Louise Bourgeois. Torso, Self-Portrait. 1963–64. Plaster, 24 3/4 × 16 × 7 1/8" (62.3 × 40.5 × 18.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Slifka Fund. © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY

Plaster is a mixture of lime, sand or cement, and water that hardens as it dries. It’s used as an inexpensive building material for decorative features on walls and ceilings, as a fast-drying agent for children’s art projects, and for medical casts to set bones. For centuries, sculptors have also used plaster as a procedural material for making molds before executing a final artwork in more permanent mediums like bronze.

In the 20th century, many artists adopted plaster to make fully realized works, molding, carving, and combining it with other materials. A new collection gallery opening this week on the fifth floor explores the many ways in which artists work with this shapeshifting material. Due in part to its consistency and quick drying time, plaster sculptures convey gesture and a sense of immediacy—aligning these works with the modernist tendency to foreground process in art. Explore four artworks below that show the extraordinary range and possibilities of this modest material.

Pablo Picasso. Head of a Warrior. 1933

In the early 1930s, Pablo Picasso returned to sculpture after a break of some 20 years. He had recently bought a château in Boisgeloup, 40 miles outside Paris, and converted a stable on the property to a studio, catalyzing a period of intense sculptural production. Picasso created the plaster Head of a Warrior using the so-called imprint technique, in which materials are pressed into fresh plaster to create impressions, and objects are sometimes embedded in the work itself. A variety of materials—such as a sculptor’s stand, chicken wire, nails, and a crowbar—were revealed inside the plaster when this work was X-ray photographed in MoMA’s conservation laboratory.

Max Ernst. Lunar Asparagus. 1935

Max Ernst spent the summer of 1934 with the sculptor Alberto Giacometti in the Swiss village of Maloja. There, he carved and painted a group of oval river stones. On his return to Paris, Ernst continued to pursue his interest in sculpture, turning to plaster as his material of choice. The sculpture’s vertical, humanoid stalks stretch high into space; their hybrid form and exaggerated scale are emblematic of Ernst’s Surrealist vocabulary in this period. This plaster was reused as a mold for other versions, a procedure that is typical for casting sculpture in more durable materials like bronze.

Alberto Giacometti. Figure, I. c. 1945; Figure, VI. c. 1945

In the late 1930s, Alberto Giacometti abandoned the Surrealist mode in which he had been working. He remained focused on the human form, but began working from live models rather than basing his figures on dreams, memories, and other sources favored by his Surrealist peers. In these six miniature sculptures, made circa 1945, Giacometti reduces the body’s musculature to a nearly vertical line. The varied scale and application of plaster across the forms stage a set of fluctuating relationships between the figures and their accompanying bases and among the sculptures themselves and their environment.

Louise Bourgeois. Torso, Self-Portrait. 1963–64

In 1964, Louise Bourgeois debuted a group of organically shaped plaster sculptures that contrasted dramatically with her earlier prints, paintings, and totemic wooden sculptures. Torso, Self-Portrait consists of a curved oval base adorned with petal-like forms that seem to echo a ribcage or skeletal structure. Bourgeois utilizes plaster’s light weight and moldability to create a wall-mounted sculpture that protrudes into the viewer’s space. The artist intended this sculpture to be a self-portrait, reflecting her interest in blurring the boundaries between figuration and abstraction.

These works and more are on view beginning October 6 in Gallery 516: Plaster.