Abstract Critical

Henry Moore : Late Large Forms at Gagosian King’s Cross

Written by John Holland

Why is Larry Gagosian devoting one of his 11 galleries to a not-for-sale display of Moore’s ’turds on a plaza’- curated, moreover, by the Henry Moore Foundation? Perhaps it is not so surprising, in the age of the decline of the public institution, that a super-dealer like Gagosian should try to position himself not as a mere trader, but as a public taste-maker, a (re)definer of the canon. In return, the Foundation gets a lick of Larry’s high-production value gloss- a re-boot for the haunter of utopian lost causes like New-Town shopping centres and the UN plaza.

A wall of the gallery had to be removed to accommodate them, though the spaces are hardly small; Moore would at least have approved of the undramatic natural light. There are nine sculptures, taken off their plinths and stranded on their tray-like bases. All but two are reclining figures, or related abstractions – multiple parts arranged laterally on the base, with a strong sense of front and back, a more perfunctory view from either end.

Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae, 1968, Large Two Forms, 1966 and Reclining Connected Forms, 1969 Photo: Mike Bruce. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation

Moore made endless permutations of this motif, but the figurative content seems problematic to me, even tenuous. In a piece like Reclining Figure-Hand, the poor woman seems incidental, a victim of Moore’s formal mannerisms, despite the vague invocations by Herbert Read and later, Fuller, of concepts lifted from fashionable shrinks such as Winnicot and Jung. Moore’s huge success was, surely, the result of a lucky confluence with the needs of the time. The post-war project wanted symbols of Modernist optimism, and Moore’s art offered these but softened with a reassuring aura of foggy timelessness, of the old fundamental themes. Berger cruelly called it ‘Piltdown sculpture’, meaning not just that he found them dank with the mouldy whiff of atavism, but that they were, like the Piltdown hoax, an unconvincing amalgam of mismatched body parts.

Certainly I find it hard to look at Moore’s oddly arbitrary-seeming distortions without reading them more literally than he would have intended. Though the ubiquitous holes serve a purpose – to open up mass to the surrounding space in a response to Cubism – Moore seems oblivious to the violence this does to a serenely reclining figure, or a loving mother’s face. Hence the acuity of Martin Kippenberger’s joke; titling a motley group of polystyrene figures with holes for stomachs ‘The Hunger Family’.

Moore’s distortions provoke literal readings in the way that, say, Picasso’s or Giacometti’s don’t. There is a basic disconnect between the ostensible subject and the formal language. Seated Woman, Thin Neck, for example, has an ugly splayed back like a turtle’s shell, and a little knife-blade head – but I really don’t know why.

Large Four Piece Reclining Figure, 1972-73 and Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 2, 1960 Photo: Mike Bruce. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation

Two-Piece Reclining Figure No.2 takes his fondness for the baggy cliché of ‘woman as landscape’ to a surreal extreme. Broken into two parts, the ‘legs’ end is essentially an eroded island, with craggy cliffs and arches (patinated dark green) emerging from the sea (patinated dark blue). The upper, more humanoid part, sits on top of a now solid ‘sea’, morphologically unconnected. It’s not so much ‘Earth Mother with feet of clay’, more a dismembered torso looking at a model of the Needles. It’s awful. Two-Piece Reclining Figure is like a sculptural transcription of one of Picasso’s lumbering bathers, with a brutally angular head instead of one of Moore’s usual expressionless little matchstick tops. It’s an exciting thing, in an outrageous sci-fi sort of way, though the back of the head looks like an afterthought. The body is an industrial-looking block of angles, separated from the rest by an extraordinary 45 degree slice, but dominated by an obscenely distended neck – an enlarged phallus, surely, or maybe just a vertical counterbalance to the horizontality of the lower body… probably the latter.

Large Four-Piece Reclining Figure is rather beautiful, invoking Brancusi in its polished, machined brassiness – torsioned like a crankshaft, abstract but suggestive. Like the similarly modular Three-Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae, the multiple segments are complicated to read, their relationships shifting subtly as you move around the sculpture; though maybe the giant ball-joints are more bathetic than sublime? You have to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Contrasting in tone completely, green, bulbous, inflated-looking, Two Large Forms is, perhaps, the least abstract thing in the show, despite its lack of overt figuration. It’s one of his Mother and Child/primal bond pieces gone wrong, the two parts playing out a melodrama of mutual consumption. Here the holes make sense, in a hideous sort of way. The mother and child appears again, in yet another Reclining Connected Form, where a jellybean womb gestates the titular blob, invoking a play of insides and outsides, protective flesh and aggressive helmet, the usual things, but in this case quite small and introverted – not a public thing.

Large Two Forms, 1966 Photo: Mike Bruce. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation

These giant bronzes are a long way from Moore’s old ideal of ‘truth to materials’. Earlier sculptures worked with the specificities of wood or stone – the awkward flaws, the woodiness and stoniness. Filling a plaza demanded a new scale, but Moore was almost alone among his contemporaries in being wholly a carver rather than an assembler or modeller, and carving is a slow and inflexible process. The works had to inflate somehow, so he used a lot of assistants – the Old Man just scraping the last inch or so from the plaster-covered polystyrene. Because of this, the surfaces become generic, fussy and clichéd, blandly ‘artistic’- random scrapes and smoothed edges. Plaster is without qualities, in a way; at once a liquid to be slopped, a paste to be moulded, a solid to be carved. Sometimes the bronze records a palette knife spreading plaster on a form like the icing on a cake. The Modernist idea of making explicit the process of manufacture, of making it integral to the form itself is not transgressed, so much as forgotten as an inconvenience. Even the polished brassy works are covered in a thick layer of lacquer, compromising their materiality. Most of these bronzes cover their forms like stage props.

Maquette Shelf Photo: Mike Bruce. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation

In a corner of the final room though, there is a surprise. On a long covered shelf is a collection of small objects – maquettes, found stones, bits and pieces from Moore’s studio. I found it a small revelation. It shows the origins of some of his odder inventions, and gives an alternative vision of how much better (though probably not more successful) an artist he could have been. There are little plaster maquettes treating the plaster like chalk, fragile and rudimentary, and lots of amalgamated objects – fragments of stone stuck with wax to flint pebbles. A shard of bone is obviously the source of the strange, sharp head of Seated Woman, Thin Neck. Smoothed out, it loses the stark conflation of bone shard and head, unlike, say, Picasso’s bicycle seat Bull’s Head or Smith’s welded farm tools. Of themselves, but not; the casting a transubstantiation. But Moore’s big casts tend to have the feel of designs made manifest, a set of dimensions filled out; not in the way that Brancusi made objects appear apparently ex nihilo, but always evincing the reassuring evidence of the hand-crafted, signifier of ‘proper’ art. It seems to me that in his desire to make ‘significant’ works in the context of Modernist developments that he either misconstrued or misapplied, Moore transmogrified his ideas into portentous mannerisms.

In the meantime Larry has, no doubt, a few old editions he needs to inflate the market for, and a few new Chinese billionaires keen to invest in the Great Modernists.

  1. Terry Ryall said…

    Perhaps I could add a modest anecdotal slant to the less-than-favourable views of Henry Moore’s sculpture expressed by John Holland and Robin Greenwood.
    As first-year sculpture students at Wimbledon School of Art, in 1973, we were set a project to make a piece of work in the style of somebody whose work we didn’t like. Without hesitation I set about making a caricature of one of Henry Moore’s ‘holed’ reclining figures. I couldn’t have articulated in any meaningful way what exactly it was that I dis-liked so much about his work as I knew little about sculpture of any sort. I did however, with that certainty that is ever associated with the young, know what I liked even if I didn’t know why and of course I knew I wasn’t wrong in such judgements!

    Growing up in suburban London in the 1960′s offered many and varied pleasures. Being interested in art I regularly visited the commercial galleries in Mayfair (such places held no fear for a spotty-faced youth from a council-estate) and saw really exciting work by,amongst others, Larry Poons, Tom Wesselmann, Barry Flanagan (pre-hare). Their work seemed of that time, my time, as opposed to the dark, lumpy, stodgy sculptures of Henry Moore which seemed remote. I had also seen Anthony Caro’s Early One Morning somewhere in a Mayfair gallery (probably Gimpel Fils) and loved it. As with my dis-like of Moore’s reclining figures I couldn’t have said why I liked Caro’s piece so much. To someone in their late teens it probably just looked sexily modern and space-age.

    With the benefit of the passage of time I would readily concede that my judgements were for sure based on shallow assessments, almost certainly on appearances alone. But then, as other contributors to Abstract Critical have asked (and probably more eloquently than I) what else is there about a work of visual art that is more meaningful than its visual appearance?

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    ‘…designs made manifest…’, ‘…portentous mannerisms.’ – I’m queasy just looking at the photographs. As the 2010 Tate show demonstrated, the older Moore got, the more tenuous his grasp of three-dimensions became. Even the big late wood-carvings, where you would think that the material might exert some kind of rigour, had so much redundant ‘stuff’ in them (to call it ‘mass’ would be something of a travesty) as to make for a lamentable waste of good wood. Anything sculptural in late Moore is, as John Holland rightly implies, designed out of existence; view follows unrelated view, and, despite the mannerism of the holes, there is little that is spatial about them. Moore is by and large as decidedly an ‘un-visual’ artist as they come, and this show looks as gruesome as anything I’ve seen. So poor are some of these works as visual structures that they can only be defended by a wholly romantic and subjective contextualisation.
    Still, nice to have a (very good) essay about sculpture.