Sphere is a large wooden sculpture by the British artist David Nash, the surface of which has been charred so that it is a deep, matt black. Although the work’s title refers to the shape of the sculpture, it is not completely spherical, but rather displays more organic lines in which irregularities in the shape of the wood are clearly visible. The wood grain can also be seen on all sides of the sculpture, beneath the striking black colour of its form. Sphere is one of the six elements that make up Nash’s installation Pyramid, Sphere, Cube 1997–8, which consists of two further sculptures – Pyramid (Tate T07539) and Cube (Tate T07541) – along with three charcoal drawings on canvas that depict opaque black pyramid, sphere and cube shapes at the same scale as the sculptures (see Pyramid, Tate T07542, Sphere, Tate T07543, and Cube, Tate T07544). The three drawings are displayed in a row on the gallery wall, with each appearing alongside its corresponding three-dimensional shape, which rests on the gallery floor in front of it. Although the spacing between the six elements of the installation depends on the dimensions of the room in which they are displayed, the drawings are usually positioned so that their lower edges are approximately 35 cm from the floor, and the spaces between the drawings can range between 5 cm and 30 cm, with the sculptures being centred on their corresponding drawing.
Sphere was made in Nash’s studio in Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales, UK, in 1997 and 1998. During his career the artist has sculpted primarily in wood – in this case oak – but has mainly used pieces from trees that have been felled naturally by the wind. The oak tree used for Pyramid, Sphere, Cube was brought to Nash’s attention by a gardener at a private girls’ school in Ascot in Surrey, UK, and it was estimated to be around four hundred years old. To make the sculptures, Nash roughed out the pieces of wood onsite in Ascot and then transported them to his studio, where he refined the shapes and then charred them with a propane torch to a depth of approximately 1 cm. Nash then treated them with a mixture of raw linseed oil and white spirit to secure their surfaces. The accompanying drawings were made in charcoal on unprimed, unstretched cotton duck canvas, and although they were fixed several times, the charcoal has bled into the surrounding canvas so that in each a smudged charcoal border emanates from the shape’s otherwise clearly defined edges.
Nash’s process of charring transforms the surface of the wood from a vegetable to the mineral substance carbon. Writing in 1999, the art historian Julian Andrews explained the effect of this process on the artist’s interaction with the work:
[Nash] had always found that whenever he looked at a wood sculpture he would be conscious, first, of the presence of wood, the material, before he saw the form. But in transforming the surface of the piece into a black, carbonised finish he found a change took place: the intense black had the effect of distancing him from the piece so that he now saw the form before experiencing the material.
(Andrews 1999, pp.114–17.)
This duality can be identified in Sphere through the contrast between its stark black surface, which masks its depth and texture when seen from afar, and the dense, fragile-looking striations of the charred woodgrain when seen close up. Further, the use of both sculpture and drawing in Pyramid, Sphere, Cube as a whole encourages the viewer to experience a continuing optical shift between two dimensions and three dimensions. As Andrews has observed: ‘by putting a physical shape onto the floor contiguous to its own image on the wall, Nash induces two different kinds of comprehension in the viewer, enhancing both the solid object and its separate image’ (Andrews 1999, p.137).
The combination of pyramid, sphere and cube forms has recurred frequently throughout Nash’s practice. He began using these shapes in the early 1980s and started charring them in the mid-1980s. In 2004 Nash stated that these forms have different effects: ‘I find the cube is static, fixed, compared to the potential movement rolling, orbiting the sphere. The pyramid has a rising gesture, it’s awake, dynamic’ (quoted in Cork 2004, p.50). Pyramid, Sphere, Cube was the fourth work by Nash to combine these forms in their charred state alongside drawings of the same shapes, with another, later example being Nature to Nature 4 1990 (Collection Capel Rhiw, Blaenau Ffestiniog).
Graham W.J. Beal, David Nash: Voyages and Vessels, exhibition catalogue, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha 1994.
Julian Andrews, The Sculpture of David Nash, London 1999.
Richard Cork, David Nash: Making and Placing, Abstract Sculpture 1978–2004, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives, St Ives 2004.
Supported by Christie’s.