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
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
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.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering