Andrew Lambirth Moore at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, until 30 March 2008 Michael Kidner: no goals in a quicksand Flowers East, 82 Kingsland Road, E2, until 13 October It's tempting to think we know everything about Henry Moore (1898-1986), household name that he is. As early as the 1950s, Percy Cudlipp was composing satirical ditties for magazines like Punch with rousing first lines such as 'Don't do any more, Mr Moore', which suggests an overfamiliarity perhaps bordering on satiety. But it's all too easy to shoot down a leviathan — the most miserable shot can hardly miss. It's far more profitable to consider Moore's strengths and look at some of his real and substantial achievements. One of these was to make large-scale sculpture that looked at its best in the landscape.
Moore always maintained that sculpture was an art of the open air. He once said in an interview, 'I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in, or on, the most beautiful building I know.' Architects, who so often resent sculptors cluttering up their pristine spaces, would no doubt agree. Now a superb temporary setting is offered for 28 of Moore's large-scale sculptures — Kew Gardens. The great thing will be to see the sculptures against the changing backdrop of the seasons. As autumn gets into its stride, where better to go than Kew for a walk on a crisp morning? And if we are blessed with snow this winter, I've no doubt that the sculptures will look different again in an open white context. It almost makes one want to buy a season ticket.
The gardens are large, covering more than 300 acres of very different types of country, but the sculptures have been concentrated around the Victoria Gate and the Main Gate, within relatively easy ambling distance. The suggested visit time is two to three hours, but this estimate is generous. You can get a good idea of the display in an hour, though it's obviously more relaxing to have longer to spend wandering in such delightful surroundings. And that is the first problem with Kew as a setting for sculpture: the art is at once in direct competition with nature, and particularly the trees.
Moore's monumental sculptures are often photographed in wild and dramatic countryside, where they have to compete with rocks and scree and plunging drops. This does not always bring out their best. They do look better in a domesticated garden setting, but Kew is famous for its trees, and, in the height of their autumnal colour change, the Moores may be slightly sidelined. Especially when the patina of the bronze (as in the bluey-green of 'Large Standing Figure: Knife Edge') clashes with the natural greens currently around it. Following the Moore sculpture trail, a bit like a grown-ups' treasure hunt, we get to see his bronzes (and in one spectacular case, a vast fibreglass reclining figure) framed by various types of vegetation, or poised in Kew's beautiful vistas.
Walking past the famed Pagoda Tree, one of the oldest trees here, dating from 1762, I was even struck by how the flattened arch of its trunk, supported on a brick plinth, looked like some of Moore's sculptures. But there are a number of sculptures here that hold their own superbly against the natural beauties. Chief among them are 'Large Spindle Piece', 'Double Oval', 'Locking Piece' and 'Oval with Points'. The last looks fabulous at the end of a short lavender walk from the Palm House, placed in the midst of a wide avenue. The more abstract pieces work best in this bucolic setting, but the whole collection is an excellent excuse, if excuse be needed, to visit Kew over the coming months.
Michael Kidner celebrates his 90th birthday this year, and a retrospective at Flowers East pays welcome tribute to a pioneer of Op art who refuses to be pigeonholed. Congratulations to Angela and Matthew Flowers for staging this fascinating exhibition. Of course it should be in a museum, but the days when we'd be allowed to see Kidner's work at the Serpentine are long gone (1983 was the last time, to be precise. That show was my introduction to his paintings and constructions, and it made a considerable impact. Kidner in Kensington Gardens looked very good indeed). In Shoreditch, Kidner's work fills the downstairs galleries and spills over into the upstairs rooms as well. All periods of his career are represented, and a useful monograph with essays by Irving Sandler and Francis Pratt accompanies the show (£14.95 in paperback). It's a proper tribute.
Downstairs in the gallery facing the street is a 2005 painting in acrylic on board called 'Ocean Currents'. Like much of Kidner's recent work it builds on the pentagon to establish an interlocking repeat pattern of surprising subtlety. Although involved closely with geometric form, Kidner has long taken irrationality into account by introducing random and indeterminate elements into his work. Since 1999, the 'order' of chaos has been his subject, and he's made some marvellous drawings in coloured pencil to explore this. A group of four hangs in the back room — two with the title 'Entangled Roots of Hyacinth Bulbs', two called 'Invasion of Iraq: Surprise Resistance'. These are works from this year, and they positively glow with energy and invention.
Michael Kidner doesn't have a typical artistic training. He read history and anthropology at Cambridge, studied landscape architecture at Ohio State University and spent five years in the Canadian army. He tried Goldsmiths but was dissatisfied with the teaching and learnt more from Andre Lhote in Paris. Cubism built on an early interest in Cezanne, which was later modified by the inspiration of Abstract Expressionism and a colour course given by those influential teachers Harry Thubron and Victor Pasmore. Kidner discovered colour was his over-riding interest, managed to shake off a residual urge to paint the landscape, and ventured into his first solo exhibition in 1959 with abstract after-image paintings.
From that point he has never stopped experimenting. He is a man of enduring optimism (if you meet him, his wonderfully seraphic smile confirms this), and is determined to reconcile the discoveries of science with a form of abstract art in which order overcomes disorder. He has taken the wave as his particular motif, following it through many variations of grids and lattices, whirlpools and fluidity, in search of the harmony that humanity craves. As he says, 'Unless you read a painting as a feeling then you don't get anything at all.' Now, at the age of 90, he envisions new horizons, new developments in his work. One can only marvel at his zest for life.
There are many good things in his retrospective, including a tall umbrella-like tree, made from wire and plastic tubing tied together, and a glorious 'Colour Column' painting from 1972, like psychedelic reflections on a lily pond. Much of the best work is upstairs: some of the subtle but striking after-image paintings from 1959 and 1960, a glorious composition of driven intersecting horizontal wedges in orange and violet from 1961, and an untitled relief from 1967, wavy verticals in lime green, brown and magenta.
Also upstairs is a room devoted to new monotypes by Sam Mundy. These radiant abstracts are a different delight: a rich mix of shapes and colours, worked and reworked to complex and layered effects. Abstraction seems to come naturally to this artist, as indeed it might, seeing that he's the son of Harry Mundy and Gillian Ayres. I hope we see a lot more of his joyous talent for picture-making.