Abstract Critical

Steel Sculpture Part II – From Scott, Tucker and Panting to the Present

Written by Alan Gouk

Tim Scott, Kajuraho II, 1979, steel, 264 x 205 x 155 cm, Sprengel Museum, Hannover. Photo Carlos Granger

Tim Scott, Kajuraho II, 1979, steel, 264 x 205 x 155 cm, Sprengel Museum, Hannover. Photo Carlos Granger

You can read the first part of ‘Steel Sculpture: From Gabo to Caro’ here. The aim of William Tucker’s book, The Language of Sculpture, which should have been called ‘The Origins and Fundamental Elements of Modern Sculpture’, was to provide a fuller and more accurate picture of these origins than that offered by the Greenbergian model. In this he succeeded beyond anything that he could have imagined at the outset. Its thought patterns evolve with the writing into areas that must have surprised the author, and speculatively open up ideas for sculpture that make it still a fertile source-book for anyone interested in a serious pursuit of this art. (What must Tucker think of the “moronic inferno”, the collapse of intellect into life-casting, found object theatricality, ironised kitsch [ironised kitsch is still kitsch], and the display of wealth by ordering up enlargements from skilled craftspeople in China, India or Carrara? Dabblers dabbling, uptails all.)

Anthony Smart, Single Curve, 1973-4

Anthony Smart, Single Curve, 1973-4

The Stockwell sculptors Peter Hide, Anthony Smart, Katherine Gili and John Foster were unfairly and quite inaccurately designated as followers of Caroesque abstraction. Already at the time of Tucker’s Condition of Sculpture exhibition, 1975, they were showing a marked independence from Caro, and other influences were in play. The inclusion of Hide, Smart and Gili in that exhibition in itself opened them up to a wider dialogue with sculptural precedent than that line stemming from cubist collage which was generally meant by the epithet Caroesque.

Anthony Smart, Double Curve, 1974

Anthony Smart, Double Curve, 1974

Tucker’s writings in the Language of Sculpture and in two further essays, Space, Illusion, Sculpture and What Sculpture Is, had done much to show that there were other lines of influence to be drawn; the latter two essays were an outright attack on the Greenbergian thesis, and Tucker’s own contribution to the Condition of Sculpture show, Tunnel, and his tube-bending sculptures, such as Beulah, 1971 were an attempt (only partially successful) to put into practice the ideas about gravity, material and structure which had evolved while he was writing that book.

Tim Scott, Nataraja IV,1975, steel, cut, welded and forged

Tim Scott, Nataraja IV,1975, steel, cut, welded and forged

Smart’s contribution incorporating stressed steel sheet to the C.O.S show anticipated by a year or so Tucker’s attempt in Tunnel to allow the structural capabilities of laminating plywood to generate the forming of sculpture. Tucker was in the process of moving from a perceptual, retinal phenomenology in his Cat’s Cradle and tubular pieces, to one based on the structural potential inherent in materials. Similarly, from the moment Tim Scott had encountered the blacksmith’s forge, while working on the sculpture Cathedral 1970-71, his first sculpture entirely in steel, he began to experiment with the malleable qualities of steel. Initially this involved forging elements for inclusion in sculptures conceived on an earlier ground-plan, but gradually, with the Natarajas of 1974-5 and the Mudra series of table-pieces in 1975, Scott began to generate a close interconnection between mass and spatial enclosure and the ductile potential of forged steel.

Peter Hide, Pomeroy, 1975, steel, H. 200 cm approx

Peter Hide, Pomeroy, 1975, steel, H. 200 cm approx

Gili’s planar but volumetric sculptures of 1975-79 grew increasingly organic, even anthropomorphic in form. They are genuinely constructed rather than assembled, their volumes conceived “in the round” and interpenetrating one another and interpenetrated by circumambient space, a far cry form the pictorial tableau-like disposition of Caro’s volumetric works of the 1980s. But the most important contribution to the C.O.S show from this group was Peter Hide’s Pomeroy, 1975, an imposing large-scale, up-and-over tour-de-force. It was closely modelled on Caro’s Quartet of 1972, one of a group of works based on skips, but with its corrugated stacking of I beams it harks back also to Caro’s Midday of 1960. Greenberg was impressed by Pomeroy, as well he should have been, since it challenged Caro on his own ground, and its monumentality showed up a certain lightness in Caro’s sensibility; this had long been Hide’s ambition, but though Hide’s was the strongest work from this group in the show it was also the most deferential to its sources.

Katherine Gili, Blow, 1978-79, steel, H. 164 cm

Katherine Gili, Blow, 1978-79, steel, H. 164 cm

Gili’s development through the late seventies shows an improvisatory play with implied volume and open enclosure. Or rather not so much implied volume as sculptures which from one point of view imply object-forms, casings, shells, which prove from another viewpoint to be open, incomplete, as if carved open into segments; and which then are involved in disjunctive cubistic inversions of role, a kind of positive / negative carving of both space and shape. These procedures moved toward a dawning intuition that “there is no such thing as abstract volume”. All “volumes” are specific, concrete things with overt reference to natural forms, either hollow as in shells, brazil-nut casings enclosing an inner kernel (many of Gili’s sculptures set-up a rhyming correspondence with such natural objects), or else are solids, stones, crystalline structures, geological formations. Gili’s sculptures had thus followed a clear logical progression which could only lead to a closer identification of “volume” with mass, that in sculpture “line” only existed as attenuated mass, in a particular material, in this case steel with all its qualities of ductility and tensile strength (as Tucker had realised).

Katherine Gili, Rise, 1979, H 90 x 98 x 60 cm, steel

Katherine Gili, Rise, 1979, H 90 x 98 x 60 cm, steel

By avoiding rectilinear junctions, and by seaming convex curved sections of plate, torch-cut in curves, along their edges, Gili achieved a highly inventive blending of the organic and the synthetic, producing “volumes” which suggested naturalistic forms, and yet the increasing particularity of their mode of junction, and the pressure of part on part was of a kind not found in nature. This concern for increasing specificity in junctions between discrete individual elements, parts, “forms”, led logically though not inevitably to an interest in how such connections occurred in the natural world, and in relation to stance, how they occurred in the human body.

In 1976 Hide acquired some slabs of rolled steel with pastry like unfurled ends, as Caro had done in 1972. But whereas Caro had laid out long strips of these exposed ends in table-like formations, tipped and inclined diagonally to the ground, Hide raised his vertically, stacking them in bunches with their ends jutting forward like strata rearing up face-on to the observer. Though the intention was to create a sculpture that was all mass without volume, mass generating itself by some process of fission and fusion, the object-character of the sculpture remained relief-like, back and front (a conception Hide has continued to explore).

Anthony Smart, Tamarind, 1977

Anthony Smart, Tamarind, 1977

Smart adopted a more monolithic approach in his Tamarind series of 1977, massing great slabs of steel together in a crystalline bunch which project outward in all directions at once in an uneasy lurching relationship with the ground, as if a small battleship with jutting prow had been crushed to form a consolidated mass. For Smart and Hide, “corporeality” had become the watchword.

Peter Hide, Left Arm Chinaman, 1979

Peter Hide, Left Arm Chinaman, 1979

Meanwhile stemming from a very different set of preoccupations (though they could be said to approach the same issues from dialectically opposed premises) there came the intervention of the late work of John Panting, possibly influenced by the Cat’s-Cradle sculptures of William Tucker.

Nothing could better attest to the effectiveness of the St. Martin’s Forums than the great leap forward in the inventiveness of Panting in 1973-74, after his prior work had come in for heavy criticism there the previous year. Whatever happened at the Forum, and recollections are various from those present, seems to have galvanised Panting into a burst of improvisatory activity of a kind absent from his approach until then. In both steel and in wood he ventured a deconstruction of his prior exploration of the space-frame, phenomenological interplay of asymmetrical linear, open rhomboidal or trapezoidal frames, or scalene triangulation in spatial extension, a counterpoint of the disconnect between what we know of the geometrical enclosure and division of space, and what we actually see when confronted with such a complex spatial experience, and how we put these discontinuous experiences together by organising intelligence.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 6.08 (Untitled VIII), 1973–74, steel, 244 x 366 x 244cm. Collection of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1977-0006-1. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 6.08 (Untitled VIII), 1973–74, steel, 244 x 366 x 244cm. Collection of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1977-0006-1. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Sam Cornish has given a vivid account of the difficulty of comprehending a sculpture as complex as the only surviving steel structure of that phase of Panting’s work, the 6.08, housed in the Museum of New Zealand, Wellington, and of the impossibility of conceptualising its mode of spatial operation. (Photographs are an inadequate substitute for direct experience of a sculpture like this).

Cornish says: “I worked my way into it in a very fragmentary way, noticing a particular set of relations, then trying to mentally ‘hold onto’ them as I searched amongst the complex array of elements for fresh relations, or conversely tried, as it were, to let these relations catch me unawares. A little way into the first long session I began to get frustrated with the sculpture – perhaps the difficulty of engaging with it in fact a sign of its failure? But I gradually got over this, and I now think that the slowness with which it reveals itself – or even the sense that it never does fully reveal itself – is central to its success: the hurdle you need to climb to begin to really see it is its essential characteristic (and the main way it differs from sixties abstraction as exemplified by Caro, Scott and Tucker, where visibility and accessibility are foregrounded). The work I had to do to begin to get past its initial obscurity led both to a growing – if incomplete and provisional – sense of the whole; and to seeing a hugely diverse range of vivid details, fragments and multiplying pathways. Scale seemed particularly active, liable to contract, or to expand, suddenly appearing to open up, and create the illusion that the sculpture was in fact much larger than its actual size.”

This account has the advantage over any other interpretations of being a vivid response in the presence of the sculpture, with all its ambiguities laid bare. And at the same time as he was making the steel sculptures, he produced a series of wood constructions, a kind of mad-cap, rough-hewn, anti-geometric re-imagining of the complexities and contradictions of an open cubistic attitude to the generation of volumetric sculpture, without imposing an enclosing “big idea” of prismatic, cellular or crystalline form from the outside. Whether Hide and his Stockwell colleagues actually saw these late Pantings at the Serpentine is not known, but the wooden versions, 6.09 and 6.10, share some common features with Hide’s Pomeroy and Smart’s Tamarinds.

John Panting, untitled, 1974, wood, resin, steel, h183cm

John Panting, untitled, 1974, wood, resin, steel, h183cm

What is exciting about this phase of Panting’s work is the unstudied, uncalculated brio with which so many possibilities are thrown out in what must have been a fervour of production. These twin explorations immediately placed him ahead of the younger sculptors (with the possible exception of Hide, and the older Scott) whom Tucker featured in The Condition of Sculpture show of 1975, who would go on to attack similar issues of volumetric compactness within openness in the years ahead, the first fruits of which appeared in 1978-79. If Panting had been included in the C.O.S. show in 1975 (his tragic premature death in 1974 made that impossible) the assimilation of his “advances” would no doubt have been accelerated, but since they came from left-field in relation to the conscious intentions of the Stockwell sculptors, their importance was not immediately recognised when these 1973-74 sculptures were shown at the memorial exhibition at the Serpentine, also in 1975. It has taken time to catch up with them, and via the circuitous route of the body-based sculptures of Smart, Gili, Robin Greenwood, Robert Persey and Mark Skilton, which imparted a richer and more complex conception of the way ‘form’ is generated and articulated in three-dimensional space.

Sculpture From the Body and Beyond

Particularity, corporeality, physicality – these were the desired qualities which had motivated the Stockwell sculptors in 1978 – reaching an impasse by the end of 1979 as it became apparent that the methods they had chosen to realise them were mutually inconsistent; particularity of junction being denied by the massing together of parts into a lumpen literal object, the pursuit of “corporeality” conceived as an antidote to pictorialism, these desiderata had lurched to the opposite extreme of literalism. Formerly too refined a conception, latterly too crude, another way had to be found.

It became necessary, it seemed, to re-investigate aspects of the art of sculpture which this in-house, mini-didactic palace revolution, as outsiders unkindly saw it, had cast into the background, and one which was more open to sensual and sensuous experience, with conscious intention mediated by an open-ended exploratory engagement with the physical world.

Something of the kind seems to have been at the basis of the return to fundamentals which marked the second phase of endeavour at Stockwell and simultaneously at St Martin’s, the much maligned and misunderstood constructed sculpture “from the body”.

The flirtation with “opticality”, the gravitational attenuation achieved by Anthony Caro in his sculpture of the 1960s had reached its summit with Prairie, 1967. No further could be gone in that direction without siphoning off all that makes sculpture a viable art, and the attempt to fatten out volumetrically on the basis of a planar conception of form proved indeed problematic, returning sculpture to the 2 ½ dimensional cubism of Jacques Lipchitz, a temporary solution calling for a more radical re-think. Another way to re-engage the structural realities of the physical world had to be found. The structural capacity of the material (initially steel), an active, dynamic relation to gravity, and a dynamic activation of space, these became the propositions by which a fully three-dimensional sculpture would become possible. (Had there ever really been such a thing?)

The question raised by a critique of the fusion of literal, if disguised engineering structure with optical illusion, became this – What kind of object-non-object is a sculpture to be? If it is not to be like a kind of crazy, irrational, non-functional piece of furniture standing implacably, grounded and aligned axially in planar echo of the architectural space it occupies, encouraging one to perceive it “optically”, rather than through organising intelligence, at least in emphasis, prioritising eye over mind, and dividing and subdividing that given space which its perimeters enclose – if not that, then what is it to be? To find answers the younger sculptors decided to turn to the most complex free-standing organism in immediate purview, and that was the human body in movement.

The essential point about sculpture “from the body” was not primarily to re-introduce a form of representation, but to generate structures that fully engaged with the gravitational forces which allow any object to stand in the world, and to generate a fully three-dimensional structure that was not monolithic in conception, or consisted of hollow volumes, but one in which volume and mass had become so attenuated as to coincide and become identified with the ductile and tensile capacity of steel and which evolved in tandem with the shaping of space. As Tucker had written of Degas’ small figures in wax – “In Degas’ sculpture, the figure is articulated not as in Rodin from the ground upwards, but from the pelvis outward, in every direction, thrusting and probing with volumes and axes until a balance is achieved”. In other words, fully three-dimensionally, according to a conception of structure that evolves from inside-out, not one imposed “visually” according to an exterior conception of form. (Not that this applies to Rodin either).

And in relation to Matisse’s La Serpentine – “Space itself is sucked into the sculpture, like air into a vacuum.” “Space modelled, carved, stretched, compressed with an energy corresponding to the stillness of the visual armature… the transformation of volume into line, so modulated as to re-invoke a volume of an entirely new order.” (Tucker, 1974). These two statements about Degas and Matisse taken together simply for their programmatic content, not only confirm the written programme of Naum Gabo [see Part One] all those years before, but are a kind of conceptual blueprint for the concerns which would engage those young sculptors who partook of the “from the body” project from 1980 onwards. (Experiments had already begun at St Martin’s in 1978-79).

Matisse saw that if the sun is streaming through a multi-paned window, between the gleaming pale blue of the glass panes, fringed with silver white reflections, the mullions and cross-bars of the window frame appear black or purplish black in extreme contrast with the light (even when literally painted white). This observable feature meant that black was a colour, could be used as a colour; but also, working by transposition, these contrasts could equally well be expressed by reversing their relationship. The panes could be rendered black (or dark blue-black), the frames bright blue / white. So these transpositions which occur everywhere in Matisse were not arbitrary, or done for expressionistic effect, but a logical or dialectical engagement with observable fact. Enter Mondrian.

So too in sculpture, space may be represented by positive shape, and matter by its absence, by the void, witness Gonzalez’ delineation of the volume of a head by means of a single cursive arc. Transposition and inversion become part of the creative process, along with subtraction and editing, which ambitious sculptors in the constructing mode had at their disposal, giving them a range of formal means greater than had existed in sculpture before, a heritage which owed much to the obtuse view of sculptural possibilities taken by the painter / sculptors, Picasso, Matisse and, one should add, David Smith.

Tim Scott, Mudra XIV, 1976, steel cut, welded and forged. Photograph: Carlos Granger

Tim Scott, Mudra XIV, 1976, steel cut, welded and forged. Photograph: Carlos Granger

Tim Scott, (who took over from Frank Martin as Head of Sculpture in 1979) was convinced from his own thinking, that work from the body should become the main thrust of student effort alongside that of the sculpture staff. And so, though he did not participate directly in the “from the body” experiments he did encourage them, and had a sure grasp of the issues involved. Indeed they were an extrapolation, in part, from ideas that he had expressed in statements about his concerns, and he developed his own unique take on the issues evolving from his own mature practice. If there is a “model” which his sculpture engages it is admiration for Rodin’s Torso of Adèle coupled with his engagement with Indian temple sculpture, which had been a major identification since the early 1970s in the Natarajas.

Scott was the first sculptor in England to admire the sensual, voluptuous Chola sculptures of India and to respond to their abstract qualities, their near three-dimensional voluptuousness and to see how abstract sculpture might gain from their study. The Chola aesthetic of expression as a perturbation of spirit combined with abundance of form was particularly congenial to him, especially as it allowed him to engage with the thorniest problem in all sculpture, the representation of movement. This was a further reason why study of the body and its capacity for movement began to take precedence over other structures as a stimulus for understanding the full implications of three-dimensional articulation.

Tim Scott, Kajuraho II, 1979, steel, 264 x 205 x 155 cm, Sprengel Museum, Hannover. Photo Carlos Granger

Tim Scott, Kajuraho II, 1979, steel, 264 x 205 x 155 cm, Sprengel Museum, Hannover. Photo Carlos Granger

Scott had picked up on remarks made by Rodin regarding the representation of movement: “If, in fact, in instantaneous photographs, the figures, though taken while moving, seem suddenly fixed in mid-air, it is because, all parts of the body being reproduced exactly at the same 20th or 40th of a second, there is no progressive development as there is in art… it is the artist who is truthful and it is photography which lies, for in reality time does not stop.”

As Scott’s sculptures developed through the late 70s and 80s, his innate architectonic sense combined with an increasing exposure of the plastic potential of steel as a malleable material, by cutting across thick bars and solid tubes of steel to emphasise their mass and density and contrasting these with forged and power-hammered elements, a taut and muscular, voluptuous character began to pervade the former tripodal, arching stance which his sculptures had tended to assume (see also his Kajuraho 2, 1979 [1]). By the time of the Essen Mudras of 1983, whilst well aware of what the younger Stockwell sculptors had been doing, Scott had achieved a remarkably fluent synthesis of the advantages of forging, and of power-hammering, with a greater plastic use of favoured foundry formed solid steel bars and rods, a multi-technique style of great versatility and range of expression.

Tim Scott, Feminine for Structure VII, 1986, 38.5 x 97 x 95cm

Tim Scott, Feminine for Structure VII, 1986, 38.5 x 97 x 95cm

Perhaps the clearest statement of Scott’s take on the body-based experiments is this:

“Rodin’s Torso of Adèle is one of the most achieved sculptures I know. Every part (of the model’s body) is in a state of complete structural tension and enervated rapport with each other and the whole. Even the breasts have a structural purpose. The pose is almost physically impossible (only a yoga-trained model has, in my experience, been able to simulate it). It is a construction; a wilful bringing together of parts related to but going well beyond the norms of anatomy, to create a built architectonic framework whose tensions and stresses become the stuff of sculptural invention. The initial arch of the pose with its axial rotation; the triangular resolution of the arms and head transferring these forces to the ground; the violently changing plane of the upper and lower torso and the counter-rotation of the pelvis; the truncation and folding of the lower legs to form a sprung base to the arch; this summation of tensile movement, at once sensual and mechanically taut, is physically sensational.”

This quotation encapsulates many of the qualities realised in the major series of sculptures Scott has produced on the theme of Adèle during the decade from 1990 to 2000. Another side of Scott’s many sided talent is evident in Song for Chile 2, 1994. Here his devotion to the arch as a structure, and all the sculptural sensations highlighted in the above statement, are brought to bear on a much larger span, in which the tensility of steel is a crucial contributant. Song for Chile 2 is the only sculpture I am aware of which continues the positive aspects of Smith’s Australia, and it is less pictorial, more three-dimensionally active than the Smith prototype, and it is not an accident that it was made in Chile, under the auspices of, and with the help of, the great Chilean sculptor Francisco Gazitua (who studied at St. Martins during the years 1977-80, and taught there until 1983).

Katherine Gili, Leonide, 1981-82, H 157 cm

Katherine Gili, Leonide, 1981-82, H 160 x 130 x 189 cm, steel, forged and welded.

The first fruits of sculpture “from the body” emerged at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich in 1982. At the opening, on a sunny evening, some bright spark at the Centre drew up the Venetian blinds which had covered the huge end window of the gallery to reveal a green manicured sward at the end of which a large polished smooth bronze Henry Moore on a white plinth lay basking like a giant wet seal fresh out of the sea, a theatrical setting for sculpture in the open air of which Moore is a master (Caro’s Sun Feast would have made a similar impression). By contrast, the forged – fresh from the forge – body based sculptures of Smart and Gili and the spiky monoliths of John Foster, the cubistic totems of Hide, looked as if some barbaric horde of metal workers had crashed the settled agrarian pastoral and this sense that the high-road of officially sanctioned English sculptural taste (the geometry of fear not withstanding) had been invaded by an alien force irremediably at odds with the mainstream (with all its polished baubles and nature worshipping process art) has continued with each new development of the steel workers.

Steel, forged, extruded, torch-cut, with all the results of hammering and crazing left exposed (not for effect, but as a simple consequence of decisions made, form and structure prioritised over finish) has a beauty to which perhaps only aficionados of the history of this art are attuned, but it appears to sit uneasily in the international pantheon of late 20th century and early 21st century aesthetic (It would take us too far to try to diagnose what this aesthetic amounts to) – but in my judgement the two Sainsbury Centre sculptures, Leonide, by Gili, and First Figure by Smart would hold their own in company of any of the great figurative sculptures of the past.

Anthony Smart, First Figure, 1980-2

Anthony Smart, First Figure, 1980-2

Beginning in a spirit of well-nigh collaboration, by the time of the Escultura Nueva exhibition in Madrid in 1988, Gili, Smart, Greenwood and Persey had each developed a distinctive personal approach. The fact that it was a Spanish gallery that had mounted this show perhaps suggests that in countries where there is a tradition of steel craftsmanship there is greater appreciation of the issues involved (and there is the precedent of Gonzalez and Chillida) (Gili herself is of Catalan origin).

Katherine Gili, Dendres-Figure 2, 1982-84, H 165 cm

Katherine Gili, Dendres-Figure 2, 1982-84, H 160 x 130 x 189 cm, steel, forged and welded.

Things had begun to go somewhat awry for the forgers in steel by the time of their group show at the Woodlands Gallery, Blackheath, in 1983 and the Tate show Have You Seen Sculpture from the Body? of 1984. This was partly due to the introduction of the notion that heavy sections of steel could be rendered as malleable as billets of clay. Gili’s Dendres-Figure 2, 1982-84 is the most successful of the sculptures to embody this approach (along with the Tate sculptures of Michael Marren and Paul McGonigle). Initially a very exciting extension of the means of part-to-part articulation without pre-determining the overall stance or set-up of the work in progress (witness the series of photographs of this phase of work in the studios of Smart and Gili) and enabling the transition from body part to its steel equivalent to be less cerebrally thought, more felt through – it was only when the clay sections were then transformed into forged steel that the sheer labour involved began to raise problems. There was, it seemed, an optimum size for sculptures built on this basis, and an optimum span beyond which lengths or chunks of steel (as they had become) began to lose their tensile strength, to flag, appear flaccid or mangled through overwork, and where forging had the result of appearing to apply external pressure wilfully from too many directions, so that the elements lacked credibility as structural links or weight transferring units, or contained too many literal tensions or torsions within a single length, a difficulty which Gili does not always surmount even today.

This was also true where power-hammering was used, but Scott, who favoured this method, had the sense to keep his lengths relatively short, cutting and jointing them in ways which contradicted their forged character, and allowed for a more flexible methodology, less monothematic, and playing up the contrast between factory-made steel “as found” with more organic forged sections.

The problem for a constructed sculpture, indeed for all art, which goes beyond process and aestheticism is to allow the work to spring from a sense of inner necessity, and to manifest an internal logic which compels the assent of the artist, rather than one which exhibits the imposition of an exterior deformation, in whole or in part, or a forced or arbitrary complexity. One of sculpture’s problems is that it tends to be all deliberation, all thinking-making, all “construction”, with little room for those deeper rhythms which occur when body-and-mind are fully engaged.

Anthony Smart, Torrent, 1988

Anthony Smart, Torrent, 1988

The episode of “Sculpture from the Body” was a genuine and deeply felt attempt to overcome this problem on two levels. One, by involving the sculptor’s body and its rhythmic movement in the actual making process, the rhythmic hammering of molten steel on the anvil, using up to 28 pound hammers in teams of two or three people working together. And secondly, by engaging with the body of the model in ways which had not occurred in sculpture before, except perhaps by Rodin – by an intuitive feel for the body and its movements in rhythmic action (not in static poses) and not in order to schematise them in exterior design, but as experienced “from within”. The period of sculpture “from the body”, roughly from 1980 to 1988, had been one of an extraordinary intensity and dedication, of an unparalleled communality in my experience, a shared endeavour to arrive at fundamentals. But by 1988 distinct personalities had emerged, and different priorities. Gili and Persey remained the most dedicated to the body and its movements, and to forging, which continues in their work up to today, despite the physical toll which had forced Scott to ease off on this method. Smart’s concerns were for a paring down of material in the later stages of the sculpture in the interests of an active spatial dialogue with its three-dimensionality, still informed by his intense engagement with what the body studies had revealed about articulation and the reciprocal pressure of part on part.

Although all four sculptors in the Escultura Nueva exhibition in Madrid in 1988, going by their recorded statements, appear to share a set of aspirations for a fully achieved three dimensional interplay with spatial articulation, it was Smart’s work at that time which most clearly achieved these aims, understandably perhaps, as he had invested so much in bringing awareness to that point. His sculptures were more open to space, and their action on space was more reciprocal, though Greenwood’s were more abstract in the sense of more divorced from natural or organic forms. However Smart’s desire to pare back to essentials can slide into a tendency to worry away at a sculpture, to over-think it, until its initial impetus is imperilled, or the re-imagined impulse as the sculpture takes form, and the final result is like a survivor of a battle between the forces of expansion and negation, like a blasted oak after a gale, or rocks carved away by erosion (these no doubt just an affective response to their torch-cut surfaces, but these associations are evoked in spite of intention to ignore them).

Robin Greenwood, London Sculpture, 1987, steel, H. 80 cm

Robin Greenwood, London Sculpture, 1987, steel, H. 80 cm

It is evident from the sculptures Greenwood showed in Madrid, and his statement in the catalogue, that he had left the body-based phase behind him, and that his ambition was for a three-dimensionality which “engages you immediately in a spatial way”, that is to say without the prop of reference to doors, windows, tables, niches, architectural or pictorial schema, or other literalist divisions of space; a conception for sculpture which pushes abstraction from quotidian reality to an extreme, somewhat akin to the “total serialism” of the Darmstadt phase of the composers Stockhausen, Boulez and Nono – “total serialism” relates to Schoenberg as these sculptors relate to early Caro.

Robert Persey, Notes from the Underground, 1992, H 95 cm x 94 cm x 84 cm, mild steel forged and welded

Robert Persey, Notes from the Underground, 1992, H 95 cm x 94 cm x 84 cm, mild steel forged and welded

For this conception of sculpture, space has indeed “ceased to be a logical abstraction or a transcendental idea, and has become a malleable material element” as Gabo predicted. Sculpture which engages space dynamically and pushes out into space in all directions is virtually unphotographable (without the stabilising security of an implied or stated tablature or framing device, the kinds of device Michael Fried highlights in Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro, 1968) and obliges, even challenges the observer to engage in a re-living of the ordering process which the sculptor has been through to arrive at the final coherence of the work (which is why I do not intend to describe these sculptures).

The notion of “expressive gesture”, always of problematic relevance in characterising Caro’s first abstracts, is totally inadequate for sculptures of this kind. Like certain aspects of modernist endeavour in literature and music (though not in painting) they impose a greater burden on the organisational capacity of the sentient observer than was posited by the art of the past, except in those rare instances which we now consider to pre-figure or provide a model for modernist concerns (late Beethoven, early Schumann, Mallarmé).

Greenwood is exceptional among the steel sculptors in that he is also a substantial painter, or can be on occasions, and his experience of the various stages which lead from improvisatory moves toward a coherent building and realisation in painting, gives him an added range of insights for these same stages in sculpture, and vice-versa. In his painting he tends to try to draw his way into depth with awkward consequences (since all movements into depth of this kind are inherently representational, and are antithetical to the aims of abstraction) and he struggles to bring things back to surface unity with much over-painting and evidence of struggle. But these same manoeuvres into depth, or some of them, redound to his advantage in sculpture, allowing his sculptures to coalesce with an improvisatory freedom, or the illusion of such, which conveys the full richness of that struggle to “engage us immediately in a spatial way”.

He is an admirer of those sculptures of Caro’s which engage space by spreading horizontally across the ground-plane (or he was). It is as if the heraldic, declarative, naively normative semaphore of Caro has been subject to deconstruction, fracture, and is then re-built with greater awareness of the gravitational and spatial implication of such “gestures”, allowing the observer to savour the full weight of the plastic and spatial dialogue thus created, rather in the way that Schumann modulates the simple singing, boldly declared diatonicism of late Beethoven or Schubert with its tendency toward monothematic extension by filling up the spaces chromatically with many intermediate chords, between the tones, as it were.

Greenwood’s 2002 sculptures take up hints from the linear, cage-like structures of David Smith’s towers (Tucker’s tubular space-frames, and coincidentally Panting’s 6.08, 6.09 and 6.10 (though he was unaware of them at this time, not seeing photographs of them until 2006 – Greenwood has been closely involved in the re-discovery of Panting’s work and unselfish in its promotion). But coming after the body-based excursions, less concerned with perceptual ambiguity between the known and the seen, with more emphasis on the structural tensions created when such open frameworks are gravitationally weighted, more concerned ,in short, with their “physicality”. Though I am here describing the sculpture of Greenwood, the same concerns are shared by Smart and Mark Skilton. Indeed Smart has been the leading proponent of this conception of sculpture since its inception in the early 80’s, and perhaps the most committed and articulate in following its precepts in their purest form. In recent years the sculptures of Skilton (who had been a student of Smart and Gili and followed them to the Stockwell Depot in the late seventies) have followed the example of Smart and Greenwood, but has now overtaken them, putting pressure on the older artists.

Katherine Gili, Serrata, 1994, H 152cm

Katherine Gili, Serrata, 1994, H 152cm

Gili’s persistence, tenacity and sheer talent comes to fruition with Serrata, 1994, perhaps the culmination of those works of hers whose structure is still based on study of bodily articulation, if at a considerable remove, and with her masterpiece to date, Bitter Joy, 2005. Nothing could be more telling of Gili’s achievement than a comparison of Serrata with the Danseuse a la Marguerite, 1937 of Gonzalez. Such a comparison reveals the extent to which Gili has gone beyond signs for body-parts rhymed with inorganic forms in disjunct inanimate “syntax”, to a much greater articulation of physicality, with a technical subtlety the equal of Gonzalez but without relying on cut or drawn profiles, every section and junction being conceived with full awareness of its three-dimensional implication. Serrata retains and builds upon Gonzalez’s vocabulary of disjunction from overt bodily reference but on a much more impressive scale. Though the massive physical investment of energy required to realise a forged sculpture on this scale without recourse to the usual metal-craft seductions or on bronze-casting, does not of itself guarantee sculpture of consequence, it none-the-less has to be taken into account, a contributory factor towards the vitality of the work. Beside this quality of acute sensitivity to the expressive potential in working metal so evident in Gonzalez and Gili, much of the abstraction of their celebrated contemporaries can look suave, facile, and mannered.

Katherine Gili, Ripoll, forged mild steel, 2010-11

Katherine Gili, Ripoll, forged mild steel, 2010-11, H 160 x 130 x 189 cm, steel, forged and welded.

Robin Greenwood, Gothic Blud #1, 2013, steel, H131cm (view 2)

Robin Greenwood, Gothic Blud #1, 2013, steel, H131cm (view 2)

Robert Persey, One Three Five, 2012-2014, Ht 97 cm x 115 cm x 120 cm, mild steel forged and welded

Robert Persey, One Three Five, 2012-2014, Ht 97 cm x 115 cm x 120 cm, mild steel forged and welded

Anthony Smart, Marshland Three, 2013, steel, H 126cm

Anthony Smart, Marshland Three, 2013, steel, H 126cm

Mark Skilton, Greedy Granadilla, 2012, steel, H194 x 265 x 240cm

Mark Skilton, Greedy Granadilla, 2012, steel, H194 x 265 x 240cm

Due to the work achieved by Smart, Gili, Persey, Greenwood and Skilton, in recent years it is now possible to state the priorities which activate current efforts in steel sculpture, and which distinguish their work with all its differences:

(1) An active, dynamic three-dimensionality which engages and defines space, or spatial relationships.

(2) An active, dynamic relationship with gravity (an insight first gleaned by Tucker in relation to Degas and Smith).

(3) An exploitation of the tensile capacity of steel as an extruded element to hold itself over a wide span, of malleability without collapse (see David Smith’s Australia, which of course puts pressure on welds and joints, (flanges) i.e. as a structural element, not just as an optical phenomenon as in Caro’s Prairie.

Prairie is the most extreme point of Caro’s development as a sculptor, where opticality and structure, disguised engineering, coalesce (thanks to the structural ingenuity of Charlie Hendy). It is this capacity that has been least explored by the new sculptors up until now. The problem for sculpture now is to find a way of getting off the ground in as simple and straight-forward a way as possible, without props being sensed literally as props or legs leading to a table-level. A dynamic relationship with gravity requires weighting the sculpture at points up in the air, both physically and visually. Obviously there is a dialogue, dilemma, between engineered structure and abstract structure– but therein may lie the essence of sculpture? “Achieved weightlessness” [Fried] is not a primary value in sculpture. I doubt whether it is even an attribute of the Caro sculptures Fried applies it to, but his “obeisance to Greenbergian “opticality” (which was as much his as Greenberg’s and which he now regrets) led him to see the sculptures in a particular way.

According to Aristotle, the highest quality in art is illumination, lucidity, clarity, to which we assent as necessity. According to Smart this is “understanding” of “what the sculpture does” (Plastic and Spatial, 1983[2]). According to the Chola system of Indian sculpture, art is produced by a perturbation of the spirit, a certain wildness (example – almost any Beethoven Piano Sonata from the Waldstein onwards); and to which I would add, plenitude, a certain sensuous fullness, and of course, contrast – and breadth of conception – a commanding presence, and as a result, the ability to carry and command at a distance (see Plastic and Spatial, 1983) This is perhaps a kind of blueprint for an ideal sculpture; just as Schoenberg’s Structural Function of Harmony is not arrived at by the analysis of any existing great works of music, but is an ideal blueprint of a possible work, which leaves out a great deal of what makes the great music of the past endure. It has been arrived at communally by trial and error, starting from Smith, Caro, and Tucker’s analysis, through the body projects, Plastic and Spatial, and on to today. So an authentically three-dimensional sculpture is in its infancy, opening on unknown territory.

ALAN GOUK

2011- January, 2014.

[1] Towards the end of my British Sculpture at the Whitechapel II, 1981, I had said that Tim Scott could well prove to be more of a sculptor than Smith or Caro. What I should have said is that he had already demonstrated this emphatically with Kajuarato II, 1979 in Hanover. I was not aware of this sculpture at the time. (It had a rehearsal with Kajurato I at North London Polytechnic).

[2] An unpublished article by the author and Anthony Smart.

  1. Tim Scott said…

    I am posting (with his agreement) the major parts of an e.mail sent to me by Francisco Gazitua, the Chilean sculptor, who was one of the original participants in the ‘body’ work at St. Martin’s, in response to the articles on Abstract Sculpture by Alan Gouk and myself in Abstract Critical. (I have corrected some of the Spanglish).

    “….Britain has a different idea of what sculpture is. France in the XIXth and XXth centuries had (also); and Easter Island carvers no doubt have a very clear idea in their genes.
    Reading Alan’s and your comments this morning in my studio, I finally understood, tools in hand, in my Andes workshop, my own truth or intuition or fact. That I have my own genetic idea of what sculpture is. By sharing your very different view you contribute to my knowledge of who I am sculpturally.

    I realise, reading Alan’s and your articles that, in spite of my eight years (as a sculptor in UK) I never belonged there. I learned a great deal, but my idea of what sculpture is, was different….looking back through my thirty years out of the (English) art world and out of England, I recognise that, at St. Martin’s, I had my own ideas. No ‘pictorial’ , only ‘object’, and ‘craft’, no ‘graphic’, above all no ‘abstract ‘(i.e. ‘Caroism T.S.) I did not understand how you could work without a clear cast iron reference as we do in South America (this of course was the point of introducing the model T.S.). I knew you were running away from academic statuary and, surrounded by ‘Conceptualists’ for whom reference is the only important factor, not the work, you had to insist that sculpture was a language with no outside props for survival, no ‘story to tell’. The situation was difficult; ‘Mohicans’ attacking from all sides. I felt that the price of your battle was a loss of naivety and you were all walking in circles in the desert within a very small corral; a short tradition- seventy years from the founder, Picasso. but admiring Rodin, Degas and Matisse, with no ‘North’ as a reference.

    The ‘beloved subject (Patrick Heron) quoted by Alan Gouk in our Tate catalogue (Have you seen Sculpture from the Body T.S.),. I remember telling you and Alan in 1977, as a student, that I had never worked without a model; you both were brave and asked for one. Our ‘vanguard’ lasted only a short time, like all of them, but it was strong and passionate, full of life, and the walking in the desert in a circle ended for some time.

    Your articles put a bit of clarity in(to) the period prior to the (body work). Not much mention of our quest for a source; I have spent my life trying to find it. After my thirty years of solitude making all the mistakes that you know as well as anyone, I know only one thing: if the subject is not strong, the sculpture freezes in an academic repetition. It can be good or competent , but in the long run it will die because it doesn’t have the ‘other end’, the interlocutor, like music or cinema, with people; and it will go round in a circle, talking only with a few specialists, and under siege by the Mohicans of the art world.

    ‘Beloved subject’ is when love and duty are one; you don’t think or defend, there is nothing to prove to your ‘beloved’; you can make all the mistakes, but in the end you gain the only important quality: you are naive…..
    Great sculpture is always made on the fringes of sculpture.

    Francisco Gazitua

  2. Robert Linsley said…

    I want to say how impressed I am with these two articles, especially the first, and the quality of the exposition compels admiration of the work. Sadly it is too late to incorporate what I’ve learned here about abstract sculpture into my own book. 

    Still some reservations though. Forging and welding give very different results for sure, but with the work in part 2 I still can’t escape the impression of a sameness. The distinctions between Greenwood, Skilton, Gili et. al. are real no doubt, but I find it hard to get interested in them, in fact am forced to a surprising conclusion, one I never thought I would make, that the more diverse range of materials that one finds in Judd and Andre, including different metals, makes more attractive, more beautiful works. Different finishes and colours give greater lightness, a better feeling. 

    For me the supposed distinction between art and object, literal and aesthetic form, just doesn’t work. I might prefer twisted and organically developed shapes, but have to admit that boxes are just another kind of form, making a different kind of art with as much feeling to offer. Guess I can’t find the beauty in mild steel, at least when there’s so much of it – some stainless or galvanized, or perhaps a spot of folded aluminum or some brittlesome brass  would give relief (Tim Scott’s Cathedral seems to have more variety, even if it is all steel). Things got more interesting when the steel workers went up against the genteel Henry Moore on the lawn, but later I reflected that in England one can always get mileage out of claiming not to belong to the polite set—it’s a bit of a cliché, and the forged and welded works will one day  look just as genteel. How about another cliché? like the difference between European artiness and American matter-of-factness and lack of emotional turmoil—the Peirce-Judd tradition. You’re giving me a fresh appreciation of the latter.

    But these are maybe small quibbles. I also have no interest in life casts, ready-mades or plastic, and am tired of the standard cleverness of sculpture today, which gets more tedious all the time. Charles Ray, who actually claims some lineage from Caro, hits every low point. The formal thinking going on in the work in part 2 is interesting and enlightening. I also like to see forms worked into organic wholes, but maybe not always. There’s such a thing as too much effort. Could we say that the component metal pieces in the work of Greenwood, Smart, Skilton etc. are the equivalent of brushstrokes? And that Caro’s work is an assemblage of forms rather than a building up from the smallest neutral unit? In that case it seems to have an easier poetry, but the more rigorous abstract work is also more ruled by an idea. Two different kinds of pleasure for the viewer. 

  3. Noela said…

    Some of these works look very potent , would be great to see them for real. I really appreciate this site for showcasing work that I have not seen before.

  4. david evison said…

    It was always a difficult task to explain “sculpture from the body” when the subject was the nude model and figurative art was not the main goal. Mr Gouk makes a better argument than was made in the 1980s, but it is obtuse.It does not take into account why there was a return to the nude (by way of the lion from Xanthos), and the aesthetic aspects of the resulting figurative sculptures.(Para. 2 on page 8 of my printout ” The essential point about….”).
    But when he unexpectedly writes about painting (3 paras later “Matisse saw that if…”)the writing becomes alive, fluid and convincing. His analysis is precise and deeply felt as a result of being moved by the painting that he loves.
    He doe4s not attain this level anywhere else in the essay, giving the impression that his interest and eye for sculpture lags well behind his chosen discipline.

  5. Sam said…

    This is slightly off the main thrust of Alan’s piece, but I disagree with his assessment of Tucker’s sculpture, I don’t think this very well describes his sculpture at this time: “Tucker was in the process of moving from a perceptual, retinal phenomenology in his Cat’s Cradle and tubular pieces, to one based on the structural potential inherent in materials.”

    Instead of being about materiality Tunnel fits much more clearly into what could be called Tucker’s symbolic conception of abstract sculpture – which is object-based in the sixties, architectural (including Tunnel and the Cats Cradles) around the turn of the sixties into the seventies and through the seventies becomes more monumental and monolithic. For me this is the trajectory around which his work is exciting, and which is thrown off course by the blobby, turd like things from the eighties. Almost as if he needed the symbolic as a discipline to control his work, to give it restraint and severity.

    Of course it is difficult to fit this into Alan’s scheme – which is perhaps a problem with all historical descriptions which are so focused on a single trajectory (though I admit it does have its advantages).

  6. Tim Scott said…

    Alan has asked me to reprint the following from the catalogue of David Smith at the Guggenheim in 1969 by Edward F. Fry:

    …A drawing for ‘Australia’ shows that Smith’s first solution for the base of this work was later improved by the accentuation of vertical tenuousness and imbalance in the creature’s legs, which in the final work seem barely to touch the earth – as though alighting for an instant. Given the subject and its predominantly horizontal thrust, a better solution to the problem of the sculptural base could hardly be imagined…