Drawing, painting, sculpture?

Recently I heard another conversation that reminded me of the problem of identifying an artwork as  a “drawing”, a “painting”, or a “sculpture.” An example of this categorization challenge is this work in the “sculpture” collection of the Portland Art Museum:

1976 Eskimo Curlew mixed media on aluminium

Frank Stella (American, born 1936), Eskimo Curlew, 1976, litho crayon, etching, lacquer, ink, glass, acrylic paint, and oil stick on aluminum, Museum Purchase: Funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Howard Vollum, © artist or other rights holder, 79.36

For PAM, with the need to decide on a category, it seems the expression of the third dimension is what moves this wall-bound work to “sculpture.” But, for me, this work, at this stage of Stella’s career, is so bound to working with painting ideas that it is essentially a “painting.” Later on Stella moves on to works that completely leave the wall and are first and foremost “sculpture.”

In his best known works Morris Louis expressed the fluidity of paint and celebrated color as in this work from his so called “veils.”

1958 Tet magna on canvas 241.3 x 388.6 cm

Morris Louis (American, 1912–1962), Tet , 1958 magna acrylic on canvas 241.3 x 388.6 cm

These works evolved into more direct expression of color in the “unfurleds.”


Morris Louis (American, 1912–1962), Alpha–Pi, 1960  Acrylic on canvas; 102 1/2 x 177 in., Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1967 (67.232), Metropolitan Museum of Art

I remember how surprising it was to me when in some film either Kenneth Noland or Clement Greenberg (I don’t remember which and maybe it was someone else) said that in the  “unfurleds” Louis “showed that he could draw.” It occurred to me then that “drawing’ could be found in places I hadn’t thought about before. In the Louis, some aspects of drawing become expressed in an important way—composition and line—and I suppose those were the aspects that showed that Louis “could draw.” However, Louis was “drawing” in what still is essentially a “painting,” not a  big colored drawing. But, I’m splitting art hairs.

Since then I’ve come to the idea that we do not have hard and fast guidelines for deciding whether something is a drawing, painting or sculpture, but that there are attributes that belong to these categories (I might be forgetting some attribute here and there):


  •       Composition (the fundamental arrangement of whatever we think the “parts” are)
  •       Line
  •       Shape
  •       Value (issues of light and dark)


  •       Color
  •       Surface quality
  •       Viscosity (so oozing glue in a collage could be a “painterly” aspect)
  •       Texture


  •       Third dimension
  •       Form (including holes)
  •       Volume
  •       Mass
  •       Materiality (e.g. metal vs. ceramic)
  •       Connections (that would make the addition of materials in a collage a “sculptural” aspect)

And in many contemporary works there are architectural issues:


  •       Shelter
  •       Space that can be occupied

So, when we categorize a work as a drawing, a painting, or a sculpture, we are deciding what set of attributes is most important.

A drawing could be made with paint. A painting can be made with ink.

As has been pointed out many times, David Smith made “drawings in space” in steel.


David Smith, Hudson River Landscape, 1951. Welded painted steel and stainless steel, 49 15/16 × 73 3/4 × 16 9/16 in. (126.8 × 187.3 × 42.1 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 54.14

But we think of them as sculptures because of the importance of the third dimension, form (including holes), volume, mass (we can tell it is heavy), materiality and connections. More important, for the purpose of categorization, than the beautiful lines.

But, Hudson River Landscape would look good in a drawing show.