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.


Stella + Judd: Carpeaux

Early on my attitudes about art were shaped by the thinking exemplified in Questions to Stella and Judd by Bruce Glaser (Art News, 1966* ), e.g.:

GLASER: Why do you want to avoid compositional effects?

JUDD: Well, all those effects tend to carry with them all the structures, values, feelings of the whole European tradition. It suits me fine if that’s all down the drain.

Recently I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  and found myself marveling at Ugolino and His Sons (modeled ca. 1860–61, executed in marble 1865–67) by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827–1875). Far from the minimalist 60s values of Frank Stella and Donald Judd.


I’ve walked by this piece many times before. It was far too melodramatic for me. This time just this little detail caught my eye:


Really!?!? Interwoven toes?

Once stopped I noticed more.

Digression: Once upon a time a farmer was motoring down a country road when he came across a friend pulling on a rope tied to a mule. The mule was steadfast. The farmer asked, “What are you doing?” “Trying to get this dang mule to cross the road,” replied his friend.

The farmer reached into the back of his truck and grabbed a short length of two-by-four. He walked up to the mule, gave it strong whack on the back of the head, and calmly led the mule across the road.

“How’d you do that!?” asked his friend. “First you gotta get their attention,” said the farmer.

(Apologies to animal rights activists.)

How do these figures manage to fit together?


Like a great mannerist puzzle. Look at the delicacy of the child—and yet more straining toes!


IMG_4837 IMG_4830


Then I noticed the hole through the whole…

IMG_4834 IMG_4835


Back to Stella and Judd:

STELLA: Maybe that’s the quality of simplicity. When Mantle hits the ball out of the park, everybody is sort of stunned for a minute because it’s so simple. He knocks it out of the park, and that usually does it.

Carpeaux is not simple. He knocks it outta the park. Very complicated. Amazing. Still sappy melodrama to me. But I’ve got to respect him as an artist.


From the Met’s web site:

H. 77 in. (195.6 cm)
Signed (incised in script at right front facet of base): Jbte Carpeaux./Rome 1860; (incised at right end facet of base) JBTE CARPEAUX ROMA 1860
Purchase, Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation Inc. Gift and Charles Ulrick and Josephine Bay Foundation Inc. Gift, and Fletcher Fund, 1967 (67.250)

ON VIEW: GALLERY 548   Last Updated September 4, 2013

Dante’s Divine Comedy has always enjoyed favor in the plastic arts. Ugolino, the character that galvanized peoples’ fantasies and fears during the second half of the nineteenth century, appears in Canto 33 of the Inferno. This intensely Romantic sculpture derives from the passage in which Dante describes the imprisonment in 1288 and subsequent death by starvation of the Pisan count Ugolino della Gherardesca and his offspring. Carpeaux depicts the moment when Ugolino, condemned to die of starvation, yields to the temptation to devour his children and grandchildren, who cry out to him:

But when to our somber cell was thrown
A slender ray, and each face was lit
I saw in each the aspect of my own,
For very grief both of my hands I bit,
And suddenly from the floor arising they,
Thinking my hunger was the cause of it,
Exclaimed: Father eat thou of us, and stay
Our suffering: thou didst our being dress
In this sad flesh; now strip it all away.