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Full Stop — New Line for Sculpture
Simonetta Lux

She may not be aware of it, but her commitment to concealing certain emotions, along with the evocative testimony of this work, makes her at once stand outside the British art and language climate. (In my view, the soapier and conservative elements in the recent cultural establishment in London have never been able to forgive her for this, although they have no trouble in welcoming all kinds of trash/horror, as long as they are not excessively challenged as they are not with the work of the Young British Artists of the 1990’s). She not only conceals her emotions, but works aloof from the most popular fashions, and she makes herself in fact immediately cosmopolitan, so much so that the year after Hospital Tent was made Filiberto Menna invited her to bring this work to the San Marino Biennale. Menna’s intellectual judgementand standing are beyond question. His book, ‘La linea analitica dell’arte moderna’, (The analytical line of modern art ), (Einaudi, 1975) reconstructed the debate within the historical avant-garde around the irresolvable contrast between reality and conceptuality, between life and image, between vision and perception and the place of art in between. “The practise of art” — he wrote (PBE edition of 1983 p.29) — “becomes rather a place of contradiction between subject and object, between meaning and matter, between drive and language”.


In 1979 Menna intuited this complexity in Cowan’s work, seeing that it announced an understanding of the problematic within awide-ranging and tense debate going on behind the scenes in art in Europe, through some key works of art, especially in sculpture. Sculpture seemed the art par excellence, that embodied the most variable aesthetics of the imaginary in the second half of the twentieth century.

Thanks to the definitive choice of breaking down borders and the infinite potential for choice in media, materials and procedures, sculpture has carried to an extreme the various, partial openings that the great artists from De Chirico to Giacometti, from Brancusi to Fontana, from Boccioni to Duchamp, had prepared, as we know, what the generation of situationist and/or conceptual artists of the 1960’s radicalised and extended to the use of cold means like photograph, and hot ones, the use of one’s own body.

But it is not all just acting out discoveries and inventions of the historic avant-garde: a change in the internal dynamics of the art itself is necessary, connected with the new intimate condition of the subject. Mind and body, conceptuality and energy contend with each other for attention.

Through a long process Cowan was able to interweave multimediality, which was starting to become standard then later became a common global practice, with a sharp and systematic re-editing of both materials and traditional methods. The development between the early 1980’s and mid 1980’s was in fact a kind of journey through the art of sculpture, which was not formalism but legitimate questioning, within a reflection on life and our uncertain position this investigation was about the importance of corporeal sensuality — between reality and simulacra, between truth and image. With the complex installation at Kettle’s Yard, Passages & Incidents, the journey was concluded...

...Since 1978 we have found embodied in Judith Cowan’s work a principal key to the recent history of art, that of dematerialisation, identified by Lucy Lippard in the six years 1966 — 1972 and described in her Six Years. The Dematerialization of Art.

So, if we can describe Cowan as one of the major exponents of New British Sculpture since the 1980’s, in the line whose greatest exponents are Stephen Cox, Tony Cragg and Anish Kapoor, Judith Cowan stands out for her esprit de finesse, united with her spirit of contradiction. She has done this by rediscovering, and hybridizing for her own ends, the three principal philosophies of some artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s: minimalist (Robert Morris) arte povera (Luciano Fabro, Mario Merz) and testimonial (Beuys, then Boltanski).

Extract published in monograph, the capacity of things: from life, by Professor Simonetta Lux and Domenico Scudero, pub. by Gangemi Editore, 2005.

Coincided with solo exhibition, from life, Museo Laboratorio di Art Contemporanea,
curated by Professor Simonetta Lux and Stella Santacatterina, Rome, 2005.

© Judith Cowan 2022
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