Abstract Critical

United Enemies: The Problem of Sculpture in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s

Written by David Hulks

Henry Moore Institute, Leeds. 1 December 2011 – 11 March 2012.

Anthony Caro ‘Whispering’ (1969) Steel and wood painted brown 297 x 155 x 89 cm

The Henry Moore Institute has been concerned for a number of years now that our perception of the late 1960s to early 1970s is, wrongly, of a house divided. On the one hand, there were sculptors who were determined to continue in the Caro tradition; on the other hand, there were those who attempted a radical departure into ‘conceptual’ practices. Forty years on, this received wisdom about the conceptual art moment has been described as a caricature.  This exhibition reflects a recent research and curatorial effort to re-historicize this period so as to recover more of its complexity. The curators do not believe that there ever were two groups of ‘enemies’; nor do they believe the opposite, that there was any simple unity.  They do however hope that by leading with such a provocative, self-contradictory title, other ways of understanding the total contribution of sculptors in this period might begin to emerge.


Roloef Louw ‘Holland Park’ (1967) Black and white photograph 43.7 x 52.2 cm

What then do they suggest to replace the ‘house divided’ model? The counter-proposal is that the sculptural art of this period can be thought of across, not two, but three strongly inter-related categories. The first of these is ‘manual thinking.’  According to the catalogue, even the emblematic ‘A’ Course at St. Martin’s was ‘ultimately no less “hands-on” or “skilful” than the “B” course’ – even if the former was undeniably ‘conceptual’ while the latter represented ‘a more fixed, modernist belief.’  As evidence of what therefore seems like a common concern with manual activity, some forty objects are shown together, each seeming to demonstrate an ongoing engagement with the hand-made.  The display in the next gallery might have been expected to challenge or at least to question this narrative.  Instead, however, the curators discern a more concrete, common obsession with standing bodies and ‘standing’ in general, even in Anthony Caro’s work, which had by this time become emblematic of horizontal spatial extension.  Finally, the theme of ‘groundwork’ is offered as the third ‘provocation,’ showcasing work that not only embraces the horizontal but more concretely the floor and extends beyond the gallery to the topographies and earthiness of the landscape.

John Latham ‘The Laws of England’ (1967) Polystyrene foam and book 75 x 40 x 60 cm

There is no doubt that this is an important show, the result of a considerable amount of re-thinking of received wisdom, and as such to be welcomed. Ultimately, however, the rather prosaic image it creates of a common concern with manual object-making, standing bodies, and the soil of the British landscape seems too much at odds with what we know of this period. Important contemporary themes – such as a decisive shift away from the ‘philosophy of the life room’ instead to embrace cybernetics, information theory and the ‘post human’ – are hardly imaginable in the terms this exhibition presents to us. Even the performance and film-making components included in the show seem overwhelmed by an obsession with sculptural manufacturing.  There are perhaps just too many objects in this exhibition, recovered from too many storerooms, and the theme of reunion only adds to an air of polite fondness for the late 1960s, making many of the more daring works in the show seem at best charming, at worst ineffective or infantile. One is left wondering, then, if more time needs to pass before we can recover more effectively than this some of the harder, more radical, and more lively achievements of this transitional period.

Bruce Lacey ‘Old Money Bags’ (1964) Mixed media 174 x 91 x 49.5 cm