Illustrated companion

Like Anthony Caro, Phillip King was led to revolutionise his sculptural practice around the year 1960 by a combination of exposure to the new American painting and personal dissatisfaction with the figurative, expressionistic sculpture of the fifties. King's feelings were, he later said, brought into focus by his visit to the international Documenta exhibition in Germany in 1960 at which both kinds of art were strongly represented: 'The sculpture there was terribly dominated by a post-war feeling which seemed very distorted and contorted. Moore stood out with the English school ... And it was somehow terribly like scratching your own wounds - an international style with everyone showing the same neuroses ... The contrast with the American painting there was important too ... a message of hope and optimism, large scale, less involved.' In 1962 King began to make coloured sculpture from fibre-glass or sheet metal and embarked on an important series of works exploring the form of the cone, of which this is one. King has explained that he wanted at this time to make sculpture in which energetic, vital, forces would be expressed within a formal structure which would both contain them and, by contrast, reinforce them: 'Hence the often recurring use of the cone as a very large very much earth-bound shape that will provide the maximum challenge in an effort towards expansion.' In relation to this work in particular he wrote that 'the static quality of the outer cone is merging into the dynamic inside activity.' The inside is activated by the striking use of colour, the hot orange-red vibrating against the black, and by the tilting, rocking rhythm of the two inner cones. This effect is generated partly by the actual tilt of the innermost cone, and partly by the apparent tilt of the middle cone created by the asymmetrical cutting of the openings in it and in the outer cone, which itself appears to tilt. The use of the two colours also creates the impression that there are five cones altogether. In the catalogue of the 1965 New Generation exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery which included this work, the critic Ian Dunlop wrote: 'King's shapes, which appear so disarmingly simple at first glance, create in the mind images rich in meaning and emotive power ... quite simple geometric shapes seem invested with life.' King has not commented on the title of this work but it is a phrase from the well-known nursery rhyme which refers to 'Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie / When the pie was opened the birds began to sing ...' Blackbirds have bright orange beaks and in the light of its title the work irresistibly evokes orange triangular beak shapes open in a joyful chorus. The idea of blackbirds breaking out of a pie, normally opened with a triangular cut, is also directly analogous with the opening of the cone to reveal the life within.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.235