Robert Schad’s Spatial lines
In how far has steel remained relevant and topical for the present day as a creative medium? In the sense of being an artistic form of expression, what meaning does steel have in comparison to wood, stone, bronze, plastic, etc. for our perception? Which connotations can steel be used to evoke?
The question of “which material” is one that probes into the artist himself, it asks about his point of view, his current and future objectives. Especially in these times of change and in view of the widespread search for orientation at the beginning of the 21st century, also as regards sculptural art, choosing to work with such a traditional material as steel takes on real significance for the evolution of advanced concepts and perspectives and with that constitutes its entitlement.
We associate very definite characteristic properties with steel as a material: durability, heaviness, stability, solidity and rigidity. Images of heavy industry, skyscrapers and machinery spontaneously come to mind. It is therefore all the more surprising to experience an effect that one would not generally expect from this material. We find our expectations are challenged when we see and perceive the seemingly impossible: lightness instead of heaviness, instability instead of stability, space instead of compactness and motion instead of rigidity. This serves to open up new levels of meaning and broadens one’s horizon.
The term perception describes various ways of experiencing reality, both conscious and subconscious. One’s attention can be directed either outwardly or inwardly; real or imagined realities can take centre stage. “Discrepant effects between stimuli that we are confronted with and expectations that have grown on the basis of previous experience are triggers for conscious perceptions. Our interest is peaked by stimulating configurations that are characterised by ambiguity or complexity.” The way in which Robert Schad’s steel sculptures embody this kind of complexity is particularly masterful. His figurations prove that steel has lost none of its validity or topicality as an artistic medium in the present day.
This context leads us to take a look at the fragment as an artistic element. A fragment is not merely a fraction, but is equally a part of a larger whole, an ensemble, a totality. The act of linking multiples of these steel fragments results in the greatest degree of freedom during the working process and creates new scope with regard to exteriorising creative ideas. Liberated of material-bound properties, steel enables autonomy and independence, an almost limitless virtual realm; the result is by no means disjointed. On the contrary, the result is much rather an aggregation, an opening to the future. “I cut and add bits, try to overcome the material, driven by the utopian vision of the natural world,” says Robert Schad. “When viewed, the effect is one of motion caught in mid-movement. With the steel, I particularly allude to the process of growth, the process of dance-like expression. My sculptures are fragments of infinity in time.”
Robert Schad is one of the most eminent contemporary steel sculptors. Mirroring myriad aspects of human existence, the environment, architecture, habitat and space as a entity in itself, his works touch on essential questions with regard to modern-day society, the mores of which are increasingly being called into doubt or rather appear to be crumbling. With his abstract forms, Schad strives to release primal forces and communicate existential experiences. But instead of choosing a natural material to work with, he favours a material commonly used to make machines, build architectural structures or produce weapons, he prefers steel as the epitome of industrial progress. As a result of Schad’s fundamentally dialectic approach, he continually calls the relevance and topicality of his own work into question and draws from this the energy that gives rise to creative processes.
The line and its physical movement in space form the main focus of Robert Schad’s sculptural works. Whether upright, horizontal or balancing, his sculptural forms, be they tall and filigree or compactly solid in appearance, always evoke a feeling of movement. Nondescript spaces are transformed into concretely experiential places through the power of Schad’s steel lines – etched gracefully, serenely into space, ominously compacted or yet presented as a loosely interrelating assembly. In their capacity as spatial orchestrations, his works redefine outdoor and indoor spaces, naturescapes, museums and urban spaces as well as church interiors. With that, they permit multifaceted perceptions and go to neutralise tensions. Some of his steel lines only barely touch the ground in a few select places. With neither a discernible beginning nor an end, these lines veer upwards and downwards in space, sketch outlines of irregular shape, offer insight and perspective.
Schad’s wall sculptures are equally determined by lines and space as artistic means of expression. Fragments of labyrinthine webs can be virtually continued in various directions. Despite creating an illusion of set boundaries and closed fields, Schad’s works are defined by their openness. Differing lengths of steel, for instance, are presented in non-aligned and variably spaced vertical and horizontal arrangements, thus injecting a dynamic sense of motion into his art. Alongside his sculptural works, Schad has also produced large-format, on occasion even multi-part, black and white lacquer drawings on sheet steel, pieces that confidently stand up as autonomous works when juxtaposed with his voluminous steel sculptures. These are detailed studies of notions of movement, fragments of ideas never taken to their logical conclusion. Horizontal, black, beam-like lines – running in parallel or wildly askew – seem to float unsuspended in space, only to briefly touch and merge to form a plane or border of vertical lines. In combination, these two- and three-dimensional works engage in a perfect partnership in which both points of connection and elements of contrast are revealed.
Robert Schad’s artistic style centres around dialogic interactions between opposing forces. The attempt to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable is what drives him forward. His sculptures appear to be simultaneously open and closed, dynamic and static, light- and heavyweight, unstable and stable. This is not least dependent on the specific properties of the material used and the way it is processed by the artist. Regardless of their specific attributes – be they wall- or floor-mounted, individual pieces or multi-part works, large-scale indoor pieces, outdoor sculptures that make a major claim on space or small works presented on plinths – all of Schad’s sculptural works are made of solid square steel bars with cross-sections ranging from 45mm to 160mm, whereby the size of Schad’s hand was the determining factor for the smallest bar size.
The artist’s creative process begins with reflecting on his disposition. Initial inspiration is captured in small sketches, which are then physically styled in space. Sculptures grow spontaneously by welding pre-cut steel elements together. Although there is certainly an aleatory element at play in this process, it is superseded by conscious arrangement. Individual elements are subsequently removed again and replaced by others, in a manner similar to the process of composing music. Schad calls this experimental mode of working “dissection”, “fragmentation” or “the crystallisation of situations”. The opposing forces that exist in any space can thus be visualised, whereby the hardness of the steel and the impression of its deformability decisively determine the character of the sculptures, the surfaces of which are flame blackened and waxed. Material weight meets dematerialised lightness in perfect accord.
Schad’s consistent focus on the line and, in this regard, on finding ways to solve elementary problems in the sculpting pro-cess, his systematic realisation of intended messages as well as his resolute choice of material have put him among a small group of outstanding sculptors of the 20th and 21st centuries who work in a similar way. A comparison with Julio González, Norbert Kricke, Carl Andre, Bernar Venet, Franz Bernhard, Anthony Caro, Eduardo Chillida and Richard Serra brings forth similarities and contrasts that serve to clarify Schad’s personal stylistic development.
Robert Schad refers to his style of work as a kind of “spatial symbolism” that is in a constant state of flux. The solid, rigid and unaccommodating steel bars are joined so as to result in more or less vaulting lines, whose expressive range goes from regular and fully developed ciphers to abstract signs in space. Yet the form and character of a sculpture are by no means immutable, but rather undergo continuous modification. This successive alteration and renewal is typical of Schad’s sculptural style, in which the artist’s powerful and individual expressiveness always remains visible. His works showcase permanence and transience to be complementary states of being.
The origins of the creative process that Schad adopted and developed in the course of time can be traced back to the 1930s. At that time, the Spanish sculptor Julio Gonzáles went over to a mode of expression that saw him dematerialise mass by means of abstracting the line. In so doing, the sculptor was primarily interested in connecting real and imaginary forms. Gonzáles developed the style of metal sculptures into an independent technique and coined the term of “spatial sketches” with his abstract, gestural figures. He thus provided subsequent artists, also and including Robert Schad, with decisive creative stimuli.
This dialogue between line and space, so central to Schad’s work, also played a major role in the output of the Düsseldorf-born artist Norbert Kricke, a sculptor who having begun to develop his concept of “spatial sculpture” in 1949 was co-instrumental in shaping post-war art in Germany. Geometric shapes consisting of straight lines and acute angles as well as bundled, tangled and undulating metal lines unfold in free spatial movement. His manner of dematerialising sculptural volume marked a new phase in constructivist sculptures. Even if the formally aesthetic effect of Schad’s works is completely different, the two artists share a strong need for freedom with regard to their consistent language of expression. In each case, the open form of their sculptural works serves to illustrate the infinite nature, the limitless expanse of space and make it a perceivable factor. “The moody line”, as Schad puts it, “is free to do as it pleases, will accommodate any conceivable movement you may feel within yourself. The line enables an unbelievable freedom of form and – more even – is actually the prerequisite of absolute freedom.”
Further insight can be gleaned by turning to the US-American sculptor Carl Andre, a seminal figure in the minimal art movement. Andre’s first “horizontal sculpture”, a regular grid of steel plates lying flat on the ground that served to turn the room into a tangible experience, was created in 1965. Not modelled on a vertical, humanoid form, this piece rather follows a horizontal, landscape-orientated line. As a result, the viewer actually becomes the user of this “horizontal sculpture”, which is not perceived as a physical counterpart, but instead opens up in space. In this context, it is interesting to note that towards the end of the 1960s Carl Andre created a number of horizontal, ground-level sculptures of several metres in length. Rows of nails or thin iron piping were arranged to produce lines that enclosed empty space. However, these works were more than simply studies in lines and space as they were equally marked by their sense of jointedness, an attribute that is also common to Schad’s works. In this respect, the points at which the individual elements are connected are of particular interest because “These mostly non-right-angular points of fusion give rise to shapes that more closely resemble organic joints than technical intersections.” Schad’s work can be called “a highly original blend of technical combination and sculptural modelling.” While Andre uses individual elements of form as autonomous artistic means of expression that are entirely non-figurative in the overall effect they create, Schad’s sculptures intentionally channel tripudiary movements to act as a mirror of human attitudes and their mutability.
In a manner similar to Robert Schad’s, the French sculptor Bernar Venet also sees the spatial representation of the line as the main pivot of his monumental floor and wall sculptures. Yet a decisive difference can be seen in the fact that Venet’s sculptures are monosemic signs that exist on only a single plane of meaning and are free of figurative, formal or interpretative associations. The steel as a material stands only for itself. In 1979, Venet began to make steel sculptures that reflected his interest in crafting a mathematically objective aesthetic, unlike the gesturally subjective style that typifies Robert Schad’s works. Nevertheless, Venet equally produces sculptures that he describes as “undefined lines” and that go to advance his idea of monumentalising the line. Liberated of mathematical calculation, they curl through space in helical loops or occupy the ground in random piles of irregularly bent iron bars. But these works just as much qualify as “geometric spatial sketches”. While Schad builds his sculptures additively using individual elements, Venet cuts his works out of steel plates and bends these sections to form endless spirals.
Despite their advanced degree of abstraction from any naturalistic model, various postures of the human form can be discerned in the works of Robert Schad, whose personal style can also be called “associative, contextual abstraction”. The artist thus sees himself in the role of choreographer and his sculptures in the part of the dancers. The freeze-frame motions of these figurations embody both the past as well as the future and thus appear to be infused by time itself. What is important is that the viewer can effectively experience Schad’s works from various perspectives, which can alter the perceived effect from figurative to abstract and vice versa. Perception is hence determined by permanent change. Some of Schad’s sculptures even offer the viewer the possibility of stepping inside them and becoming a constituent part of the artwork. With that, a concrete place becomes simultaneously visually and physically perceivable. In producing these works, the artist embarks on a journey into himself, a journey that the observer can equally set out on, with subjective experiences, memories and associations providing points of access.
The human body plays a major role in the art form of dance, which is of central importance for Schad’s sculptural creations. The body is not just a medium of communication via the faculty of speech, but also via facial expression and gestures. The messages the human body is capable of conveying are always dependent on a unique spatial and temporal, which is to say unrepeatable, situation. The signals that are articulated by the human body indicate a variety of sentient qualities that we can physically perceive as a direct result. This enables the communication of feelings and moods. In this sense, Schad’s steel sculptures succeed in creating unique, unrepeatable testimonials by capturing abstractions of physical expression in a permanent form.
Franz Bernhard, another artist who references the human form, was an influential figure for the young Robert Schad. However, Bernhard’s fragmentary figurative concept is very different to Schad’s. Mostly of steel and wood construction, Bernhard’s works seem monolithic, solid, heavy and staid in their sense of movement. They possess nothing of the airy lightness that is such a trademark of Schad’s dynamic sculptural lines. Bernhard’s works are faceless abstractions, stripped of all individuality, taken to a level that the artist himself feels justified to call “anthropomorphic signs”. Typically impenetrable in their effect, Bernhard’s sculptures both besiege space and set themselves apart from it at the same time; Schad’s art, by contrast, is at once open to and embraces the space around it. His figurations become polysemously receptive places of human sentiments.
The English sculpture Anthony Caro – an assistant of Henry Moore’s in the early 1950s – broke with the tradition of figurative sculpture by deconstructing volume into purely abstract planes and lines. His painted and horizontally arranged metal sheets, t-bars and table sculptures permit no kind of figurative interpretations whatsoever. In using a design method that involves welding individual elements together as an additive process, one that Robert Schad also uses even if in a different form and with a totally different spatial effect, Anthony Caro continues the legacy left by Julio Gonzáles and David Smith. The factor that links Caro and Schad is a creative style in which the works only acquire their final form as part of an iterative artistic process, as a result of which they develop a life of their own to a certain extent.
Closed and open forms, denseness and emptiness all enjoy equal status as artistic means of expression in Robert Schad’s creations. Even his more compact, solid works are marked by a slight inherent impression of movement. Conversely, rigid forms are typical of the pieces produced by the Basque artist Eduardo Chillida, who is a key figure in the abstract sculpture movement. The linear, slender iron sculptures as well as the block-like, solid steel artworks the artist has fashioned since the end of the 1960s produce a field of tension between mass and nothingness, whereby his main interest lies in the openness of space. Closed, monolithic forms and open, arcing constructions make space visible due to their specific arrangement. Voids are either entered into or enclosed. Chillida’s series of steel “wind combs” provide a good example of this.
Natural forces like water or wind or natural growth processes of vegetation are expressed in Schad’s abstract steel sculptures. His broad vocabulary of form delivers manifold interpretative leads, especially since his works are given names that have no concrete meaning. These titles unlock a mysterious, secretive and ambiguous world that demands imaginative contemplation if the observer is to make sense of it. The special importance Chillida attaches to presenting series or variations of a single motif is notably absent from Schad’s sculptural style. While Chillida would create smaller drafts of what later became spatial sculptures in the open air, Schad’s small sculptures, even if they appear enormous, are all created in a single scale and are never conceived as precursors of larger works.
Among other things, Schad’s gargantuan in- and outdoor steel sculptures contrast stability with instability. These structures lean and drift away from the centre; the way they are balanced gives them a lightweight feel that contradicts the actual heaviness of the material. They emphasise the contrasts between ‘closed’ stability and ‘open’ instability. Notions of calmness and movement are given equal expressive weight. While Richard Serra’s large-scale outdoor steel sculptures are both well-known and significant as works of art, his seemingly monumental indoor pieces consisting of linked steel plates are no less impressive.
Like Schad’s, Serra’s works also create points of reference in space. The personal creative style of the New York-based artist evolved by virtue of his involvement with various 1960s art movements, such as minimal, concept or land art, and his central themes have included the physical weight of enormous, solid steel curves or sheets, whose angle of lean or specific arrangement make them appear highly unstable.
Serra’s sculptures reflect a simple vocabulary with architectural overtones, while Schad draws on his unique “spatial symbolism” to unify contrastive facets to form a whole. The inimitable works produced by Schad and Serra both occupy key positions in their treatment of stability and instability, solidity and fragility, heaviness and lightness, symmetry and asymmetry. In addition, the fact that individual sculptures can be explored from within enables the viewer to experience space and time in a specific and complex way, not just optically, but also physically. An interest to create works for specific places is common to both artists. They particularly aim at facilitating interaction between the artwork, its physical environment and the onlooker. One of Robert Schad’s most recent works is worthy of mention in this regard, a piece that constitutes the culmination of formal and topical objectives: the “Cross for Fátima”. Schad’s colossal sculpture, presented as a delicate balance between earthly pain and rapturous detachment, stands tall as a powerful symbol for Christendom as a whole. Newly created points of reference call forth fresh points of view. Familiar things suddenly appear in a new light. These steel sculptures confront the observer with a multifaceted, ever-changing and overwhelming effect.