Contemporary British sculpture is informed by two major ideas: the response to the work of the ‘new generation’ of the early 1960s, and the dominance of a handful of London art schools, including St Martins, the Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths College. Very little contemporary production can be isolated from the fact that almost all recent work is in some way informed by the sculptural debates that began in the 1960s, and nearly all of the current generation of sculptors went to the three schools mentioned above. In common with many other aspects of British life, the production of sculpture is highly centralized, and few sculptors working outside of the London institutions have had success. But these qualifications aside, sculpture is one area in which British artists have made an international reputation.
   In 1965, the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London presented The New Generation, an exhibition of new British sculpture by artists born mainly in the 1930s, including Philip King, William Tucker and Tim Scott, all of whom were then working at St Martins College of Art. The materials in the show marked a break with traditional sculpture, and included painted steel, polythene, plywood, glass hardboard and wood. But there was little doubt that the most important figure in the show was Anthony Caro, also teaching at St Martins, whose work had been exhibited internationally and had been wellreceived in the United States. Caro’s career began as a studio assistant to Henry Moore, and his early work resembled Moore’s figurative sculpture. However, after meeting the modernist David Smith on a visit to the United States in 1960, Caro began to make welded steel sculpture, improvising forms with a variety of disparate elements. Two other facts marked a sharp break with the artist’s earlier practice: there was no plinth or base in the new work, causing the sculpture to rest directly on the floor; and the sculptures were coloured, using bright, commercially-available colours that had nothing to do with those found in nature. One of the largest and best-known examples of this work is Early One Morning (1962).
   Caro went on to teach at Bennington College, Vermont in 1963–4 and again the following year, and his acceptance by the American avant-garde was such that his inclusion in the massive survey show American Sculpture of the Sixties (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967) went more or less unremarked. Caro’s career in the United States was particularly helped by the critical support of Michael Fried, and Caro’s work came to represent Modernist sculpture internationally.
   Meanwhile, various former students of the Royal College of Art were making work informed by pop art. They included Allen Jones, who produced life-size female figures in fibreglass, dressed in fetishistic leather clothing, posed to make furniture; Mark Boyle and family, who made exact replicas in fibreglass of small areas of London streets, selected at random; and John Lacey, whose Boy oh Boy Am I Living (1964) was an absurd robot assembled from a Belisha Beacon and artificial limbs.
   By the late 1960s, modernist sculpture as practised by Caro and his disciples at St Martins was under attack both from minimalism in the United States and from a new generation of St Martins sculptors in Britain. The new work was extremely diverse, involving the use of soft and flexible materials, the incursion of performance and photography into sculpture, and in some cases the disappearance of any recognizable object altogether. Barry Flanagan’s work is a good example: it consisted of cloth or hessian bags stuffed with soft materials and casually arranged, often subject to considerations of gravity or chance. Superficially it resembled so-called ‘anti form’ sculpture which had recently emerged in New York, and during the late 1960s Flanagan was often shown alongside Americans such as Robert Morris and Eva Hesse. If Flanagan continued to make sculptural objects, albeit ones which were subject to some new considerations, his contemporaries at St Martins showed ways in which sculpture was no longer necessarily contingent on an object produced for the specific viewing conditions of the gallery. During his time at the College, Richard Long began to exhibit his ‘walks’ as sculpture. Hence, A Line Made by Walking, England, 1967 was photographic documentation of a straight line made by the artist in a field by the simple process of walking. The line itself was not exhibited, but the photograph was: the material presence of the sculpture all but dissolved, and what was left was a conceptual trace.
   The work of Gilbert and George provides a different example of the way sculpture began to lose some of its material aspects. The duo—who met at St Martins in 1967, and have been working together ever since—presented themselves as ‘living sculptures’ in performances between 1969 and 1977. In Balls: The Evening Before The Morning AfterDrinking Sculpture, the artists performed an evening’s drinking at Ball’s, a favourite establishment in Bethnal Green (although Penelope Curtis reports that no alcohol was actually consumed) and the results were photographed and displayed. The final form of Balls was, in some respects, functionally equivalent to Richard Long’s records of his walks in the country. An early conceptually-oriented work was Still and Chew (1966) by John Latham, then a part-time lecturer at St Martins, constituted as a direct (and extremely funny) attack on the then-dominant modernist criticism of Clement Greenberg. The piece was in the first instance an event, in which a copy of Greenberg’s Art and Culture (removed from the St Martins library) was chewed by Latham and assorted colleagues—he reported that there was some selection of pages—and the results were spat into a flask. To this was added an ‘Alien Culture’, a yeast, and the mixture was left to ferment, and eventually distilled. When the librarian finally recalled the book, Latham took the distillate to the College, and after some argument was able to persuade the librarian that this was indeed the remains of Greenberg’s text; the following day a letter arrived stating that his services would no longer be required at the College. Still and Chew is displayed in the form of a flask of the distillate, plus assorted documentation, all contained in a case.
   If the work of the post-Caro generation of St Martins sculptors opened up a field of epistemological enquiry, the avant-garde of the 1980s evidenced something of a return to earlier concerns. Generally speaking, the work of the socalled ‘New British Sculptors’ such as Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Richard Wentworth and Alison Wilding, acknowledged the formal possibilities opened up by the sculpture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but deliberately encouraged metaphysical readings. The work was in general poetic, literary and oriented towards the creation of objects. As such, it evidenced a shift away from the previous interest in the means of production.
   Examples of this new tendency include Cragg’s Britain Seen From the North in which a giant silhouette of Britain, rotated ninety degrees and accompanied by a riot policeman, is generated via an assemblage of assorted broken bits of plastic, most of which have recognizable sources. The technique and scale of the work would appear to derive from the horizontal sculptures of artists such as Richard Long, but the piece is wall-mounted, and makes a recognizable image, which at the time of its production was legibly political, a statement of an unequal Britain, regionally divided and beset by social unrest. Wentworth’s Shower (1984) comprises a kitchen table (with a propeller set, surrealistically, into the rim) balanced on one leg; the assemblage is anchored, literally it seems, by a heavy iron plate and chain. The ordinariness of the sculpture’s materials and their simple juxtaposition again refer back to work produced internationally at the end of the 1960s, but the precise result here is a fantastic spectacle in which the table is only prevented from flying away by means of its tether. A further point of interest is Wentworth’s frequent use of anecdote to explain the work; in this case, the sculpture is said to have been inspired by the sight of a café owner rushing outside during a storm to upend the outdoor tables.
   The rather literary sculpture produced during the 1980s had obvious equivalents in the field of painting. Since the 1980s there has been something of a retreat from this mode and a renewed engagement with the theme of the body. In many ways this recalls minimalism in its initial phase, with its critical grounding in phenomenology, and a particular interest in the perception of bodies in space. What has appeared to occur in British sculpture in the late 1980s and early 1990s is a reengagement with this idea, but with a specifically female focus. Two artists best represent this tendency, Helen Chadwick, who died in 1966, and Rachel Whiteread. Chadwick is generally regarded as a sculptor, although her primary medium could be said to be photography: her work tends to comprise photographs of arrangements of matter, often configured to generate explicitly sexual readings. Materials in these cases have included meat, lambs’ tongues, fur and vegetable matter. There have however been a number of large sculptures, many of which achieved some notoriety on their first showing. Piss Flowers, a series comprised a series of plaster casts of holes made by urinating in snow. The results were often both surprising and beautiful.
   Whiteread’s mature work comprises casts of the interior of domestic objects, furniture and, most famously an entire terraced house. Her materials are extremely varied, ranging from concrete to plaster to rubber and various kinds of resins, and the work has much tactile appeal. The work is often made, and displayed in serial arrangement, which tends to encourage comparison with minimalism, a suggestion that the artists does not dispute. House, a huge project in the East End of London, resulted in the making of an inside-out house; commissioned by Artangel, it was created over some months in 1993, and then famously destroyed despite a campaign that it should stay. The controversy over this work has been compared to the destruction of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in New York in 1984. Both Chadwick and Whiteread evidence a reading of 1960s art which shows its concerns reconfigured to represent a more specific idea of the body; Whiteread’s more architectural work shows minimalism reconfigured to specifically English ends; her materials, with their faded colours and decayed appearance, are resonant with decline and nostalgia, which gives her works a specifically English accent.
   Of all contemporary British artists, none has attracted so much media attention as Damien Hirst. This is as much to do with the manner in which he has courted attention, which recalls Andy Warhol, as with his startling materials, which include dead farm animals preserved in formaldehyde, cigarette butts, medical instruments and maggots. Precedents for Hirst’s cool arrangements can be found in the conceptual art of the 1960s, and Goldsmiths College where Hirst was a student during the mid-1980s has vigorously promoted the investigation of the art of this period. The technical ambitiousness of Hirst’s work is nevertheless a departure. In common with other recent British art, it is not an intellectual project, and it remains to be seen whether Hirst’s creations have the persistence of the work from which they clearly derive. It also remains to be seen whether sculpture reasserts itself again as a discrete practice. Much of the interesting or notorious British sculpture of the 1990s has been made by artists who might equally be at home making installation art, photographs or videos; the category ‘sculpture’ once again seems to have dissolved.
   Further reading
    Arts Council of Great Britain (1995) The British Art Show 4, London: Arts Council.
    Curtis, P. (1988) Modern British Sculpture From the Collection, Liverpool: Tate Gallery Publications.
    Royal Academy of Arts (1987) British Art in the Twentieth Century, Munich: Prestel.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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