SOMERSET, England — When two artists exhibit in adjacent spaces, there is always an unspoken battle for pre-eminence. Today the antagonists are dead Europeans of some considerable distinction: a great sculptor from the Basque Country of northern Spain called Eduardo Chillida, who died in 2002; and a German Jew called Gustav Metzger, who escaped the Holocaust on the Kindertransport, and arrived in England in 1939. He died in 2017.
Both men were idealists, believers in peace, reconciliation, and the virtues of the collaborative spirit. Chillida was of a mystical bent, Metzger was a thoroughly secular soul. Chillida was a sculptor by profession, Metzger most often a painter and a mark-maker, though he also strayed into performance art and kinetic art, entirely befitting a maker who matured in the 1960s, that decade of extraordinary experimentation across the arts.
The tussle between these two men is playing out on an elegantly re-purposed farm in Somerset. This is the rural home of Hauser & Wirth, a gallery with international reach. The works themselves are displayed in galleries with such quaint-sounding names as the Thresher Barn and the Pigsty. There is even an excellent bar and grill named after the artist Dieter Roth, for those who wish to gently ruminate over an expensive meal of local cow, accompanied by local vegetation.
Chillida’s works are on view in spaces of a calm and graceful solemnity. Was this really once a Thresher Barn? Not quite as it used to be when it was stuffed with hay. Think of a high-pitched, wood-beamed roof rather reminiscent of a chapel of rest, with huge windows looking out onto a seductive expanse of greenness. The battle, needless to say, is high-toned and bloodless.
Chillida is the gentler of the two artists, the one whose work exudes feelings of serenity and equipoise. In the Thresher Barn some of his earliest surviving works are on display: an elegant, truncated female form in bronze of 1948, for example, made in Paris, which, seen from the back, has an extraordinarily graceful twist and lean to it. It seems entirely fitting that the display of his works in this space should be accompanied by music trickling in from a source somewhere above our heads maddeningly difficult to detect. The music is by Johann Sebastian Bach, and it projects an orderliness almost mathematically perfect, in the company of a sense of beauty that inclines toward the otherworldly.
Chillida spent his life paying homage to others. As a young man, he spent three years in Paris, admiring great works of antiquity — the Greeks in particular — yearning at the end of that three-years’ sojourn for something else. The nature of that something became apparent when he returned to the Basque Country in 1951, a place of “black light,” as he put it. Who needs a country that revels in the luminescence, the white light, of the Mediterranean?
What was he to make though? And what materials would he use? By a stroke of great good fortune, he happened upon a local blacksmith with a forge who lived nearby. He made his first works in iron; a funeral stele was the very first. Thereafter, his abstract iron forms would become some of his most characteristic works.
Throughout his life, Chillida ruminated upon philosophical problems, circling around the same themes over and over again, making enduring friendships with writers who had a similar appetite for delving deep into inexhaustible philosophical conundra: Martin Heidegger and Gaston Bachelard, for example. What were some of these issues? The nature of time. The nature of space. How the two intersect. The angle of the shadow that a man casts when he is standing upright. Those sorts of matters. He would often give his works the same title, adding a Roman numeral directly after, in order to remind himself of the many occasions on which the very same issue had returned to haunt and challenge and vex him. Every new work would be an act of discovery. Who could live with the boring prospect of knowing what would emerge from one’s own hands? His drawings reveal an obsession with the human hand, that model of ergonomic perfection.
On an outside lawn an abstract sculpture in Corten steel called “Advice to Space IX” (2000) rests on a concrete base. It consists of a clutch of three upwardly aspiring steel forms, compacted together at the base, which bend away from each other. The floppy relaxedness of openness. They look a little like scaled-up, stylized versions of a small bouquet, which might be offered up in a human fist. Each one differs from the others in significant ways. The end of one is sealed off like a closed box. A second is open to the sky, and can be peered into. The third seems to be unfurling away from itself. Organic or inorganic? Elegantly dallying with both propositions? This matter of a sculpture’s sense of lift-off would always preoccupy Chillida, who had no greater enemy than Isaac Newton. He abhorred the idea of gravity crushing his materials back to the earth. He would habitually round off a base so that its four-square groundedness never quite looks like the final word on the matter. A sense of uplift meant something of great importance to him: an embracing of the idea of spiritual ascension. The man was a Christian.
Call him Chillida the gentle, Chillida the modest, Chillida the self-effacing if you like. It would all be true. Metzger was quite different in temperament: perpetually restless, and even something of a showman. There is also quite a lot of violence expressed in his work — wholly befitting a man who was taught by the tempestuous David Bomberg. Metzger was an early environmental activist. He was strongly of the opinion that there was much evil in the world to be violent about, perpetrated by the madness or the folly of man. The artist must serve as a custodian of all that man seemed so bent on destroying. Several of his relatives, the ones he left behind, died in the Holocaust. In the 1960s, his watchword was “auto-destruct.” His works would exist for a while, and then be replaced by others. It seems entirely fitting that he should have exhibited work at the Roundhouse in London, that concert venue where Pete Townshend, The Who’s guitar-smasher-in-chief, was furiously windmilling his arm and doing those astonishing scissor-kick leaps into the air at precisely the same historical moment.
For Chillida, a work was a finished thing. Metzger, on the other hand, would make works that sometimes existed in a state of perpetual evolution. An experimental kinetic installation from 1965 called “Liquid Crystal Environment,” newly recreated for this exhibition, occupies a single darkened gallery. It is played across seven screens, hung side by side on a gentle curve. To the accompaniment of the annoying rattle-whirring of vintage slide projectors, we watch colors and spatterings of light mutate again and again, like giant grease stains being smeared around a rainy windscreen. Nothing is fixed. Everything opens itself up to the fact of unending mutability.
Metzger, in short, was a self-styled revolutionary. Art must be in the vanguard of change. Art was a weapon in a war against the self-destructive and other-destructive habits of man. In the adjacent gallery, a selection of his two-dimensional works shows his mark-making as fast, decisive, and furious as it comes. This is art as challenge, art as confrontation. How good is all this work? Is it quite as compelling as the man’s backstory? No.
Meanwhile, over in the Basque Country, Chillida continued to pursue what he had once returned home from Paris to find: a sensation of calm.
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