ARTS & AMUSEMENTS
Steel Bronze and Plastic
By NEVILE WALLIS
FROM the heroic ages, the unique powers which sculpture may express have preserved the art in veneration. Only in this century has sculp- ture's intrinsic dignity been questioned, or impishly affronted. There have been the jeux
d'esprit of some prodigal giants. Picasso deftly turned a pair of rusty handlebars and the saddle of a push-bike into the horns and face of a goat. With other pioneers he has thrown off serio-whimsical conceits, hybrids of 'sculpture' and painting, opening the way for a contem- porary cult. Many other modern hints have been dropped—from the sexual symbolism of Hans Arp to the devices of new American painting— to stimulate a restive generation united in the rejection of traditional materials and concepts of sculpture in this frontier-pushing, techno- logical age. Three current exhibitions enable us to explore these developments more fully.
First, there is the Contemporary Art Society's show, 'British Sculpture in the Sixties,' where our more established achievement is ingeniously staged on a blue-carpeted set at the Tate Gallery. As a cross-section of more or less humanist bronze images, the geometric precision of Constructivism, and the various symbols of our industrial day, this is as variable as the works of thirty living sculptors with no secure tradi- tion could well be. But it is also, I suspect, the last major exhibition of this nature we are likely to see where Rodin would not feel utterly be- wildered. He might recognise, for a start, the cragginess of his late pieces adapted often to the lumbering, brutish creatures of bronze, sur- vivors in some sort of that mood of Angst which brought this school to the international forefront for a triumphant period after 1952. But Rodin would recognise also the craftsmanly concern for the individual quality of each material which informs this experienced collec- tion, tired or uncertain as the inspirations may otherwise be. The sensitivity to his material seen in Moore's mysterious dual image Moon Head in polished bronze, or in the beautifully worked aluminium bars of Geoffrey Clarke's open hori- zontal sculpture at the Tate shows the world of difference from the exuberant attitude at the Arts Council Gallery. Here some Royal College students might appear to have squirted their flabby products out of a toothpaste tube, easily end hastily licking them into shape and leaving them to harden.
The very diversity of the Tate show impresses on us again the necessity to use our eyes and forget current opinion. Groupings of artists tend to be ephemeral and to dissolve under scrutiny; common purposes quickly disappear. However requisite to the British Council in making collec- tive impacts abroad, such groupings belong to art politics rather than to individual activity. Bryan Kneale is an instance of a very formidable independent talent, overlooked in the generalisa- tions on trends. His Camberwell Beauty is an enormous suspended winged construction in steel, partially aspiring, partially excavatory with its semblance of a spiral scoop. It grips the imagina- tion through its sheer power as an industrial metaphor--the same clear-cut, always purpose- ful inventiveness giving authority to Kneale's other steel symbols at the Tate. The impression indeed here, strengthened elsewhere, is that the abstract forms of British sculpture of the Sixties generally exhibit more vitality than the figurative, whose bronze renaissance was in the Fifties.
At this critical juncture, it is necessary to look with what sympathy we may at young sculptors seeking, in new materials. to give a fresh direction to an activity more closely in tune with New Town life and with the cool, dead-pan painting of their fellows today. One's first resistance is removed if their brightly painted artifacts are considered as necessarily supple- mentary to, not supplanting, traditional sculptural forms. We must acknowledge that the eminent isolation of Moore and Hepworth is em- phasised for these juniors by the master's con- tinuing versatility in bronze, a metal which already appears •outworn and irrelevant in some lesser hands, and by Hepworth's dedication to monolithic carving where she has reigned alone here for twenty-five years. There is no past style, in fact, which could possibly be revitalised by this impatient generation intent on swiftness of technical execution to embody the immediacy of a sensation.
Accepting all this, one enters the Whitechapel Gallery's 'New Generation' exhibition, altogether a more proficient showing than the comparable one from the Royal College alone. The imme- diate impression is of the heraldic, weightless decorations in Regent Street, all the bright toy contraptions of Christmastide. One settles down. The tone is set by six former students of around thirty from St. Martin's School, who have felt the liberating influence of Anthony Caro's coloured steel and aluminium structures like limber brushstrokes made solid. Philip King and William Tucker (the best known), David Annes- ley, Michael Bolus, Tim Scott and Isaac Witkin use their brightly painted plastics, fibreglass and aluminium for objects which generally lie flush or snake along the .floor. The appeal is optical purely. Depth of feeling does not enter. It is an activity cheerful, cute, entirely in tune with a sharp new technological age, confidently ad- dressed to one section of the fragmented art public. The British Council may certainly be expected to swoop before long with Goldie-like avidity on this bait.
There are divergencies within the New Genera- tion naturally. Christopher Sanderson (Slade), a sober, More traditional composer in uncoloured aluminium, and Roland Piche (RCA), whose visceral, bladdery imagery is spawned from Francis Bacon, illustrate the danger of speaking of common purposes. But a common temper is clear in the revolutionary impulse of St. Martin's. It seems to touch, as Mr. Bryan Robertson re- marks acutely, 'upon that' distancing ploy used by young people now when they are talking to somebody else in a room—the loud pop music blaring away, the television flickering in the corner. And the fear of silence. A distrust of commitment, engagement, the future, or even perhaps of feeling.'
The crisis in British sculpture does not arise simply from another, necessary self-renewal. Re- jected now by the avant-garde is the fundamental assumption that a sculptor's creativity is a slowly evolving process embodying his whole philoso- phical and aesthetic experience. The new school —nimble-witted if more sketchily educated than its seniors, and playing it cool----is• pledged to the notion of sculpture as a heartless activity keeping swift pace with painting in exploiting each transitory idea. A true personal vision is not found that way, nor endurance. Posterity, I fancy, may find more sustenance in the con- templative work of our solitaries: not veterans only, but youngish mature talents like Bryan Kneale, or Ghisha Koenig (recently seen in the Grosvenor Gallery's 'Fifty Years of Sculpture'), whose groups of industrial workers in terracotta disclose a powerful emotion and monumental grandeur. More important, a quiet, unswerving development. That is most precious in the 1960s, when the creative impulse of yesterday's victors in the international prize-ring has slackened, and staminas will be tested the more in the increasing pace of contemporary art.