The OED’s first listing for “plastic,” sense A. 1a, reads: “the art of modelling or sculpting figures, esp. in clay or wax.” Richard Haydocke furnishes the first and second instances of the word’s usage in his 1598 translation of G.P. Lomazzo’s Tracte Artes Paintinge: “Painting, Carving and Plasticke are all but one an the same arte” and, later, rather tendentiously, “Carving is nothing else but a painefull imitation of Plasticke.” As use multiplied over the succeeding years, so did meaning. Within decades, the word had designated not just the method of artmaking but also, at times, the artist who employed such methods, the resultant artwork, as well as “the creative or procreative principle” more generally. Meanwhile, these nominal uses acquired adjectival counterparts.1 Curiously, although the word has a Greek root, πλαστικός, meaning “that may be moulded,” and although “plastick” was used to indicate pliancy in abstractions, such as virtue or truth, in the mid-seventeenth century, it did not refer broadly to moldable physical substance in English until the end of the eighteenth century. Still, the term was ready for application when, in the early nineteen-hundreds, the first materials made entirely of synthetic polymer were developed. And thus “plastic,” originally introduced into English via Italian during a discussion of visual art, assumed its most common contemporary meaning: the designation of a class of synthetic materials and products.
Around the same time, “plastic” began to circulate throughout prominent writings of the avant-garde, particularly of the De Stijl group. In point six of “Manifesto 1,”2 these Dutch artists identify themselves as “the founders of a new plastic art.” Over the years, “plastic art” had been used to refer to, first, modeled sculpture, later, all three-dimensional art and, eventually, any art, including painting, that sought to represent three dimensions. Theo van Doesburg, chief author of the 1917 “Manifesto,” wanted to express something beyond the mere representation of round, inhabitable space. For him and for the other members of the group, “plasticity” suggests a work’s abstractness. Van Doesburg’s later Principles of Neo-Plastic Art provides a helpful example. There, he considers “old paintings, e.g., by someone like Nicolas Poussin,” pointing out that “such a painting is in a high degree true to life and yet, as a result of definite intentions on the part of the painter, it differs from nature.” Poussin’s art, van Doesburg explains, is willfully designed: “the artist was working according to artistic and aesthetic laws (constructively organizing) and not purely from the point of view of natural objective legibility.” This is plasticity. But the new plastic art goes further, rejecting representation of “natural form”; in other words, they champion a pure3 or what’s often called “non-objective” abstraction.
In his 1937 essay, “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art,”4 fellow De Stijl member Piet Mondrian offers an even more complete and wide-ranging endorsement of wholly plastic art. He takes on the legacies of Surrealism and Cubism, both of which he admires, but both of which he finds insufficient: Surrealism limited by its literary origins and narrative tendencies, Cubism by its fundamental naturalism. Neither approaches, Mondrian argues, will yield truly universal expression, which is the aim and promise of pure plastic art. For him, internal, abstract relationships are paramount: “We are now at the turning point of this culture; the culture of particular form is approaching its end. The culture of determined relations has begun“; vitality is invoked: “it is the artist’s task to make forms and colors living and capable of arousing emotion”; and balance is key: “Real life is the mutual interaction of two oppositions of the same value but of a different aspect and nature. Its plastic expression is universal beauty.” Mondrian’s essay, both nuanced and sweeping, accomplishes its own impressive balance. Pure plastic art, he writes, depends on a handful of delicate, near ineffable qualities: “neutral forms,” “dynamic rhythm”, and “indeterminable content” among them. His conclusion approaches prophecy: the development of non-figurative art “brings us, in a future perhaps remote, toward the end of art as a thing separated from our surrounding environment, which is the actual plastic reality.”
So although “plastic art” is not a new term at the beginning of the twentieth century, it has become the primary vehicle for new ideas, the sort of sidecar alongside art’s motorcycle (if you’ll indulge my indiscriminate mixing of avant-gardes and allow a very Futurist image.) This obscure usage, its suggestion of a total and transcendent abstract form, seems to reach back to one of the word’s more esoteric senses, that of creativity and vitality. Van Doesburg offers the pithiest indication of this etymological condensation in the last line of Principles: “The work of art becomes an independent, artistically alive (plastic) organism in which everything counterbalances everything else.”
Bracing stuff, these manifestos and pronouncements. Some readers may find the scope and certitude exhilarating. Others, after one or another of these oracular statements, may find themselves rather nonplussed, like Dustin Hoffman’s graduate confronted with the single, portentous word: “plastics.” If the De Stijl sense of the word sounds abstruse,5 that’s okay. The occasional exception aside, postwar contemporary artists largely have used and thought of “plastic” as everyone else does. For Louis, synthetic polymer was the basis of a new kind of paint, which, lacking the fats that will degrade fibers, could be poured directly on unsized canvas. When Donald Judd built a plexiglass box or John McCracken covered lumber in fiberglass, they were taking advantage of a sleek, clean material that had no direct association with art of the past.
Most art museums that cover modern and contemporary periods will, at any moment, have on display examples of each of the senses of “plastic.” All the photos that illustrate this post were taken on a single afternoon at MOMA. I wouldn’t argue it’s anything other than etymology and accident that associate these works. Still, there are echoes. “Plastic” has had a dodgy history, those helter-skelter early years in particular. The temptation to glibly dub “plastic” a ” flexible word” is great. But the multiplicity of meanings likely has more to do with a particular span of history than with anything inherent in the term itself. Considering the present: there’s maybe a certain inertia that follows in the wake of technologies promising easy and widespread access to aggregated knowledge. Still, plastic– the material– is itself technology, and its role in society is evolving. I won’t speculate on the further evolution of the word but, instead, remark that this etymology implies a particular a account of the last four hundred years of art history. From craft to metaphysics to literal materialism, this account is probably as instructive as any other.
Post-script: Recently, I’ve run across two references I would’ve loved to have included in the original posting. On the often vague use of “plastic”: Fairfield Porter, responding to Clement Greenberg’s “‘American-Type’ Painting” in a letter to the editor, writes:
“It starts from the contradiction of a rule of the critic Wilenski, who showed that in comparing a Raphael detail with a detail from Sargent, that in even the smallest part of Raphael there was a ‘plastic’ (whatever that means) form, whereas in Sargent there was just paint, which demonstrated the inferiority of Sargent.”
And Peter Plagens, in his great Sunshine Muse, describes the characteristic style of postwar L.A. art:
“The patented ‘look’ was elegance and simplicity, and the mythical material was plastic, including polyester resin, which has several attractions: permanence (indoors), an aura of difficulty and technical expertise, and a preciousness (when polished) rivaling bronze or marble. It has, in short, the aroma of Los Angeles in the sixties— newness, postcard sunset color, and intimations of aerospace profundity.”
1I’ll not pass on the chance to quote Sir Thomas Browne: “In what diminutives the plastick principle lodgeth, is exemplified in seeds.” The OED includes this line from Garden of Cyrus to exemplify sense B. 2,”Causing the growth or production of natural forms, esp. of living things; formative, procreative; creative. Now rare.”
2Here I’ll point out the shaky ground I’m on. I’ve begun with a gloss of the etymology of “plastic” in the English language; I am now discussing that word’s usage by a Dutchman writing in his native language. My defense on this point, admittedly lame, is threefold: 1) I am trusting the translators. 2) Please note, I’m not implying direct connections, just making associations. 3) The words, through translation, have entered the English language as they are.
3“Purism,” co-authored in 1920 by Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant, advocated an eponymous movement founded on a similar understanding of plasticity: “Primary forms and colors have standard properties (universal properties which permit the creation of a transmittable plastic language.)”
4This is firmer ground. “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art” was first published in Circle and, according to Britannica.com, was Mondrian’s first essay written in English.
5When it does crop up, it’s usually historicized. Over the past summer, MOMA exhibited Ellsworth Kelly’s Chatham Series; outside the main galleries hung his 1951 drawings for Line Form Color, which the label indicated “would be ‘an alphabet of plastic pictorial elements.'” Quietly, it was a banner season for plasticity at the museum: concurrent shows included Inventing Abstraction and Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes.