PRINT December 1968

Phillip King, Sculpture, 1960-1968

IN 1958–9 PHILIP KING WORKED as an assistant to Henry Moore. He was never as much involved in Moore’s work as other of the latter’s many assistants have been, but Moore is a figure of sufficient stature to have made it necessary and helpful for many of the younger sculptors to define their own concepts of sculpture in relation to his. The purging from the new English sculpture of suggestive form represents an extreme reaction. Moore’s work relies absolutely on the evocative potentiality of animal and vegetable forms, and on our ability to recognize and respond to them. Since about 1960, it has been a point of honor with the best of the younger English sculptors to ensure that where form is suggestive it is at least not loaded; that the sculptor, by stripping his vocabulary down to what is proper to his medium and justified, initially, only by the pursuit of that medium, shall be prevented from promoting his personality at the expense of his art; that the artist shall not claim more territory in the natural world than he has made his own through personal experience; and that authority, in art, shall be recognized as originating not in power but in integrity.

Many of these principles developed implicitly out of the atmosphere of inquiry created by Anthony Caro during the late fifties at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, while he was still uncertain of his own direction and before· he had started welding. The influence of American painting, and of its different “morality”, was crucial among sculptors at this time. King had made contact with Caro while still at Cambridge,1 and when he graduated in 1957 he went to St. Martin’s as a student. He was thus involved from an early date in the reaction against the post-war angst of European sculpture in the fifties. His response to the works shown in the 1959 Documenta was typical of this reaction:

The sculpture there was terribly dominated by a post-war feeling which seemed very distorted and contorted . . . . And it was somehow terribly like scratching your own wounds—an international style with everyone sharing the same neuroses. The contrast with the American painting there was important too—it was the first time I’d seen it in context with what was going on in the world at the time: a sort of message of optimism, large-scale, less inbred. There were Motherwell and de Kooning, for example, and Newman, and a large showing of Pollocks.2

By 1959 King may have begun to realize what sort of sculpture he did not want to make, but this didn’t mean he had found his own direction. The decisive moment came for him, as it did for Caro, with a trip out of the country. The international success in the fifties of Moore, Butler, Armitage, Chadwick, etc., had created in England a climate of single-minded loyalty to a style which could no longer honestly be followed. Until the Tate retrospective in 1966, David Smith was virtually unknown in England by all except a few advanced painters and sculptors. King went to Greece on a scholarship in 1960.

Before 1960 I thought of abstract art as a bit too divorced from life. I was closer to Moore, and the idea that a work had to be close to nature and come out of a humanistic, pantheistic approach. Going to Greece made me consider the possibility of sculpture being natural and therefore of nature. . . . The type of work I was doing before then was to an extent rootless in that it was all to do with me, not with the outside world.

When he returned from Greece he destroyed all previous work (photos show Matisse-like nudes), cleaned up his studio and started a series of abstract drawings. Declaration, a sculpture of early 1961, was indeed a declaration of intent. Two circles, two squares and two crosses are threaded on a steel bar. Most of King’s subsequent works in the early 1960s were less rigorously abstract and less straightforward in arrangement, but Declaration can be seen, in the light of his work of the last two years, as a seminal piece. It was as if he deliberately purged his vocabulary of “sculptural” form—as a good poet might purge his vocabulary of “poetic diction”—in favor of a vocabulary of abstract forms which had to be made meaningful by being made his own. (This is the opposite of the Henry Moore approach, where you start with sculptural forms and maybe finish up with an abstraction.)

In 1962 King made Rosebud, the first of his cone sculptures and also his first painted work. Surprisingly the cone is a form with almost no pre-history in sculpture. It is also one of the few variable and sculpturally interesting three-dimensional forms which are not organic.3 The cone certainly was important to King for its ideological possibilities as a form: it is rooted to the ground but leads the eye upward (“The cone as something earthbound was important to me.”). It is precise in silhouette, yet has no edge; its form is an embodiment of a basic sculptural principle (basic, at least, to recent English sculpture). Yet the particular interest of King’s cone sculptures lies in their quirkiness, individually and collectively. The qualities of Rosebud and Through (1965) developed out of abstract sculptural intentions—respectively, to investigate the surface of the cone, and to open the cone horizontally and vertically—but the solutions to the problems of carrying these intentions through have been idiosyncratic, and it is in these idiosyncrasies that King’s character as a sculptor and his originality have been exposed. He is like a man who, offered a direct route from London to Edinburgh, arrives at his destination only after a lengthy detour down country lanes. Art as the production of didactic objects is a concept that has not so far made much progress in England.

Rosebud is made of plastic, the outer skin painted pink and split open on either side to reveal a green inner layer. An interest in surface as something expressive and mutable divides King off from most of the other British sculptors with whom his name is usually grouped.4 Since Rosebud he has increasingly used color to lighten and enliven form, thus enabling himself to use heavy solid shapes without the risk of their becoming aggressive and powerful as Moore’s heavy shapes tend to be. It is a telling paradox that King, who of all the younger English sculptors most regularly employs solids, should also be the readiest to dissolve form in favor of the deployment of color. (Perhaps his dissolution of solids through concentration on color and on surface is the equivalent in sculpture of the color painters’ dissolution of material surface and pictorial shape.)

Certainly it has become increasingly apparent that King’s main preoccupation is the distribution and articulation of color in space. As many painters have found recently, color is totally demanding once it becomes a priority. Figurative associations undermine the .intensity of the experience it offers. In the end Rosebud retains an object-like simplicity. The revelation of color is too much tied down to the locality of its subject, however delightful. The next three cone sculptures share this object quality; they evoke a world of poetic but personal imagery. Twilight (1963) may have begun with the abstract idea of a sculpture which starts in space and radiates down to the ground, but in the finished work the suggestions of clouds, evening light and horizon are inescapable. Art does not become natural, in the sense in which King uses the term, merely by borrowing its imagery from the natural world. Natural does not mean the same as naturalistic.

Ghenghis Khan is a misleading title which has led some people to see the sculpture as anthropomorphic (helmeted warrior?). When he titled the piece, King was originally thinking of Coleridge’s poem, “In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decree/Where Alph the sacred river ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea.” The title of And the birds began to sing, the fourth cone sculpture, relates to the nursery rhyme, “Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie . . . and when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing.” Once someone had pointed that one out to me, I found it hard to see the colors in the piece, black and orange, as governed by any sculptural necessity. I could think only of black birds with orange beaks. The title was certainly given after the sculpture was finished, but titles are a good guide to intention, if not to effect.

Through, the last of the cones, is the most abstract, and by far the strongest. The title describes the effect rather than the object. Color is used non-objectively to reveal and underline a purely sculptural phenomenon: rather than intensifying the divided surface, it marks out the spaces between the component parts of the cone and underlines the horizontal motif which opens up its base. Color lightens the solid form. It is only because his preoccupation with color has come so positively to override his involvement with form that King can talk in terms of “solidity as something which congeals space”—as if the forms themselves had materialized rather than been made. It would be facetious to suggest that the priority of color used abstractly suggests a rejection of the material world, but it is an important truth that emphasis upon color has helped to liberate the modern artist from particular circumstances in his search for general (natural) truths in personal experience—partly because, as I suggested, experience of color is at its most intense when color is least circumstanced.

The blocks which raise the cone-segments in Through originally extended much further on either side, but King was obliged to cut them back, presumably because the use of the cone predisposes toward a compact kind of sculpture. His attempt to open up the cone had been partially successful—Through is certainly one of the most exciting sculptures he has made—but it had also exposed the limitations of the form: it was too much of an object. King had shown how rich in associations and how various this object could become, but in adding to the sculptural variety of so incontrovertible a shape there was always a risk of increasing its declamatory and theatrical aspects. Through is almost melodramatic.

In three closely related works of 1966–7, Slit, Slant (same theme with two elements added: different color) and Nile (same form as Slant with a braking element added as a separate piece), King found a far more open and more rigorously abstract means of exploring his interest in color and in ground-based but space-invading forms. Where Through remained definitely an object, these sculptures suggest movement and development. It is less easy to set a limit to the area within which their activity is relevant, though their scale, being in a one-to-one relation with us (they are all three around six feet high), suggests that this activity will always be perceptible in personal rather than architectural terms. King’s sculpture grows partly out of an interest in place, and in our environment as an aspect of ourselves rather than as something which we walk through and are molded by.

These three sculptures are not wholly satisfactory in that they are basically frontal; one has to accept them as that or it is hard to accept them at all. What one finds round the back, the means by which the arborite forms are joined and braced, can sabotage the elements of surprise and revelation in one’s enjoyment of the front. The most successful of King’s sculptures, from a purely technical point of view, have been those, like Through, where no supporting braces or joints have been needed. His “assembled” sculptures, like Slit, Slant and Nile, have always seemed to me curiously improvisatory and impermanent. In his attitude to materials and processes King is often cavalier to an extent that is unusual for a sculptor.5 Where Caro, in a piece like Prairie, is superbly articulate, using his materials as a highly literate poet uses language, to stretch the possible content within the tight vocabulary of a single poem, King often composes with the impatience of the inarticulate, putting his structure at risk in the interests of spontaneity.

The fact that King has produced only 22 sculptures in eight years should not blind one to his real working pace. Materials have not always been easy to obtain and he has been involved in a considerable amount of teaching (1959–67 at St. Martin’s,6 1967–8 at the Slade School; three days a week at the highest point). He is, I think, extremely impatient as a sculptor—impatient to realize ideas which crystallize out of his sensations of color and space and movement, but which are not easily rendered in terms of sculptural form. This leads in some cases to the production of sculptures which cannot be entirely reconciled, in terms of their effect upon us, with his expressed intentions and aspirations.

King’s lack of involvement with materials and with structure places him outside the main grouping of British sculptors of his own generation. His work cannot be seen as we have learned to see theirs (though I have not seen any very recent works by Tim Scott). It is important to make a distinction. In a sculpture by Caro—even the heavy pieces of 1960–1—the manifest means of supporting and joining are central to the concept of the piece from the beginning. Even where the sculpture is surprising, like Prairie, the surprise only serves to reveal in a new light the true lucidity and articulateness of the whole as a concept.7 The structures of King’s sculptures, on the contrary, have often suffered from lack of proper articulation, as if the execution had been lagging some way behind the original idea, or as if perhaps the idea itself were just out of reach of the kind of sculpture he was accustomed to make.

This is particularly evident in Easter, the latest work exhibited at the Whitechapel, a large (27 feet long) arrangement of colored planes and strong verticals in steel, wood, aluminum and arborite. From one point (the “front”) it is all receding planes of color, like a Matisse papier découpé pulled out into space; from another (the “side”) it is all sculptural flow, held in check by the verticals. The two readings do not really interact; the viewpoints are too widely separated and too discrete, largely because of the amount of space the piece takes up.8 The original idea has emerged as a giant collage of colored forms, thrown together fast but not fast enough; as it the intention to make a big sculpture had blocked him long enough to ensure that the idea of color and space was past all hope of successful pursuit.

King’s ideas are not articulated and released, as Caro’s seem to be, in the physical process of assembling and joining; they are merely modified by its limitations. He needs a faster, less mechanically demanding working process. He has been slowed down by factors like lack of proper materials, heavy teaching commitments and chronic lack of settled studio space.

King’s preoccupation with color and space has led him over the last eighteen months gradually farther away from Caro and from the kind of sculpture in which elements are joined to make an articulate whole (Easter seems to be something of a throwback). In three large works of 1967, Span, Call and Blue Blaze, separate forms are disposed over a certain floor area as components of one sculpture. None of these pieces was conceived from the start as a whole with so many component parts; each started from one or two forms which were added to until the space "read’’ the way King wanted it to read. Because the articulation of a certain space is so crucial a factor in the effect of these sculptures, siting is obviously of the greatest importance. The forms and colors relate to each other within the sculpture and not to anything outside it; we need to be able to recognize the area within which the sculpture is operating. Once it becomes a mere incident in our path its virtue is lost, like a sanctuary with a right of way through it. Those who saw the British pavilion at the 1968 Venice Biennale will perhaps understand what I mean. Span was beautifully sited indoors towards the corner of a plain white room. Call, outside, was competing with the Italian sky, some trees, an uneven ground surface, the architectural remnants of Empire and the journalists milling around the French pavilion. It lost. At the Whitechapel, Call looked like a different work, though I still like it least of the three.

These sculptures are never environmental. If we can enter the area which the forms occupy, we do so only to gain further experience of them and to confirm a sensation of space and volume which the sculpture offered from a distance. The sculpture invites this kind of close involvement. The scale is always a human scale and the occasional apparently irrational detail serves to hold our attention at close quarters, a reminder of the physical, tactile aspect of sculpture. In Span, a small bar, triangular in section, acts as a stop on one corner, intended to limit the sense of movement within the work. The high shine on the forms keeps them from seeming oppressive at close quarters (imagine them matte). The artist’s character is revealed in the dilemma he creates for himself and the decisions he takes. The heavy forms of Span needed to be lightened to keep open the space between them and to honor the non-aggression pact between artist and spectator which has characterized the best British sculpture in its reaction away from Moore.

With King’s recent works it is as if we were invited to move into the real space of a late Matisse interior, not because the room looks nice, but in order to verify the real substance of the shapes and colors and to experience more completely through absorption in their milieu their effect upon us and their relevance to the space we normally inhabit. There is indeed something of the painter about King. On the evidence of his sculpture he conceives of space as something to be moved into rather than to move in. If he has a mentor it is certainly Matisse.

In Blue Blaze color is used to better effect than in any of King’s other sculptures. The combination of intensity of color and matteness of surface (the pieces are painted in what could almost be described as International Klein Blue) draws attention to the disposition of the forms, and thus to the whole “shape” -of the complete work—the picture it paints in space—rather than to the nature of the particular and individual shapes which compose the sculpture. The most dramatic contrast is not between solid and void, but between blue and not-blue. The color carries over the gap between one piece and the next, lending some credence to King’s slightly ambitious concept of sculpture as “coloring space.” The intense matte color softens the contrast between lit surface and surface in shadow. This does not so much flatten form as soften it, melting it optically into the space around. The contrast between the weight and angularity of the individual forms and the intangible mystery of their effect in relationship is what makes the mood of the sculpture. The four pieces of Blue Blaze remain decisively one sculpture, the passages between them bridged by the color which invades the space they inhabit. Color particularizes the space. Matisse said, “Expressiveness springs from the colored surface which the spectator grasps in its entirety,” (my italics).

In Blue Blaze, more than in Call or Span, each piece was conceived as a separate sculpture. So long as they can be convincingly united as one work, their assembly, which is open to a certain variation, will recreate a proportionately large area of activity. The color unites them in their actual grouping as the sculptor’s imagination united them during the separate episodes of their manufacture. They are certainly not united by what they hold in common as forms. In King’s work the mystery of color as a means of human expression increasingly supersedes the logic of formal relationships.

Blue Blaze is a “remaking of the person”9 in the form of a special area, set aside from the world yet a part of it, abstract in its nature yet particular in its effect. Like all King’s best works it is modest, serious and strange. There are towns and landscapes which enshrine the character and aspirations of a people. A good sculpture represents the person of its creator in a one to one relationship with any other individual or with the whole natural world. Its intentions cannot be perverted because they can never satisfactorily be couched in other than sculptural terms

Charles Harrison is Assistant Editor of Studio International.



1. In 1957 King had a small exhibition at Heffers Gallery in Cambridge which Caro visited. King had seen and admired an exhibition of Caro’s work at Gimpel Fils; he sent him an invitation and a train ticket to Cambridge.

2. From “Phillip King Talks About his Sculpture” in Studio International, June 1968. This text was based on a long taped conversation between King and the editors of Studio. All quotations used in the present article are from Studio or from the original tape.

3. One of the few other forms which fulfills these conditions, the cylinder, has been a feature of the recent work of William Tucker.

4. Caro first painted his steel sculptures to preserve them from rust. King’s approach to color developed out of his early use (1960–1) of materials like plaster, wood and cement, in which the color was a part of the material. In a throwback work of 1964, Barbarian Fruit (made while King was at Bennington; collection Richard Feigen Gallery, New York), he stacked cast aluminum forms on a wood base in a Brancusi-like hierarchy of contrasting and complementary surfaces.

5. I once had to assemble Point X (1965) for an exhibition. The sculpture came in 14 pieces; it took an hour and a lot of matchsticks to get it looking right.

6. Since the late fifties St. Martin’s has maintained a high conversion rate of students into staff. Among those who studied full- or part-time (usually in Caro’s classes) at St. Martin’s and who are now or have recently been on the staff are William Tucker, Tim Scott, Isaac Witkin, Michael Bolus, David Annesley, Barry Flanagan, Roland Brenner and Roelof Louw. The role of St. Martin’s in the development of British sculpture since the mid-fifties can hardly be overestimated.

7. In his article on this work in Artforum, February 1968, Michael Fried implicitly emphasized this point. By minutely describing the piece he was able to expose its effect. It is as if you have to get absorbed in the structure in order to sense how marvelously structure is transcended.

8. Even the Whitechapel was much too small for it. In all fairness, it might work better in a larger space, or even out of doors. The piece shown at the Whitechapel was not a completely finished version.

9. The phrase is Tim Scott’s, from his Reflections on Sculpture (a commentary on notes by William Tucker), printed in the catalog of Scott’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, June–July, 1967.