For thousands of years, sculpture was largely the province of human and spiritual figures, whether it was a primitive form like the Venus of Willendorf, one of the countless gilt-bronze statues of the Buddha, or Michelangelo’s heroically scaled, carved-marble David, whose anatomically correct nude torso has awed and titillated millions.

Since the 20th century, though, realism has taken a back seat to abstraction in sculpture. The Industrial Revolution of the late-19th century and the Machine Age in the first half of the 20th seemed to transform and polish the human figure into a mere widget, as seen in the android-like and often androgynous forms produced by artists such as Constantin Brancusi and Amedeo Modigliani. As the century progressed, the figure was pushed and pulled like so much modeling clay by Henry Moore, or compressed into stiff, stick-like specters by Alberto Giacometti.

By the second half of the century, all bets were off. Alexander Calder pushed ostensibly inconsequential shapes to their limits, producing kinetic stabiles and mobiles whose brightly painted cut-steel shapes evoked flora and fauna, sometimes in the same glance. John Chamberlain seized upon the beauty of twisted, polychromed automobile parts, compressing and crunching fenders and car doors into squat forms that are oddly lyrical considering their tonnage. Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero elevated the work of ironworkers into the realm of fine art, while Dale Chihuly blew art glass well beyond the limits imposed by the furnaces and annealing ovens on places like Murano, often grouping hundreds of pieces in natural and gallery settings to create fragile environments that appear to shimmer and vibrate.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art: Timeline of Art History

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