Can the revolution continue?

Absent friends: “Modern British Sculpture” at the Royal Academy, London.

The whole of modern British sculpture in one show? Even by the standards of Royal Academy blockbusters, that is an ambitious task. Especially as this keenly-anticipated exhibition is not a snapshot of the state of the art at the moment, but a retrospective of more than a century – from the late 19th century to the year 2000.

The show has other issues to contend with. Not least, the old one of definition. You know, exactly what IS sculpture these days? 94 years after the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp upturned a standard porcelain urinal, signed it R. Mutt, and called it “Fountain”, this is still, strange to say, not clear. Such readymades, and conceptual art in general, continue to question more orthodox, shaped-material, sculpture. And this is undoubtedly why one of the Tate Gallery’s most controversial artworks of the post-war period, Carl Andre’s rectilinear arrangement of 120 standard firebricks called “Equivalent VIII’, is in this show. In other words: it’s not just all about people in smocks wielding chisels, y’know. Nor, since Andre is American, does the sculpture in question have to be British in origin. Oh, but didn’t we just make it our own.

How quaint it now seems that the Tate was so widely pilloried in the press – the charge led by this very newspaper in 1976, I’m ashamed to discover – for buying “Equivalent VIII” for many pounds. Nowadays, we just shrug and say: it’s classic American minimalism, so what? In an era containing Tracey Emin’s confessional tents, beds, and sheds, and a decade since Martin Creed won the Tate’s Turner Prize with a piece involving a light going on and off in an otherwise empty gallery, the Bricks outrage now seems so tame, so parochial. Particularly as – however you choose to define it – the range of modern British sculpture shown at the RA is just so very good. The whole point is that it absorbed outside influences such as Andre with ease. Near his bricks, for instance, you get Richard Long’s 1984 ‘Chalk Line’. Oh, right, a rectangular line of rocks on the floor. Even Julian Opie, famous for his flat-image portrait works, is rediscovered as a sculptor for these purposes, with an early metal-and-glass cabinet piece from the 1980s again recalling American minimalism.

At the more post-modern end of things, you’ve got a Jeff Koons installation here, a 1985 work consisting of a basketball floating in a glass tank. Remind you of anything? You’re expecting the shark in formaldehyde, but no: nearby you have a different Damien Hirst glass tank, his “Let’s Eat Outdoors Today” of 1990. There’s the picnic all laid out on its plastic furniture. Oh, and there’s the rotting meat, the breeding flies, and the electric zapping device. How long ago it all now seems. Is this sculpture? Of course, but let’s stop asking that, shall we, before we get to Gustav Metzger’s “Sun, Page 3” of 1977, essentially a flat arrangement of those famous tabloid pin-ups? If the RA suggests it might be sculpture rather than collage, say, then it might as well be.

But let’s track back. Consider: here you have early chiselmeisters such as Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill with their (at the time) scandalous emphasis on naughty bits (Epstein’s virile “Adam” is shown here, and never forget that Gill- represented here by a very come-hither female figure – was forced by a prudish BBC to trim down the manhood of his generously-endowed Ariel figure on Broadcasting House). This was the interwar sexual-tension period in sculpture, shown also by Henry Moore’s much more delicate ‘Snake’. The fascination of the sculptors of the time with primitive art – as opposed to the neoclassical tradition handed down to them from the 18th and 19th centuries – is given its own special section. Though broadly chronological, the show also makes some telling juxtapositions between eras.

There’s death, too. Very interestingly, you have an 80 per cent scale model of the Cenotaph by Sir Edwin Lutyens, filling the central hall. He was not a sculptor, but this reminds us what an original architect Lutyens was: the whole form of the Cenotaph, with its simplicity and subtly curving geometries, was entirely novel when built in 1919. For comparison, they’ve brought in the feverishly ornate Jubilee Memorial to Queen Victoria of 1887 (by Sir Alfred Gilbert of Eros fame). Lutyens was no modernist either, but his Cenotaph was a cleansed, undemonstrative architecture/sculpture for the aftermath of an unprecedentedly horrific war. Having said which, this Cenotaph model somehow doesn’t work in the space. Did the modelmakers fail to appreciate Lutyens’ subtle geometries?

Then you have the mid-century artistic aristocracy represented by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo, who first made modern British sculpture internationally celebrated and marketable, particularly for big international organisations such as the UN. (Hepworth was commissioned for both the United Nations and, less exaltedly, John Lewis in Oxford Street). Moore’s increasingly fluid reclining figures, Hepworth with her abstract forms initially inspired by the land and seascape of Cornwall, became the cartoonist’s instantly-recognisable signifiers of baffling “modern art”. But nothing stood still. To the next generation, this plinth-based stuff all started to look a bit prissy.

A reconstructed Victor Pasmore installation, through which you walk, is a dazzling introduction to the next big change, in 1962. Anthony Caro’s startling bright-red steel and aluminium ground-based assemblage “Early One Morning” got steadily larger as he made it in his one-car garage, so had to open the garage doors and continue on into the outside world. That wholly abstract, very open piece is conventionally stated to have set British sculpture off in a new direction (some deny this and say that it actually marks the end of the heroic-modern-sculpture era). Whatever, it is Caro who, as a Royal Academician these days, has long been pushing for the RA to mount a big sculpture show.

A sculptor would traditionally carve into or mould the solid material: after Caro and his contemporaries, it was more often a case of bringing together components, in his case often scrap. But of course Caro, a pupil of Moore, was swiftly challenged in turn. Firstly by his own pupil Barry Flanagan, he remembers (something to do with Flanagan hurling a lump of clay against the wall and declaring it a complete work of art). Hats off to Caro: still busy today in his mid-80s, he doesn’t like or understand all of today’s art by any means, he cheerfully admits (Rachel Whiteread is about his limit, sculpture-wise) but he’s inquisitive and he wants us to see it. He wants the revolution to continue.

But is it continuing? “Modern British Sculpture” stops short of the present day by a decade, and rather peters out. True, it’s a 20th century retrospective, but they could have stepped forward a bit, just as they step back a bit into the 19th. It does makes you wonder what’s happening in what we must loosely call “sculpture” at the moment. The story this show tells very well is of successive waves of talent, virtually leapfrogging each other through the century. But we’re not yet seeing another 1990s BritArt moment. The names that hog the headlines today tend instead to be the work of two longer-established artists still, neither of them represented in this show, both inclined to gigantism: Anish Kapoor and Anthony Gormley. It’s right to exclude them, I think, not least because both have had big London solo shows of their own recently, Kapoor’s at the RA. Plus, they seem to be everywhere, anyway. Someone, somewhere, please challenge them soon. Not necessarily Mark Wallinger with his proposed giant White Horse of Ebbsfleet in Kent (a.k.a ‘the Stallion of the South”), a one-liner if ever there was.

There are, of course, other gaps. Everyone can’t get in, and there’s a commendable desire to give the selected sculptures room to breathe. Even so, I wish the Chapman brothers were there since they combine enormous flair and wit with an obsessive craftsmanship that is surely the mark of the true sculptor. But we’re hardly short of good stuff. I think it’s the freshness and conviction of the 20th century work on display at the RA – even the older work – that will strike people. Such as Philip King’s colourful semi-abstract figures from the early 1960s – his rich blue “Genghis Khan” for instance, standing in contrast to the imperial heyday of celebratory sculpture – which could have been made yesterday. Maybe what’s next for sculpture is, oh I don’t know, a return to 19th century figuration, chisel on stone or wood, plaster mould to bronze, nothing too big. Unlikely and largely undesirable – but you can’t deny that really would be radical.

Text and exhibition photos © Hugh Pearman. Fuller version of article first published in The Sunday Times, 16th January 2011, as “A chip off the old block”.


“Modern British Sculpture” runs at the Royal Academy, London, until April 7 2011.