View of “Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World,” 2015. From left: Oval Sculpture (Delos), 1955; Curved Form (Delphi), 1955. Photo: Olivia Hemingway.

View of “Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World,” 2015. From left: Oval Sculpture (Delos), 1955; Curved Form (Delphi), 1955. Photo: Olivia Hemingway.

Barbara Hepworth

View of “Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World,” 2015. From left: Oval Sculpture (Delos), 1955; Curved Form (Delphi), 1955. Photo: Olivia Hemingway.

FOR ALL ITS CHALLENGES, the career retrospective has long dominated art-museum programs. Underpinned by Renaissance notions of singular artistic virtuosity and the Romantic concept of the solitary genius, the retrospective’s monographic format germinated in the late eighteenth century, evolved during the nineteenth, and became standardized during the third quarter of the twentieth. Such one-person shows generally follow chronological trajectories. This now-canonical approach assumes that the production of the artist in question follows a forward-moving progression and that the work can be fully understood in isolation from the similar or contrasting practices of its time. No need to chart struggles, detours, reconsiderations, mistakes.

Though conceived and presented chronologically, Tate Britain’s recent exhibition “Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World” was no standard retrospective. Curators Penelope Curtis and Chris Stephens conceived the installation to situate Hepworth’s oeuvre in multifaceted personal, national, and international narratives, creating a complex presentation of her art and life that highlighted the full breadth of her practice. Hepworth’s contributions to avant-garde journals, her photographic diaries and experiments, and her realist figurative investigations, among other “minor” aspects of her practice, were presented not as ancillary items but as essential counterpoints to her sculpture. The curators also included the work of some of Hepworth’s fellow artists and collaborators, so that viewers saw an oeuvre developing in dialogue with the cultural production of its era. Within such atypical constructs, this overdue reconsideration of Hepworth’s art proved at once cogent and surprising.

The first gallery grouped Hepworth’s early carved sculptures in the company of two generations of artists engaged with the birth of modernist British carving. The ur-text was Jacob Epstein’s marble Doves of 1914–15; also included were works by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ursula Edgcumbe, Henry Moore, and Hepworth’s first husband, John Skeaping. Meanwhile, Hepworth herself was represented by a modest number of works that nonetheless demonstrated that her impressive ability with carving in stone and wood was evident from the start. So was her interest in abstract and fragmentary forms, exemplified by two headless, armless bodies in wood (both titled Torso, one dated 1929, the other 1932) and by the lapidary, tightly contained, yet uncannily forceful early masterwork Infant, 1929. Evoking her newborn son, Paul, Infant has been interpreted as representative of Hepworth’s intricate negotiations between domestic and professional spheres. In fact, it might be read as an expression of out-and-out emotional conflict—the infant seems to demand propitiation as much as love. Hepworth’s bold expression of maternal ambivalence registered as all the more remarkable when glimpsed among the other artists’ works. Reductively abstract and indebted to Cubism, the output of these artists adhered to a British-accented International Style—modern, tasteful, yet conservative—an aesthetic that Hepworth’s early work both embraces and surpasses.

If the first gallery suggested a social network, the next focused on a single collaborative relationship. By the early 1930s, Hepworth’s marriage to Skeaping had ended, and painter Ben Nicholson had become her life partner and studio mate. The Hepworth-Nicholson pairing was intellectually and artistically dynamic, to say the least. Nicholson disarmingly characterized the relationship thus: “Our ideas, & our rhythms, our life is so exactly married that we can live think & work & move & stay together still as if we were one person.” This melding of sensibilities was apparent in the works in the second gallery, which included painting, sculpture, prints, and textiles, as well as photography, graphic design, and personal albums. The various media and methods demonstrated Hepworth and Nicholson’s sharing of motifs—for example, female profiles recur in both artists’ works.

The objects on view here also traced the couple’s new associations with Paris-based artists (Brancusi, Picasso, Mondrian, Arp, and the group Abstraction-Création). Viewers could peruse some of the French and British artistic journals Hepworth and Nicholson contributed to and for which they designed. The increasingly reduced and abstract forms in Hepworth’s sculptures seem to reflect this cross-Channel dialogue. Her mother-child groups retain only the barest trace of figuration, while her Two Forms of 1933 is wholly abstract, albeit powerfully evocative, projecting sexual aggression and sensuality. These works prefigure the way Hepworth would combine two or three streamlined, impeccably finished forms on a single base in the later ’30s. The second gallery also introduced Hepworth’s experiments with photography, via a photogram self-portrait, while wall text illuminated her interventionist approach to visually choreographing the way her sculpture was to be experienced through photographs she commissioned. The alabaster Figure, 1933, is set off superbly against an inky backdrop in one photo, acquiring not just heightened aesthetic appeal but a kind of mystery. Such images suggest that Hepworth envisioned a second life for these works—a mediated, immaterial life—and complicate our understanding of her sculpture’s seemingly straightforward modernist presence.

Titled “International Modernism” and “Equilibrium,” the exhibition’s next two sections covered the period 1935 to 1948, when Hepworth’s art achieved full maturity and she began to produce work that evinced a sensibility totally her own. In 1943, Hepworth began making her most iconic pieces—hollowed-out wooden forms with polished exteriors and painted interiors, many incorporating her signature geometric rays of string, which nod to her friend Naum Gabo’s filaments. But if Gabo was attempting to slough off mass entirely, Hepworth’s complex volumes express more ambivalence toward this fundamental property of matter, articulating tensions between obdurate weight and airy weightlessness—as well as between organic and geometric, interior and exterior, natural and artificial. Certainly, Hepworth’s transformation of thread, a soft, inchoate material associated with craft and women’s work, into taut straight lines might be said to articulate a politics of gender. Other works from the period indicate entirely different concerns. A series of eerily realistic drawings depicting surgeries suggests that one of the international modernisms with which Hepworth engaged was that of Neue Sachlichkeit—another surprising wrinkle that unsettles the preconceived narrative of her oeuvre.

The next section, titled “Staging Sculpture,” elaborated on aspects of Hepworth’s art that were briefly introduced in the second gallery, documenting how the artist sited her public sculptures and how she hired photographers and art-directed images of herself and her work. A short 1953 documentary was on view, as were photographs she commissioned of her sculptures in situ and of her set designs, e.g., John Vickers’s dramatic images of her austere mise-en-scène for an Old Vic production of Electra. The theatrical lighting here recalls the lighting in many of the photos of Hepworth’s sculptures, almost as if the latter images, too, were conceived, in some sense, theatrically. There is something about all of these images that suggests a prescient performativity, one that recognizes the inextricable connections among the process of making sculpture, the staging of its image, and the creation of a public aesthetic identity. Viewers also had the opportunity to contemplate Hepworth’s own camerawork, including her experimental photograms, double-exposure photos, and photocollages. Through the last two processes, she attempted to deal with the issues of representing the three-dimensionality of sculpture on a flat surface, though in one suite of works she winds up collapsing the illusory three-dimensionality of the image: Cutout photos of her sculpture are superimposed on photos of modernist architectural buildings and landscapes, delivering a disorienting effect through flattening and proportional distortion. Such inclusions underscored the sense that Hepworth’s two-dimensional production is not a digression to be downplayed, but an essential element of a practice that can’t be mapped as a single threadlike trajectory.

By 1950, Hepworth was recognized as a major British artist. She represented the United Kingdom in the Venice Biennale of that year, won the Grand Prix in São Paulo in 1959, and installed her monumental memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld at the United Nations in 1964. The exhibition’s last gallery was the stage for the larger outdoor bronze sculptures she began producing in the late ’50s, a period in which casting became a necessity for her, as it allowed her to keep up with the international demand for her art and for public-scale works. As a foil for these sculptures, the curators re-created the outdoor setting of her 1965 retrospective at the Kröller-Müller Museum near Otterlo, the Netherlands, where some of Hepworth’s sculptures were set against Gerrit Rietveld’s then newly reconstructed 1955 open-air pavilion. Fascinating and bold as it was to attempt to bring the outdoors in, the final gallery felt less successful than the others, perhaps because of its mildly surreal ambience or because of some property inherent in the bronzes themselves—their larger scale or the less refined quality of their metal surfaces. This roughness, however, can’t be attributed to a lack of control of her material. There are smaller Hepworth bronzes of the period (not included in this show) that are remarkably beautiful and wholly convincing, with marvelously elegant surfaces—for example, Spring 1966.

Of course, it is tempting to read Hepworth’s process and her choice of materials and forms through the lens of gender, and many have. Gendered considerations also apply to the reception history of her work, namely the contradictions of her lifetime fame and posthumous occlusion. She was cited as a protofeminist by early feminists in the United States, though this claim was ironically based on her art’s formal relationship to central-core imagery, rather than on Hepworth’s refusal to adhere to gendered notions of who makes formalist art. In any case, she fiercely resisted any connection to feminism. The fact is that, like Helen Frankenthaler and Louise Nevelson, among others, she wanted to play in the company of men, not cultivate solidarity with other women. Perhaps it is for this reason that her work has been largely absent from exhibitions that, over the past three decades, have offered feminist reevaluations of recent art history, although one could easily have imagined Hepworth in a show like Catherine de Zegher’s 1996 “Inside the Visible” (at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston), which considered a global group of women artists whose reputations were confined within national borders. For the most part, Hepworth remains an artist consigned to regional status, little shown today beyond the UK. This may be partly because of her gender but also has been due to certain strictures of exhibition practice itself. Shaking off those constraints, this imperfect but exhilarating show delineated new possibilities for the retrospective, and for our understanding of Hepworth’s art.

Travels to the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands Nov. 28, 2015–Apr. 17, 2016; Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen, Germany, May 22–Aug. 28, 2016.

Norman L. Kleeblatt is Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator at The Jewish Museum, New York.