PRINT Summer 1969

The Sculpture of Roland Brener

IN ATTEMPTING TO JUSTIFY the existence of things made willfully by man for no obvious use, we are faced with the necessity of justifying to ourselves our own concept of existence. The more obviously unfunctional, unarchitectural, undecorative, un-anything the thing created, the more acute this necessity becomes. English sculpture in the early sixties was justified by the most literate of its practitioners in terms of the unequivocal status of objects: “Sculpture. . . . must have the generality of the world: the identity of the object: the character of a human individual,” and “Sculpture is a proposition about the physical world, about a finite order (completeness), and by implication about our existence in the world. . . .”1

In 1965 six young sculptors, all former students of Anthony Caro from St. Martin’s School of Art, exhibited together at the Whitechapel Art Gallery as a New Generation (Bill Tucker, Tim Scott, Phillip King, David Annesley, Michael Bolus, Isaac Witkin). The quality they seemed to share among themselves and with Caro was a belief in the power of sculpture to embody particular identity in abstract but immutable form: sculpture as something you can go back to and say “This was me then”; safeguarding one’s present identity by preserving it as an object. “Presentness is grace,”2 by implication, because we can anticipate its survival into the future. The presentness of the work of art suggests the possibility of immortalizing an unbearably transient and valuable state of consciousness.

The trouble is that the object changes: time changes it and we change it. The newspaper on a Cubist collage is yellowed both by the passage of time and by the retrospectiveness of our regard upon it: from eternal spring we look back at the leaves of an eternal autumn. The working-out of a development in art—the exposure of limitations in form or the discovery of possibilities formerly closed-off at the limits of imagination—changes our consciousness. Much of the sculpture of the early sixties has come to seem remarkably finite.

Some younger sculptors, with so many independent objects now available to view, have been disposed to question the relevance of these objects to the wider situations that have engendered them. How honestly can one’s total identity be embodied in an object which requires such special treatment to survive at all as a particular thing? In a recent statement Roland Brener wrote, “The (theoretical) concern with “realness” and “openness,” the attempt to free sculpture from a descriptive function and associative connotations fail if the work relies for its success on the specialized environment made for it. The contrived social and environmental situation in which it works best is its own contradiction.”3

In 1961 Bill Tucker could write that the tradition for sculpture was “not a sculpture tradition. The precedents are probably in painting and poetry.’’4 If what Tucker wrote was true then (the precedents were, I think, largely in painting) it certainly isn’t any more. There is now a sculpture tradition in England ten years old and impossible to ignore. In England in 1959–60 the creation of a new, abstract, constructed sculpture was an act of moral assertion. Working now within a medium for which avant-garde (even modernist) status has already been won, the younger sculptor cannot assert himself so forcefully by the creation of discrete objects without lapsing into rhetoric. The struggle of the late fifties/early sixties—and it was a struggle—has really been won. Younger sculptors do not need to fight the material world into a state of anonymity in order to establish their own particular identities as artists of the present. As a very literal example, it is now generally accepted in England, as it was not ten years ago, that steel tubes and plastic go to make sculpture. More, the whole material world can now be seen as the province of sculpture.

A part of the reaction against Henry Moore in particular and emotive European sculpture in general was due to Caro’s and the New Generation artists’ distaste for what they saw as an indiscriminate manipulation of imagery and a Surrealistic metamorphosis of form outside the confines of real sculptural (as opposed to literary) meaning. Caro has been concerned to embody meaning in sculptural form and to keep that meaning direct, real and unreferential by ensuring that no other kind of form disturbs his work. Younger sculptors, Roland Brener among them, have taken the reaction a stage further in embodying their ideas not merely in terms of sculptural form (as a means of identifying with the world of things), but in terms of sculptural process itself (as a means of identifying states of mind with the states by which things are formed).

Roland Brener was born in South Africa in 1942, studied at St. Martin’s in 1964–5, and now teaches at the same school. The development of sculpture in England in the last 10 to 12 years has been to an unprecedented extent in the hands of those involved with this one school. To the extent that his work is clearly related to what has been done at St. Martin’s, Brener can be seen as one of many “contributors to a theoretical continuum dealing with accepted sculptural problems.”5 But his work so far has been differentiated by the tension embodied within it and by the extreme precariousness of its existence. Not that he is using insubstantial materials—he seems most at home with steel, occasionally used in conjunction with concrete—but because impermanence of a particular kind is a characteristic of even his most fully realized works. The particular formal existence of every recent work is in some way held in question. In the Sculpture with Four Arches of 1968, the arches themselves are held in stress by the concrete blocks at either side. Lift off these blocks and the steel strips would spring upward. This sustaining of tension within an apparently rigid and bland structure is the precise opposite of the means of construction in Caro’s work (or, say, Annesley’s) where forms apparently held in balance are in fact stabilized and firmly joined.

In another work of 1968, Brener used tensile wire to string three 35-foot steel bows. The processes by which these sculptures were formed are still alive in the works and are potentially reversible. The sculpture is in a state of tension for as long as the installation lasts; remove the stress and you reduce the sculpture to a collection of unparticularized elements of doubtful potential.

The Sculpture with Four Arches was made specifically for a certain space at Stockwell Depot, the disused brewery where Brener works together with six other sculptors, all formerly students at St. Martin’s.6 A second, smaller piece with one arch was made for a smaller, neighboring room. The more hermetic abstract sculpture of the New Generation has come to be identified to a large extent with the neutral, white gallery space in which it needs to be seen for best effect. Brener’s arch sculpture is not so much environmental in a general sense as related to the space, mood and personal associations of a particular environment. Like all his work it has a strong autobiographical quality; not in a narrative sense, but in terms of the particular tensions and relationships it establishes. “Environmental” has come to be associated with “theatrical.” There is a danger that overuse of both terms as pejoratives by those seeking to defend hermetic sculpture (which is at worst badly related to context and lacking in physical presence) will divert attention from the real quality in works like Brener’s: the determined truth of the sculptor’s enterprise to the whole situation—personal, moral and social—within which he is working; and the embodiment of this enterprise in terms which the spectator can embrace as an equal and social being.

I suspect that the relevant tensions and relationships will in fact become increasingly objectified and concentrated in the processes and forms of a good sculptor; but a premature attempt at such concentration is precisely what leads to vacuity in sculpture. At the moment, like many of his contemporaries, Brener has every reason to feel lack of confidence in the identity of the sculptural object. With these large-scale works in steel he has embodied his sensations in sculptural process without losing direction. (The trouble with “attitudes become form” is that so often they don’t. Platitudes become attitudes.)

Through his work Brener maintains a constant dialogue with the space around him; which, if the sculptor is “a three-dimensional thinker” (the phrase is Barry Flanagan’s) perhaps means an investigation of present life as the sculptor senses it. Works like the Sculpture with Four Arches, and to a lesser extent the Bow Sculpture, are limited in this sense to the extent that they relate to a limited area. Both are confined within a more or less imaginary rectangle and are best seen within the space which has established that confine. One disadvantage of these works has been their loss of scale when removed from the original context. This is, I think, a real dilemma for Brener: the need to reconcile his belief in the rightness and relevance of his present working situation with the demands established within his work for a greater openness of form. But to recognize the existence of this dilemma is to say no more than that his work is developing.

The contained areas of Brener’s arch sculptures imply a certain degree of introversion: a kind of private world of contained tensions where one might walk out of one sculpture into another of a similar scale. (The repeated door elements and consistent scale in the sculptures of 1968 suggest the juxtaposition of exit from one to entrance to the next.) There is also, in the majority of Brener’s work, an element of more or less unconscious male/female or active/passive symbolism of a kind to be expected in work where strong tensions are sustained. Rectilinear doors lead under rounded arches; contained areas are penetrated; in recent works tubes are clasped by tubular “collars.” In these works the formative tensions evoke a kind of menace; not as something imposed upon the spectator or self-consciously explored by the sculptor, but as an unavoidable quality in experience which Brener is bound in honesty to embody.

Making sculpture for Brener is a way of behaving; sculpture is the consequence of behavior. He is in no way tied down by sculptures he has made and rarely does anything to ensure their survival: “My attitude is not specifically destructive—rather call it disrespectful. My sculptures fail to impress me by their existence. Their material being is not sacrosanct.”7 The abandonment, modification or cannibalization of sculptures once they are completed acts as a means of forward-looking self-criticism. A continual dissatisfaction with the thing made as a realization of potential leads to constant readjustment. Not refinement; often by the time the work is changed the idea also has changed in response to a development within the process.

This self-critical procedure has led Brener during the last few months into a much more open kind of sculpture. The environmental and the finite are now at opposite extremes in sculpture, certainly in England if not in America; a reaction against the one can push a sculptor too far toward the other. Brener’s work has often been perhaps too much related to particular environments to survive the wider currency which his potential merits; on the other hand he has little faith in the finite state of the sculptural object. His most recent works can be seen as the product of this dilemma and as a resolution of it. In three works of 1969 Brener has been able to embody his particular preoccupations in sculptures which are neither environmental nor finite. Separate tubular elements—varying from a plain length about two feet to large angled and welded lengths of 20 feet or more—are assembled in particular configurations and locked together solely by the pressure of one element against the next. Bands of color at the ends of each element serve both to emphasize their separateness and to mark the limits of the space they activate. The individual elements remain separate, integrated as a total structure only by the equalization of stresses; relieve the pressure of one element against the next and the whole structure is in danger of collapse.

Theoretically any of these sculptures could be disassembled and reconstructed in a different form from the same ingredients. The configuration we see is the particular consequence of a nonfinite structural process. These sculptures are remarkably open in form—no closed volumes are even implied—in the way that some of Caro’s works of the early sixties were open; but this openness in Brener’s recent sculpture is also a feature of their articulation as it is not of Caro’s. They are open to change. Impermanence, tension and a kind of structural anguish are embodied in them. Where, in the 1968 works like the Sculpture with Four Arches, stress is given a distinct and almost pictorial realization, here it is used as a binding force at the center of the sculptural process; no one element can be “placed” independently within the configuration. Tensions become structure: the need to equalize them dictates the length of the tubes, the internal diameter of the collars and the acuteness of the angles.

“The processes to which I submit material are governed by structured thought and the ‘finished’ configuration is merely that point in time at which I decide to suspend the process.”8 To make a very sweeping generalization which I would not like to have to defend, but which I feel to be true: where the sculpture of Caro and of the most nearly related of the New Generation sculptors is the embodiment of a refined particular “thought,” a work by Brener or by one of a group of his contemporaries represents an episode in the development of “thought” as a faculty. Depending upon your point of view the latter might be considered either as more hesitant or as less pretentious. Of one thing I feel certain: Brener’s work, like that of the half dozen other young English sculptors of quality, is marked by its extreme lack of complacency. If Presentness is grace, the state of grace is highly precarious.

Charles Harrison is assistant editor of Studio International.


1. Notes by William Tucker published in the catalogue of Tim Scott’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in June-July, 1967.

2. The phrase, of course, is Michael Fried’s and concludes his essay on “Art and Objecthood” in Artforum, Summer, 1967.

3. From “The Concerns of Emerging Sculptors” by Roland Brener, in Studio International, January, 1969.

4. In First No. 2, a magazine edited at St. Martin’s by Tucker in 1961.

5. Brener loc. cit.

6. For further information about this group see Studio International, January, 1969.

7. From an unpublished statement by Brener, April, 1969.

8. Ibid.