This week the Tate Debate is looking at what it means to be an experimental artist, and whether innovation and experimentation is the preserve of younger, less-established artists. The history of late 19th century and 20th century Western art has been marked by young artists (groups or individuals), reacting to prevailing styles and subjects and experimenting to create radical new movements. But often those artists who were once creating new definitions of art in the end become the very establishment they were reacting against. The British artist Barry Flanagan (1941–2009), for example, is best known for his bronze sculptures of hares, seen in public spaces across the world. But a new show at Tate Britain presents his perhaps less-well-known early works.
Flanagan was one of Britain’s most inventive sculptors, studying at the influential St Martin’s School of Art sculpture department in London in the 1960s. Taught by artists such as Anthony Caro, Flanagan, along with other key British artists like Gilbert & George, and Bruce McLean, made work in reaction to high modernist sculpture, challenging the received notions about the language of sculpture, materials and forms. Flanagan worked with non-traditional materials: cloth, felt, clay, plaster and rope, and created works that pushed the boundary of sculpture, uniquely exploring idea, material and process. By the 1980s, Flanagan began to make bronzes of animals, most famously of hares. These works became more and more popular, gradually obscuring his more radical influence in the public imagination. Though he and his work remained concerned with literature and poetry, process and the relationship between artist and craftsman, somehow these ideas paled beside the popular image of the hare, and his early, revolutionary work became less remembered.
So, are artists more experimental in their early career?
Do they begin to make work that is more palatable for public consumption as they age?
Or is it just that once they have blazed a trail, we become used to what was once revolutionary and can no longer see that work as radical?