The Museum of Modern Art has one of the world’s greatest collections of 20th- and 21st-century paintings, and the same holds true of its holdings in sculpture. Granted, you can find versions of some of the same objects in other institutions; sculptures, after all, can be cast or fabricated as multiples. But what is unique about MoMA is the context it creates thanks to the singular role it has played in the shaping of Modern Art. No one tells the story better or in greater depth, which makes looking at a Brancusi there a whole other experience from seeing a similar one in another museum. MoMA provides the bigger picture, which makes all the difference. There are, in any case, many more objects to behold that are unique, but the truth is, whether you’re talking about an edition piece or not, there’s probably way too much stuff to take in. To remedy that, we offer this handy guide to the 25 top sculptures at MoMA.
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Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac (1898)
Rodin (1840–1917) won the commission for this homage to novelist Honoré de Balzac after the artist originally selected for the project—the neoclassicist Henri Chapu (1833–1891)—died before work could progress. Sponsored by France’s Société des Gens de Lettres in 1891, the sculpture was supposed to take 18 months to complete. However, Rodin, taking a kind of method-acting approach, immersed himself in the life and work of his subject. Instead of 18 months, it took Rodin seven years and 50 different studies (as well as side trips to the Balzac’s hometown, and asking Balzac’s tailor to replicate the author’s clothes) to deliver a full-size plaster maquette. Almost immediately, it was roundly castigated by critics and rejected by the Société for being too radical. It’s easy to see why: Balzac is depicted as an abstracted column with only his head visible above a cloak representing the one he wrapped himself in while writing. Defending himself against the naysayers, Rodin insisted his aim was to capture Balzac’s persona, not his likeness, which may account for the fact that the first bronze of the piece wasn’t struck until 1939—22 years after the artist’s death.
Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel (1913)
Bicycle Wheel is considered the first of Duchamp’s revolutionary readymades, except that when he completed the piece in his Paris studio, he really had no idea what to call it. “I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn,” Duchamp would later say. It took a 1915 trip to New York, and exposure to the city’s vast output of factory-built goods, for Duchamp to come up with the readymade term. More importantly, he began to see that making art in the traditional, handcrafted manner seemed pointless in the Industrial Age. Why bother, he posited, when widely available manufactured items could do the job. After all, it was the idea behind the artwork that was important, not how it was made. This notion—perhaps the first real example of Conceptual Art—would utterly transform art history going forward. Much like an ordinary household object, however, the original Bicycle Wheel didn’t survive: This version is actually a replica dating from 1951.
Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913)
Boccioni (1882–1916) was one of the main theorists of Italian Futurism, perhaps the most controversial and unpredictable of the early modern movements. The Futurists celebrated the revolutionary furor and breakneck technological pace of the nascent 20th century, embracing its contradictions and frequent descents into violence. Still, in the early going, artists like Boccioni remained beholden to the stylistic tropes of 19th-century Postimpressionism, especially the Italian variant called Divisionism. A joint visit to Paris in 1911, however, provided an introduction to Cubism, and a way for the Futurists to make their work seem as radical as their writings. They borrowed elements from Cubism’s planar geometry, overlapping and repeating angular shapes to convey movement and speed. However, Boccioni, who’d been inspired by the Paris trip to abandon painting for sculpture, began working in three-dimensions, molding these concept into objects, like this striding figure, which represents the spatial dynamics of the body in motion. By making the torso armless, Boccioni directs the viewer’s attention to the sculpture’s powerful legs, which seem to flap against the force of time and space.
Pablo Picasso, Guitar (1914)
In 1912, Picasso created a cardboard maquette of a piece that would have an outsized impact on 20th-century art. Also in MoMA’s collection, it depicted a guitar, a subject Picasso often explored in painting and collage, and in many respects, Guitar transferred collage’s cut and paste techniques from two dimensions to three. It did the same for Cubism, as well, by assembling flat shapes to create a multifaceted form with both depth and volume. Picasso’s innovation was to eschew the conventional carving and modeling of a sculpture out of a solid mass. Instead, Guitar was fastened together like a structure. This idea would reverberate from Russian Constructivism down to Minimalism and beyond. Two years after making the Guitar in cardboard, Picasso created this version in snipped tin.
Constantin Brancusi, Bird in Space (1928)
An icon of Modern Art, Brancusi’s Bird in Space was actually created as a series of 16 sculptures—seven in marble, nine in bronze. Two of the latter are in MoMA’s collection, including this highly polished version. The sculpture is more of a evocation of flight than an depiction of a bird: It’s sleek configuration, which tapers and bulges before tapering again, is devoid of wings or anything else that is recognizable, and it’s sleekness is characteristic of Brancusi’s tendency to pare things down to their bare essence.
Meret Oppenheim, Object (1936)
Also known as the fur-lined teacup, Oppenheim’s Object has one of the more interesting, if possibly apocryphal, backstories in modern art. It began with a conversation at a Parisian café between Oppenheim, Picasso and Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover and muse at the time. Admiring a fur-covered bracelet adorning Oppenheim’s wrist, Picasso noted that anything could be covered with fur, to which Oppenheim, pointing at her tea, supposedly replied, “Even this cup and saucer.” Other versions of the story have her making a joke at a waiter’s expense, by asking for “more fur” to warm up her beverage, and before rushing out to a store to buy the cup, saucer and spoon that makes up the work. What is clear, however, is that after André Breton, Surrealism’s capo, asked Oppenheim to participate in an exhibition he was organizing, she submitted Object, which immediately became a sensation. Though it remains a Surrealist icon to this day, Oppenheim never intended the many psychosexual interpretations ascribed to the piece. Instead, Object is a study in juxtaposing materials of opposite qualities—the warm and soft of fur with the cold and hard of ceramic and metal.
Alberto Giacometti, The Chariot (1950)
An argument could be made that other Giacomettis in MoMA’s holdings have a better claim to be on this list: His Surrealist tableau, The Palace at 4 a.m., for example, or one of the earlier attenuated figures marking his postwar, existentialist phase. The Chariot fits into the latter, but is arguably unique because its large wheels (inspired by an orderly’s cart the artist noticed during a brief hospital stay) set up a dialogue between stasis—sculpture’s “natural” state—and mobility. The subject riding The Chariot is also a woman, and while Giacometti himself stated that he was primarily interested in creating a study of a figure suspended in space, the piece can be read in retrospect as an image of female empowerment. Some accounts claim a connection between the work and the artist’s mother, who was said to have been domineering. Such psychoanalytical assertions are always hard to prove, but whatever you can say about The Chariot’s importance, note that a version of it did fetch $101 million at auction in 2014.
Ellsworth Kelly, Sculpture for a Large Wall (1956–57)
A prime example of midcentury aesthetics and the corporate adoption of Modernism following World War II, this screenlike relief was originally made for the lobby of the Transportation Building in Philadelphia. Designed by architect Vincent Kling, the building itself—a hulking concrete structure—was part of a larger urban renewal project called Penn Center, one of many such undertakings in American cities that eventually eroded the belief that modernism could allay social ills. In 1998, the building was reconstructed, requiring the removal of Kelly’s frieze from its place above the lobby’s elevator banks; that same year MoMA, acquired it for its collection. Measuring some 11 by 65 feet, Kelly’s piece consists of four horizontal rows of widely spaced, anodized aluminum panels cut into roughly trapezoidal shapes, some with one side curved in a concave or convex line. Many of the panels are covered in a single color—red, blue, black, gold, bronze or gray, though most are sliver—and angle in and out from the sculpture’s armature: Four long rods, running parallel to one another along the length of the piece. These variations set up a syncopated exchange between form, color and space with the whole resembling nothing so much as piece of sheet music.
Jean Tinguely, Fragment from Homage to New York (1960)
While Jean Tinguely was a signatory of the manifesto establishing Nouveau Réalisme (France’s equivalent to Pop Art), the Swiss artist’s work was really more Dadaist in spirit. He was known for kinetic sculptures designed to autodestruct in pyrotechnic performances—the most famous being Homage to New York, staged in MoMA’s sculpture garden in 1960. This remnant is all that’s left of an event that, in retrospect, seemed to have set the tone for the explosive decade to come.
Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1963–69)
Newman’s place in art history rests on his reputation as the painter of sublime, color-field compositions divided by vertical lines he called “zips.” But he also made sculptures, and this monumental work, which in the past has occupied pride of place in MoMA’s atrium, is perhaps his best known. Two forms taken from Ancient Egyptian architecture—the obelisk and pyramid—are balanced apex to apex, with the column of the former appearing to have been snapped in half, leaving only the upper portion to assume its unstable perch. Different readings of Broken Obelisk have been proposed, with some critics opining that it’s consistent with the transcendent aims of Newman paintings like, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, while others cite the shattered column as evidence of an antiwar statement.
Andy Warhol, Brillo Box (Soap Pads) (1964)
The Brillo Box is perhaps the best known of a series of sculptural works Warhol created in the mid-’60s, which effectively took his investigation of pop culture into three dimensions. True to the name Warhol had given his studio—the Factory—the artist hired carpenters to work a kind of assembly line, nailing together wooden boxes in the shape of cartons for various products, including Heinz Ketchup, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Campbell’s Soup, as well Brillo soap pads. He then painted each the color matching the original box (white in the case of Brillo) before adding the product name and logo in silkscreen. Created in multiples, the boxes were often shown in large stacks, effectively turning whatever gallery they were in into a high-cultural facsimile of a warehouse. Their shape and serial production was perhaps a nod to—or parody of—the then-nascent Minimalist style. But the real point of Brillo Box is how its close approximation to the real thing subverts the conventional view of art, by implying that there’s no real difference between manufactured goods and work from an artist’s studio.
Donald Judd, Untitled (Stack) (1967)
Donald Judd’s name is synonymous with Minimal Art, the mid-’60s movement that distilled modernism’s rationalist strain to bare essentials. For Judd, sculpture meant articulating the work’s concrete presence in space. This idea was described by the term, “specific object,” and while other Minimalists embraced it, Judd arguably gave the idea its purest expression by adopting the box as his signature form. Like Warhol, he produced them as repeating units, using materials and methods borrowed from industrial fabrication. Unlike Warhol’s soup cans and Marilyns, Judd’s art referred to nothing outside of itself. His “stacks,” are among his best-known pieces. Each consists of a group of identical shallow boxes made of galvanized sheet metal, jutting from the wall to create a column of evenly spaced elements. But Judd, who started out as a painter, was just as interested in color and texture as he was in form, as seen here by green-tinted auto-body lacquer applied to the front face of each box. Judd’s interplay of color and material gives Untitled (Stack) a fastidious elegance that softens its abstract absolutism.
Dan Flavin, untitled (to the “innovator” of Wheeling Peachblow) (1968)
Dan Flavin’s light sculptures are considered prime examples of Minimalism, though he rejected the term for his work. This makes sense when you consider his various configurations of fluorescent color fixtures mean little as physical objects. The light they emit is the main attraction, so in more ways than one, they only work when turned on. Still, in true Minimalist fashion, Flavin’s works are made to relate to their environment in a matter-of-fact fashion. Flavin even refuted any sublime or transcendent associations with light. They are just a materials, in his view, the product of items that could be found in any hardware store. This piece is a good example of how he married the architecture of a room to his work—in this case, by using a corner to create a cage of color formed by outwardly and inwardly directed fixtures. Though the latter join together as a sort of frame or threshold, they are secondary to optical afterglow created by the piece’s mix of white and yellow light.
Richard Serra, One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969)
Following Judd and Flavin, a group of artists departed from Minimalism’s aesthetic of clean lines. As part of this Postminimalist generation, Richard Serra put the concept of the specific object on steroids, vastly enlarging its scale and weight, and making the laws of gravity integral to the idea. He created precarious balancing acts of steel or lead plates and pipes weighing in the tons, which had the effect of imparting a sense of menace to the work. (On two occasions, riggers installing Serra pieces were killed or maimed when the work accidentally collapsed.) In recent decades, Serra’s work has adopted a curvilinear refinement that’s made it hugely popular, but in the early going, works like One Ton Prop (House of Cards), which features four lead plates leaned together, communicated his concerns with brutal directness.
Lynda Benglis, Blatt (1969)
In a 1974 issue of Artforum, Benglis took out an ad in which she posed naked, holding one end of a very long and lifelike dildo that protruded from her crotch. The image, a promotion for an upcoming exhibition, was the most infamous of a series of ads and posters meant to send-up Hollywood cheesecake and an art world dominated by male artists. Though Benglis didn’t think of the ad as art per se, it became her signature effort. It was consistent with the sexual subtext, running throughout her work, including this piece. One of a series of “pours,” which puddled pools of latex in Day-Glo colors on the floor, Blatt’s suggestion of abject bodily fluids is unmistakable, as is its recall of Pollock’s “drip” paintings, with their own connotations of urination and ejaculation. As Blatt shows, Benglis’s feminist critique is usually couched in explorations of form and color.
Eva Hesse, Repetition Nineteen III (1968)
Like Benglis, Hesse was another woman artist who filtered Postminimalism through an arguably feminist prism. A Jew who fled Nazi Germany as a child, she explored organic forms, creating pieces in industrial fiberglass, latex and rope that evoked skin or flesh, genitals and other parts of the body. Her works often consist of multiple elements, like the ones in Repetition Nineteen III, though they aren’t exact duplicates of each other. Given her background, it’s tempting to find an undercurrent of trauma or anxiety in her art—more obviously so, perhaps, in the paintings that preceded her sculptures. They reveal Hesse’s roots in German and Abstract Expressionism, as well as Surrealism, and speak to buried feelings of devastation and despair.
Claes Oldenburg, Geometric Mouse, Scale A (1975)
Oldenburg is considered a pioneer of ’60s Pop Art, but his oeuvre never entirely fit the genre. While Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Warhol borrowed cultural signs such as cartoons, Tinseltown icons and billboards, Oldenburg directed his attention to everyday items—appliances, household fixtures, types of food and the like. He played with scale (enlarging a hamburger to monumental proportions) and qualities of hard and soft (transforming a similarly blown-up bathroom sink into sagging, flaccid mass of sewn vinyl) in ways that were just as Surreal as they were Pop. The image behind Geometric Mouse, however, is a bit closer to pure Pop Art in that it’s a comic-book-style outline of a rodent’s head—one that seems to recall Disney’s Mickey. This image crops up in number of Oldenburg’s works, forming, in one case, the overall configuration of his Mouse Museum, a taxonomic display of the artist’s sculptural maquettes housed in a walk-in structure built of plywood and corrugated aluminum. In this outdoor sculpture, Oldendburg bends the mouse’s features into arrangement of planner forms, creating a humorous take on a formula used in sculptures by abstractionists, like Anthony Caro.
Justen Ladda, Tide (1985)
A native of Germany, Ladda was part of a postmodern wave of artists emerging in New York during the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period in which various revivals of Pop Art, Expressionism and Minimal Art combined to further collapse the boundary between high and low culture. While Ladda’s work came out of this ferment, it was always hard to categorize. His specialty is a kind of site-specific trompe l’oeil, the best-known example of which is a wall mural of the Marvel comic-book antihero, the Thing, created in an abandoned Bronx movie theater. From a certain angle, the figure, seen charging at the viewer, appears to leap from two-dimensions into three, thanks to a perspectival trick in which the Thing’s forward-planted leg and shadow are painted across the top of the seats in front of the image. Tide employs similar legerdemain, this time by superimposing Albrecht Dürer’s 1508 drawing, Praying Hands, on scores of detergent boxes layered in a rough, cubistic approximation of the subject. Different parts of the image, including the original’s blue background, are painted in repeating patterns on different sides of the boxes to create an uncanny appropriation of Dürer’s masterpiece when viewed from a certain angle. A quick shift to the side, however, reveals orange packaging emerging from the blue, shattering Ladda’s deception. Out of this clash of color and dimensions, Ladda sets up a similar confrontation between the sacred and profane and between religious symbol and brand.
Cady Noland, Tanya as Bandit (1989)
Before she largely quit exhibiting, Noland, whose father was renowned color-field painter Ken Noland, enjoyed a run of success in the late 1980s with works that laid bare the fallacy of the American Dream, the self-mythologizing of the Reagan Era and the endemic violence of American society. The conflict between law and liberty, and the way outlaws are celebrated as the purest embodiments of the pursuit of happiness are themes that run though works consisting of steel pipes, chain-link fencing, handcuffs, beer cans and American flags, as well as enlarged newspaper photos of notorious public figures silkscreened onto large aluminum panels. This piece centers around one such image of Patty Hearst, the publishing heiress whose 1974 abduction by a left-wing terrorist cell calling itself the Symbioses Liberation Army caused a media sensation—especially when, in the course of her 19-month captivity, she appeared to willingly renounce her former life and join the group as Tanya. Here, Noland employs the iconic image of Hearst-as-Tanya, capped in a beret and brandishing a rifle while posed in front of the SLA flag featuring the emblem of a seven-headed cobra snake. Hearst and the snake are in cutout, with the original wire-photo caption anchoring the piece like the base of a sculpture. A bandana is hung to the right above Tanya’s head, as if waiting to for someone to don it for a heist. Its meaning is unmistakable, but the more nuanced message here is that the American promise of personal agency and reinvention causes collateral damage.
David Hammons, African-American Flag (1990)
Among artists of color exploring the issue of identity, Hammons is notable because his work emphasizes the American aspect of the African-American experience. He doesn’t simply indict racism and the country’s racist past, though there is some of that. Instead, his work evokes how black people and black culture are bound inseparably to the history of the United States and vice versa. This transformation of the red, white and blue into the green, black and red of the Pan-African flag could be taken as an ironic act, but it also encapsulates the codependent character of black/white relations.
Mike Kelley, Untitled (1990)
Mike Kelley’s provocative and multilayered output comments upon and critiques numerous facets of contemporary life, including popular culture, sex, religion and the persistence of class in a supposedly classless society. Although Kelley (1954–2012) was an internationally recognized fixture of the Los Angeles art scene, the energy and anger in his work ultimately drew upon his Irish-Catholic upbringing as the son of a janitor in Detroit—just as the city embarked on its half-century decline as an industrial powerhouse. This 1990 piece is part of a series of works begun in the late 1980s that incorporate plush toys and crotched items culled from thrift stores. Kelley insisted this piece and the others like it were never intended as ironic evocations of nostalgia or low-culture tastes; instead, he described them as formal exercises. Certainly Untitled could be viewed as a classic figure/ground study with its yarn dolls placed atop Afghans that match their form, color and texture. More to the point, its arrangement on the floor recalls the work of Minimalists like Carl Andre. Still, an undeniable aroma of pathos clings to Untitled, as if to suggest a life abandoned because of straightened circumstances.
Charles Ray, Family Romance (1993)
Ray’s work could be described as a Postconceptual foray into trompe l’oeil, though not necessarily in the usual sense of making something look real when it isn’t. His interests lay in provoking a perceptual double take by using shifts in form and material to produce uncanny effects. Case in point is Family Romance, which takes its title from Freud’s study of sublimated erotic desires between family members. Here, Charles creates his own version of a nuclear family with a mannequin-like father and mother, sister and brother, standing before the viewer in a line while holding hands. They’re naked, and anatomically correct with the difference between adult and child marked by the absence or presence of public hair—a distinguishing factor that’s especially helpful given each family member family is sized at the same height and body mass. Disturbing and destabilizing, the piece presents its Freudian theme as a metaphorical department store display of dysfunction.
Martin Kippenberger, Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself (1992)
Rambunctious, egotistical and a prodigious drinker, Martin Kippenberger (1953–1997) intertwined life and art, creating a wide-ranging and prolific output that encompassed painting, sculpture, performance, photography—as well as his own bad self. The force of his personality was arguably the key ingredient holding together a sometimes maddeningly uneven oeuvre. Kippenberger’s stated aim was to radically question the role of the artist in society, but it’s probably fairer to say that he keenly felt the constraints of trying to make important art in the late the 20th century. He understood, perhaps, that the revolutionary stance of early-modern artists had devolved by the time of his own generation into bad-boy posturing. That could be one subtext of this life-size self-portrait as a penitent schoolboy, one of six differing versions created as a reaction to a German art critic’s viciously negative review of his work. It is the perfect illustration of Kippenberger view of his art as an ever-widening cycle of provocation, with no real aim other than effrontery itself.
Katharina Fritsch, Group of Figures (2006–11)
Fritsch’s works have the odd effect of making three-dimensional objects seem flat: firstly, by borrowing her subjects from found sculpture (religious statuary being a frequent source), and secondly, by covering each in a single color, which gives her pieces eerily muted presence, as if they’d been sprayed with a rubber coating. The results seem more like copies of things than things themselves, devoid of the spirit of whatever original Fritsch based the work upon. Her pieces are inanimate in every conceivable way, which only adds to their spooky allure. A good example is Group of Figures, an odd ensemble of saints and madonnas, standing level with the viewer. Their ranks have been joined by a fairytale giant, leaning on his club, a sinuous snake and three forms on tall pedestals, including a truncated classical female nude, an urn and a pair of skeleton feet. What they mean alone or together is difficult to say, though Fritsch has allowed that certain biographical details are referenced: The nude is borrowed from one that occupied the garden of her childhood home, while the skeleton parts recall her childhood memory of the old x-ray fluoroscopes used in children’s shore stores during the 1950s to measure feet. Even so, while Group of Figures may have links to the artist’s past, they appeared drained of any associations with memory—or anything else for that matter. Taken together, Fritsch’s tableaux recalls the aftermath of a night at the museum, where objects managed to wind up in the wrong place without coming alive.
Rachel Harrison, Alexander the Great (2007)
Harrison’s work combines formalism with a knack for infusing seemingly abstract elements with multiple meanings, including sociopolitical ones. While her efforts include forays into painting, drawing, video and photography, she’s above all a sculptor who questions her medium, especially its historical association with monuments and their celebrations of masculine power. Alexander the Great is an energetic send-up of that idea, with its caped (if otherwise naked), mannequin standing in for the Macedonian general who conquered the world. But more than that, the piece evokes all of the great-man figures immortalized in bronze or stone—as Harrison suggests by her inclusion of an Abe Lincoln mask covering the back of the dummy’s head. (In a neat detail, the rail-splitter’s visage is fixed in place by sunglasses worn backward by the host, a sartorial affectation commonly embraced by fratboys, surfer dudes and other species of bro who imbue male privilege with a casual-Friday air.) Alexander/Abe poses astride a large, elongated, boulderlike base, splotched in bright-colors like ejecta from an evil-clown volcano. At the same time, he grasps a large bucket or waste-can decorated with a NASCAR racer. All of these signifiers of manliness are subverted by the figure’s androgynous combination of a female head plunked on the body of a pre-pubescent boy or girl. Harrison creates a disconnect between Alexander’s triumphal carriage (the rock is reminiscent of a Pharaoh’s bark gliding along the Nile, or a promontory overlooking a battlefield) and his childlike form.