Abstract Critical

John Panting: Spatial Constructions

Written by Sam Cornish

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 5.12 (Untitled V) , 1972–73, steel, 183 x 305 x 152cm. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 5.12 (Untitled V) , 1972–73, steel, 183 x 305 x 152cm. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

 

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, Wellington. Photo: Shaun Waugh

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, Wellington. Photo: Shaun Waugh

At the beginning of last month I curated a show of sculptures by John Panting (1940-1974) at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand, where it is on display until the 20th of December. I thought it would be interesting to accompany these installation shots with some brief notes on the sculptures. As all the three large sculptures in the show were in New Zealand institutions I had only seen them before in photographs and so installing the exhibition was both exciting and full of surprises.

Scroll down to see all of the images. 

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 5.07 (Untitled III), 1972–73, steel, 290 x 455 x 244cm. Collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1976. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 5.07 (Untitled III), 1972–73, steel, 290 x 455 x 244cm. Collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1976. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

 

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 5.07 (Untitled III), 1972–73, steel, 290 x 455 x 244cm. Collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1976. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 5.07 (Untitled III), 1972–73, steel, 290 x 455 x 244cm. Collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1976. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

5.07 (shown in the two photos above) was likely the earliest large sculpture in the exhibition, first exhibited in the spring of 1973. It was the sculpture I was expecting the least from and the one which provided the most surprises during the first few days of the installation.

All of the photographs I had seen of 5.07 were taken from an angle more or less perpendicular to the long horizontal axis of the sculpture (either from the ‘back’ or the ‘front’). This had the effect of over-emphasizing the box-like structure of the sculpture and flattening the lines which run along the horizontal axis, so that they appear either parallel or just off parallel with each other. But in reality the sculpture is not completely contained in this way.

In the first photograph of 5.07, look at the bar which shots from the near bottom left hand corner to the other end of the sculpture; and how this opens out the sculpture, turning it away from the predominant horizontal axis (and making this ‘three-quarter’ view the dominant one). Less visible in the photographs but as effective in reality were the complex series of twists which operate under the tall ‘T’ bar, also in the left hand-side in the first photograph. Though a sense of a box-like structure and of a dominant horizontal axis are both present they function as a counter-point to the more dynamic elements of the sculpture; or to put it another way the box-like structure and the horizontal axis anchor the sculpture, provide visual or physical stability which the rest of the sculpture moves against.

When I saw the sculpture fully assembled it contradicted two assumptions I had had about it, both related to its various moves away from an over-stressed horizontal axis and from a containing box. Now that I write them both down, I realise that the assumptions perhaps slightly contradict each other.

The first is that the sculpture would function primarily as a barrier, that its main role would be to interrupt space, in a semi-confrontational way – because of this I had imagined installing it parallel to the large window at the far end of the gallery, to add emphasis to how this window terminated the exhibition space.

The second assumption concerned the particular relation that the sculpture had to architecture. The use of architectural structures or experiences in sculpture was a significant feature of open modernist sculpture in the sixties and early seventies – appearing at levels of explicitness within the work of artists including Anthony Caro, Tim Scott and William Tucker. In general, criticism conjured an image of architecture being brought into sculpture or of sculpture drawing on architectural structures, so that sculpture became in part a quasi-architecture, though an architecture a viewer could not inhabit. It was something like this vision of architecture held within sculpture that I imagined I would see in 5.07. However, what struck me much more forcefully was the extent to which the sculpture interacted with the architecture of the Adam – that instead of somehow containing an abstract version of architectural structure, the sculpture was a forceful presence within the particular architecture that contained it. Different parts of the sculpture seemed to actively imply or inhabit different parts of the gallery space: one of the long horizontal lines pointed toward the entrance, another along the edge of the stairs; the various twists under the ‘T’ articulated (or at least suggestively hinted at) the manner in which the sub-section of the gallery the sculpture stood in interacted with the other areas of the gallery; the end nearest the window turned away from the dominant horizontal axis so that it pointed down into the long, thin gallery in which the small sculptures were displayed.

Of course all this could just be a curatorial conceit, or a coincidence. Or it could point to a common ancestry of both sculpture and architecture in the parallel and inflected just off parallel arrangements of post-Cubist design. But I think really it indicates how the commonly held opposition between high modernist sculpture (mixed in Panting’s work with an affinity for constructivism) and minimalism – one distinct from its environment, the other actively engaging with it – are hard to sustain in the face of the sculptures themselves. And that a concentration on the sculptures themselves, rather than the New York polemics of Judd, Fried or Krauss, is needed to understand the work that was made in the period.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 5.12 (Untitled V) , 1972–73, steel, 183 x 305 x 152cm. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 5.12 (Untitled V) , 1972–73, steel, 183 x 305 x 152cm. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

 

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 5.12 (Untitled V) , 1972–73, steel, 183 x 305 x 152cm. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery, showing 5.12 (Untitled V) , 1972–73, steel, 183 x 305 x 152cm. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

In comparison to 5.07, 5.12 was something of a disappointment. It looks good in photographs, but each view is strangely flat, blocking an awareness of the rest of the sculpture. In fact it is most exciting when you keep on the move, as, when I circled the sculpture it appeared to contract and expand. Yet despite this the volume the sculpture contains remained inert, trapped within a sort of pyramid, without the open relations between interior and exterior of 5.07, or its play between the dynamic and the static.

 

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.
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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 6.08 was the sculpture I was most excited to see. I had always thought of it, and the other ‘bird’s nests’ he made at the same time, as Panting’s most original sculptures. Having spent a lot of time with it I still think that this is the case. I think it is reasonable to see it as in part concerned with fulfilling the missed promise of 5.12 – that is of creating a dynamic, complex and actively described volume. I would like to see it in an exhibition alongside a Porte by Tucker (which was very likely the prompt for sculptures such as 5.07); one of Caro’s Emma Lake sculptures of the later seventies (which I think also partly originated in Tucker’s work of the late sixties and early seventies); Garth Evans’ Breakdown; and Puffball by Norman Dilworth.

Though at first it is hugely striking, it is a work that repays prolonged attention. Despite spending, on two successive days, about two or three hours concentrating on it (in addition to the time in the gallery during the installation and afterward) I could not fully grasp how it worked. As one of the art technicians (who had previously been tasked with figuring out how to assemble it after many years in store) installing it said: ‘You can’t conceptualize it.’ By which he meant that it is incredibly difficult to form a mental picture of the space it occupies, what sort of shape it is.

I worked my way into 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.

It also differs from the current work I had previously thought of it in relation to. In its complexity and its spatial extension is could be seen to pre-figure the sculpture being made now by Robin Greenwood, Katherine Gili, Mark Skilton and Anthony Smart. The connection (which is not a matter of influence) has some validity, but only goes so far.

One fundamental difference is that the structure of 6.08 has no deep relation to the body, no sense of an organic progression underlying the structural logic of its parts – a relation which is, in my opinion, central to the type of structures found in the work of Greenwood, Gili, Skilton and Smart (this contradicts the account I gave of the sculpture in my monograph on Panting, where, as with the position of architecture 5.07, I followed contemporary criticism and suggested a bodily relation). Often these sculptors say they want structure independent of a particular ‘view’ – I take this to mean in part that a particular structural complex can be understood in the round, as a set of internally derived interrelated tensions (analogous to a limb; a body; a tree – if not reducible to them). The openness of their sculptures allows the viewer access to these physical complexes – to show that they work in the round – and to allow these complexes to interact with each other.

6.08 seems to me to work the other way around. It is primarily visual – a set of fractured perspectives jumbled up together, with vectors shooting across them – so that the important relations are often not between parts that are physically related to each other. Because of the sculpture’s complexity these relations change  when you move around it – in fact it often requires a particular effort to follow a part as you move around the work. Rather than each view adding to the next, in general each contradicts the next. Where the sculptors of the aforementioned group in general maintain a constantly considered relation to the ground, 6.08 rises relatively quickly and seemingly without effort (its suspension and the lightness with which its parts touch reminded me of Caro’s Hopscotch) and most of the sculpture meets you at eye-level. Because of the constant sense that one relation is obscuring another the sculpture is very responsive (to an extent I have not noticed before) to changes in the viewer’s eye-level: at the end of one of my sessions I sat down against the nearest wall and it became a completely different thing!

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

 

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

 

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

 

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

 

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Installation view of John Panting: Spatial Constructions at the Adam Art Gallery. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. ahab said…

    “…The commonly held opposition between high modernist sculpture… and minimalism –- one distinct from its environment, the other actively engaging with it –- are hard to sustain in the face of the sculptures themselves. And …a concentration on the sculptures themselves, rather than the New York polemics of Judd, Fried or Krauss, is needed to understand the work…”

    Yes.

    I would add that assertions of ‘space’, ‘three-dimensionality’, and ‘organicism’ belong pejoratively with the rest in that didactic, polemical and semantical vein. Simply describing sculpture — which is to say, describing sculpture simply — is difficult enough without adhering pet ideas to it like sticky notes. Sam’s essay seems to me a worthy try at explaining what’s actually there, or at least what he has discernibly derived from the things. And is the better for it.

    If there’s a larger/higher discussion to be had about ‘Abstract Sculpture’, it would be well-served by a consensus on definitions. Or the coining of new terms to cover the various nuances that I know everyone here is likely familiar with, but nonetheless typing at odds with and beyond one another’s intended meanings.

    Y’all need an etymologist or taxonomist on staff.

  2. Tony Smart said…

    Sam
    Are you guys in fact describing constructed Abstract sculpture in its essence?
    Organic is nature’s construction,cell to cell to cell.Abstract constructed sculpture is adding one thing to another as opposed to throwing the material on the floor or carving in stone or modelling in clay using an armature. That then brings you to steel or wood.
    There is a very big difference between a plant having roots into the ground in search of water and sustenance and growing upwards and outwards looking for light and warmth and a sculpture constrained only by imagination and material free to move anywhere in its search for space and meaning.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      The words are unfortunately loaded with past associations.
      Organic may be part to part accumulation, but the magic of art is to give the impression of a continuous, undivided flow throughout the work. Organicism in art could be to put the emphasis on the unfolding of the work, in whatever form or direction it wants.

  3. Tony Smart said…

    Sam
    If we were sitting around a table having this”conversation’ people would be more obliged to respond to a question asked. This is neither a conversation or a debate. Is it that you do not understand the meaning of the word organic and all it entails or is it that you are determined that prove that we do not either ? On a practical point,I have acknowledged that I have not seen the Panting sculptures in New Zealand ,the only Brancaster Chronicle sculptures you have seen are Robins.

    • Sam said…

      Point taken re not seeing them, though I don’t think it changes much of the substance of my argument – particularly as I was picking up on what Emyr, who has seen the sculptures, has said. I don’t think you are obliged to answer the question, but I do rather think you and Robin have talked around it a little. I think Emyr’s description of the organic within the sculptures is a good one.

  4. Sam said…

    I seem to have moved the discussion on Robin’s sculpture over here – sorry about that!

    I think that the most coherent comment on Robin’s sculpture in the other thread was from Emyr:

    “I wonder if in fact the term organic is quite useful after all, Mark’s rational explanation for how Robin would have to reconfigure any section to generate the impetus , energy and functional support for the steel to get it up higher made me wonder that this seemed to suggest this was the only way to do that (implied in relation to steel used in this way I suppose). This does have a sense of an “approach” which cannot be challenged. Making sections which build to larger units and gradually move through space seems to be shared by all three sculptors (I have not seen Mark’s so cannot be sure) Is this the only way that three-dimensionality can be dealt with though? for that seems a definite subtext. This approach does seem to treat the steel as some kind of organism; bits evolve in complexity and gather momentum as they “grow” through space. They need a sense of the sap running through them or the extremities wither. Tony’s analogy to a tree sharpening my point even further. Is there a danger of a similarity of approach which narrows rather than opens up possibilities?”

    And I don’t think that the comments by Robin or Tony have either properly addressed this. I think it is an interesting point, because it suggests a limitation to the work – both in terms of what it can do (the unspoken ‘rules’ the particular type of “three-dimensionality” or “wholeness” operates under); and in our approach to the sculpture (in the type of three-dimensionality we are confronted with). Organicism is perhaps an easily swiped away word, but I do think that a type of coherence stemming from the body or from the organic (and from a particular idea – that word again! – of the body) is central to Robin’s and Tony’s work. I understand that this cannot be taken too directly and that the success of the sculptures (which I think is very high) depends that the relation is somehow deferred (or submerged, or translated or something along those lines), but I do think it is worth acknowledging that it is present. Otherwise I think we are in the realm of polemic. All art has rules, limitations, after all!

    It would also be worth saying that I agree with Robin that there are many differences between the sculptors we are talking about (whether or not they cover as much sculptural territory as has been covered in last fifty years I couldn’t say), that complicates any sense of organic or bodily relation – though considering the various ways in which this bodily relation is approached, the extent to which it is made explicit, might be a good way into describing these differences….?

    More directly on Panting later…

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Perhaps it would be helpful if you and/or Emyr could point us in the direction of some concrete examples of alternative approaches to three-dimensionality in abstract sculpture.

      • Sam said…

        Well I would cite some sculptures by Caro, but you of course will disagree, as successfully three-dimensional abstract sculptures (and I think really you are changing the subject a little). Garland, Emma Push Frame, Early One Morning are all works I have seen recently. Of course it is a different type of 3-dimensionality to what you, Mark, Tony and Katherine are exploring (and I think it is a very, very good thing that this is happening). The Caros do not for example use the sort of motion that Emyr described in the comment I’ve just quoted…

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        OK, well that’s three Caros, which are pictorial, non-physical, optical, architectural; all things we have moved on from. Are you really suggesting we go back to that? Anything else? I suspect any other alternatives will turn out to be fantasy.

      • Terry Ryall said…

        It would be a great shame, given the minority status of sculpture discussions on this site, if this one collapses into the tedious repetition of historically well-aired views rather than remaining focused on the work of Robin Greenwood, Tony Smart and Mark Skilton and the questions that have arisen directly in response to their sculpture. The first question centres around the use of the word organic in relation to all three which Robin and Tony seem to have an objection to. Although I stand by my view(and I have only seen images) that what I see suggests a way of/approach to making that is consistent with a sense of progression, movement and development that can be associated with or felt as having some affinity with a living organism. I don’t see this ‘sense’ that I have as placing any of the works,in any way, in an analogous position with a tree, human-being, carrot whatever and that is, despite using the same word, where I differ from Emyr and Sam. It has to be accepted that words in relation to art can be clumsy, not wholly accurate and often succeeding only in getting to a ‘ball-park’ area of understanding but that is better than descent into entrenched positions.

  5. Tony Smart said…

    Three dimensionality and physicality were the big issues of the day across the board with all the sculptors I talked to and shared studios with. Everyone had their own take and went about it in their own way.
    For my part the work that I showed in the 1979 Stockwell Depot show had reached a point or had in effect run out of steam . On a visit to the British Museum with my students we discovered a carved lion which struck me as having this elusive three dimensionality.I thought it would be good to have a look at this through making sculptures with my foundation students. We were actually there to look at Greek figure sculptures but the carved lion jumped out at us!
    We did some projects with it and I thought I am going to do this as well in my own studio. So I started to make some steel sculptures based on the lion and I was not the only one.More sculptors thought it was worth the effort and some great work of different types came out of it…..looking back now most notably from Mark Skilton ,Hilde Kholy and Carla Capalbo. These and all the other sculptors involved were introducing new thinking into their own studios and their teaching.With hindsight and again from my point of view the fact that the lion was a sculpture and not an actual animal…how it stood..how it pressed forwards and backwards and sidewards and upwards and downwards and looked as though it was about to leap forward could only really be taken on with a live model and one you could talk to and discuss how they felt what was going on in the activities.
    In short Abstract Sculpture, the continuing search for this notion of three dimensionality as opposed to the pictorial led to working with the human body.It was a natural sequence of events examining something which was elusive.
    Again,in my opinion, this was an incredible experience. The flow of thinking was beyond anyones expectation and around 100 different students of all ages and sculptors made huge contributions to their own and other’s work across a range of materials.
    All those discoveries and all that experience was available to anyone and everyone and the work was well exhibited but it was channeled back into Abstract Sculpture.

    On the question of “organicism” and “linear development” ….in the light of what I have just written and the search for the specific in sculpture… neither mean anything to my way of working.I suggest earlier that straight lines equal geometry equals abstract and it may appear that for some an absence of straight lines and geometry equals organic but one thing I have learnt is that anything imported from an outside source that is not integral to the sculpture will lessen the sculpture’s ability to do what it does
    .So whether that is an image,an idea or an order of physicality and three dimensionality reliant upon the natural world, plant or animal, that would diminish Abstract Sculpture’s ability to do what it does.
    So John, I hope to have answered you by telling you more of why for me it came about.
    It’s for you to judge. Cheers.

  6. Robin Greenwood said…

    Looking at these new photos of Panting’s untitled (6.08), I can’t quite interpret them in the same way as Tony, but my conclusion is similar. If you compare the first view of it (second photo from the top) with the second-to-last view (seventh photo from the bottom) there is a marked discrepancy between how one can read the work. In the former photo it appears volumetric, descriptive of spaces delineated by lines; in the latter, which is a truer picture of the structure, it looks as though this work is based upon a single canted plane of loose material that has been jacked up off the floor on legs, with other partial frames added, along with the differently-coloured channel sections. I strongly suspect that like a lot of abstract sculpture (and David Smith is very often guilty of this), this work was at least in part made flat on the floor, then raised up. The excitement of this canted plane (compared with Smith, who often just stood his flat weldments in an upright position) is short-lived, for reasons I will come to. In either reading of the work, mine or Tony’s, it’s not a great scenario. In the latter of those two photos, the work looks distinctly poor.

    I have often written in the past that I think of abstract sculpture-making as being at the opposite end of a spectrum from conceptual art, in that it should be free (as Tony suggests) of “ideas”. However, I think that this simplistic notion is not the full story. I now think that abstract sculpture needs to be jam-packed full of ideas, and that those ideas need to be completely and innovatively “realised”. But those ideas need to fulfil two conditions. ..

    Firstly, they need to be ideas that are “discovered” during the making, in a kind of to-ing-and-fro-ing procedure, making and re-defining, inventing and discarding, rather than imposing a concept from the outset (i.e. illustrating an idea). Panting here does neither – he has by this stage of his career got over the technical manufacture of a “designed” idea – but nor does he get involved in much of an extended process of discovery. This sculpture looks like it has been knocked out pretty quick (as is my impression of most things by Panting, and indeed most of his contemporaries) without time spent in the discovery of “better” ideas.

    Which brings me to my second condition, which is that ideas in sculpture need to be of the right kind (!Yes! I know people will be squealing with forced rage about how reductive a mindset this is, to which I can only say shut up and pay attention). They need to be genuine ideas about three-dimensionality. If they are not, they should not survive the process of building the sculpture. If they do survive, they will cause the sculpture to fully or partially fail. I realise that in the minds of some people, nothing can fail; neither contradiction nor ambiguity, perversity or what-have-you. But if you can’t embrace failure, you can’t make progress.

    Whether it is my “single canted plane on legs” idea or Tony’s “bird’s nest array of frames on legs” makes little difference, because they are both unsustainable ideas for abstract sculpture. I suspect that Sam (and certainly Terry) would like to think that these sculptures of Panting represent some kind of real alternative to what they see as a linked methodology (inaccurately described as “organic” more than once now) of the sculptors in the Brancaster Chronicles. ‘Fraid not. Been there, done that, doesn’t work. It’s flogging a dead horse, and we need to move on. That’s what we are doing in Brancaster. Despite all assertions to the contrary, if you look with any degree of intensity at what Mark, Tony and myself are doing (or attempting) you will see that our work is very different indeed, and in fact covers more sculptural territory than most of the abstract sculpture produced in the last fifty years, which has been for the most part “Caro-esque”. The “Sculpture from the Body” business that John B. mentions was an important step in moving out of that territory (though I’d be the first to admit that 3 or 4 years ago my own work had slipped right back into it). It was to do with physicality, spatiality and plasticity in three-dimensions of a kind Caro and most others (including Panting) never touched upon. But it had nothing whatsoever to do with “Organicism”, and nor does our new sculpture – other than, that is, to embrace the principle that all parts in a sculpture should endeavour to respond to each other and work towards a “wholeness” of some description, though what that is remains beyond definition, since each “wholeness” is specific to each sculpture (and most definitely NOT to an idea).

    I have been very happy to be involved in the rediscovery of Panting, as far as I was able (and in the same way that I honour lots of abstract artists from the fifties, sixties and seventies, whilst, unlike some on this site, seeing the limitations in what they did), and I do think that some of his later work was exceptional for his age and the time in which he was working. But to give the man his due is not the same as wanting to re-kindle his mistakes and turn them into something that challenges what we are involved with now. That just won’t go anywhere.

  7. John Bunker said…

    Emyr and Terry have drawn attention to an ‘organicism’ and ‘linear progressions’ at work in the three Bran Chon sculptors output. It is also striking to see their latest work in contrast to the photographs of the Panting sculptures from the 70s. Tony mentioned how he thought Panting’s straight lines seemed to infer a ‘cool’ intellectualising approach to abstraction prevalent at that time.

    Both Robin and Tony were in the ‘Sculpture from the Body’ show at Tate in 1984. I would be really interested to know how that experience has effected their making of abstract sculpture since? I realise that it was a long time ago but it must of been a great gig!

  8. John Daly said…

    Thank you very much Sam for this wonderful, insightful, informative piece. Enjoyed it enormously, you have also saved me an expensive air fare!

  9. Tony Smart said…

    Sam

    What you are describing and the way you are describing it is making the sculpture 6.08 {Untitled V111] a lot more interesting than the very good set of photos lead me to believe.
    How it strikes me is that having got “off’ the floor the main activity is centred around the apex of the triangle that rises from the floor and comprises of 3 parts of right angled frames grouped together in a curve around the apex. The title “Bird’s nest” thus seems appropriate.
    This as a configuration is familiar and conservative considering the hype that surrounds these last pieces of Panting’s sculpture and presents him as putting steel together in a crazier way.
    If that is the case what that arrangement would do , in my opinion, is collect the activity of the sculpture together in an artificial way, an imposition from outside, and an idea! Thus constricting the free flow of the activity of the sculpture whatever it is trying to do. It has arrived too quickly perhaps and given a clarity to the piece it may not yet deserve and in so doing renders the piece less abstract than it might have been.
    The problem I have with your exciting interpretation of the sculpture ,and after all you are the only one to have seen it, is that you are not explaining what you mean..you say there are relationships but do not say what they are or what they do, if it is a sensation or a feeling, an attempt as describing them would be illuminating.
    The Panting sculptures I have seen have come to me in two phases, firstly as a student at St. Martins in a forum in the early 70′s and latterly at Poussin. My initial response I remember well, I thought Panting’s work very boring and dull and typical of a stream of sculpture that came out of a quest for literalism as a counter move to the “flower arranging” approach also happening at the time. my opinion not changing later when I saw them at Poussin.
    So in Panting’s case it struck me and others that this was the school of Straight Lines and Geometry equating to an intellectualisation of Abstraction. I can only speak for myself but this “cool” approach struck me as a poor answer to the lack of physicality and three dimensionality.Yet nevertheless a part of the debate at that time , most young sculptors included in their work an understanding of the literal and the geometric as a stepping stone to a more physical , three dimensional and abstract sculpture. Sadly quite where Panting was going with his experimentations we will never know.
    So…you have seen and I have not. I have to keep my mind open to the possibility that Panting having broken out of the unambitious nature of much of his work may have got involved in something that is beyond what the photos are giving us.I am only going to take my analysis of his “Birds Nests ” to that point and look forward to seeing them one day.
    Sculpture needs to be specific. The likelihood is that “Hop Scotch” and the “Bird’s Nests” and the works of the four sculptors you refer to have very specific sculptural ways of relating to the ground peculiar to each individual piece. Unlikely I would have thought would there be any “….in general” in dealing with how any one sculpture stands on the floor.

    Were you raising the question of how sculptures over the last 40 years ..why and how…and what is the relationship of Abstract Sculpture to the floor …Well that would be an incredible and fascinating debate……….

  10. Terry Ryall said…

    Sam, both you and Emyr make reference to the organic nature of the work of the three sculptors featured in the Chronicles. I haven’t seen any of the pieces that were under discussion but from the images ‘organic progression’ does seem like a key and shared characteristic although I don’t think that any of the sculptors actually uses the ‘O’ word to describe their work. The distinction that you make between ‘organic progression’ and what John Panting’s work presents visually seems to me to be crucial in understanding what is a fundamental difference in approach to making constructed sculpture between him and the Chronicles sculptors.
    I was particularly engaged by your observation that ‘Rather than each view adding to the next, in general each contradicts the next’. That might sound like a perverse way to make any sort of art but a sense of both contradiction (perhaps particularly self-contradiction?) and subversion is for me one of the driving forces behind the urge to make abstract art.
    Your assessment of Panting’s sculpture reveals an altogether different approach to making from that which appears to at least be partly shared by Anthony Smart, Mark Skilton and Robin Greenwood. Any connection between Panting and the Chronicles sculptors would seem to be very superficial indeed.
    As a vegetarian I’m instinctively drawn to the merits of the organic, as an artist I’ve always found it a bit of a turn-off, but that, so to speak, is just a matter of personal taste.
    Enjoyed this piece on John Panting a lot and also the challenging points and observations made by Robert and Emyr on Robin Greenwood’s Chronicles discussion. Viva La Lingua Morta!

    • Sam said…

      Hi Terry – thanks for that. On reflection ‘each contradicts the next’ is not quite right. As the rest of my text may suggest I did feel that I was working toward a greater sense of the whole sculpture – if every view completely contradicted the other that might not be possible (?). Rather I had to sort of dig the relations out, and then hold them in my head as I moved around – though often a particular set of relations would lose its power when viewed from a different angle, there was a cumulative effect, a kind of succession of different warpings of the space-structure of the sculpture, as the particular emphasis that one set of relations implied was combined with another. Really I wish I could have stayed in New Zealand a lot of longer and look at it over the duration of the exhibition.

      I wonder if Robin, Katherine, Tony or Mark agree with my analysis of their work in relation to Panting’s?