WHEN PETER HIDE came to Edmonton in 1977 to take a teaching position at the University of Alberta, he was understandably apprehensive about what he was leaving behind and what Canada had to offer. As one of England's most promising young artists, he was deeply involved in London's art scene, and was "English" to the core.
Born in Surrey in 1944, Hide studied art at the Croydon School of Art. Following that was a student of Anthony Caro's at St. Martins School of Art in London between 1964 and '67 and had assisted him in the late '60s when Caro was at the height of his involvment with painted sculpture. Caro's sculpture was to change shortly after this in the early '70s to a style that was more enclosed and "material". During this same period, Hide and fellow sculptor Roland Brener established a group studio in South London at Stockwell Depot, and one of Hide's sculptures had been purchased by the Tate Gallery. Hide was also prominent among a group of British sculptors attempting to challenge the underlying pictorialism in the work of Anthony Caro.
One solution involved reaffirming the monolith, the emphatic, singular object. In the early '70s, while still influenced by Caro, Hide made large sculptures in which enormous horizontal beams were held aloft with simple supports. Subsequently he'd moved away from these to upright, tower-like configurations. But while the latter were simple and monolithic, they were essentially an amalgam of the declarative bluntness of Minimalism and Caro's effortless suspensions.
This direction ended when he encountered the sculpture of Michael Steiner while visiting New York City in 1973. In the late '60s Steiner had emerged -- one might even say escaped -- from Minimalism. His sculpture found a new kind of unity through arrangements of relatively anonymous parts, mostly flat fabricated sheets of Corten steel. These works persuaded Hide that original enclosed sculpture was possible, and that sculpture could take liberties with the architectural singularity of Minimalism without yielding to Caro.
Upon his return to England Hide made a few sculptures directly inspired by Steiner's work, but quickly discovered a direction of his own. Open Steiner-like sculptures with flat plates gave way quickly to monolithic constructions as Hide began to work towards a kind of sculpture that could stand erect without succumbing to the figure or to architecture. Where Caro had taken a variety of strongly characterized parts and fused them into a coherent whole, Hide now strove to imbue a simple, strongly outlined image with internal variety.
During this period, Hide and a group of fellow artists set out to examine the nature of sculpture and to discover its essence. This empirical endeavor was stimulated by the attitude of young British sculptors to Caro's art. They objected to the reliance of Caro's sculpture in particular, and 20th Century sculpture in general, on the art of painting. Caro's sculpture, they maintained, was pictorial; it arranged elements in a kind of deep relief; in some respects it was closer to still lifes and stage props than to traditional sculpture. Reluctant to accept Caro's vocabulary lest his influence dog their heels thereafter, they searched for an alternative in the London museums and the written history of art.
Although it may have been misconceived, this characteristically English search for "roots" suited Hide's predisposition towards singularity which was at its height when he came to Canada. Upon his arrival he gradually adopted a more pragmatic, North American approach to the making of art. He continued to make abstract sculpture which occupied space in a relatively traditional way, sculpture which stood upright without abstracting from the figure. That sculpture quickly grew in power and authority.
Questioning amounts to nothing if it fails to open doors. In any period, most artists pursue directions that open onto wide barren tracts. It was one thing for Hide and his compatriots to question Caro's pictorialism, but revaluation alone couldn't challenge Caro's magnificent achievement. Caro had abandoned the monolith altogether in order to create original and varied sculpture that was free from representation. Hide was faced with the problem of restoring the monolith apart from the figure without succumbing to the flaccid pseudo-architecture of Minimalism.
In so doing, he tackled a problem which has accompanied 20th Century sculpture since its first encounters with abstraction: the problem of exterior and interior. Large "abstract" volumes tend to appear closed off and empty. This perceived emptiness wouldn't matter were it not for the fact that the literal in art is expressive: what we see is what we feel, and in sculpture all we can really see is surface and contour.
The "presence" of sculpture relates to our experience of human and animal bodies and of architecture. Both lead us to expect a vivid relation between interior structure and surface. In the past, the figure tended to supply a convincing metaphor for this structure. Not so with abstract sculpture. An "amorphous" abstract surface suggests an amorphous structureless interior. The abstract sculptor must invigorate this surface to suggest a whole, an embodied substance. Over the years, many sculptors have solved the problem by working small; others, like Caro and Smith, by making "open" sculptures with arrangements of lines and plates; but Hide wanted to make sculpture that was large, upright, and enclosed.
Hide's first Canadian sculpture, Oddball (Fall 1977), tackled the problem of inside and outside in several ways, some of them unique. The sculpture is a squat, truncated column, virtually an ingot of compacted steel. Its volume is kept under control by moderate size and the presence of a cavity opening into the sculpture's interior. But beyond this, Hide exploited parts which emerged from the interior to make up portions of the surface. Although the general configuration of Oddball was unexceptional, the fact that the its surface seemed to have been generated by its interior was unique.
Gothic Height (Winter 1977/78), was larger than Oddball and had a more emphatically upright configuration, nor did it rely on cavities to penetrate its interior after the manner of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Its title suggests origins in the elaborate draperies of Gothic sculpture, as well as the more abstracted draperies of a midsize cast of Rodin's Balzac in The Edmonton Art Gallery's collection, which Hide admired enormously. These heavily draped figures demonstrated that sculptural presence isn't the exclusive property of the nude.
Gothic Height gives the impression of having been assembled from the inside out. Its surface isn't a bland, enfolding envelope like the skin of a balloon. It's interrupted by vertical bars interspersed with vertical faceting. The bars penetrate to the sculpture's interior and suggest a kind of internal structure made visible -- as Hide put it, "bones, but abstract bones" -- while the faceting is a kind of metal skin. The facets and bars are joined by long, welded seams, a method of construction unlike Caro's and essentially unlike anything in previous steel sculpture. There's a hint of it in Steiner's Corten sculptures and Hide may well have discovered it there, but Steiner's long welded seams are part of a fabricating process and meant to be concealed. Hide's sculpture seldom has a fabricated air, depending, instead, on a certain rough immediacy. The appearance of fabrication through excessive finishing can be fatal to it.
Iron Curtain's bones show in a new way, through heavy, solid parts seemingly carved away from a core. Finished in the spring of '79, its extreme density was a legacy of the search by Hide's English compatriots for sculpture that had the presence and solidity of an actual body. The sculpture took the flame cutting of steel to an extreme and as a result seemed closer to rough carving or modeling than had any steel sculpture that preceded it. (Hide used clay in one passage to approximate the form he was after, a practice he never repeated.)
Iron Curtain divided into upper and lower sections along a kind of "waist". By making the top section of the sculpture a mirror image of the bottom, he divided the sculpture into parts without suggesting parts of the body. The upper section suggests a stiff fan, a kind of abstracted drapery, that Hide exploited again and again. The Double, 1978-81, has a similar sense of compact massiveness but repeats upper and lower pairings of spheres, while United Front uses the monolith once again, but flattens it and lays it on the ground, one side echoing the other across a thickened top.
King Coil and Hat Stand, from the Spring of 1980, explore simple contours and a powerful sense of front and sides. Each has an outer shell which is at once an enclosure and a contour. King Coil is the first and largest of the pair. Its sides take up the interlacing curves from United Front which makes its profile stronger than its frontal view. While this is a characteristic of some African sculpture as well as animal sculpture in general, it's seldom a property of the figurative monolith, which tends to organize volumes against a plane and around an axis. King Coil would organize around an axis as well were it not for a long, upright bar which stiffens the image by emphasizing one side. In one sense, this long unimpeded element recalls the horizontal bars, beams, and platforms in Caro sculptures from the '60s such as Early One Morning and Sun Feast. There the horizontals became references which displaced the literal presence of the floor. Hide's upright bars are placed at one edge of the sculpture and tend to reinforce uprightness while disarming bilateral symmetry. Although King Coil comes closer to the figure than Hide's sculpture ever has, its asymmetry defeats expectation. In comparison with Lipchitz's Totem of 1930 and even with many sculptures by David Smith it seems haunted by the figure rather than abstracted from it. It's almost totemic, almost a figure, but finally neither. Hat Stand is a smaller purified version of the same type differing from King Coil in being closed at the back as well as the sides. Because of this it resembles an open, empty musical instrument case. One sees into its interior but not through it as with sculptures which draw in space. In this it makes sculptural volume purely visible in a new way, fusing surface and contour.
In the March '86 issue of his Artletter, Kenworth Moffett remarked that, in comparison to Caro's, Hide's art suffers from "stiffness". While the observation is accurate, it doesn't point to a real shortcoming. If it did, Hide would be in good company: a lot of great sculpture from the past lacks "fluidity" (If that is the appropriate antonym). Perhaps our taste for fluid, flexible sculpture is a legacy of the practice of modeling, as opposed to carving, which dominated Western sculpture for centuries after the Renaissance. Stiffness is frequently a characteristic of carved sculpture, and Hide's use of welded steel is closer in spirit to carving than to modeling. The carved "stiffness" in Hide's sculpture is often an aspect of austere expression.
This austerity is nowhere more evident than in The Watchtower (1981). It isn't the didactic simplicity of Minimalism; it's a more archaic austerity, something hieratic and immobile, recalling Greek Kourii, Egyptian sculpture, or African carving. While Hide's sculpture lacks an easy grace and its expression is often deadpan it tends thereby to gain rather than relinquish expression.
In The Watchtower this impassive expression is intensified through asymmetry; like King Coil the sculpture has a flat vertical side, in this case set against a curved skirt open at the other side. In comparison with King Coil, The Watchtower, has nothing like a central spine or axis. Whatever axis exists has been shifted to the left, where the sculpture, at once volume and shell, attaches to the side plate. Its asymmetry is reinforced by the various levels and divisions within the sculpture. Enjambed shelves and a fan-like top at one side offset one another. The sculpture presents a bluntly stated alliance between the decorative and the mundane.
Woman Combing Her Hair (Spring 1983), was provoked by Caro's "Bronze Screens". While it stands upright against the wall like Caro's screens, in other respects it seems to reverse roles. Whereas Caro's sculptures tend to be contained and impassive surfaces, not unlike The Watchtower, Woman Combing Her Hair is open and linear, reminiscent of '60s Caro. Nonetheless, Hide's sculpture is much more than a pastiche of Caro. It breaks new ground for his own art by developing a kind of abstract contrapposto.
Given the essential stiffness of Hide's art, his impulse has always been to compensate by suggesting tension and release. But this is difficult with materials and methods that resist flexibility. Because Hide is a "carver" (unlike Caro, who inclines to the fluidity of modeling) he has seldom exploited the "found" properties of steel, and its malleability He appears to wrest his material into position, or rather submission, through brute force. Hide is essentially a "thing maker" rather than an arranger. For all its openness and linearity, Woman Combing Her Hair remains a singular object. Its parts are real and massive yet twist and tug against one another. It has power rather than grace.
After Woman Combing Her Hair, many of Hide's sculptures resisted establishing a dominant profile. Shifting internal planes cause a succession of profiles to give way to one another, creating a subtle and unexpected animation. Hide tends to treat each plane, passage, and volume as an object with an axis rather than a shape with a dominant profile. This tendency goes back to his training in art school where he was taught to draw from the figure according to the "Coldstream Method," locating the axis of each form before defining its contour.
Modern art has placed great demands on sculptors to create new sculptural parts, practices, and formats. Every major abstract sculptor has been forced virtually to reinvent the wheel. While this has led to the creation of many great works of art, it has led as well to the intermittent and somewhat disjointed development of sculpture in the 20th Century. Since the figure was abandoned, the summits of sculptural art have been high but isolated while the valleys have, if anything, broadened and deepened.
Making monolithic sculpture that didn't abstract from the body called for the invention of a new sculptural vocabulary. Caro's medium, with its highly-specialized relations among parts and of those parts to the floor, couldn't accomplish this. Although Hide accepted abstraction, the very fact that his art stood upright meant that it had to support itself through its core. Yet because it was so fundamentally abstract it distrusted plinths and abhorred anthropomorphic legs and backbones. Transitions from floor to summit in Hide's sculptures tend to be through a series of compacted abstract parts.
His fundamental units of construction aren't so much found or fabricated parts as they are "passages" which he makes himself. Sometimes these passages have been salvaged from failed sculptures to be resurrected in altogether different ones. His sculptures often begin with disparate clusters, while in finished works the clusters cohere into passages. These are various: ribs and facets; long flat sides; shelves and cavities; curved "skirts"; "fans", folds, pleats, and stairs; wheels and jutting tubes; and shells. Prominent stairs dominate two sculptures from 1983, The Conquest Of Happiness and Woman Combing Her Hair.
One of the masterpieces of modern art, Conquest Of Happiness can hold its own beside anything by Brancusi, Lipchitz, or Smith. Its originality and power are magnified by the strikingly different views it offers. From one it's a stable spreading pyramid, from another it's angular and agitated, from yet another it recalls Brancusi's Endless Column. Its character changes continually as one moves around it. Although dominated by its aggressively rhythmic passage of "stairs", the sculpture has no obvious "front." Its one stable view is deceptive because it clearly isn't frontal and gives way to a succession of less stable views.
Although Seven Sisters originated at the same time, it didn't approach the quality of Woman Combing Her Hair until its eventual completion in 1986. Hide often finds success hard to follow up. Because of this his works tend to emerge singly or in small clusters: Conquest Of Happiness and Conquest Of Happiness, King Coil and Hatstand; Conquest Of Happiness and Seven Sisters. While Woman Combing Her Hair moved his art away from strict frontality, he hasn't yet managed to create a similar floor-standing relief. Because Hide's sculptures emerge in groups and clusters rather than extended series they have the air of being unique masterpieces (which isn't to say they're better than individual works from series.) Hide is a slow worker and not easily satisfied. He seems to start not from coherent visions but rather from impulses that resist solution. There, at these raw beginnings, Hide's impulses often seem to defy taste. Perhaps they're pre-visionary and beyond the realm of taste; certainly they're incoherent; often they're clumsy and aggressive. This initial incoherence may be important in steel sculpture, where superficial unity can be achieved quickly. Often impasse and frustration force him to make radical changes. He's sliced many sculptures apart and inserted sections from them into other works; others have been cut in half, tilted, turned upside down, and merged; sometimes hopeful starts have to be abandoned while some impasses -- perhaps through their sheer resistance -- have led to masterworks. At a certain point, a sculpture will begin to take shape as a coherent whole, and from that point vision guides the result.
Plantagenet from 1985-86 is just such a masterpiece. It went through many metamorphoses before assuming its final shape, a large, wall-like shell interrupted by curving interior ribs which define its structure and suggest a solemn graceful music abounding with echoes and repeats. Corner Development, a similar type of sculpture, is a large twisted screen topped with a cut-down basin. Masterbend, and Megoplast take the screen motif a step farther. They sit upon narrow bases upon which their parts twist and writhe like limbs and torsos.
Oddblast, Ladybird, Roseate and Justice In The North, also from 1985-86, are loosely arranged against a curved shell and around a tilted core that resembles a pipe or gun barrel. But this core differs from the stabilizing verticals in some of Hide's earlier works. It organizes without stabilizing. Little is at rest in these sculptures; their parts twist and strain; they're Baroque rather than classical in effect. The twist that began with Woman Combing Her Hair has given way to instability and agitation.
Upon his arrival in Canada nine years ago Peter Hide was a promising British artist. Today he's one of the world's most original sculptors. His apprehension about making art in Canada has vanished. In fact, the example he set as an artist and teacher has helped turn Edmonton into an international sculpture center. The environment he helped to create now affects him in turn. Although he continues to work in England on occasion, the center of his development has shifted to Canada; and in Canada he has flourished. Since his arrival he has completed more than 50 substantial sculptures, among them them masterpieces in every sense of the word.
© Terry Fenton, Friday October 1986
From "Peter Hide In Canada, The Edmonton Art Gallery, 1986
Slightly revised, March 1999