Rope (Gr 2Sp 60) 6’67 is a length of thick sisal rope that the artist has dyed an uneven shade of green. Although Rope (Gr 2Sp 60) 6’67 is an independent artwork, it is usually displayed alongside two other sculptures by Flanagan also in Tate’s collection: Ringl 1’67 1967 (Tate T02062) and Four Casb 2’67 1967 (Tate T02061). While these works can be exhibited separately, the artist considers this to be ‘less of a sculptural statement than the three of them together’, adding that ‘the three together have a certain success’ (conversation with a Tate curator, 1976). Four Casb 2’67 comprises four blue conical canvas sacks filled with sand. The bags were made from pre-dyed cotton duck and were fabricated by the artist without pattern or drawings. Each time Four Casb 2’67 is displayed, the sacks are re-filled by pushing sand into each bag by hand. This mode of construction involves an exploration of the relation between two substances, the canvas and the sand. Their mutual support, by which the sand holds up the canvas while the canvas contains the sand, transforms shapeless pieces of fabric and grains of sand into elegant, tapering uprights. Ringl 1’67 is a piece of blue linoleum cut into the shape of a ring which rests flat on the floor. Rope (Gr 2Sp 60) 6’67 forms a serpentine line on the ground that subtly connects the various components of the three works. Each title is the abbreviation of a technical description and derives from a system of annotation that Flanagan developed, influenced by the writings of the dramatist and poet Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). Four Casb 2’67 can be decoded as ‘Four canvas sand bags number two 1967’, while Rope (Gr 2Sp 60) 6’67 derives from ‘Rope green two spaces sixty feet number six 1967’ and Ringl 1’67 is abbreviated from ‘Ring lino number one 1967’.
All three works were made in London a year after Flanagan finished his studies at St. Martin’s School of Art where he had attended the advanced sculpture course for two years. Among the teachers at St. Martin’s at the time were Anthony Caro (b.1924), Phillip King (b.1934) and William Tucker (b.1935), all of whom were making predominantly rigid structures in steel or plastic. Caro’s teaching methods were celebrated for encouraging an atmosphere of discussion and experiment and a discipline of doubt and enquiry. In an open letter to his tutor in 1965, Flanagan provided a rationale for his practice: ‘Rejection has always been a motivation for me ... Is it that the only useful thing a sculptor can do, being a three dimensional thinker and therefore one hopes a responsible thinker, is to assert himself twice as hard in a negative way ... This is my dilemma’ (quoted by Graham Beal in A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture since 1965, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1987, pp.92-94). In explicit contrast to his St. Martin’s mentors, Flanagan began to work with soft materials, including sand and cloth, and to investigate the ways in which these materials find their own form and can be influenced by simple manual activities such as pouring, stuffing, folding and stacking. His divergence from the welded structures of Caro could not have been clearer. He deliberately questioned the convention that sculptures should be rigid and permanently fixed by making works that could never be replicated exactly on different occasions. For example, each time sand is poured into a fabric container it results in a slightly different form; each time a rope is cast down on the floor it creates a new line.
Four Casb 2’67, Ringl 1’67 and Rope (Gr 2Sp 60) were first shown together at the ‘Biennale des Jeunes’ in Paris in 1967, and Flanagan considered them to be the culmination of his work at that time. In an interview three years later, Flanagan referred to their significance: ‘The three pieces together challenged my assumption that they were autonomous. As a result of having made them and of having shown them together, I became interested in their interrelationships.’ (Quoted in ‘Sculpture Made Visible: Barry Flanagan in discussion with Gene Baro’, Studio International, CLXXVII, 1969, p.123.)
As he suggests, the individual identity of each piece, its autonomy, is negated when the works are shown together. There is a shift in Flanagan’s work and thinking around this time towards an emphasis on process, the actual making of the work, rather than its status as a fixed, discrete object. With these sculptural concerns, Flanagan had much in common at this point with his American contemporary, Robert Morris (b.1931), whose essay ‘Anti Form’ (Artforum, 6:8, April 1969, pp.33-5) provided an influential critique of preconceived form in sculpture.
Barry Flanagan, exhibition catalogue, The British Council, London 1982, p.9, 18-19, reproduced p.9.
Barry Flanagan: A Visual Invitation, exhibition catalogue, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle 1987, p.34, reproduced p.37.
Barry Flanagan, exhibition catalogue, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 1977, reproduced [p.20].