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As a period in postwar art the Sixties has perhaps been subject to more scrutiny than any other. But what is the purpose of such activity? To reinforce existing narratives, or to produce new ones? In Britain, specifically, there has been a tendency to link artistic production to a festive attitude that marked the decade as a whole, melding it with a broader cultural image of “Swinging London.” Kaleidoscope: Color and Sequence in 1960s British Abstract Art draws on works held in the Art Council Collection to make a focused appraisal of such assumptions. The exhibition presents the viewer with artworks that are very much at play, and yet it points to the integral role symmetry and repetition played as underlying principles. Sam Cornish, one of its organisers, is an independent curator based in London. In addition to having recently produced a number of projects analyzing art made during the 1960s and 1970s, he also edited the online journal abstractcritical.com.
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Neil Clements: I wanted to begin by asking about the curatorial premise of the exhibition. There is a real sense that both repeated sequences and a sustained interrogation of color were central to the practices of each of the artists you’ve included. The question I found myself mulling over was precisely how color and sequence interact with one another. Does color interrupt sequence, or reinforce it? Or both?
Sam Cornish: When the Arts Council asked me to put together a proposal, they had a very open brief. I first thought of the idea of sequence and symmetry because I’d noticed that they featured in the so-called “New Generation” sculpture of artists such as Phillip King, Tim Scott, Michael Bolus, William Tucker and David Annesley. I then quickly realised that these attributes were also present in very different ways in Pop and Constructionism [the name sometimes given to post-war British Constructivism]. As well as enabling us to pose the art historical questions of what sequence or symmetry meant to these different artists, sequence and symmetry appealed to me because it is very directly communicated. Even without any knowledge of the period, I think a reasonably attentive, sensitive viewer could understand that the works are linked in this way.
Color was, for me at least, of secondary importance. It is difficult to avoid in the art — at least in that of younger artists — produced in Britain at this time. If you’re going to include the ’60s sculpture of King, Scott, Bolus, Tucker, Annesley or the paintings of John Hoyland or Jeremy Moon, you are going to get color — and a very typical color at that: bright, saturated, more artificial than it is naturalistic.
NC: Given that so many of the artworks take the form of painted sculpture, or shaped canvases, I was wondering if you could say something about the way in which artists at the time saw distinctions between disciplines like painting and sculpture as operating?
SC: Natalie Rudd, who I curated the exhibition with, quotes the very active Whitechapel Gallery curator Bryan Robertson in her introduction to the exhibition: “For a long while painting, in many ways, has tried to approximate to the condition of sculpture, which, in turn, has pushed increasingly towards the special plasticity, fluidity and freedom of painting.” It’s interesting that modernism is often described solely in terms of medium specificity, when in actual fact there was quite a lot of interaction, sometimes involving the subsuming of one in the other, elsewhere leading to hybrid forms. Certainly a significant tranche of painting became flatter, threw out 3-D illusionistic effects etc., and it would be very misguided to ignore the importance artists placed upon advancing the categories of “Painting” and “Sculpture.” But sculpture in a huge variety of ways looked to painting to lead the way — as Robertson realized, the use of color was only the most obvious. Even very flat Color Field painting, by denying recessive illusion, can emphasize its status as a physical presence in the room, and so resembles, in effect, a flattened sculpture.
NC: A lot of scholarship on 1960s British art focuses on its relation to work being made in the United States. This is particularly the case with abstraction. How much do you think the work in the show represents either the influence of American art, or operates as a deliberate refutation of its values?
SC: It is undeniable that many British artists looked to American art at this time: the Color-Field Painting of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Morris Louis was a decisive influence on much of the work in this exhibition. I am a little wary, though, of posing the question of British versus American art. For example, if you look at something like the exhibition catalogue of American Sculpture of the Sixties, which was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1967, there was a huge diversity of work being produced. American art was not a monolithic category. It’s also notable that Caro was included in that exhibition as an honorary American. For a time the influence of Caro can be seen in a number of American sculptors, like Willard Boepple or James Wolfe.
John Hoyland, whose catalogue raisonné I am currently working on, is an interesting case, too. The example of American art was hugely important to him, but their example was tempered by his interest in the more complex, illusionistic, and less expansive art of earlier European modernists, such as Nicolas de Staël. Part of the distinction of Hoyland’s art from that of painters such as Noland and Olitski is the sense of weight and physical presence he imparts to the areas of color in his paintings. This is very noticeable in “15.5.64,” which is shown in Kaleidoscope, and can be directly traced to British sculpture by Tucker or Caro.
It is also worth distinguishing New Generation abstract sculpture from American Minimalism, particularly as there seems [to be] a growing trend to label all reductive art “minimal.” One way to do this is to look at their differing use of Brancusi: American sculptors seemed to have emphasized the exterior, space-occupying aspects of his art, as they moved toward the environmental and the literal, whereas British sculptors emphasized the illusionistic aspects, the rhythms within Brancusi’s structures, as well as his mystical or symbolic side. This is a generalization, but perhaps a useful one.
NC: As well as a number of artists no doubt familiar to many, figures like Anthony Caro, Bridget Riley or Joe Tilson, there are a number of artists whose work people visiting the exhibition might be less familiar with. When you were selecting the show did you want to expand upon what we choose to remember about the period?
SC: Yes, certainly. One of the artists in the exhibition wrote to me yesterday saying they thought it “the first time that period is being properly looked at.” I’m not sure that is entirely the case, but it is true that the abstract art of this period has been neglected, beyond the isolated examples of figures such as Caro and Riley. In particular, we really need to have a large survey exhibition looking at “New Generation” abstract sculpture — there hasn’t been one since Alistair McAlpine’s collection was gifted to the Tate Gallery in 1971! As well as this large survey many artists deserve proper retrospectives — I think Tim Scott and Richard Smith spring to mind.
NC: A number of the artworks have been restored prior to the exhibition. I think this presents an interesting issue, because these artworks were initially celebrated for the sense of newness they radiated. But just how fresh should something that’s half a century old-plus look?
SC: You’re right that newness is part of the aesthetic effect of much of the art in the exhibition. I suppose there are different types of newness. Regardless of condition, a sense of newness is going to differ substantially when an object is fresh out of the studio to when it is re-displayed six decades later. The newness of Pop art will likely tend to an ability to read cultural clues. Newness is a part of abstract art (beyond the ’60s) perhaps because it is so often tied up with attempts to create an entirely unknown — and therefore “new” — thing.
The difficulty of storing and keeping pristine large painted steel and fibreglass sculptures is very likely one aspect behind the neglect of this work. However, I confess that I’m not very interested in the “conceptual” debates that are generated around restoration: if a work can be restored to its original condition then great, if not, that is also potentially okay.
Kaleidoscope: Color and Sequence in 1960s British Abstract Art continues at Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park (West Bretton, Wakefield, United Kingdom) through June 18.
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