Review by David Wood
The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things

George Kubler. The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. 1962.  Reprint. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. x + 134 pp.; index. $17.00.

The Shape of Time is one of those rare and brilliant essays that, like Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art (1934) and André Malraux’s Voices of Silence (1953), seeks to address art holistically, not merely to survey it. Like Focillon and Malraux, George Kubler knew the history of art, both in general and in detail, to such a degree that he could step back, so to speak, and conceive of the whole art enterprise as a single entity. Kubler’s contention was that art historians would find it profitable to consider the shape of that entity. The purpose of this review is to look at what Kubler proposed in 1962 and to consider whether it remains, as Edward L. Sullivan states on the cover of this new edition issued in 2008, relevant.

I wish, at the outset, to tip my hand on the relevance issue by simply saying yes, it is. In particular, it is relevant to the practitioners of the variously named discipline—American decorative arts, American material culture, material culture history—that informs the contents of American Furniture. This is trivially the case because Kubler included the useful arts in his argument. More significantly, it is the case because the great wall of monographs and great assemblages of objects that together are the product of the modern age of material culture studies is poised to fulfill the highest ambition Kubler articulated: the achievement of a humanistic science.

Kubler’s stated purpose for writing The Shape of Time was to address a tendency that he had observed in art history studies: “[Ernst] Cassirer’s partial definition of art as symbolic language has dominated art studies in our century,” he noted in his introduction. This served the discipline well, he acknowledged, since it connected art history to the rest of history: “But the price has been high, for while studies of meaning received all our attention, another definition of art, as a system of formal relations [emphasis added], thereby suffered neglect” (p. ix). Kubler did not claim that this definition was new (always a good strategy when proposing something radical), just that it was underutilized to the detriment of art history studies.

Although the mysticism so often evident in the essays by Focillon and Malraux is essentially absent from The Shape of Time, Kubler’s essay is both abstract and compact. As a result, reading it requires close attention to terminology, both because Kubler ranges widely among intellectual disciplines and because some terms have changed in meaning or implication since Kubler used them. In addition, Kubler had suggestions to make with regard to metaphors drawn from other disciplines and applied to the study of art, which also entails consideration of the words he used, including “series,” “sequence,” “systematic age,” “entrance,” “prime,” and “form.”

Kubler began his essay with a few premises. First, as noted above, he expanded the idea of art to include “the whole range of man-made things, including all tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful, and poetic things of the world” (p. 1). This dichotomy, the difference between the useful and the useless, is one Kubler returned to several times in the text, though here at the outset he was quite clear that things (Kubler’s usual term for objects) do not have an absolute binary nature; useful and useless aren’t really separate categories (pp. 9, 12–14, 23, 64). Rather, Kubler proposed that all man-made things should be considered to compose a single series: “The oldest surviving things made by men are stone tools. A continuous series runs from them to the things of today. . . . Everything made now is either a replica or a variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time” (p. 2; cf. 33). This idea of series has been important to material culture studies at least since the 1970s, when Robert F. Trent drew particular attention to it in his insightful study Hearts and Crowns: “Both Focillon and his pupil George Kubler have ably defended the idea that a work’s significance is to be found as much from its position in a series of works coming before and after it as from its own peculiarities.”[1]

Within that continuous series, Kubler continued, the origin of which cannot be discerned, are sequences that are bounded at one or both ends. “The series has branched many times,” and sequences may arise out of this branching, as when a style or technology is developed and has some duration. Identifying and describing those sequences has been a significant part of art history studies since the Renaissance, at least. Kubler’s own study focused in part on the ceramic culture of Central and South America, an arena where the idea of sequence plays a prominent role in interpretive frameworks. The work done on Boston seating furniture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by researchers including Robert Trent, Brock Jobe, Leigh Keno, and others has demonstrated the utility of this conception as applied to the study of the decorative arts of North America.

However, there is some confusion in the series/sequence nomenclature as Kubler employed it. “Series” was first used to denote an ordered succession of elements, and “sequence,” a bounded segment of that series. Kubler later (p. 30) took note of the mathematical definitions of the terms, whereby “sequence” is a succession of elements (between which and the natural numbers a one-to-one correspondence has been established), and “series” is a set of terms continuously added together. This formulation is almost the reverse of the earlier usage. The confusion is worth noting because of a ­particular quality of art that Kubler accepted as axiomatic: each element in the succession of art objects is derived from one or more of the preceding elements. This notion of dependence is usually part of the mathematical definition of series, but not of sequence. Neither term then seems perfectly applicable to the entire succession of art objects, which is instead something like a series and something like a sequence. Nevertheless, it is clear that art is a succession, one that branches, and although individual branches may end, the entire succession does not.

Having established this idea of succession, Kubler explored the utility of the concept and in the process articulated some of the concepts for which The Shape of Time is best known, including systematic age, entrances, and primes.

A succession begins with a branching event and has some period of development; the time scale internal to a succession is its “systematic age.” Systematic age has some discernible structure to it in that successions tend to pass through recognizable stages. Examples familiar from art history studies include the archaic, classical, and baroque stages. No matter what the time period, geographic location, or medium in which a succession is located, these stages can be discerned. The phenomenon is also invariant over changes in scale; these are stages that may be reached by a single artist in the course of his career (Guercino) or by a whole medium over centuries (Greek sculpture). A familiar example from American decorative arts is the oscillation between the styles formerly termed Queen Anne and Chippendale and now generally grouped under the rubric late baroque. In this view the Philadelphia chairs with solid splats and pierced splats are both late baroque, yet one is palpably more baroque (in Heinrich Wolfflin’s formulation) than the other. The Chippendale style, particularly as exemplified by the rococo, is, in other words, exponential baroque: it is the baroque phase of the baroque, while Queen Anne is the classical phase of the baroque. A similar distinction can be made between the case furniture of Philadelphia and Newport. In addition, these two phases of classical and baroque can be manifest in the same community, same household, same shop, or even in the same piece at the same time.

“Entrance” refers to the point at which an artist enters into a particular succession. An entrance too early or too late will yield less in terms of artistic accomplishment than an entrance at the right developmental moment. Entrance is not something the artist can control. This matter of the propitious moment also works on scales larger than the career of a single artist, as will be seen below.

Another of Kubler’s concepts related to the idea of succession is that of the “prime.” For this notion, Kubler separated all art objects into two classes, prime objects and replicas or variations of those prime objects. In Kubler’s definition, prime objects appear unpredictably, just as prime numbers do in the succession of real numbers. In practice, the example might be the imputation of a group of Roman copies of a sculptural group to some Greek original. In theory, this notion of primes is somewhat more elusive. Primes, clearly, are to some degree independent; their appearance cannot be predicted and no particular arrangement of primes over time is discernible. What is less clear is whether there are any constraints on primes; they may be impervious to the bad effects of an ill-timed entrance, for instance. It also seems possible that primes might not be discernible at all but are efficient causes that, by the definition of succession, simply have to be assumed to be there. Kubler also used the idea of the prime object in support of his assertion that it is the relations between objects rather than their magnitudes that is the proper object of study; the magnitude of wealth, for instance, does not affect the appearance of primes, though it does affect copies (p. 78).

Kubler combined the ideas of succession and systematic age and proposed that the time line for art is a multidimensional object. In this view, which the author contrasts to the radial diffusion view of culture espoused by such historians as Alois Riegl, the time line is a bundle of successions of varying lengths, each one composed of the linked solutions to a particular problem (pp. 7, 111). The historian can cut this bundle at will, “because history cuts anywhere with equal ease, and a good story can begin anywhere the teller chooses” (p. 2). “For others who aim beyond narration,” he continued, “the question is to find cleavages in history where a cut will separate different types of happening.” In other words, although the line may be cut anywhere, some cuts fall at points of greater significance. The mathematical metaphor for this notion may be the Dedekind cut, a powerful idea about the succession of natural numbers. Since the cut falls at differential development points of each succession that makes up the bundle, it may intersect those fibers at different systematic ages (p. 110). Presumably it is the coincidence of the intersection of the fibers that constitutes the differential significance of cleavages; a cut that happens to intersect a number of points equivalent to the good entrance points available to artists then may be equivalent to a cut that separates different types of happening.

The mathematical nature of Kubler’s speculations about the succession of art objects is related to another of the author’s stated concerns in The Shape of Time. “Although inanimate things remain our most tangible evidence that the old human past really existed, the conventional metaphors used to describe this visible past are mainly biological” (p. 4). This is a problem because “every man-made thing arises from a problem as a purposeful ­solution,” but “[p]urpose has no place in biology” (p. 7). In this critique of biological metaphors, Kubler may be referring to Focillon’s overtly biological Life of Forms. Although granting that the metaphor has pedagogical utility, he nevertheless cautioned that it is misleading. Kubler suggested that a better metaphor could be found in electrodynamics, a branch of physics made tractable by mathematics. Nevertheless, Kubler found the biology metaphor difficult to abandon and somewhat apologetically likened prime objects to mutations (p. 36). The biological metaphor may in fact be too useful to abandon, but he was right to advise its cautious use; when Kubler suggested (pp. 36–37) that the Parthenon, portal sculptures at Reims, and frescoes by Raphael at the Vatican “were all three phenotypes, from which we have to deduce the originating genotypes,” he was suggesting something that biologists now generally consider to be impossible.[2]

Kubler made another suggestion about the fundamental nature of development and change in art, one that comes at the phenomenon of time from a perspective distinct from the idea of succession. This suggestion is based on the observation that there is a meter or pace to change. Although no particular change can be predicted with perfect accuracy, change itself is a given. Moreover, tools can be seen to change at a different pace than art objects, urban change is different from rural change, and so on. Kubler proposed that there is a unit or monad that has a role in setting this pace, and he identified that unit as “form.”

In his preamble, Kubler characterized art as a system, which is an aggregate like a series or sequence but one in which the members are united by interaction. The elements that interact in the art system are, as Kubler stated, “formal relations.” The root of the term formal—form—recalls again Henri Focillon’s Life of Forms in Art (1934); given the use that Kubler made of the concept, it seems advisable to look at what the earlier author meant by the term. Focillon, Kubler’s friend and former teacher, defined “form” to some degree by citing examples of what it is not: form is not an image or sign, is not subject matter, is not a void (Focillon, pp. 34–35), and so on.[3] For Focillon, one thing form seems to be is mental: “Unless and until it actually exists in matter, form is little better than a vista in the mind.” Forms are “located and centered” in “regions of the mind” (p. 52). It is in the mind that they function; forms are “a kind of fissure” or “a kind of mold” (pp. 34, 36) through which or into which images and signs come to be. Focillon did not invoke Plato or Aristotle in his discussion of form, but an apt analogy for his partial definition might be one of Aristotle’s examples of a formal cause: the formal cause of the octave is the ratio of two to one. Form seems to have been, for Focillon, an inherent restraint or stricture on what a work of art can be, much as there can only be an octave if dividing a string in half doubles its frequency of vibration.

Although Focillon associated form and mind, he separated form from idea. Form precedes idea by a certain interval of at least two increments; from form, “images aspiring to birth may be introduced into some indefinite realm—a realm which is neither that of physical extent nor that of pure thought” (p. 35). Focillon also separated form from mind entirely, identifying the form necessary to images as the same quality that underlies the characteristics of the elements and forces of nature (p. 34).

Kubler did not emphasize the conditioning aspect of form Focillon envisioned, whereby the images or ideas underlying art can only be what form allows, but wrote of it as an entity that functions as a “support, or a vehicle, or a holder” of meaning (p. ix). Form in Kubler’s conception still precedes meaning as it did for Focillon and is therefore likewise abstracted from the rational level of discourse where ideas are manipulated, but there is a significant difference. For Focillon, “Form has a meaning” (p. 35), but Kubler asserted instead that “The forms of communication are easily separable from any meaningful transmission” (p. ix). Kubler used the word “form” to indicate a module of communication, a set of atomic units from which all other constructs are assembled: “In linguistics the forms are speech sounds (phonemes) and grammatical units (morphemes). In music they are notes and intervals; in architecture and sculpture they are solids and voids; in painting they are tones and areas” (ibid.). In making this connection between art and spoken and written language, Kubler was responding to recent developments in linguistics, particularly the results of statistical analyses of phoneme change over time. “The surprising result,” he wrote, “is that linguistic change occurs at a fixed rate.” The result is surprising because historians are “accustomed to think of cultural change as an irregular and unpredictable” process, and since “language is an integral part of culture, it should share the irregularity and unpredictability of history,” but empirical study demonstrates that it does not (p. 54). Kubler cited in this passage anthropologist Dell Hymes who, continuing in the tradition of Franz Boas, was instrumental in the mid-twentieth-century convergence of anthropology and linguistics under the rubric of structuralism. Culture was of course part of the domain of anthropology, although art (or perhaps Art) had long been insulated from anthropology by tradition: art and anthropology had separate departments in universities, separate museums, a separate literature, and so on. But Kubler obviated that distinction when he proposed that the forms of art are like the phonemes of language, basic units that in themselves have no meaning. Phonemes drift at a regular pace, and “[s]imilar regularities probably govern the formal infrastructure of every art” (p. x).

Kubler’s ensuing discussion (pp. 54–55) of the relation between noise and drift is somewhat confusing. Noise is equivalent to heat: it is random and therefore the opposite of information. Drift as it is defined in his discussion is regular and therefore not random. Kubler seems to propose that the disorder of noise is converted into the order of drift, something that obviously cannot be spontaneous. How, then, is this conversion accomplished? While acknowledging that the factors (“interferences”) underlying change in history are beyond human control (“mostly”), in language, he asserts, interference “must be regulated.” While it is the case, as he states, that too much change makes communication impossible, the sense of the passage is that its regulation is not beyond human control, which would make phoneme drift a conscious process, something that it self-evidently is not. This may reflect nothing more than the case that while phoneme drift is unequivocally observed, just what the process is remains difficult to characterize. This does not affect the significant point Kubler made: forms can be equated with phonemes. ”Form” in this definition provides some wriggle room for development. Form has the regularity needed for the apprehension of time and the change characteristic of history; it provides just the modicum of novelty needed to keep expression meaningful and avoids the excessive change characteristic of noise, the bane of meaning.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has articulated in several works the idea of design space, an entity (I think of it as a vector space, though Dennett does not so typify it) composed of both accessible and inaccessible possibility.[4] Design space is necessarily (in part) inaccessible because it is too big to be humanly, or even universally, explored; it isn’t infinite, but it might as well be. In The Shape of Time Kubler can be said to have outlined the process whereby artists explore the region of design space accessible to them. In this space, just as Kubler stated, there are no magnitudes, only relations. The successions of art objects “advance” one step at a time, branching out continually. Many areas are left unexplored; they may be inaccessible to a certain technology (or to any technology), they might be too redundant to match the human wish for novelty, they may be forgotten when a line of craftsmen or a civilization dies out, they may just be uninteresting. Kubler’s “prime” objects in this sense are saltation events, leaps across design space that are seemingly without the connections that can usually be discerned by art historians.

Kubler himself suggested something compatible to Dennett’s notion of design space when he advocated a consideration of network theory (p. 30 n. 3) as a tool in the art historian’s kit. It is this sort of confluence that suggests that nearly fifty years on Kubler’s brilliant essay is relevant. However, because of its implication that art arises from something simpler than itself, accepting this idea is, on the one hand, potentially subversive to humanism. Artists, in this view, are simpler than art. On the other hand, it is an implication of this same view that the isomorphism between forms and art objects is not deterministic but is itself a historical and contingent process: nothing tells artists what to do. As Focillon put it in 1931, art history is “suspended between two contradictory extremes,” whereby art is both individual and spontaneous and “the product of a great number of mere factors.”[5]

Perhaps the best reason for continuing to give Kubler’s views consideration is one he articulated himself: “Because of its intermediate position between general history and linguistic science, the history of art may eventually prove to contain unexpected potentialities as a predictive science, less productive than linguistics, but more so than can ever be possible in general history” (p. 61). The archive of decorative arts objects and its explicatory literature together constitute a good and possibly the biggest and best example of unself-conscious human behavior there is. It is made up of good data, carefully gathered and ordered taxonomically; if you want to know scientifically what it means to behave like a human, it is a good idea to consult it.

David F. Wood
Concord Museum


Robert F. Trent, Hearts and Crowns: Folk Chairs of the Connecticut Coast, 1710–1840, as Viewed in the Light of Henri Focillon’s Introduction to “Art Populaire” (New Haven: New Haven Colony Historical Society, 1977), p. 23.


This is an instance of a change in the meaning of terms over time. Where the relation between genotype and phenotype might readily have been considered symmetrical in 1962, subsequent work on the process whereby the information in the genotype is expressed in the phenotype has demonstrated that it is sensitive to the environment, an example being the damping effect of methylation. Development is therefore contingent, asymmetrical, and irreversible—in a word, historical—and the genotype cannot be deduced from the phenotype.


Page numbers for quotations are taken from Focillon, Life of Forms in Art (New York: Zone Books, 1992).


See, for instance, Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).


As cited in Trent, Hearts and Crowns, p. 17.

American Furniture 2009


  • [1]

    Robert F. Trent, Hearts and Crowns: Folk Chairs of the Connecticut Coast, 1710–1840, as Viewed in the Light of Henri Focillon’s Introduction to “Art Populaire” (New Haven: New Haven Colony Historical Society, 1977), p. 23.

  • [2]

    This is an instance of a change in the meaning of terms over time. Where the relation between genotype and phenotype might readily have been considered symmetrical in 1962, subsequent work on the process whereby the information in the genotype is expressed in the phenotype has demonstrated that it is sensitive to the environment, an example being the damping effect of methylation. Development is therefore contingent, asymmetrical, and irreversible—in a word, historical—and the genotype cannot be deduced from the phenotype.

  • [3]

    Page numbers for quotations are taken from Focillon, Life of Forms in Art (New York: Zone Books, 1992).

  • [4]

    See, for instance, Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

  • [5]

    As cited in Trent, Hearts and Crowns, p. 17.