The crazy spirit of the age

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A fascinating exhibition in Leeds recalls the vitality and exuberance of British sculpture in the Sixties and Seventies, says Adrian Hamilton

If you want to escape the blustery winds of winter or thoughts of recession, you could do a lot worse than to take yourself to Leeds to see the new Henry Moore Institute exhibition of British sculpture from the 1960s and 1970s.

It is fun, often witty and nearly always refreshing. It is everything, in fact, that the the much-criticised Royal Academy show of modern British sculpture last year should have been but wasn't.

The Leeds show has a theme and a title, of course. The theme is a period when young artists rethought the whole question of what was sculpture in the modern age and came up with a host of different answers. The title of the exhibition, United Enemies, is intended to show that while the artists of the time went down quite separate avenues, they were all trying to answer the same question. "My tutor's answer," I overheard a fellow visitor say to his companion, "was, 'Anything you could go up to and give a bloody good kick.'"

Click here or on "View Gallery" for a picture preview

It is not a test that is necessarily suitable to installation or performance art (although some might feel such forms would benefit from it) but it may well be as good an approach as any when considering a time when young artists responded to an age in which anything went, in art as in life.

When early-20th-century modernists such as Moore and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska broke out of the traditional confines of what a three-dimensional work should look like, they still believed that it was an object which made a statement. Younger artists were not interested in that. What intrigued them, as us, was the relationship with the onlooker. Instead of talking to the viewer, they sought a two-way conversation, in photography, installation, figurative sculpture, resins, aluminium or plastic.

A drawing by Stephen Willats sets this out, marking up the concept with the comment that the observer "works within a given restriction" of his field of vision but "creates his own space with object. He is given a random situation from which he produces his own order." If this seems somewhat self-conscious, that was both a weakness and a characteristic of the time.

The show starts with a pyramid of oranges installed by Roelof Louw: Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) is intended to be eaten and thus destroyed by the visitor. A wondrous assemblage of dummy and mechanical parts by Bruce Lacey is called Old Money Bags. You are meant to shout into it for a few seconds, to make it work. It no longer does but several had a go – one visitor screamed "I am in an art gallery!", adding a surrealist quality to the proceedings.

The presence of Henry Moore looms large in the room devoted to standing figures, with Leonard McComb's Portrait of a Young Man Standing. But even more apparent is the influence of Cubist Picasso and above all Marcel Duchamp, in works that take the ordinary and distort its context.

The curator, Jon Wood, who has done so much to build up the Institute's holding of works from this period, is right in his central argument. The conceptual can sit easily beside the figurative and the abstract. Anthony Caro is present, with a work called Whispering that locks you into its tall vertical of post and spiral and its base of twisting organic shapes. John Davies, an artist who should be better known, makes the viewer into a participant with an installation of two life-scale models judging a kneeling third, with disturbing connotations of Nazism and persecution, while a semi-abstract chair-like structure by Peter Hide, King Coil, disguises metal as wood and suggests both African shape and the electric chair.

Much of the work here aims to deliver its message by surprising the eye, placing images or mixing materials and shapes in novel ways. Some of the names are well known. William Tucker is represented by one of his Chair Series, the back of the chair broken and reassembled in startling fashion. Wendy Taylor has a particularly seductive Brick Knot Maquette, from 1977, which is a lithe combination of hard texture and organic movement. Barry Flanagan is represented by a work from 1975, before he became obsessed with hares – there is a powerful sense of competing material, shape and imagery in his Clay Figure. Colin Self, an artist who works in many media, is represented by a particularly successful flat work of undulating painted fibreglass with an aluminium head protruding – or is it floating? Oblique Head in Sterile Landscape, from 1964, again works because of contrasting forms.

The show's difficulty comes with its photography. You can be witty with it. There is a jolly series of 11 large pictures by Keith Arnatt, showing the artist literally eating his own words, called Art as an Act of Retraction. Bruce McLean is pictured with some of his earlier works in a small garden shed in a 1969 work called, needless to say, People Who Make Art in Glass Houses. I particularly liked a pair of large shots by Bill Woodrow that play with perspective and material by showing a stick held by a man first as a real object, glued on, and then as a photo-image. But the trouble is that still photography tends to push the viewer back a step and encourage the artist to step back too, often making the work seem playful but slight.

Coming out of this exhibition, what you feel is not necessarily the importance of the art, or its moment, but of the youth and vitality of it all. The leaflet accompanying the exhibition opens up to display a joyous group portrait of three dozen of these artists posing around a lion in Trafalgar Square, to celebrate an Arts Council exhibition that was held in Milan in 1976, Arte Inglese Oggi. They are quite different in their work but alike in their pleasure. The world was reborn and, in this show, we are given a glimpse of the creativity which ensued.

United Enemies: The Problem of Sculpture in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds (0113 246 7467) to 11 March

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own