Barry Flanagan: Sculptor known for his distinctive giant bronzes

Barry Flanagan was one of the most versatile, imaginative and radical sculptors of his generation. Though he was a private, reserved person, and a genuine, unforced eccentric who would wear tweeds and sandals regardless of the weather, he enjoyed his international fame, and what he regarded as his unexpected good fortune. Outside the art world he was best known for several permanent public sculptures, such as his giant bronze Hare on Bell at the Equitable Life Tower West in Manhattan, and in London, Nine Foot Hare in the Victoria Plaza Hotel and Leaping Hare on Crescent and Bell at Broadgate. But he also had some spectacular temporary installations, such as the procession of huge bronze figures that marched down the median of New York's Park Avenue, before regrouping in Chicago's Grant Park. Students at Washington University, St Louis, refer affectionately to "the bunny", currently on loan there, a Flanagan Rodin-tribute hare called Thinker on a Rock.

The appropriate response to this seated hare resting his jaw on his fist is a big smile. Everyone gets the joyous point of Flanagan sculptures because their playfulness is so immediately obvious, and everything he did has this element of play, wit and good humour. There is no pretension in Flanagan's work – his bronzes can be mighty, even heroic, but never pompous. The late work carries over the subversive, ironic attitude of his earlier work; and the humour inevitably subverts the monumentality.

These not strictly anatomically correct bronze animals (which include elephants, cougars and horses) echo human traits and dispositions, but never in a cute or sentimental way: they display human energy, and hint at human emotions, but remain animals. The wonder was that the bohemian, unworldly Flanagan, who began his artistic career pioneering the use of humble materials – such as the hessian, sand, plaster, rope, sticks and stones later associated with, for example, Eva Hesse in America and Arte Povera in Italy – was ever able to afford to cast his pieces in bronze.

Though he later took Irish citizenship, and for a while made Dublin his base, Barry Flanagan was born in Prestatyn, North Wales, across the border from Liverpool, where his father worked as a set designer at Warner Brothers film studios. (Barry was one of four children; a brother, Mike, was lost overboard in the 1976 Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Yacht Race.) He was a boarder at his prep school, Foxhunt Manor, and at his public school, Mayfield College in East Sussex, a Xaverian institution in an important Pugin building, which might explain why Flanagan briefly read architecture at Birmingham College of Art before changing to sculpture (1957-58).

Of this time he said: "I was a fully-fledged sculptor from the age of 17. I stepped right into it and embraced the physical world." As a tyro sculptor he was no stranger to hard work, and he made his way at first doing odd jobs as a builder, frame-maker and even as a baker. He was quick to absorb some of the technical skills of each of these – he called them his "recipes". He also had brief stints studying the cello at the Guildhall School of Music and working as a chef in a Fulham Road eatery. In typical fashion, he looked at five art schools before settling on St Martin's because he'd profited from an evening class he did there with Anthony Caro. And there he made some irregularly shaped, bulbous, tubular, stitched-cloth -filled-with-sand pieces that got noticed by critics and dealers. His tutor, Phillip King, thought this early recognition an unhelpful diversion, though King praised him in his final assessment as a student who thought seriously, and was capable of producing surprising, challenging work.

These same adjectives applied to Flanagan's talk, which was often elliptical and allusive; it sometimes required patience and mutual affection to enjoy the best of his conversation, though the rewards were substantial. His real mode of communication was oblique and non-verbal, but he was Irish enough to relish the craic. His default mood was mirth, and despite the accident of his birth in Wales, he was essentially Irish in the fashion of Beckett, Shaw and Joyce.

Flanagan, in fact, was deeply interested in words. In the 1960s, near St Martin's on the Charing Cross Road, Better Books famously offered hospitality to a group of concrete poets, who fascinated Flanagan. He even co-wrote and edited five issues of a college magazine. Then someone gave him a copy of the May-June 1960 Evergreen Review devoted to Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) and Barry got hooked on "pataphysics", the "science" of imaginary solutions. This embodies a paradox that was dear to his heart, and at the heart of his temperament and inclination to anarchism and surrealism: that pataphysics systematically seeks to undermine all systems. This pleasing conflict makes subversion into a categorical imperative, and can be seen in almost every work he made, from the sand-filled negative spaces of his biomorphic stitched canvas bags of Four Casb (1967), to his first etching, the study of the feet of Adam and Eve signed (in the plate) "O'Rembrandt" (1970), to the recent pair of hares emulating King Kong on the Empire State Building.

Flanagan had a remarkable intelligence, allied to an intuitive sense of what made things tick. Flouting conventions, after all, requires an appreciation of what rules are; using conventions systematically to overthrow themselves demands that you understand on a deep level how they work. His sympathy for Jarry hinted at an underlying philosophy – he was a good, old-fashioned, late-1950s existentialist, believing (as scientists are more or less obliged to) that the sensible world is transient and contingent, and that we, as thinking, feeling beings, construct reality for ourselves. We make it up as we go along, Flanagan believed, because there isn't any other way. That is why he took play seriously. Play, and the art that springs from it, is not trivial.

In the 1960s his work was often associated with the minimal and land art movements, making impressive pieces from rope, for example, or impermanent works of draped fabric and poured sand, such as One Camion Sand Piece (1969). In 1970 he used found objects – a Parker-Knoll sofa, a wall mirror and a cello – to make Sixties Dish. He also began to carve stone, and to model clay and other material. In 1975 he made a series of small pinch pots from lumps or raku clay, which defy you at first glance to say whether they have come from a child's playgroup, a Japanese potter's studio or an archaeological dig. Carving No. 10 (1981) on the other hand, was a Brobdingnagian stone piece, in which craftsmen worked under his direction to reproduce in unmalleable material the ridges and grooves of his squeezed and rolled, knuckle-marked clay maquette. Flanagan explored the most ancient traditions of craft – carving and modelling – and materials – bronze, wood and metal – adding some contemporary touches such as armature-making, welding and sewing. He was also a superb draughtsman, making usually playful drawings in which the pencil seems scarcely to be lifted from the paper – a portrait of a new-born baby (he drew birth announcements for both my children) or a boxing hare drawn with what seems to be a single line.

He had his first solo show at the Rowan Gallery in London in 1966; it included 1 Ton Corner Piece, a hundredweight of sand poured onto the floor in a corner of the gallery, with four scoops removed from the centre. Some of the works in this show and in the Biennale des Jeunes in Paris, in September 1967, anticipated similar work by Carl André and Robert Smithson (not to mention Eva Hesse), though none of them were aware at the time of working along parallel lines. He also made a short film, A Hole in the Sea, shot in 1969 on a beach near the Hague. He was in several important exhibitions that year, in Amsterdam, in Berne and in an exhibition called 6 at the Hayward, curated by Michael Compton, who said he'd reckoned Flanagan would produce work that was "paradoxically very cheap and yet unsaleable, a parable therefore of an ideal art."

After 1973 he drifted away from his "soft sculptures" and started making free-standing objects using more durable materials. Without revealing that he was a sculptor, he took a job in a stonemason's yard in Oxford, and had visited quarries in Italy, learning to use a chisel. Flanagan was peripatetic, and seemed to move his family, which was then Sue and his daughters Samantha (Flan) and Tara, and a lurcher, to where the stone was. He got very interested in the Hornton stone typical of Banbury buildings, and made several stacked, sometimes painted, pieces.

He was not well off. Indeed, we made an arrangement in which I commissioned a piece for our garden, to be paid for by a standing order for a small monthly amount. In no time at all he told me to cancel the banking arrangement. It wasn't that I'd actually paid the proper price for Oil Rising, the 3-piece phallic-looking carved, grooved and mortised Hornton piece with a splodge of green on the top; the real reason was that he was now being supported by a new gallery and, generosity being one of his most evident traits, Barry was sharing his good fortune. (The piece, however, did not survive, as he had not yet learned the tricky business of facing this friable stone, and it began to crumble after only one summer.) Flanagan's best commercial move was when he joined Waddington Galleries in 1976, for his dealer, Leslie Waddington, not only held him in esteem, but affection (and Flanagan was still with Waddington at the time of his death from motor neurone disease on 31 August).

In his later work the hare became his emblem. He was first struck by the hare's appearance in a butcher's shop. (Flanagan's inspiration was often commonplace. It is often forgotten that the 1976 row about the Tate's acquisitions policy stemmed not only from Carl André's bricks, but also Barry's blankets. The notion for the terrifically controversial stack of folded blankets came from his wife Sue's airing cupboard.) The hare, he said, "is rich and expressive," carrying with it "the conventions of the cartoon and the investment of human attributes into the animal world", both of which are "very well practised devices in literature and film... If you consider what conveys situation and meaning and feeling in a human figure, the range of expression is, in fact, far more limited than the device of investing an animal – a hare especially – with the expressive attributes of a human being. The ears, for instance, are really able to convey far more than a squint in an eye of a figure or a grimace on the face of a model."

Though he also said he was inspired by the sight of a capering hare on the Sussex Downs, and used for reference George Ewart Evans and David Thomson's study The Leaping Hare (1972; "The hare is a symbol of enlightenment, not only of the spirit but of the dawn, the dawn of the day and the dawn of the year which we call spring"), and knew the significance of the hare in mythology (in France and Central Europe it lays eggs at Easter), Flanagan's hares do not carry much of this historic symbolic baggage – they don't symbolise life, they live it.

In recent years Flanagan lived between Dublin and Ibiza. He had two more children, Alfred and Annabelle, with Renate Widmann. For many years his partner was Jessica Sturgess, in whom he found someone who actually enjoyed moving around Europe, Britain and Ireland in a vintage camper van, whose appointments Barry loved showing off. In 2006 the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin held a major retrospective and ten of his big bronzes paraded down O'Connell Street. He cherished being a Royal Academician; he was elected in 1991, the same year he was appointed OBE.

Paul Levy

Barry Flanagan, RA, OBE, sculptor; born Prestatyn, North Wales 11 January 1941; married Sue Lewis (marriage dissolved 1997, died 2002, two daughters); one son, one daughter with Renate Widmann; died Santa Eulalia, Ibiza 31 August 2009.

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