ABSTRACTION AND THE FIGURE: My ART IN CONTEXT

This article by Peter Hide was originally published in the Edmonton Review, Vol. 5, Issue 1, Summer 1999.

Revolutions are rare in art and one can usually trace a thread of development. However, sometime in the early years of this century a true revolution occurred in sculpture. Picasso took a spare rib from cubist collage and invented abstract sculpture, in effect shattering the monolith that had dominated sculpture since the 'Venus of Willendorf.' This move was more radical than anything that has happened in painting. People can still recognize the conventions of a painting in a Jackson Pollock, for instance, and although they may or may not think that it's a good painting, at least they know it's a painting. Constructed sculpture, however, in the hands of David Smith and Anthony Caro produced objects that confounded the layman's notion of sculpture in almost every way. The culmination of this trend towards abstraction occurred around 1962 with Caro's "Early One Morning," roughly 60 years after Picasso's seminal "Guitar" of 1912. "Early One Morning" represents the extreme point of development of abstraction because of its unlikeness to nature, its apparent weightlessness, dispersal and denial of material.

During the sixties, Caro consolidated the success of "Early One Morning" in an almost unbroken succession of great sculptures of a quality unmatched by anyone. By the early seventies, though, the limitations of the high abstract style that Caro pioneered were becoming apparent. It was cold in its austere geometry and, because its attenuation and dispersal made it particularly hard to read except against a very plain background, it only showed to its fullest advantage in very pure architectural environments.

The limitations of the style produced a reaction. This reaction was not, however, a challenge to abstraction. It represented a desire rather to body forth the discoveries of abstract sculpture in a more robust and monumental form. The first stirrings of the counter movement occurred in the form of Minimalism, notably in the work of Donald Judd and Richard Serra. These artists eschewed the gesturalism and attenuation of form in Smith and Caro and concentrated on volume, material quality and weight. By 1970, a sea change was in the air and eventually, the movement to restore weight and volume to sculpture started to encompass artists regardless of their sensibility. Caro himself did an about face from his lyric abstraction of the 60s and produced a series of closed and massive wall-like sculptures composed of sawn-off sections of huge girders. The first masterpieces of this new sensibility, however, were produced by Michael Steiner in the early 70s. I am thinking particularly of works like "Knossos" which I first saw at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1973, and "Judgematic" in the EAG permanent collection.

Steiner had started precociously as a Minimalist in the mid '60s and his was the first really successful crossover of Minimalism with the Picasso-Smith-Caro lineage of Modernist sculpture. In sculptures like "Knossos," Steiner showed how to compress cubist elements into powerful masses suggestive of weight by using thickness expressively.

This was the scene that I came upon as a young sculptor and recent graduate from St Martins. I had studied with Caro, had witnessed first-hand the nascent struggle to find an alternative to Caro-style sculpture that overtook the scene in the seventies and felt very much part of this movement. Like my peers, I wanted to restore a sense of weight and monumentality to sculpture and in particular I sought a way to reconcile theses properties with the drawing in space approach of sixties sculpture. The results that I came up with, which I can best characterize as a kind of structural minimalism, did not have the expression desired and I found myself in an increasingly arid territory. It is interesting to note, though, that this phase of my work attracted considerable support from the art establishment in England, fitting in as it seemed to with the current orthodoxy that modernism should develop into Minimalism, Earth Works, Conceptual, and so on. But I was unsatisfied with my sculpture and felt blocked.

It was in this frame of mind that I travelled to New York in December 1973 where I saw Steiner's show at Marlborough and visited Clement Greenberg. I had met Greenberg almost 10 years earlier at Tony Caro's and was struck by his trenchant observations on art. Steiner's sculpture and Greenberg's criticism showed me the way through my impasse.

The challenge had been to get out of the strangle-hold of Caro-style sculpture. I had engineered my escape by going into a kind of structural minimalism and now I escaped from this by accepting Steiner's influence, which lasted for two or three years. In the mid-seventies, I broke away from that influence when I made "Zenith" (Fig.__), probably the first sculpture of my maturity -- certainly the one that has defined my goal as a sculptor since then.

I suppose I can best describe this goal as a desire to humanize the high abstract language I grew up with at art school without somehow compromising it. I say this with hindsight, as I certainly did not make a conscious decision. At the time, I merely wanted to stand sculpture up and in the simplest sense this could be seen as a reaction against Tony Caro's resolute horizontality.

Horizontality together with dispersal and weightlessness were the three linchpins of Caro's abstractness. "Zenith" set itself against all three in the way that it fused cubist elements into a vertical mass suggestive of weight, and in its emphasis on materiality. "Zenith" was figure-like, and, although it was essentially flat, it was inflected in space -- the frontal plane "turns" into a side view which encourages the spectator to move around the piece to the "hidden" rear view. Of course, "Zenith" was not the first abstract sculpture to mass parts into a solid mass, however I think it was new in the way it made use of a device borrowed from classical figure sculpture -- contrapposto -- to move the sculpture in a unified gesture.

The contrapposto pose was first confidently explored by the Greeks. They developed it in order to get away from the frontality and stiffness of earlier sculpture. It had the advantage of greater naturalism and made the body far more spatially interesting as a sculptural subject. Contrapposto involves adjusting the distribution of weight in a standing figure from one leg to another such that one leg bears most of the weight. From this simple action, a complex set of reciprocal movements follows that activates the body spatially, not only from the frontal plane, but from the side view as well. From the front there is the contrast of the straight-legged, compressive side with the relaxed side which opens out in space, moving in depth to activate the side view.

This exploration of the dynamics of the body raises the issue of engineering in sculpture and the means by which a sculpture resists the force of gravity -- what keeps it standing up. In traditional sculpture such as the Greek, this function is largely performed by the base which acts as a stabilizing force. Thus a dynamically posed figure when attached to a base has a stable interface with the world. Abstract sculpture, however, gradually worked itself away from the base and therefore it became necessary for sculptors to integrate the means by which a sculpture stood up with the formal and expressive conception of the piece. By 1960, both Alexander Calder and David Smith had produced abstract sculptures that confidently exploited this new state.

I wished to retain the freedom and concreteness gained by off-the-base sculpture, but wanted to combine it with the liveliness of the animated body as expressed in the contrapposto pose. This was largely my preoccupation of the early 80s and led in 1983 to "The Conquest of Happiness." "Conquest" dealt with contrapposto in abstract terms and unfolded in space as one moved around it. However, it remained stiff and hieratic in feeling with something almost Egyptian in its pyramidal outline.

"Rondour" made the next year was my first step away from the earthbound ziggurat form of "Zenith," and "The Conquest of Happiness." It had a rectangular as opposed to pyramidal outline and the weight, both visual and actual, was not concentrated at the base as in those other two.

This task of redistributing the weight and thereby liberating the outline was a drawn-out process. Throughout the eighties I played with structures that became top-heavy, and in this spirit produced works such as "Inside Balzac," "Form and Content" and "Happy Outlook," a work in which Russell Bingham observed 'there is a sense of forces straining against each other.' -- as opposed, say, to straining against the ground, which you could say characterized the ziggurat phase.

Doubtless my mini-history here is an oversimplification as, unfortunately, events don't always follow in the logical sequence that historical hindsight ascribes to them. I'm aware, looking back on my own development, that my first experiment with a so-called top-heavy form of sculpture occurred as an isolated instance in the late seventies, seemingly unrelated to other sculptures I made at the time. This odd sculpture was a kind of "Winged Victory" (see Fig. 1) and unfortunately needed a base to make it stand. Clearly this was no solution -- returning as it did to the allusive world of figurative sculpture. The image of the work stayed with me, though, not least because it represented a desire to escape the implicit but imprisoning frame of pictorial sculpture. But I did not have the formal resources to solve the base problem, so it remained a statement of intent rather than a stepping stone. It took a number of seemingly unrelated events to occur before I did finally solve the problem.

Next in the catalogue of "unrelated" developments were my experiments with a series of wall-related sculptures. This, too, was motivated by a desire to escape from the dense compressive ingot-like form of sculptures made at the time, works such as "Oddball" which threatened to implode into another kind of trap. These sculptures were lighter and more open in form and one of them actually leant against the wall using the wall as a structural element (see Fig. 2)

With hindsight, the wall-pieces were a manifestation of a desire to gain the freedom that unstable top-heavy forms offered. But again, I did not have the formal resources to develop the work which, as it stood, I considered a failure.

During the late '80s, I taught a life drawing class in which I examined the development of the posed figure from Giotto through Donatello to Michelangelo. I was interested in the way the treatment of the figure gradually became free, liberated by degrees from the hieratic stiffness of Byzantine art, finally culminating in the spatial liberation of Michelangelo's Sistine figures. At this point, I became directly interested in the human figure as a subject for sculpture, and concluded the drawing class by placing the model in a series of dynamic poses in which she assumed an unstable position, using the wall as a prop.

These rather anguished poses -- which perhaps were a response to the cringing figures of Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden in Michelangelo's mural -- had a practical value in that they showed how a figure posed dramatically could link the floor to the wall in a new way. I say this, though, with hindsight because although I felt a powerful urge to deal with these images, I could not see how to do so through a lack of formal resources. So again an idea was shelved and I literally moved sideways into the horizontal format.

The horizontal experiment was initially driven through a desire to expand my territory and I felt it might help me overcome a residual stiffness in my approach that lurked in the verticals. This venture into the horizontal was risky because this was an area Caro had dominated and after all I had marked myself off from him in part by going vertical.

The impetus to go horizontal was considerably reinforced by a visit to Florence in 1993, where I was particularly impressed with Michelangelo's Medici Tomb figures, not only because of their easy mastery of the horizontal format, but because they also showed how to relate the wall to the "floor," which in this case was an architectural scroll-like platform at head height on which the figure of "Dawn" languorously disported herself.

Fortunately, I had moved to a new studio in late '92, one which enabled me to work on a series of more expansively horizontal pieces. This approach led my sculpture towards architecture and culminated in "Malevitch Extended." With hindsight, I think this sculpture represented an extreme departure from the figural form in which I had originally established my territory. Initially I was seeking a way back, or rather a synthesis of the horizontal and vertical. This impulse towards a synthesis appeared in the form of "Hindu Laocoon," a sculpture which, whilst sprawling on its base, also depended on a leg-like form which stood directly on the ground. This awkward piece, I later realized, was a development of the 1978 "winged-figure" motif that I had abandoned, and like this motif it had a support problem. It needed a base because of its unstable, top-heavy configuration, but nonetheless the base was extraneous to its form. The next step was to do away with the base, but how?

The answer came to me eventually when I remembered the life-drawing poses of figures pressing against the wall. I could do away with the base if I used the wall instead! Of course, the wall is a prop, in a sense, but it's a far more neutral and undifferentiated one than a base which has, after all, this unwanted sculptural presence.

In the development of these new wall-pieces, I've sought to capture something of the free outline of a body in motion without compromising abstraction. I've tried to achieve this by opposing contrasting scales; the scale of the outsize leg with that of the parts of the horizontal "torso" section of the sculpture. These parts are not only smaller, but -- to me at any rate -- carry in their entire relationship something of the feel of a landscape. In this way they "cancel" the figure image and render the sculpture abstract again.

I began this article with a general background wishing to locate myself within a stream of development in sculpture, trying to show in so far as is possible, why I did what I did, what I reacted against and what I absorbed. Looking back is relatively easy, and as I've noted before it can impose a logic on events which they certainly didn't seem to have as they unfolded at the time.

This represents my development to date and looking back over this what I've written, I'm aware that it suggests battles won and an increasing mastery over what I do. Yet whilst I'm aware that it's an illusion to speak of development on the large scale of art history in this way, I think it does apply in individual lives and can be seen as mirroring the growth from childhood to the adult state.

Certainly, when talking of the big picture at present it seems hard to escape the idea that if improvement in art doesn't really occur then disintegration and decay certainly do. It's difficult to keep faith in the potential of art to be life-affirming and spiritually uplifting in the face of the colossal act of dismantling that is taking place in our culture, yet I have to believe that good art will come out on top in the end.



Peter Hide


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