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.
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.
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.
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!