The Many Different Faces of Plaster Sculpture

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September 11, 2016

Different materials of sculpture are integral part of its later aesthetic charm. Plaster ranks among the most used materials, and plaster sculpture persisted in original artistic practices throughout the centuries. Different from other materials, plaster can be easily molded but due to its brittleness it often requires support. Larger sculptures usually have some form of armature upon which plaster is applied such as wire mesh or cloth. There are several types of plaster, usually divided according to content, such as gypsum, lime or cement plasters, with similar characteristics. In addition to sculpture, plaster finds its application in decorative purposes as well, mainly in architecture for decoration of interiors and exteriors. Using plaster for this requires high craft skills and dexterity of artists' hands as the process often includes carving of small details. Considered both art and craft, carving of plaster like any other process starts with the mixing of plaster and water before the execution of a project begins. Artists can add clay and press it into the carving in order to check the final result. Small details of their carving project can be examined from the clay cast. It is important to note that some of the most prominent and original works of art are painted on plaster layers, like medieval frescoes and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the renowned masterpiece of Renaissance art. Casting also contributes to the general use of plaster, as sculpture made from melted materials is often poured in plaster mold.

In the domain of sculpture, plaster has versatile applications. It can be the only material the sculpture is made of or combined with others, such as wood, metal or glass. First plaster sculptures, figurative in character, go back to 7000 years B.C. Egyptians pioneered casting method and were using plaster with their hands to make head and face cast of the deceased in the third millennium B.C. Romans were using plaster molds of Greek sculptures and paint to make reproductions; in Renaissance artists made and collected casts, while renewed interest in this material came with the Neoclassicism when casts of ancient sculptures were in wide use. However, until the 20th century plaster was considered a second rate material, similar in quality to clay. It was considered as material in which copies of masterpieces and probes of sculptural ideas were made, until modern artists started to use it and mix it with other materials. Today, plaster is applied in sculpture in both traditional and modern ways. The following collection will showcase some of the artists whose imagination found outlet in making of plaster sculptures.

Featured Image: Henry Moore - Reclining Woman, 1979. Image via

Alexsander Archipenko - Motion in Form

Inspired by Cubism, Ukrainian artist Alexander Archipenko investigated the aesthetics of motion by reducing the human figure and face to its basic geometrical forms in plaster. He brought the tensions between positive and negative space to the fore of his sculptural works, often substituting solid forms by voids or mixing them in unexpected ways. As one of the pioneers of Modern art and sculpture, he aimed to disclose sculptural technique by leaving the processes of creation such as pasting, nailing or tying visible. Opposing established sculptural norms of his time, he included plaster casting and paint as means of his expression.

Featured image: Alexander Archipenko - Carrousel Pierrot, 1913,plaster, Guggenheim Museum. Image via

Pablo Picasso - Found Objects Made into Art

One of the best-known modernists who started his career in Paris, Pablo Picasso reached world-wide recognition with his Cubist paintings, but his plaster sculptural work is equally fascinating. Mostly making sculptures from found objects-his Bull’s Head is one of the most famous - he often engaged with plaster either to make a mold or to connect and mix random elements into recognizable forms. He was so fond of his two plaster busts of a woman that he would not lend them for exhibitions and bronze casts had to be shown instead.

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Featured image: Pablo Picasso - Bust of a Woman, 1931, plaster. Image via

George Segal - Bandaging the Grim Reality

Considered one of the existentialists among the Pop artists, George Segal pioneered the use of plaster bandages made for orthopaedic cast in his sculptures. He would wrap a model's face and body with strips of plaster bandages and after they would harden a bit, remove them and add extra plaster to mold in order to create a hollow shell. Knowledge of crafts and high skills in plaster making helped him balloon into one of the most prominent sculptors of the 20th century in US, with his works displayed in galleries and museums from Paris and Barcelona to New York and Washington. Coming from a family of Polish Jews, his interests revolved around the times of human suffering, such as the Great Depression and the Holocaust.

Featured image: George Segal - Holocaust Memorial at California Palace of the Legion of Honor, 1984,San Francisco. Image via

Peter Agostini - Pop and Abstract Art made in Plaster

Peter Agostini is considered one of the most prominent plaster sculptors in the US, educated in arts and crafts in Mexico, New York and Paris. His work made in large formats anticipated Pop Art with representations of egg cartons, pillows and bottles with plaster applied over large balloon-like spheres. He also worked in the domain of Abstract Art and created expressive, nonfigurative forms that often resemble different crumbled materials and which defy gravity and frailness of plaster. Later in his career he turned again to figuration, now focusing on horses and the poetry of their movement.

Featured image: Peter Agostini-The Hurricane, 1962. Image via

Jeff Koons - Recycling History

Notorious for his work in the domain of popular culture that sharply divided his critics but also helped him balloon into the artist stars, Jeff Koons is another contemporary artist who delves into plaster sculpture. In part of his series titled Gazing Ball he combines plaster cast of ancient sculpture with baubles made of blown blue glass in order to comment on transience of human existence and the transformative power of such knowledge.

Featured image: Jeff Koons - Gazing Ball (Ariadne), 2013. Image via

Monica Cook - Mythical figures in Mixed Materials

Coming from the field of figurative painting, sculptor Monica Cook creates her sculptures with a keen attention to detail, texture, and luminosity. She combines plaster cast with different commercial modelling products such as paper clay, silicone, polyester resin and wire armatures. She creates mystical scenes with human-like and animal figures and through exposure of their biological and anatomical functioning comments on life cycles.

Featured image:Monica Cook - Goat Cart and Duster. Image via

Kiki Smith - Investigations of Human Body

Inspired by frailty and at the same time vitality of life force, Kiki Smith deploys plaster cast in combination with wood and metal to create figurative sculptures which often hint at Surrealist aesthetics. After the deaths of her father and sister she developed a more visceral approach to her figures exposing veins and other organs to the view of the observer.

Featured image: Kiki Smith - Untitled, 1994. Image via

Not Vital - Sensing the Space

With numerous solo-exhibitions held in Paris and around the world, architect, sculptor, and painter Not Vital finds his inspiration in places he visits. Being inspired by concrete objects and landscapes or by the general atmosphere and sentiment of the place he is in, Non Vital creates sculptures which combine different and often unusual materials such as plaster, gold, soap, tea, marble and bronze.

Featured image: Not Vital - Lotus Detail, 2010. Image via

Nao Matsunaga - Abstracting the Mythical

Japanese born artist Nao Matsunaga focuses his interest on ritual and mythical objects, their forms and symbolic purposes as well as on animal and human figures and their abstraction in primitive cultures. His sculptures made of clay, wood, plaster and other organic materials combine the tensions of motility and stillness, restrain and rampancy, heaviness and lightness.

Featured image: Nao Matsunaga - Standing on the Verge, Live Up, 2015. Image via

Daniel Arsham - Excavating the Present

Exploring and working in the fields of architecture, performance and sculpture, US artist Daniel Arsham includes forms of everyday objects in his YESTERDAYSFUTURES series in order to question historical memory and processes of archiving. He uses plaster cast and sand to recreate objects such as cameras, cell phones and guitars and to make a historical anachronism where such objects take place of ancient artefacts.

Featured image: Daniel Arsham - Crystal Eroded Movie Camera, 2013. Image via Galerie Perrotin

All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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