Catalogue entry

T04912 Airing Light 1985–6

Oil paint and dry pigments on galvanised steel and soldered brass strips 2450 × 900 × 670 (96 1/2 × 35 1/2 × 26 3/8)
Cast foundry mark ‘SUSSE FONDEUR Paris’ on underside
Presented by the Patrons of New Art through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987
Exh: Alison Wilding: New Sculpture, Studio 4, Feb. 1986 (no cat.); Alison Wilding, Salvatore Ala, New York, March–April 1986 (no cat., no.5 on handlist); Alison Wilding, Galleri Lang, Malmö, Feb. 1987 (no cat.); Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept. 1988–Jan. 1992 (only shown Sept. 1988–Feb. 1990, no number, repr. p.139); A Decade of Collecting: Patrons of New Art Gifts 1983–1993, Tate Gallery, Dec. 1993–Jan. 1994 (no number, repr. [p.4])
Lit: Lynne Cooke, ‘Alison Wilding: Sailing On’, Artscribe, no.57, April–May 1986, pp.46–7, repr. on back cover (col.); Gray Watson, untitled essay in Alison Wilding: Sculptures, exh. cat., Karsten Schubert 1987, pp.9–10, repr.; Judith Higgins, ‘Britain's New “New Generation”’, Art News, vol.86, no.10, Dec. 1987, p.121; Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1988, p.139, repr. Also repr: Patrons of New Art Newsletter, no.9, Spring 1987, [p.5]; Burlington Magazine, vol.130, April 1988, p.328 (col.); Friends of the Tate Gallery Report 1986 – 7, 1987, p.16, repr.; Apollo, vol.128, Sept. 1988, p.165

This sculpture has three main elements. The two large, upright, curved components, which rest directly on the floor, are made from galvanised steel sheet, 0.95 mm thick, which has been covered with a matt paint finish. Brass sleeves, approximately 70 mm deep, have been soldered near the top of the curved steel sheets and a third, smaller, oval form slips over these to connect the two upright sections. This smaller form is constructed from patinated brass strips, soldered together. In conversation with a Tate Gallery conservator on 11 April 1987, the artist said that she first painted the large upright sections with silver enamel. She then added a layer of black oil paint into which she had mixed dry pigments, including Mars Red, two shades of gold, graphite, linseed oil and turpentine. The oval shape connecting the two outer sections is made of yellow brass which has been patinated red-brown. The artist has provided a template to establish the correct position of the large elements on the floor during assembly for display.

In conversation with the compiler on 30 September 1994, the artist said that she made T04912 in a studio she then occupied in Wapping. The low ceilings there limited the height of the works she was able to make, and a number of sculptures produced there were concerned with bridging the gap between floor and ceiling. At the time T04912 was the biggest sculpture she had made and its size was determined by the studio space.

Wilding told the compiler that in T04912 she was trying to use air and light. It is a work that emphasises space and can be seen through from a number of angles. Its title, ‘Airing Light’, is not intended to make literal sense, although the artist agreed that if ‘airing’ is understood in the context of debate or discussion, the title might suggest giving light a voice. Discussing the role of light in the artist's work, Lynne Cooke has written: ‘The ambiguous relationship established ... between light and its antithesis, the potentially superior potency of darkness, is a leitmotif common to many of Wilding's recent sculptures. In “Airing Light”, for example, light is winnowed in a fractured yet luminous glow from the exterior of the shredded brass container supported with some precious vessel between two flanking sheaths.’ (Cooke 1986, p.47.)

Wilding told the compiler that in the mid-1980s she paid particular attention to the titles of her sculptures. She would think of suitable titles when working on a piece of sculpture, so that title and work developed in tandem. She observed that she is now less concerned with titling her work.

In a letter dated 14 March 1987 to Neville Shulman, who was then Chairman of the Patrons of New Art Acquisitions Committee, the artist wrote:

You asked for some details of ‘Airing Light’, which I began in the summer of 1985 and finished early in 1986. It refers to some earlier sculptures and has itself become a catalyst for subsequent works-which is quite usual. For example ‘Deep’ (1984) [repr. Alison Wilding, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery 1985, p.25] was a sculpture that shifted the work into a larger scale by virtue of its particular kind of verticality - it was one of a number of works shown at the Serpentine Gallery in 1985 which explored the duality of objects. Although ‘Airing Light’ began as an amplification of ‘Deep’ it was always a more complex and ambitious sculpture.

The artist told the compiler that she regards T04912 as having been one of her earliest works to deal with ideas of containment and enclosure. It relates to a number of works that came both before and after it, including ‘Deep’ and the later ‘Receiver’, 1988, T06492 (repr. Alison Wilding: Immersion/Exposure, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool, Henry Moore Sculpture Trust Studio, 1991, no.14 in col.), where an oval form, positioned on the floor, rests against and fits into the side of a steel funnel. In connection with T04912 the artist recalled a two-part bronze sculpture by Barbara Hepworth which she had seen in reproduction. She subsequently confirmed that this was ‘Two Figures’, 1968, a work consisting of two curved standing forms pierced by circular apertures (repr. Alan Bowness, The Complete Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth 1960–69, 1971, no.460).

Wilding does not make any formal preparatory drawings for her sculptures. In the mid-1980s, when T04912 was made, she was working in a particularly direct and experimental way. In her letter to Schulman, she explained how she made the sculpture:

I work slowly, in private, generally eschewing assistance or processes that I have no control over. The two outer walls of ‘Airing Light’ are made of galvanised steel, a material that I have no particular feeling for - the surface which was spangled was never going to be right, but as the work for some time had disguised itself in terms of the surface of the material, I didn't see this as a problem. I bent the metal by hand by using ropes, it is a slow business but over-enthusiastic bending causes the metal to kink. After obtaining the desired curve I stood the steel sheet on end and drew on it the shape that was to be cut out with a jig-saw. The edge, which is always crucial, was eventually partly re-drawn and re-cut, this is also quite usual. I was curious about making two similar shapes, uncertain whether they would be two halves of the same thing or two separate things, and not, at this point, wanting to know for sure.

After both steel pieces were standing I spent a long time positioning them. The curve at the bottom edge determines the angle at which the metal leans - when the relationship between both pieces of steel was clear to me, they were cut accordingly. I was excited by the space between the two uprights - how it was contained - not locked in but accessible. I wanted then to put something into that space - above eye level - to be both suspended and a connector between the two curved shapes. Out of each curved shape I cut a circular hole, this provided a visual passage through the piece but I did not know how to go on from there. Cutting the hole was a risk, but risks are essential when trying to move things along. The next attempt was a copper cylinder which I had made up from a paper template, a telescope - like connector between the two holes.

The artist realised that this was not a satisfactory solution to the problem of joining together the two large curved forms and explained how the copper cylinder became the basis for another sculpture:

Straightaway I saw this was a disaster - subsequently the cylinder became ‘Vestal’ [1985, a single cylindrical form, repr. Tate Gallery Liverpool exh. cat., 1991, fig.5 in col.] ... Eventually I stopped worrying about how the thing was ever going to work and returned - on a hunch - to something that has haunted me for over a year; this was the carved oak shape of ‘Indelible Field’ (1984).

‘Indelible Field’ (repr. Alison Wilding, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, 1985, p.22 in col.) consists of two ribbons of copper and brass laid in the floor in a curved configuration that is open at both ends. They surround and partially enclose an oval shape, carved from oak. In conversation with the compiler Wilding said that this work dealt with enclosure and had an ‘open door’. She compared the oval shape, which has recurred in her work and which, in T04912, links the two main standing elements, to an armless, headless torso, although she thinks of it also as an object that is difficult to define. She does not interpret the form as an egg, nut, or seed shape, and told the compiler that her sculptures do not have to do with male and female forms or shapes. She deliberately resists simplistic interpretations of her work. In her letter to Schulman she commented:

Like some other shapes I have made it persistently defies attempts to define or ‘name’ it. The oak is immensely dense and heavy and I attempted to remake it [for T 04912] as a skin, first working it out using strips of pattern cutting paper and ultimately in strips of brass. The shape was extremely difficult to construct and was determined to some extent by its role as connector to the holes, which were complicated by having had brass-lined zinc rims soldered around them. A student [Steve Pippin] worked with me on this part of the sculpture. He was invaluable as a problem solver, with an instinctive feel for the work. The finished brass object was coloured with copper nitrate, using the bath at home as I lacked a large enough container in the studio.

The artist told the compiler that, had she been approaching the problem now, she would have silver soldered the oval shape but that then she had used lead solder, which she believes was weakened during the process of patination in her bath. In 1990 the ovoid section of T04912 was cleaned and re-soldered under the artist's supervision by staff of the Tate Gallery Conservation Department.

She continued in her letter to Schulman:

When the three parts were finally assembled - and it is the only work I have made that I cannot set up on my own - I began to work on the surface of the steel. Darker than that of ‘Deep’ and almost obsessional, the surface is built up from layers of pigment, oil, oil paint, gold and graphite powders rubbed on with a cloth not painted on. The surface seems to de-materialise the work, one sees volume and plane, skin and form without a consciousness of ‘steel’, the brass being a dull brightness in the centre. Walking around the work it constantly unfolds and then closes. This account which deals only with the making, compresses what took several months into a couple of pages. The spaces between all those physical actions are equally important, and how can they be described? Perhaps their equivalents are the spaces contained in the sculpture.

Ideally, the artist would like to see T04912 displayed in the centre of a gallery, to enable the public to view it from all angles. When it was exhibited at Galleri Lang, Malmö, she requested that the lights in the gallery be turned off, so that the work could be experienced in semi-darkness as a silhouette, constantly changing shape as viewers walked around it.

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996