In 1933, a photo-essay titled “Involuntary Sculptures” was published in the surrealist journal Minotaure. George Brassaï’s photographs depicted ordinary everyday items shot in extreme close-up and cast in raking light, which rendered them stark, shadowy and monumental. Salvador Dalì wrote the captions accompanying the photographs. These titular “sculptures” included a tightly rolled-up bus ticket, a curled sliver of soap, a seashell, bread, and a gob of toothpaste. Each item was photographed alone to produce a series of striking, almost unrecognizable images dramatizing the flotsam of everyday life. These “involuntary sculptures” offered both a riposte and a radical alternative to contemporary notions of what sculpture could be.
Brassaï’s photo-essay demonstrated the transformative nature of photography and inspired new ways of understanding the work of art in all the surreal and “marvelous” ways of daily life, to quote from André Breton’s own photo-novel, l’amour fou (1937). For the surrealists, the photographic strategy of estrangement offered a deliberately subversive mode of rethinking the everyday found object.
In that context, Brassaï’s involuntary sculptures presented another kind of reality. They challenged the notion that photography merely mirrors the world “as it is.” This reality gap, or fissure, provided a leitmotif for surrealists and art historians to contemplate the surrealist objet and photograph as complex, psychically charged and independent entities. Notably, Minotaure and other surrealist magazines, such as Georges Bataille’s Documents, mediated the surrealist object almost exclusively in photographic form.
For the editors of Found Sculpture and Photography from Surrealism to Contemporary Art, surrealist photographic practice remains a key aspect of contemporary photography. Brassaï’s “Involuntary Sculptures” marks the critical point of departure for the volume’s excellent [End Page 387] introduction, although some essays in the collection address the legacies of the surrealist object more closely and convincingly than others. Overall, the book focuses less on the handmade, or customized, novelty item motif and more on the kind of l’objet trouvé of surrealist art. That is the object one randomly finds, or is found by, like the strange iron mask Breton discovered in a flea market, as opposed to Dalì’s customized “Lobster Telephone.” In that respect, the critical emphasis of the volume falls on the kind of surrealist art that positioned the unconscious as a guiding creative principle.
A number of the essays bring the surrealist legacy up to date, while others focus on its historical moment in the interwar years in Europe. Martha Buskirk’s essay discusses American artist Allan Kaprow’s Yard (1961) installation, which featured hundreds of tires strewn across the backyard of an art gallery in New York City. Visitors were invited to climb over the installation and interact with it. Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s equally engaging essay addresses The Children’s Tapes (1974), a conceptual video work by the American artist Terry Fox. Both Buskirk and Lambert-Beatty offer new and fascinating insights into their chosen subjects, although the artists’ relationship to found sculpture and photography is perhaps a little less obvious than other essays collected here. However, the underlying argument of each falls in line with the surrealist notion that our relationship to objects should be conditioned by sustained attention to the playful and the psychic dimensions of the mundane; and we are to see the extraordinary in ordinary objects and events.
Stephen Harris and Margaret Iversen’s essays each offer important new contributions to the existing criticism. Harris’s archival engagement with surrealism is matched in theoretical rigor and deftness by Iversen’s exploration of contemporary surrealist examinations of the everyday. Iversen offers a particularly sensitive discussion of Gabriel Orozco’s photographs of estranged and isolated everyday objects. Harris challenges the assumption that Brassaï’s “involuntary sculptures” represent a mode of “modernist primitivism” and instead argues that they were central to the reconceptualization of sculpture, and particularly the surrealist object, at the time.
Samantha Lackey’s chapter discusses photographic techniques of estrangement, movement and light in relation to Man Ray’s 1923 film Le Retour à la raison...