There’s an old joke that sculpture is the thing you bump into when you back up to get a better look at a painting, but sculpture demands a more real-world form of engagement than a two-dimensional object in a frame. That’s because no matter where you might encounter it—as a statue in Central Park, say, or as a public art project, or as part of the collection at The Met, MoMA or the Guggenheim—sculpture always shares the same three-dimensional space that you do. Instead of staring at a canvas or drawing from a more or less fixed position, sculptures are meant to be experienced in the round, compelling you to change your point of view as you interact with them. Since time immemorial, sculptors have explored this relationship between viewer, space and material object in a myriad of ways—as you can see in our list of the top famous sculptures of all time.
Top famous sculptures of all time
The ur sculpture of art history, this tiny figurine measuring just over four inches in height was discovered in Austria in 1908. Nobody knows what function it served, but guesswork has ranged from fertility goddess to masturbation aid. Some scholars suggest it may have been a self-portrait made by a woman. It’s the most famous of many such objects dating from the Old Stone Age.
Photograph: Courtesy Naturhistorisches Museum
This portrait has been a symbol of feminine beauty since it was first unearthed in 1912 within the ruins of Amarna, the capital city built by the most controversial Pharaoh of Ancient Egyptian history: Akhenaten. Ascending the throne as Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten changed his name as part of his decision to overturn the established pantheon of Egyptian gods to start his own a religion: An monotheistic cult devoted to the sun god Aten, which was represented as an abstract disk in carvings and wall murals. The life of his queen, Nefertiti, is something of mystery: It’s thought that she ruled as Pharaoh for a time after Akhenaten’s death—or more likely, as the co-regent of the Boy King Tutankhamun. Some Egyptologist believe she was actually Tut’s mother. In any case, her mummy has never been found though recent research suggests that she may be buried in room sealed behind a wall in Tut’s tomb. This stucco-coated limestone bust is thought to be the handiwork of Thutmose, Akhenaten’s court sculptor. Distinguished by a naturalistic style that departs from the usually stylized character of Ancient Egyptian art, the bust was excavated by a German archaeological team and taken back to Germany. It has resided in Berlin since before World War II, and is now considered a symbol of the city.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wiki Media/Philip Pikart
Discovered in 1974, the Terracotta Army (arguably the most stupendous find in all archaeological history) is an enormous cache of clay statues buried in three massive pits near the tomb of Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, who died in 210 BC. Meant to protect him in the afterlife, the Army is believed by some estimates to number more than 8,000 soldiers along with 670 horses and 130 chariots. Each is life-size, though actual height varies according to military rank. While the features for each soldier appear unique, they’re actually based on 10 basic facial shapes, part of an assembly line process in which craftsmen used molds to fabricate the figures in separate segments before joying them together with a watered-down clay called slip. The soldiers were then outfitted with actual weapons (spears, swords, etc.) and painted bright colors, though over time, the pigment faded or flaked off completely.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Maros M r a z
Perhaps the most famous sculpture of Roman antiquity, Laocoön and His Sons was originally unearthed in Rome in 1506 and moved to the Vatican, where it resides to this day. It is based on the myth of a Trojan priest killed along with his sons by sea serpents sent by the sea god Poseidon as retribution for Laocoön’s attempt to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse. Originally installed in the palace of Emperor Titus, this life-size figurative grouping, attributed to a trio of Greek sculptors from the Island of Rhodes, is unrivaled as a study of human suffering.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wiki Media/LivioAndronico
One of the most iconic works in all of art history, Michelangelo’s David had its origins in a larger project to decorate the buttresses of Florence’s great cathedral, the Duomo, with a group of figures taken from the Old Testament. The David was one, and was actually begun in 1464 by Agostino di Duccio. Over the next two years, Agostino managed to rough out part of the huge block of marble hewn from the famous quarry in Carrara before stopping in 1466. (No one knows why.) Another artist picked up the slack, but he, too, only worked on it briefly. The marble remained untouched for the next 25 years, until Michelangelo resumed carving it in 1501. He was 26 at the time. When finished, the David weighed six tons, meaning it couldn’t be hoisted to the cathedral’s roof. Instead, it was put on display just outside to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall. The figure, one of the purest distillations of the High Renaissance style, was immediately embraced by the Florentine public as a symbol of the city-state’s own resistance against the powers arrayed against it. In 1873, the David was moved to Accademia Gallery, and a replica was installed in its original location.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wiki Media/Livioandronico2013
Acknowledged as an originator of the High Roman Baroque style, Gian Lorenzo Bernini created this masterpiece for a chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. The Baroque was inextricably linked to the Counter-Reformation through which the Catholic Church tried to stem the tide of Protestantism surging across 17th-century Europe. Artworks like Bernini’s was part of the program to reaffirm Papal dogma, well served here by Bernini’s genius for imbuing religious scenes with dramatic narratives. Ecstasy is a case in point: Its subject—Saint Teresa of Ávila, a Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic who wrote of her encounter with an angel—is depicted just as the angel is about to plunge an arrow into her heart. Ecstasy’s erotic overtones are unmistakable, most obviously in the nun’s orgasmic expression and the writhing fabric wrapping both figures. An architect as all as an artist, Bernini also designed the setting of the Chapel in marble, stucco and paint.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wiki Media/Alvesgaspar
Italian artist Antonio Canova (1757–1822) is considered to be the greatest sculptor of the 18th-century. His work epitomized the Neo-Classical style, as you can see in his rendition in marble of the Greek mythical hero Perseus. Canova actually made two versions of the piece: One resides at the Vatican in Rome, while the other stands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European Sculpture Court.
Photograph: Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Fletcher Fund
While Impressionist master Edgar Degas is best known as a painter, he also worked in sculpture, producing what was arguably the most radical effort of his oeuvre. Degas fashioned The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer out of wax (from which subsequent bronze copies were cast after his death in 1917), but the fact that Degas dressed his eponymous subject in an actual ballet costume (complete with bodice, tutu and slippers) and wig of real hair caused a sensation when Dancer debuted at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881 in Paris. Degas elected to cover most of his embellishments in wax to match the rest of girl’s features, but he kept the tutu, as well as a ribbon tying backing her hair, as they were, making the figure one of the first examples of found-object art. Dancer was the only sculpture that Degas exhibited in his lifetime; after his death, some 156 more examples were found languishing in his studio.
While most people associate the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin with The Thinker, this ensemble commemorating an incident during the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) between Britain and France is more important to the history of sculpture. Commissioned for a park in the city of Calais (where a year-long siege by the English in 1346 was lifted when six town elders offered themselves up for execution in exchange for sparing the population), The Burghers eschewed the format typical of monuments at the time: Instead of figures isolated or piled into a pyramid atop a tall pedestal, Rodin assembled his life-size subjects directly on the ground, level with the viewer. This radical move toward realism broke with the heroic treatment usually accorded such outdoor works. With The Burghers, Rodin took one of the first steps toward modern sculpture.
Photograph: Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art
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.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Wally Gobetz
From its radical beginnings to its final fascist incarnation, Italian Futurism shocked the world, but no single work exemplified the sheer delirium of the movement than this sculpture by one of its leading lights: Umberto Boccioni. Starting out as a painter, Boccioni turned to working in three dimensions after a 1913 trip to Paris in which he toured the studios of several avant-garde sculptors of the period, such as Constantin Brancusi, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Alexander Archipenko. Boccioni synthesized their ideas into this dynamic masterpiece, which depicts a striding figure set in a “synthetic continuity” of motion as Boccioni described it. The piece was originally created in plaster and wasn’t cast in its familiar bronze version until 1931, well after the artist’s death in 1916 as a member of an Italian artillery regiment during World War I.
Born in Romania, Brancusi was one of most important sculptors of early-20th century modernism—and indeed, one of the most important figures in the entire history of sculpture. A sort of proto-minimalist, Brancusi took forms from nature and streamlined them into abstract representations. His style was influenced by the folk art of his homeland, which often featured vibrant geometric patterns and stylized motifs. He also made no distinction between object and base, treating them, in certain cases, as interchangeable components—an approach that represented a crucial break with sculptural traditions. This iconic piece is a portrait of his model and lover, Margit Pogány, a Hungarian art student he met in Paris in 1910. The first iteration was carved in marble, followed by a plaster copy from which this bronze was made. The plaster itself was exhibited in New York at the legendary Armory Show of 1913, where critics mocked and pilloried it. But it was also the most reproduced piece in the show. Brancusi worked on various versions of Mlle Pogany for some 20 years.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Steve Guttman NYC
Bicycle Wheel is considered the first of Duchamp’s revolutionary readymades. However, 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. For Duchamp, the idea behind the artwork was more important than 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.
Photograph: Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
A beloved fixture of the Whitney Museum’s permanent collection, Calder’s Circus distills the playful essence that Alexander Calder (1898–1976) brought to bear as an artist who helped to shape 20th-sculpture. Circus, which was created during the artist’s time in Paris, was less abstract than his hanging “mobiles,” but in it’s own way, it was just as kinetic: Made primarily out of wire and wood, Circus served as the centerpiece for improvisational performances, in which Calder moved around various figures depicting contortionists, sword swallowers, lion tamers, etc., like godlike ringmaster.
As painter and tapestry designer as well as a sculptor, French artist Aristide Maillol (1861–1944) could be best described as a modern Neo-Classicist who put a streamline, 20th-century spin on traditional Greco-Roman statuary. He could also be described as a radical conservative, though it should be remembered that even avant-garde contemporaries like Picasso produced works in an adaptation of Neo-Classical style after World War I. Maillol’s subject was the female nude, and in L’Air, he’s created a contrast between the material mass of his subject, and the way she appears to be floating in space—balancing, as it were, obdurate physicality with evanescent presence.
A Japanese artist who works in multiple mediums, Kusama came to New York in 1957 returning to Japan in 1972. In the interim, she established herself as a major figure of the downtown scene, one whose art touched many bases, including Pop Art, Minimalism and Performance Art. As a woman artist who often referred to female sexuality, she was also a precursor of Feminist Art. Kusama’s work is often characterized by hallucinogenic patterns and repetitions of forms, a proclivity rooted in certain psychological conditions—hallucinations, OCD—she’s suffered since childhood. All of these aspects of Kusuma’s art and life are reflected in this work, in which an ordinary, upholstered easy chair is unnervingly subsumed by a plaguelike outbreak of phallic protuberances made of sewn stuffed fabric.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/C-Monster
Known simply by her first name, Marisol Escobar (1930–2016) was born in Paris to Venezuelan parents. As an artist, she became associated with Pop Art and later Op Art, though stylistically, she belonged to neither group. Instead, she created figurative tableaux that were meant as feminist satires of gender roles, celebrity and wealth. In Women and Dog she takes on the objectification of women, and the way that male-imposed standards of femininity are used to force them to conform.
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 box a color matching the original (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 artistic conventions, by implying that there’s no real difference between manufactured goods and work from an artist’s studio.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Rocor
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 identically 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.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Esther Westerveld
Like Benglis, Hesse was a 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. Given her background, it’s tempting to find an undercurrent of trauma or anxiety in works such as this one.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Rocor
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.
Photograph: Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Following the general countercultural trend during the 1960s and 1970s, artists began to revolt against the commercialism of the gallery world, developing radically new art forms like earthworks. Also known as land art, the genre’s leading figure was Robert Smithson (1938–1973), who, along with artists such as Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria and James Turrel, ventured into the deserts of the Western United States to create monumental works that acted in concert with their surroundings. This site-specific approach, as it came to be called, often employed materials taken directly from the landscape. Such is the case with Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which juts into Utah’s Great Salt Lake from Rozel Point on the lake’s northeastern shore. Made of mud, salt crystals and basalt extracted onsite, Spiral Jetty measures 1,500 by 15 feet. It was submerged under the lake for decades until a drought in the early 2000s brought it to the surface again. In 2017, Spiral Jetty was named the official artwork of Utah.
The French-born artist’s signature work, Spider was created in the mid-1990s when Bourgeois (1911-2010) was already in her eighties. It exists in numerous versions of varying scale, including some that are monumental. Spider is meant as a tribute to the artist’s mother, a tapestry restorer (hence the allusion to the arachnid's propensity for spinning webs).
Courtesy CC/Flickr/Pierre Metivier
Winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 1994, Antony Gormley is one of the most celebrated contemporary sculptors in the UK, but he’s also known the world over for his unique take on figurative art, one in which wide variations in scale and style are based, for the most part, on the same template: A cast of the artist’s own body. That’s true of this enormous winged monument located near the town of Gateshead in northeastern England. Sited along a major highway, Angel soars to 66 feet in height and spans 177 feet in width from wingtip to wingtip. According the Gormley, the work is meant as a sort of symbolic marker between Britain’s industrial past (the sculpture is located in the England’s coal country, the heart of the Industrial Revolution) and its post-industrial future.
Affectionately called “The Bean” by Chicagoans for its bent ellipsoidal form, Cloud Gate, Anish Kapoor’s public art centerpiece for the Second City’s Millennium Park, is both artwork and architecture, providing an Instagram-ready archway for Sunday strollers and other visitors to the park. Fabricated from mirrored steel, Cloud Gate’s fun-house reflectivity and large-scale makes it Kapoor’s best-known piece.
Courtesy CC/Flickr/Richard Howe
Rachel Harrison’s work combines a consummate formalism with a knack for imbuing seemingly abstract elements with multiple meanings, including political ones. She fiercely questions monumentality and the masculine prerogative that goes with it. Harrison creates the bulk of her sculptures by stacking and arranging blocks or slabs of Styrofoam, before covering them in a combination of cement and painterly flourishes. The cherry on top is some sort of found object, either alone or in combination with others. A prime example is this mannequin atop an elongated, paint-splashed form. Wearing a cape, and a backwards-facing Abraham Lincoln mask, the work sends up the great man theory of history with its evocation of the Ancient World’s conqueror standing tall on a clown-colored rock.
Photograph: Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York