Robert Schad on the lightness of steel

Saturday, June 26, 2021, we are in Schad’s studio, sitting at a work table, books all around us; we have just left the place of the sculpture; I see a forest of steel trees as if intertwined and everywhere elements ready to take their place. The atmosphere is strange, everything seems confused and yet everything is planned, everything is in its place. I try to understand the invisible order that presides over what is generated there. We talk about it, it becomes didactic, I am the student. I like this moment when the strange delivers its lines of coherence, when the chaos and its heap of disparate shows the plan that resolves it. But already this, if the sculpture is resolutely abstract, the grip has the familiarity of the figure. I pose an image, here the forest, to integrate the disparate. I ask the question of how to approach, of vocabulary and syntax: “In my opinion, the line is the basis of my work, as can be seen, for example, in Krieck’s or Venet’s work, but its particularity is that, unlike Venet’s, it is unpredictable. There is a kind of evidence, but it is him who gives it; would I have found it without him? The evidence, yes, of lines delivered as if broken. But the broken line is a line, or even more the broken line is lines. I am astonished, usually I would have approached the thing through the notion of force which, traditionally, for the philosopher, is the key to sculpture. Schad sends us elsewhere where the force is said in the line, but also something else where the line is the force. The line,” he says, “is the most elementary means of expression; it is the one adopted by the child when he begins to draw. It is the means he adopts for his sculpture and just like the child the sculptor redoes the work of discovering the line. But what the child does, driven by a force that carries him and that he cannot control, the artist does in mastery. The line,” he says, “extends from the point, its minimal form, to the infinite line”. References obviously come to mind, that of Kandinsky and his definition of the point and the line which I recall here: “The geometric line is an invisible being. It is the trace of the point in movement, and therefore its product. It is born of movement – and this by the annihilation of the supreme immobility of the point. This is where the good from the static to the dynamic takes place.”1 In his own way Robert Schad brings these theoretical foundations to life in the studio, he makes explicit the breaking down of immobility and the catching of movement. In a minimalist approach to his work, one might say that he cuts and welds. The steel beams that come out of the foundry, as many lines, are cut into fragments, lines again, which he reassembles. Obviously, even more than the finished form, the design of the work and the assembly, it is the dynamics that preside over the elaboration that fascinates. How does the line become form? How does the point become form? Two origins are proposed, that of the passage from the point to the line and that of the control of the line in the form. As we shall see, this is not something that can be identified solely in terms of technicality, but it implies and imposes the connection of different modes of approach, bringing together both the question of the equilibrium specific to all sculpture and what this equilibrium carries beyond itself; physics and its beyond. Where Kandinsky projects himself into a geometry, Robert Schad takes up the image of the child drawing his first lines, but also this “line from birth to death”. Imagine a sheet of A4 paper; on the first line a dozen or so dots aligned, from each of them flows in the form of fragments as what could be a shadow; the shadow of the dot. This is the beginning, a fractured line, a line nevertheless, which gives rise to as many sketched directions. It is the initial reverie, Robert Schad speaks of this moment when one puts oneself in the mood, the traces follow one another. One of them will become a sculpture.
One cannot help but refer to Tim Ingold and his Brief History of Lines2, and especially to what he said during a discussion: “to confront the Darwinian heritage with the Bergsonian; that has been my aim¨3. It is not my intention here to develop the great philosophical discussion envisaged but, by simplifying it to the extreme, to formulate it for us: on the one hand, the evolution of species and natural selection, on the other, creative evolution. That is to say, in the language that Ingold introduces a brief history of lines, in the form of the tree of coral, in Darwin’s statement that “the tree of life should perhaps be called the coral of life”4, and in Bergson’s in the form of “an effort to accumulate energy and then to release it into flexible, deformable channels, at the end of which it will accomplish infinitely varied work”.5 Would philosophical schematism, which also introduces the power of the line, help or, conversely, would it find indication? In the background the question of where it all goes? But of all this we will say yes, but it is to show, not to demonstrate.6 The drawing shows, but does not demonstrate. It is here that Robert Schad’s work finds its full relevance, at the limit of the pure monstration of drawing, which Schad obviously uses in his line sketches, he moves on to production as demonstration. The sculpture demonstrates the line. Ingold questions the logic of production (from Semper’s weaving to Riegl’s7 line and trace), Schad gives it form. He reveals the process that takes us from drawing to sculpture into a new context: “You can’t calculate the line, it is free, it is the most elementary means of expression.” He tells us about his first drawings, “almost blind, which, as if automatic, he says, start from a point from which singular lines arise. These are like lines of life, those of singularities, which, from the point, swell and develop to finally end in the point”. He is saying two things, firstly that when a line leaves one structure, it joins another, and secondly, in a reference to the Buddhist law of transformation, that it enters into a new life. In this way, his work could be seen as the source of life; each of the sculptures obeys the law of transformations and articulates itself to the others. To see these steel structures with their imposing weight and marked balance as nothing more than the trace of our fragility. In a way, this would be the same thing that would be played out with Pierrette Bloch’s delicate and so fragile wires and Robert Schad’s robust and imposing steel arrangements.
He recalls his early arrangements where steel was combined with fabrics; he likewise says how ¨dance is his teacher.¨ He talks about the music that accompanies his work, from ethnological songs to John Cage. He says how the dance becomes a tree. The opposition of lightness and heaviness erases its differences in an accomplished dialectic where steel expresses lightness. But the formula is still paradoxical. To say, let us repeat, is not to show. However, the robustness and the mass that has become lightness is there, to be grasped in nature. One suddenly thinks of the same repetitive work of lines on the drawing: that of Hollan’s tree. Do the painter and the sculptor know each other? Probably not. Yet Alexandre Hollan describes his walk in beauty: ¨Going from one tree to another, from one painting technique to another.¨8 One could see in this the logic of the gaze described by Maldiney: ¨To gaze is composed of garder, to take or have in custody, and the prefix or preverb, re, which marks the return.¨9 We notice in Hollan a similar procedure of the sketched line, developed and transformed into a drawing10, where to the line and its centrality defended by Robert Schad, he responds with the line: ¨The real line is made inside ourselves to open a new path to the inner space.¨11 But with Hollan one would be irremediably in the visible, the to be looked at. Traces of the looked. There is indeed the tree, and undoubtedly on both sides, the invisible, unseen forest of the accumulation of singular trees, of the thing that has become a work of art, so much so that the work is the realisation of the same, each time singular and different. However, the viewed possesses its own truth of being referable to an external presence. This is Hollan’s drawing and painting. Robert Schad starts from elsewhere. Not from the outside but from the inside. All this could lead us back to a very old debate; it features Plato and especially one of his Roman interpreters, Calcidius, who reads the Timaeus and derives from it a double orientation of vision according to whether it originates in the interior or the exterior. But it is perhaps, here, above all the notion of geometric vision that would impose12 itself, with this same question of where geometry comes from? If we look closely, Hollan’s trees erase from their lines the geometrical framework that Robert Schad reveals.
This weft is the geometric body, it is Robert Schad miming dance gestures, which explains how the skeleton says the body and how the movement of the body is the setting of its skeleton. Should Robert Schad’s work be seen as a replica of Vitruvian Man applied to the gesture of pure nature? In this case, we would understand the development of articulations not controlled by a consciousness that would exclude the question of the inner or outer gaze. We would then be in an expressionism not of form but of the conditions of form; of the structure that underlies it. The body is held together by the physical and mechanical possibilities of its skeleton. This could mean both the body and the structures on which nature clings. We would be where the life force finds its support. The connection with the completed forms of the landscape, whether architectural or simply natural, would be a reminder that all of this can only be held together by a prior architectonic.
We would be in search of the structure, the form of the form, from which the forms are born. Nevertheless, the moment of attachment returns, that moment when the static, from which movement is possible, receives and attaches the vital force. The question of inside and outside returns. When Christophe Schreier, speaking of Schad’s work, notes that ¨the main quality is the ‘constructive’ quality, which pushes the object character of the sculpture into the background¨13, he accompanies this recognition of what we call here the form of the form, its framework, and which he calls ‘constructive quality’, with an eloquent and truthful qualifier when he speaks of ‘disembodied sculpture’. What appears to be sculpture should then be understood as “no longer a punctual placement but the concretisation of energies of movement, a linear deployment in space.” And it is by referring to Barbara Hepworth that he reminds us that sculpture in general, and Robert Schad’s in particular, sculpts the landscape (“his works are in dialogue with the space that has taken shape”). The framework is no longer that of a form that our imagination would ‘reconstitute’, but it is given as the very structure of the space that encompasses it. Here we find Barnett Newman’s paradoxical formula: “It is always in relation to my colour that I am addressed. Yet I know that if I have made a contribution, it is first of all through my drawing.”14 We return to the line, in this case the famous Zip, it is a drawing. Robert Schad’s line, often made of breaks and segments, at the same time as it draws in space the form that welcomes it, makes the welcoming space the form that the line ‘draws’. There is a reversal where what is seen, say a tortured line, is the support around which the void becomes form. We can then understand these repetitive sequences where the line, moved from space to space, from context to context, delivers not its reality of pure form, but draws.

We find ourselves in a moment where what is born of drawing produces drawing in space, where nothing, one might think, is drawn. But it is this space that is drawn by sculpture. The so-called classical tradition sees sculpture as an art of balancing forces. Schopenhauer also saw in it a halt in the ability to represent the vital force, when he entered into the polemic opened by Lessing and stated that Laocoon does not scream. Robert Schad’s work, which is of course in keeping with these fundamentals of balance and the deployment of forces, points to something else: the space drawn.
Where Christoph Schreier posits an anthropological dimension in a formatted space “which has become a space of experience and adventure for man thanks to the structuring intervention of the artist”15, I would lean more towards the metaphysical (that beyond physics mentioned above). Indeed, what seems to be at work here is a dimension that is little explored by art and sculpture in particular, which seems to go beyond the simple and undoubtedly relevant and true formula of the artist giving form to matter, when this form given to matter turns out to be form given to space. We are no longer in the simple dialectical opposition resolved in the synthesis that would be the work, but in a tripartition. This tripartition, already at work when Robert Schad describes the progression towards sculpture, from drawing to figure to sculpture, which are the three states of form given to matter, the three states of the birth of sculpture, is redistributed in the new tripartition: matter, form and space. When matter (de)forms space, it is, beyond the simple highlighting of the question of the place of reception, that of the exhibition space, another dimension that emerges. Robert Schad reports how the space of the White Cube suddenly seemed too small. His sculpture demanded something beyond this laboratory effect, which makes him confront spaces already impregnated with presence, already (un)formed, where his sculpture makes its own changes. Everything happens as if it were a question of determining, with the choice of the place of reception, the place of reception of the possible intervention of the sculpture. The space has its own cracks, those where the force of the material can intrude.
Sculptor, who has become a sculptor of space, and the sculpture, which has become the tool of the sculpture of space, destabilise the primary definition of giving form to matter in the work on space. Everything that appears is no longer matter or form, but a displacement of the surrounding space. Another experience then emerges where the very condition of space is redefined there, at the heart of consciousness and its representational capacity. The spatial punctum of the sculpture, taking space with it, redefines space no longer as an external entity but as a constantly renewed experience, where each sculpture modifies not only the space it reorganises, but the function of space itself. It is in this sense that Christoph Schreir’s reading and his reference to the old word topography takes place. The etymology, which contains the idea of naming the place (replaced by the logics of cartography in the modern conception), opens up to a truth of place in the redefinition of space, where sculpture becomes the vector of “the concretization of energies of movement, a linear deployment in space.”16 It is in this experience, reminiscent of the origins and the poets who used words, that Robert Schad’s abstract demonstration is written, reversing the readings of space and initiating a new way of interpreting the world.
This new way of interpreting the world is based on a project that Andrea Gleiniger summarises as follows: “In fact, it is a question of staging dancing and dynamic lines of movement in a choreography of forms created in sculpture; this choreography is materialised in an architectural and constructive manner”17, and is born of the modification of space and its perception, which opens up a possible new form of consciousness. The links between the modified space and temporality are distended and reformulate a new equation of rationality. The device then becomes a crucible where reason experimentally encounters its possible overcoming. We are then given the possible approach of the aesthetic experience as that which escapes from seeing and looking to seize us at the deepest level of our knowing structure, taking us beyond all sensibility towards another feeling where the world also becomes other than what we knew. In this sense, the sculpture conceived and constructed by Schad, while it disappears as an object by becoming the skeleton of a form of and in space, carries this modified form into the consciousness of the viewer, thus reformatting the representational capacity. By modifying the space of which it makes its true form, it leads the individual into a new apprehension of the world.

Louis Ucciani
President of the Centre d’Art Mobile. Besançon
University of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté

1. Kandinsky (Wassily). Ecrits complets, tome 2 La Forme. Paris, Denoël, 1970, p. 93.
2. Tim Ingold. A Brief History of Lines. Brussels, Zones sensibles, 2011 [TI].
3. Nicolas Auray, Sylvaine Bulle. L’Anthropologie entre les lignes, interview with Tim Ingold. Collège de France, La Vie des idées. 13 March 2014.
4. Darwin quoted in Horst Bredekamp. Darwin’s Corals. Dijon, Presses du Réel, 2008. p.33.
5. Henri Bergson. L’Evolution créatrice. Paris, Alcan, 1914. p.275.
6. See for example the exhibition organised by the Centre Pompidou-Metz in 2014, which uses Ingold’s title and develops his ‘dialectic’ of trace and threads.
7. See for example [TI] chapter 2.
8. Alexandre Hollan, Le Peintre des arbres. Video.
9. Rodolphe Olcèse. Alexandre Hollan or the imprint of the visible. In Conversation [theconversation.com]
10. See for example L’invisible est le visible, exhibited at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.
11. Alexandre Hollan quoted by Rodolphe Olcèse, ibidem.
12. Béatrice Bakhouche. La Théorie de la vision chez Calcidius (IVe siècle) entre géométrie, médecine et philosophie. Revue d’Histoire des sciences. Paris, Armand Colin, 2013/1.
13. Christoph Schreier. Sculpture drawing in space. Multimedia aspects in the work of Robert Schad, in Robert Schad, DANS. Karlsruhe, Badische Kunstverein, 1999, p.39.
14. Quoted in Denys Riout. La Peinture monochrome. Histoire et
archéologie d’un genre. Paris, Chambon, 1996, p.72.
15. Christoph Schreier, op.cit, p.47.
16. ibid, p.38.
17. Andrea Gleiniger. Architectonic. Ibid, p.13.