Can Lynn Chadwick finally escape the 1950?

The British sculptor is getting the recognition he deserves at two new exhibitions in London

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

Lynn Chadwick: A Centenary Exhibition

Osborne Samuel, 23a Bruton Street, W1, until 28 June

Lynn Chadwick: Retrospectives

Blain|Southern, 4 Hanover Square, W1, until 28 June, also Berlin and New York

Lynn Chadwick was born 100 years ago in London, and died in 2003 at his Gloucestershire home, Lypiatt Park, where he is buried in the Pinetum. He was one of the great names of 20th-century sculpture, not just in England but recognised and celebrated internationally, too. He first came to prominence in the 1950s, and the aura of that decade clung to him for the remainder of his career. He was included in the 1952 Venice Biennale with seven other sculptors (including Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler and Eduardo Paolozzi), when Herbert Read coined the phrase ‘geometry of fear’ to describe their work. In conjuring up this postwar angst, Read spoke of an ‘iconography of despair’ and ‘collective guilt’. Chadwick’s spiky, semi-organic, semi-abstract forms seemed to embody these qualities, and when he won the coveted International Prize at Venice in 1956, he looked to be shaping up as the natural successor to Henry Moore. Yet within two decades this early success had evaporated.

Chadwick’s tragedy as an artist was too close an association with the 1950s, which were so soon to be displaced by the much more glamorous and savvy Sixties, when the abstract sculpture of Anthony Caro and his cohorts came swiftly to dominate public attention. Chadwick continued to make good art, going deeper into the themes that interested him, but he was by nature a recluse and did very little to promote himself. Nor did he undertake regular teaching, and although his work continued to sell around the world, it was not much written about or discussed.

The austere Fifties, with their atmosphere of khaki and ration books, were out of fashion, and when a groundbreaking exhibition in 1984 re-examined the painting of the period it was called The Forgotten Fifties. The era cast a long shadow over Chadwick’s career, especially as some of his best work had been done then. In his centenary year, two exhibitions in London and a new monograph on the artist make a convincing argument for major reassessment.

At Osborne Samuel is an excellent show of work from all periods, including one of Chadwick’s mobiles made from wire, slate and metal shapes. Dating from 1950, this hanging sculpture in the gallery’s front room demonstrates Chadwick’s origins as a sculptor (he never attended art school and his artistic mentor was the architect Rodney Thomas), and his lifelong concern with balance. Another early piece, the minatory ‘Bullfrog’ (1951), with its fanged, swinging jaws, demonstrates how far and how fast Chadwick’s thought developed, from mobile to stabile, and then on to the beasts and figures with which he made his name. By this time he had taken a course in welding, and his working pattern was established: an instinctual approach of ‘drawing in steel rods’.

Chadwick’s work was process-led and based on improvisation with the materials. He welded together polygonal space frames in different combinations to see how they would develop. He resisted too much conscious analysis and encouraged the body to do the thinking, rather like the American action painters. The iron or steel frame was filled in with an industrial compound of iron filings and plaster called Stolit, which could be worked wet or dry and set like stone. Osborne Samuel has managed to acquire four of these working models, which make an impressive core to the exhibition.

A feature of these unique early works (such as ‘Untitled’, ‘Short Horn’, and ‘Dance XII’, all from the 1950s) is the way the ribs upon which they are built show through their skins like an exoskeleton. The oxidisation of the iron content results in warm brown coloration, but the pronged and stretched forms rear up in different forms of display, which could be either anxious or aggressive. After 1960 the sculptures that emerged from the studio were not steel-and-Stolit working models but bronze casts taken from them which could be profitably editioned and sold internationally. However, casting brought its own problems and Chadwick was often not satisfied with the quality of commercial foundries’ work; so he decided to install a small foundry at Lypiatt, where standards — particularly of patination and finish — could be maintained.

With the production of large bronze sculptures, Chadwick’s work became more public and outdoors (Stolit had been dangerously vulnerable to water penetration, and the steel rods rusted and distorted), and generations of triangle or block-headed figures began to populate the countryside. Although Chadwick was obsessively concerned with the subtle adjustments of these figures, their relationships and body language, it is doubtful that many realised the rarefied variations he attempted. What the public (and most critics) saw was a repetition that staled, not an inquiry that went deeper into human dynamics. Perhaps the late work did Chadwick a disservice.

Blain|Southern has recently taken on the Chadwick Estate, partly no doubt to market the later work around the world. (There are concurrent shows in Berlin, at Blain|Southern, Potsdamer Strasse 77–87, until 26 July, and New York, at Blain|Di Donna, 981 Madison Avenue until 25 July.) Its London show is elegantly arranged over two floors, with early bronze sculptures flanking an intriguing installation of coloured Formica on wood pyramids from 1966, the most abstract work Chadwick ever made, but still essentially based on the human figure. Downstairs is a group of stainless-steel maquettes, mostly late beasts, in a style described by Michael Bird in his stimulating monograph as the ‘architectonic origami of reflective facets’. One of the finest works here is ‘Teddy Boy and Girl’ (1955), very much a statement of its time, all jagged mountain peaks with pin-legs and arms like spires, dancers to a music they perhaps deserve.

Chadwick was an intensely private man and would probably not have relished the critical attention he is currently receiving. In 1958, he bought Lypiatt Park, near Stroud, a semi-derelict Neo-Gothic pile he proceeded to renovate. It became his home and studio, and a superb setting for his work. In 1986 he bought 250 acres of adjoining land and created a sculpture park, gradually siting his more monumental sculptures in the landscape. Blain|Southern has produced a lavishly illustrated paperback, The Sculptures at Lypiatt Park (£15), to celebrate the Chadwicks in their parkland context, and Osborne Samuel has published a compact informative catalogue of its show (£10). But the laurels must go to Michael Bird’s immensely readable and freshly researched hardback monograph (Lund Humphries, £45) — very much a volume for the shelves of all sculpture lovers.

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