don’t tell me that chucking molten lead at the very fabric of a gallery isn’t both art-political and satisfying. And yet the splashes were gallery pieces par excellence, becoming literally a part of it as they embedded themselves in the angle between walls and floor (inside for the Leo Castelli show, outside for Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.) There’s a photo of Serra and Philip Glass, who used to be a plumber, at work on it outside the Stedelijk, both looking as benignly terroristic as Marx Brothers. Though Serra used both “casting” and “splashing” in titles - the splashed lead does form a cast of the wall’s and floor’s shapes and textures - the thought is provoked that even molten metal flung into the air or dropped into water (remember granulated zinc from school?) makes essentially casts of itself in its own space. Which is nice. You could write a long review just of this chapter, which goes much further than I indicate here.

Then follows Luke Naessen’s discussion of Lynda Benglis’ 1975 lead cast of an earlier polyurethane work, itself solidified in a corner like Serra’s work, made in the same year as Serra was casting/splashing lead. So, the plot thickens. Her plastic, she said, was “repulsive, but the form isn’t”. Ambivalences and ironies are everywhere: who other than the artists would have imagined that lead (plus artist or poet) could do that? Naessen talks of the lead work’s fragility and precarity, a far cry perhaps from Ferber’s dissatisfaction with lead as somehow weak. The work is “exorbitant”, layers upon layers. It’s the ideas that are whittled down.

Following chapters deal interestingly with Arte Povera’s varied approaches to the material and especially what surrounded it for those artists. Then one might sigh with happiness (there’s no space here to detail everything) at chapter headings such as Beuys, Alchemy and Duchamp; Two Views of Anselm Kiefer; New British Sculpture and Pragmatics of Lead. The editors must be congratulated on the eclectic yet coherent contents, and on choosing people who not only have things to say, but who can actually write, not always the case in such collections. Lead may have sat splashed, dull and almost sullen in the corner of a gallery like an artist come too late, or early, at a vernissage, but goodness me, in this book, in a process of remarkable transformation, it becomes a catalyst beyond platinum: a catalyst for thought about process and materials in general.