The crazy spirit of the age

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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.'"

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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

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