Now here's a thing

Exhibitions: The Serpentine is making many new friends in high places. But as a show of 30 years of British sculpture proves, the gallery should not forget that its best friends will always be artists; EXHIBITIONS
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The Independent Culture
A NEW, short exhibition illustrates both the achievements and the plight of the Serpentine Gallery. "Here and Now" is an interim show that must close next Sunday, but I recommend a visit - both for its own interest and because one must feel concern about the future of the pleasant, even lovable old building, in which so many works of modern art have been enjoyed by so many people.

The idea of "Here and Now" has been to show sculpture by people who have had larger shows at the Serpentine, since it became a gallery in 1970. Inevitably, perhaps, the works on display are only tokens of their artists' best endeavours. Many of them don't look well shown next to each other and the show as a whole lacks coherence. Normally these would be major criticisms of an exhibition. But the show does work, in the first place because British sculpture has been so interesting in recent years - and mostly because there's a genuine feeling of goodwill towards the Serpentine. I've never met an artist who didn't like the place, though there have often been criticisms of its programme.

Originally it was a tea-room, built in 1934. This little restaurant had closed down when the potential of its spaces was spotted by the art department of the old Arts Council. After some terrific diplomacy the ACGB managed to re-open the building as a gallery - and furthermore as a venue for modern art. Its brief was to show young and unknown artists, as well as people with established reputations. In the 1970s, hundreds of artists had their first (and often only) public exhibitions at the Serpentine. Of course there were many failures - but what fun we had! The Serpentine was like a part of the 1960s that had survived in the gloomier decade.

Nowadays the roof leaks every time it rains. The building has lost its trim brightness. The galleries look shabby, the upstairs offices are overcrowded, there's little storage and the bookshop feels like a cupboard. Obviously the building needs refurbishment. It is a treasure. Tourists and casual visitors (a significant proportion of its 360,000 annual guests) ought to feel that they would like to revisit the gallery. But the Serpentine ought to regain contact with the genuine art community. There's not a single artist among its present trustees.

The Serpentine was at its height when the gallery was close to painters and sculptors. This month the sculptors have supported "Here and Now" (a deceptive title) through nostalgic gratitude. A new style of management may lose this affection. The Serpentine depends on fund-raising from the culture-happy wealthy class created around a decade ago. Some artists are now saying that the gallery is obsessed with its social activities. Why is there only one work in the Serpentine front garden, a good place for showing sculpture? To leave room for the marquee in which Princess Diana, Lord Palumbo and guests enjoyed a charity dinner last week.

Having reported such matters I now have the pleasure of looking at the art. Thirty-three artists are on display. The oldest of them is Henry Moore, the youngest the twins Jane and Louise Wilson, born in 1967. One always assumes (or anyone of my generation does) that Moore's art is completely familiar, without surprises and rather boring. Not so, or not all of the time. His Reclining Figure: Festival has a strange, non-human nature. I'm not the only one to be struck. A decade ago I organised an Anthony Caro retrospective at the Serpentine. At lunch one day we were talking about Moore. Caro took my notebook and drew this sculpture from memory, rapidly and perfectly yet with a hint of caricature. I doubt if he'd seen it for a quarter of a century. Here, none the less, was a spirited and above all aesthetic reminiscence.

The hierarchies and reversals of contemporary sculpture couldn't be examined in a show such as this, and I sense that the Serpentine has gone off retrospectives. Careful exhibitions of one person's life and works aren't dramatic enough for culture-happy taste. Some oddities, therefore, look good, pieces by sculptors who cared little about the shape of their careers or the future of three-dimensional art. One such was George Fullard (1923-74), an artist so obsessed by his wartime experiences that his maturity was always retarded. His Woman of 1959 initially looks childish, and also like a Picasso imitation, but in the end is personal and moving.

During the 1960s sculpture became more personal in various ways, including the manner of being ultra-free and impertinent. The Serpentine responded to this mood, which of course has now become a tradition. So here are Barry Flanagan (though in his later academic manner) and other iconoclasts. Looking back on the Serpentine shows of old I must confess that there were too many installations of smashed-up teapots and the like. There still are. Richard Wentworth's Match, made this year, a table-tennis top occupied by ruined crockery, will I hope be the apotheosis and end of this tendency. But neo-conceptualism does go on and on, doesn't it.

Eduardo Paolozzi's Large Frog of 1958 splendidly illustrates his principle that sculpture could be lumpen, ugly and still superior art. Among the other convincing pieces in the exhibition are Tony Cragg's Minster of 1987 and Richard Deacon's Troubled Water of the same year. That's partly because they are like old monuments made by men. Women artists in "Here and Now" include Abigail Lane, Cathy de Monchaux, Rachel Whiteread and Alison Wilding. I like Lane most. The others are below par. Has the Serpentine done its best for women artists recently? Send your comments not to me but to the Director, Julia Peyton-Jones, or to Princess Diana, c/o the gallery, for she claims to be interested in such matters.

! 'Here and Now': Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, W2 (0171 402 6075), to Sun 2 July. Daily 10-6; free.

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