PRINT May 1965

Some New British Sculptors

IT HAS BEEN SCULPTURE MONTH in London: the Contemporary Art Society, working in conjunction with the Stuyvesant Foundation, has staged a vast exhibition which, as the title suggests, reviews the entire sculptural scene here. “British Sculpture in the Sixties” is in two parts: the established names at the Tate and nine new-generation sculptors at Whitechapel, of whom the oldest, Philip King, is 31.

The Tate exhibition is a massive resume of what has been acclaimed officially and internationally as British sculpture. It is of course dominated qualitatively by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and numerically by the figurative or quasi-figurative metal sculptors who emerged to unprecedented attention at the Venice Biennale of 1952: Butler, Chadwick, Armitage, Clarke, their colleagues and derivatives. They are all here and they all look terrible. Particularly in the company of Moore who, although he has had to withstand the strain of being a national cultural asset for the last 20 years has simply gone on getting better and better.

The fact is that Moore transcends the local content of his work: the authority of the old pro is irresistible. But authority is just what the ’50s sculptors don’t have, and now that the passage of time has stripped their nature romanticism and their facile juxtapositions of Eros and Thanatos of any sort of relevance, there is nothing to disguise the flabbiness of their forms or the emptiness of their rhetoric. Fortunately there have been staunch exceptions to the orthodoxies of a decade and the vitality of those is now underlined. There is Kenneth Martin whose crystalline constructions are only now being recognized after years of neglect; there is that powerhouse of invention, Eduardo Paolozzi; there is Hubert Dalwood, a totem-maker of extreme subtlety and originality; there is Anthony Caro.

Caro is doubly significant, both in terms of his own work and as the virtual chef d’école of a movement strongly represented in the junior half of the exhibition. In his own development he has acted out the crisis of English sculpture, and the younger men have taken his experience as a fruitful point of departure. He was an assistant to Henry Moore some years ago, and he made his reputation in the mid-’50s working in the current idiom of heroic figure sculpture in bronze. Then, coming increasingly to question the pessimistic subjectivism implied here and at the same time affected by American sources (particularly in the field of painting) he revised his position radically. Since then he has questioned every orthodoxy with which the existing sculpture had protected itself.

He is showing one work only at the Tate: a great 20-foot contraption of girders and bolted sheet metal called “Early One Morning” that occupies the furthest limit of the gallery. Walking along it, ducking its arms, pointed at by its rods, lit, as it were, by its flat, brilliant red surfaces, flimsy and shining, one acts to know it like an airy luminous place. Coming to it after threading a path through those crowds of warriors, watchers, mutilated sex-goddesses––that welter of other people’s erogenous bronze––is like making it out of a bad party into the fresh air.

In the junior half of the exhibition the emphasis is all the other way. Six out of the nine sculptors represented are directly related to Caro, having been taught by him at St. Martin’s School of Art. These are: David Annesley, Michael Bolus, Philip King, Tim Scott, William Tucker, Isaac Witkin. The tendency up to now has been to lump their work together under the generic heading of “St. Martin’s sculpture” and it’s one of the values of this exhibition to cause personalities to emerge clearly from the mass, though the generic effect is substantial in its own right. Sculpture which flowers, without recourse to the conventions of the figure and the pedestal; sculpture which explores the floor, or reaches up vertically without a standing figure reference; sculpture which uses color positively as an optical and an environmental ingredient. It reflects a profound change of sensibility and one which calls into question the forms and the content and also the usages of recent times; that is to say, the way in which the work addresses itself to the onlooker, and the way in which the sculptor defines his own creative stance. It disposes of the image of the sculptor locked in some inchoate private experience, and it disposes of the pathos of traditional materials, bronze in particular. There are no broken surfaces here, no expressive imprints. Instead, fiber-glass, plastic, sheet steel, aluminum, all handled impersonally and with an unwinking industrial finish.

The point is that they demand that their sculpture should work with ideas, with concepts, as directly as possible. Any habitual art method creates cliche, blurs content. The main sculptural influence is probably Brancusi, not only because of his conceptual clarity but also because of his technical freedom, his willingness to juxtapose disparate materials and to handle sculptural ideas as environmental ideas. But there is, of course, an essential difference in that the English sculptors don’t betray any ideal philosophy of form. They do not pursue a canon: any form can find a place in their work, any kind of form, or so one feels.

Their acknowledgement of painting is meaningful. It is as though they recognized the exploratory daring that painting has shown during this century. They have all looked at American painting, particularly at Louis and Noland, and there is evidence of exchange with their own contemporaries here, Harold Cohen and Dick Smith in particular. Their debt to painting shows itself clearly in the way in which they relate their work to the onlooker. They refuse to set up a monumental confrontation, though much of their work is big. Philip King’s “Genghis Khan,” for instance, is 12 feet high, but he insists that it is domestic sculpture, to be seen at close quarters, as he made it. And it is not contained within its own special space: it meets you on the floor. Basically it is a great purple-brown cone, parted like a tent. But from under its hem, so to speak, a serrated surface creeps out and spreads over the floor making you aware of the way you walk round it, making you think about how you place your feet. To some extent the image is frontal: the “tent” is crowned with “antlers” made of thin sheet, so that they only come across with their full meaning when you stand in front. You are forced to think about the formal meaning of the work in terms of your own position as an equal. There is no oppressive force at work here; it is not “up,” you “down,” and although it has massive presence it in no way diminishes the observer.

Color is used in a variety of ways, but always positively and decisively. It might be used to augment formal relationships, as when Tucker makes a yellow rise in tone with each step in a bridge-like structure of equal units, or expressively, as when King colors the absurd topmost twist of “Tra-la-la” an absurd toothpaste pink. Beyond this it is used as an added dimension as when Tucker, in particular, creates powerful optical effects that flatten the forms from certain viewpoints and give an alternative reading in which sculptural space seems to have become inextricably entangled with coloristic space. Bolus is perhaps the nearest to painting in that he works with flats of sheet metal, laying them on the floor or standing them up with a bend in them, working always with color and with spatial concepts that in valve flatness. His is in some ways the most extreme activity, the most ruthless denial of traditional positions. There is a marvelous gaiety, a slightly wild hedonism about these steel lily-pads, these impossible flowerings up from the floor. But whatever note of feeling one picks up comes from the object as a fact––never as a message transmitted by pathos or gesture. Its origin is in what it proves to feel like to use––i.e., to explore, the object as a phenomenon.

The same is true of the more complex work of Tucker and Annesley, which yields surprisingly powerful sensations although their formal propositions are stated with a poker-faced refusal to dramatize or ameliorate. Annesley’s “Swing Low” is about what it looks like when an open steel box is cut in two by a blue-green undulating strip. The undulations are semi-circles in series. There is no concession to the eye which wants either to complete the semi-circles, thus stopping the movement, or to turn the movement into a wave, thus breaking its regularity. The proposition is put nakedly: this is a box; this is a band of half-circles; this is what happens when one is cut by the other. Ultimately its stop-go awkwardness becomes a moving aspect of what the work is about. One’s own usage, which includes one’s visual discomfort, becomes a given factor.

Art in England has for generations been an art of eccentrics and coteries with strong socio-esthetic barriers. What it has lacked is a milieu large enough to gather a general creative momentum. The most exhilarating aspect of the sculpture discussed here is in some ways its openness. It comes out of a fairly widely based grouping of artists who are not bowed down with a sense of provincialism, nor inflated with a romantic over-estimation of their own creativity. They are using hard ideas and they are unprejudiced. It is a hopeful situation.

––Andrew Forge