Kronenberg – Nonas: with a critic text by Riccardo Venturi

Sculptor’s Doubt | by Riccardo Venturi

To restore silence is the role of objects

Samuel Beckett, Molloy (1)

The title of the exhibition you are now visiting features the names of two artists linked by more than just a hyphen: Nonas-Kronenberg. The gallery space we move through with no path before us contains three sculptures in wood and one in iron by Richard Nonas and seven in various materials by Giovanni Kronenberg.
Kronenberg met Nonas very early in his artistic journey, in 2003, when he was still a student at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts. The occasion was a two-month residency at the Ratti Foundation on Lake Como, where Nonas preferred the city's junkyards to the lake in his search for discarded stone slabs. The younger artist was deeply impressed by the care with which he chose them, also because they all looked very much alike at first glance. Nonas would use those curbstones to make Mappa mundi.
Their meeting came about too early however, and only with assistance from time—and a nudge from a show of the Panza di Biumo Collection in Trento— would Kronenberg finally grasp its significance.  More than the forms of the works, it was the attitude Nonas adopted to them that attracted Kronenberg’s interest, his non-pedantic approach to sculpture so far from today’s mediation that seems to want to protect us from its encounter, to protect us from the misunderstanding that is such an essential part of aesthetic experience, the best signal of its revitalizing complexity.
Giving answers to Nonas' sculptures, which formulate no questions and require nothing at all to be complete, as if they were a sort of processual art (as I continue here in trepidation) or works that demand participation is clearly unnecessary. In this regard, Nonas is crystal clear, and nowhere is this clearer than in his own words: "I distrust sculpture that emphasizes process, duration, or growth. I trust sculpture whose making, and being, is finished immediately," in a text that starts like this and, as if to clarify once and for all, ends "I trust sculpture that does not grow, but simply appears—shuddering, like a knife stabbed into wood" (2)
Sculpture that happens like a knife plunging into wood. He obliges us to correspond with his sculptures, to feel their presence and tune into the places of low density they create—“Sculpture is the place where place is only barely possible”(3). No method is established, but none is excluded, either. This doesn’t make things any easier.
How can the threshold between an object and an artifact be laid? How can the artist intervene and keep the object from becoming an artifact; how can it be kept in suspension? Where do you learn to dose the degree of altering you give a found object? A found object is also a lost object, one that has additionally lost every function, even the reason for its existence that once guided the hand of the artist who picked it up and saved it one day, albeit unconsciously. How can the object remain "undevoured by anyone’s gaze,” (4) Kronenberg wonders.
(1) In R. Nonas, Get Out Stay Away Come Back. Writings about sculpture, and making sculpture, Dijon, Les presses du réel, 1995, p. 181.
(2) R. Nonas, Get Out Stay Away Come Back, p. 188.
(3) R. Nonas, Get Out Stay Away Come Back, p. 160.
(4) In A. Rabottini (a cura di), Giovanni Kronenberg, Milano, Mousse Publishing, 2020, p. 55
Those wishing to gain wider understanding of just what Kronenberg is trying to do might scroll the list of materials he uses: agate, amethyst, hand-engraved 925 silver, agate block, concrete, wood ash, dark chocolate, elk antler, fossilized mammoth rib, rock crystal, amethyst and sulfur, rooster back, rubber bands, iron, dried leaf or 22 karat gold leaf, Mimolette cheese, fossils, grains of silver, seal fat, grist mill gear, solidified lava, wood, dried legumes, malachite, wooden mannequins, fossilized mammoth jaw, woodland honeydew honey, olive oil, animal hide, Icelandic mouflon fur, black baroque pearl, wooden furniture foot, cobalt pigment powder, porcelain, synthetic perfume, portable tape recorder, spiny chestnut husk, desert rose, Marseille soap, Brazilian sodalite, sea sponge, starfish, oil presses, fossil log, Iranian turquoise, ostrich egg, whale vertebra, glass, vinyl, narwhal tusk, brown sugar. My list is in random order to avoid revealing the attempts at pairing made by the artist and to leave the imaginations of curious readers free to do the work themselves.
What he does is let objects pile up in his home or studio then wait until one or the other leaps out of anonymity, from the white noise of reality: “I look at an object and try to put into visual or physical contact with other ‘“flavors’” to see if it reflects a minimum amount of ambiguity. If it does, I try to do something with it, giving it more time.” (5)
Among the sculptures on display, all of which are Untitled, Senza titolo, one composed of parts of turtle shell neatly illustrates the artist’s approach: as Kronenberg intends it, a protective shell—a natural architectural model— is “nearly a disgraceful form that approaches mean-spirited, Brutalist architecture”. He stacks these shells delicately one atop another, house of cards style, in an assembly raised above ground that makes the sculpture unstable but dynamic at the same time.
Another sculpture is distinguished by a double anatomic absence: we see an empty suit of armor worn by a knight in the 1700s one side, on the other, the one remaining part of a human body: a shoulder.  Lying on a soft cushion on the floor, it appears to be even further removed from the warring function it had originally. The artist considers it “an amputated, celibate, anti-narrative, purely formal object”. Does this mean that the ghost of the body that inhabited it centuries ago has now been completely shooed away? In another place on the floor lies a wooden head carved in the 1800s, once part of a fashion mannequin. The artist adds a part in Brazilian sodalite at it end.
The correspondence between these two sculptors works at the level of materials chosen, the iron, wood, and stone, which latter Nonas often employed in his outdoor works. Other examples scattered along the show’s itinerary include one in dry leaves with a few streaks of gold color and another in unworked dragon’s egg (septaria limestone) wrapped in anodized aluminium wire. 
The exhibition is completed by a coloured pencil drawing and a small backdrop in copper leaf of irregular dimensions, which although apparently extraneous to the sculptures seems to reiterate certain of its formal solutions.


(5) Id., p. 56.


“I am no longer an anthropologist”: one of the most personal texts Richard Nonas (1936-2021) (6) ever wrote begins with these words, even if this is a long way from the tone one could adopt in journal intime made  available to his readers, who are in this way informed of the following fact: an anthropologist has quit his job in order to become a sculptor; a person with a degree in anthropology has no intention of exercising the profession for which he was trained after discovering a truer passion for the visual arts. Note the absence of the term “professional reconversion” used in neo-liberal jargon to cleverly disguise and dignify temporary employment. There have been many similar cases. Alberto Burri’s abandon of a medical career for a life dedicated to painting comes readily to mind, for one.
Richard Nonas’ confession takes us elsewhere, however; he didn’t just give up anthropology to become a sculptor. It was subtler than that: he’d sculpt the way an anthropologist would. An intriguing declaration to say the least; unique, I believe: keeping anthropology and sculpture in the same basket, testing the former against the latter, using the one as reagent for the other? What on earth could a background in anthropology offer sculpture? What exactly is it that will transport the Nonas of anthropology through the media of sculpture?
Nonas continues: “Anthropology gave me the gift of continual doubt. But sculpture forced me to use it”. This might be the characteristic that sets his work apart: not classifying it under any “historical or critical genealogy; not calling it minimalist or post-minimalist, just sending it up into orbit with anthropology. But precisely which anthropology is Nonas referring to? Not the academic discipline he studied at Columbia University (the least interesting hypothesis for anyone but an anthropologist by trade). Not even the anthropology of fieldwork that sets it apart from all the other humanist sciences except archaeology. Fieldwork, incidentally, may recall various modern forms of social art but less likely sculpture, whose nature is sedentary the moment it’s given its form.
Instead, Nonas's anthropological doing is explicated in a single gesture, one single action: doubting—but in the way Socrates did. “Doubt, I mean, of everything; even of anthropology" to the degree that his is an "anthropology of doubt"—and this is what he brings to the making of sculpture.
What happens when you bring doubt into sculpture, when you make the practice of doubt the very stuff of sculpture? That makes it confused, ambiguous, "resistant to the limitations of language and explanation." Nonas knows himself he’s practicing some sort of "inverted anthropology": “the seer seen in his seeing, the doubter doubteds in his doubting, the know known the impossibility of his own self- appointed but culturally sanctioned task”.
The anthropologist-turned-sculptor, the anthropologist en sculpteur, is not resigned to starting from far off, from the margins of Western civilization, merely calling certain assumptions of his culture of origin into question. Anthropology has the power to break our narrow view of reality wide open. Tearing down boundaries is the very ground on which it stands. Making a practice of doubt, Nonas' former discipline ends up resembling some kind of self-analysis in which the deepest questioning is directed at himself. That’s why it’s inverted.
This makes Nonas’ work a way of understanding whether or not, and in which terms, sculpture can accept the stiff challenge of inverted anthropology.


(6) R. Nonas, No-Water-In, P420 Arte Contemporanea, Bologna, 2011, pp. 52-63.


It comes as no surprise that the show for which his text No-Water-In was translated for the first time in Italian is considered by the artist as “a snapshot of repetitive failure; of ropes thrown but not necessarily caught. It i’s a snapshot of how bridges fail and why they are rebuilt to fail again." A story in which construction and destruction are each the flipside of the other: what is fearsome in architecture becomes modus operandi in sculpture.
What Nonas hints at on this page (the quotations cited so far fit on just one page in witness of the density of his writing) is not a poetic, much less a program: it does not show other sculptors how to proceed. If it is prescriptive, it is so only toward himself, obliging him to a rigor that his overall oeuvre illustrates. There is no Richard Nonas student because there is no Richard Nonas school, canon, or creed. Literally applying what has been written Literally applying what has been written about sculpture after anthropology or even sculpture according to anthropology is pointless. In the end, he is best served by the words of French poet René Char (Feuillets d'Hypnos, 1946): "our heritage is not preceded by any will."
Those wishing to follow Nonas' path must first come to terms with his doubt” a ringing, all-encompassing, energizing, positive doubt as the ongoing justification of life"—and try to give shape to that.
Nonas, let us not forget, operates in a historical context that has brought sculpture down from its pedestal, one that has called the legacy of one of our artistic civilization’s most deeply-rooted mediums into question. In a sort of tongue-twister, Carl Andre used to say "A thing is a hole in a thing it is not,". This phrase was recalled by Robert Smithson according to whom, from the second half of the 1960s on, “pavements, holes, trenches, mounds, heaps, paths, ditches, roads, terraces, etc. all have an aesthetic potential."
But the problem Nonas poses to sculpture is not historical in nature, as if sculpture merely had to solve the sculptural problem of a modernist legacy that remains unsatisfactory. But if the answer lies not in the history of sculpture, then where will it be found? In the making of sculpture. These and other doubts must be addressed and allayed only by making art and not by walking through its genealogy.
Commenting on the phrase from Samuel Beckett's Molloy that triggers my reflections—"To restore silence is the role of objects"—Nonas confesses that he is not as much struck by silence (as we might be led to think considering his story so far) as by the verb "restore" or reset: " the hint of an old but continuing history rattling around inside an object, any object: the idea that objects carry an abstract as well as a specific past."(7) “But it is never the object itself that is important to me. The objects that hold me confuse me by oscillating between what they are and what they can actually accomplish.” (8)
They confuse him because they are generators of doubt, because instead of staying in place they come alive, throwing the relationship between sculpture and object into turmoil, risking to blow the artistic endeavor to bits in the act. Nonas is sculptor-anthropologist thanks also to his ability to feel objects, a skill difficult to describe but glowingly obvious whenever we come up against his works live: "objects could communicate emotion directly without a story or narrative" (9)
It's easy to see when this feeling is present: it depends on whether the objects in question create a place or not. "A Place. Where none" is another Beckett phrase Nonas quotes " which means, I think, not a virtual place, but an actual one barely touched by human meaning." (10)



Nonas and Kronenberg's sculptures are now exhibited in the same space. It’s up to us to move from one to the other, we living bodies caught up in measuring our separation from a non-human world. “Art is our acknowledgment of an edge between being and being human.” (11).
We do not fixate on similarities and differences because there is no master-pupil or copy-original logic, no art-historical filiation here. We face the silent challenge before us instead, mindful of the fact that "To restore silence is the role of objects." Observing Nonas and Kronenberg's sculptures, it’s up to us to find a way to practice doubt or, continuing—and reversing—Nonas' reasoning, not to be mere spectators but to become anthropologists.



(7) R. Nonas, Get Out Stay Away Come Back, p. 181. 7

(8) J. Beckenstein, Telling It Slant. A Conversation with Richard Nonas, in “Sculpture”, November 2017, p. 33.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid

(11) R. Nonas, Get Out Stay Away Come Back, p. 158. 11