THE MONOLITH AND PETER HIDE



Peter Hide (b. 1944) was an accomplished and recognized sculptor in Britain before he moved to Edmonton, Canada, from London in 1977. Although he was an original artist even then, like many British sculptors of his generation the mark of Caro was upon him: he'd studied under Anthony Caro at St. Martins School of Art in London and, like most Caro students, worked in welded steel. Like the others, as well, he'd struggled to forge an individual manner in reaction to Caro. (Caro was a powerful influence in Britain during the '60s and '70s, perhaps more powerful than Henry Moore was earlier, precisely because he was the more original artist.)

Hide's reaction to Caro in the late '60s brought forth a kind of elegant, quasi-architectural simplicity. In retrospect, this appears to be an amalgam of Minimal Art and Caro, not far from the manner of several of his British contemporaries. But, unlike his compatriots, in the early '70s he embraced the influence of the American sculptor, Michael Steiner. In this, perhaps, he was the second British sculptor of this century who was beholden to North America, the first being Caro, himself, who'd learned, a decade earlier, from David Smith. Looking to America wasn't remarkable in one sense, considering the shortage of American sculptors of the first rank apart from Smith and Steiner, but it was in another, in light of the superheated British Sculpture scene since the Second World War and Britain's ongoing love-hate relationship with America.

Hide's involvement with the art of Michael Steiner was brief but significant. In the early '70s, Steiner constructed wood maquettes which were subsequently fabricated in steel. He worked in wood by inclination and by choice, not wanting his vocabulary to be led by steel, especially by "found" steel. He sought to avoid the strongly-differentiated parts as well as the point-to-point and edge-to-edge attachments of welded sculpture à la Smith and Caro. Instead of finding parts in the scrap heap, Steiner invented parts that were quasi-geometric and anonymous. parts that were more purely abstract than Smith's and Caro's. To some extent these parts derived from Steiner's roots in '60s Minimalism, but their geometry wasn't so strict, and their arrangements weren't predictable and serial.

Although Hide soon abandoned the overt influence of Steiner - mostly a matter of arranging thick, quasi-geometric steel sheets - a more subtle influence remained. While he began to work directly with found steel, he reduced it to neutral, relatively anonymous shapes in keeping with his own, developing vision. That vision has always been essentially monolithic. In this it turned away from the sculpture that dominated during the '60s, the sculpture of arrangement.

Sculpture in the '60s inclined to the "pictorial"; that is, its parts spread about in space much as-objects arrange themselves within pictures. While the best example of this kind of sculpture was Anthony Caro, the tendency spread far beyond Caro and his circle. It emerged in the work of those artists whose work is loosely termed "environmental", from Minimal artists like Don Judd, Carl Andre, and Dan Flavin, through many of the Pop artists, to the Environment and Performance artists of the present day. In terms of "sixties-think," anything that occupied space was sculpture. But Hide's art stood opposed to that notion. Instead of spreading and sprawling, it gathered together and compacted. It "as monolithic instead of pictorial.

In the past, the monolith was the quintessential format for sculpture. It related both to the human figure and to the architectural column; it was singular and self-contained. But by the '60s it didn't seem to lend itself to abstraction, especially to abstraction dominated by '60s painting. Abstract painting, during that decade, had just escaped from Cubism. It inclined towards simplified geometry and open "optical" areas of colour. In its geometric reduction it seemed anti-sculptural.

The obvious sculptural equivalent, the singular box or column, seemed too deadpan to be used successfully. To be sure, many sculptors tried it, but most of them discovered variation by multiplying more-or-less singular and similar elements to create "pictorial" arrangements and environments. Thus Judd, Andre, Morris, and Flavin.

In contrast, Hide sought variation within the singular, and found singularity in the monolith. This led back to an old problem, to the tyranny of the human body. Monolithic abstract sculpture in the past generally discovered internal variation through some form of anthropomorphism: The body, either human or animal, offered parts that combined to form a coherent whole. That was demonstrated in the sculpture of David Smith. There, sculptural parts referred to heads, eyes, torsos, appendages. His sculptures stand, look, stride, and point. In Smith's art anthropomorphism took advantage of the novelty and variety of assemblage.

In contrast, sculpture by abstract modelers and carvers like Brancusi, Arp, and Moore was less convincing. Their work was anthropomorphic insofar as it provided a singular, figurative presence, but it tended to discover singularity by suppressing the differentiation of parts. All too often their work succumbed to amorphousness, and amorphousness drained off expression. Its insistence upon finish and (especially with Brancusi) upon presentation seemed an attempt to compensate for insufficient parts. The main line of sculptural development in this century tends to bypass them. It leads from Lipchitz, through 30's Giacometti, into Gonzales and Smith; and the mercurial spirit of Picasso hovers over all.

Like Brancusi, Arp, and Moore, Hide has accepted anthropomorphism of a general kind; unlike them, he's developed a distinctive and highly differentiated vocabulary of parts. As a result, his sculptures retain something of the proportion and presence of the human figure without specific, part to part references. Within their boundaries they're filled with jammed, abstract arrangements of welded steel.

Obviously Hide is a different kind of welder and assembler than the steel sculptors who came before him, from Picasso and Gonzales through Smith and Caro. His sculptures tend to be compact and closed rather than linear and open. He doesn't "draw in space." Instead, he tends to group plates of steel in long pleats and folds. The effect is one of a kind of stiffened, geometric drapery. This, too, looks back to sculpture of the past, especially to the elaborate and expressive drapery of Gothic carving (which often compensates for parts of the body), sculpture which Hide knows and admires.

The most singular aspects of Hide's recent sculpture are its scale and the extraordinary rhythmic vitality gained from pleating and folding with welded steel. Most modern sculpture - in fact, most sculpture from any period is limited more or less by the size of the human body. When it exceeds that limit, it escapes all too often into a kind of quasi-architecture. As such, it seems inflated and empty, its power to express seems to have leaked away. Recently, Hide seems to have gained expressive power by pushing beyond his limit. His sculptures are now often eight feet or higher, among them the narrow and beautiful Obelisk, which rises like a Gothic spire. Gaining sculptural expression through deviations from a powerful and deliberate symmetry, it recalls the west portal figures of Chartres.

Obelisk, like many of Hide's sculptures, had a long, slow period of gestation. This, in itself, is illuminating. During the winter, Hide works in the midst of the University of Alberta sculpture studio, where he has an obvious influence upon students. In fact, his teaching method appears to be akin to the old apprenticeship system. Judging from the number of outstanding sculptors now working in Edmonton who have Studied under him at one time or another, I venture to say that his teaching method has been successful to an extraordinary degree. These former students, like apprentices in the past, were forced to discover their own individuality afterwards. That so many have is a credit to Hide, too. But that isn't my point. In the studio the Students sometimes make "Peter Hides" more efficiently than Hide does himself. Hide often starts clumsily and frequently works to an impasse. Some of his best works have been patched together from other failures, or, like Obelisk, were radically "cropped".

Cropping is a method used extensively by some recent abstract painters. While Hide seldom exploits it radically, the term does suggest an important aspect of his work. Because his sculpture is so insistently monolithic, contour carries a large part of its expression. The cropping of contour to contained surface is as important to Hide as addition and deletion is to the arrangements" of Anthony Caro.

Hide is the sculptor he is in large part because of his background, his ambition, and his artistic intelligence. The background was provided, by and large, by Anthony Caro and St. Martins in London. It gave him, to use his own words. "A fifteen year head start." His ambition speaks for itself. His intelligence is another matter, although I find it difficult to characterize. Hide really thinks about sculpture, and he applies his conclusions so far as he can. But for all the analysis that goes into them, his sculptures aren't applications of a theory. Theory, more and more, defers to experienced as it does, it clarifies into a singular vision.

Where that vision will take Hide is an open question. Right now it remains focused on the monolith, where it seems to have found extraordinary freedom. There, as I've mentioned, it leads a return to a fundamental sculptural impulse. But whether it heralds a return to that tradition by a new generation of Sculptors remains to be seen. So long as his best work remains more or less hidden from view in London and the Canadian west, that prospect remains dim.



Terry Fenton

Vanguard Magazine, May 1984, Vol 13 no. 4, pp 15-16


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