Paul Neagu

Rocking Hyphen (Edge Runner)


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In Tate Modern
Paul Neagu 1938–2004
Ash and steel
Object: 520 x 1830 x 770 mm, 17 kg
Presented by Curwen Gallery 1988

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Rocking Hyphen (Edge Runner) is made of nine wooden beams, held together by rusted bolts and steel rods. The ‘Hyphen’ is an open rectangle supported by three legs. This shape recurs frequently in Neagu’s sculpture. The form was originally developed in the context of his performances.

Neagu observed ‘Hyphen is my recurrent instrument of work as the plough is for the farmer. Conceptually it relates the essence of the earth to the body of man and to the ideas of the harvest’.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T05032 Rocking Hyphen (Edge Runner) 1983

Ash, steel rods and steel bolts 520 × 1830 × 770 (20 1/2 × 72 × 30 5/8)
Incised inscription with ink ‘ROCKING HYPHEN | PAUL NEAGU 1983’ on underside of longest element
Presented by Curwen Gallery 1988
Lit: David Brett, ‘Paul Neagu’, Circa, no.44, March–April 1989, p.32; Marin Stefan Tarangul, ‘Matrix of Labour’ in Nine Catalytic Stations: Paul Neagu 1975–1987, exh. cat., Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh 1988, [p.29]

‘Rocking Hyphen (Edge Runner)’ is constructed of nine ash wood beams, which have been stained a reddish colour and which are held together with rusting coach bolts and nuts, and steel rods. The bolts are of uneven lengths and protrude from the sculpture at several points. The configuration of the sculpture suggests a hybrid form, part three-legged table, part primitive plough or sledge. The work consists of a rectangular frame made of wooden sections, supported on three legs resting on two rockers. The two upright legs are attached to a longer curved rocker. From the open rectangle another much longer beam descends at an angle towards the ground and is in turn supported on a smaller curved rocker. Holes have been drilled into the beams from two sides at fairly regular intervals.

Paul Neagu was born in Romania and came to Britain in 1969. He has employed a range of media in his work, making paintings, objects and sculpture, as well as performing and writing. In 1969, in his Palpable Art Manifesto, he emphasised the importance of complete sensory involvement when experiencing the work of art (see Deanna Petherbridge, Paul Neagu - Writhing Space, exh. cat., Ceolfrith Gallery, Sunderland 1981, [p.5]). Neagu's early work was built up from one basic cellular unit and related to one guiding notion, called by the artist ‘Anthropocosmos’, frequently expressed through the metaphor of a human figure or part of a figure, built up from a geometric grid structure. Works were intended to embrace the duality of man as a social being and man as an individual. The grids, which Neagu used in paintings, drawings and performances, could be seen as representing imprisonment or restriction but also multiplicity and freedom. This expression of opposites, of proliferation, separation and collection, microcosm and macrocosm, is related to Neagu's interest in Eastern philosophy. Since the mid-1970s his work has become increasingly abstract and he has concentrated chiefly on sculpture. Mel Gooding wrote in 1987:

It is impossible not to be struck by the extent to which Neagu's sculpture plays upon a repertoire of forms that derives from a schematic imagining of the human form and its articulated and cellular infrastructure ... Neagu ... belongs in a tradition ... which conceives of the artist as a spiritual voyager and experimental philosopher, a discoverer and revealer of truths through action and making ... It is a tradition in twentieth-century art that has as its prime movers Brancusi (Neagu's great compatriot) and Malevich.

(Mel Gooding, ‘Paul Neagu at Smith's Gallery’,
press release, Oct. 1987)

Other commentators have suggested that Neagu's concepts owe much to an agrarian, Eastern European culture, with its tradition of peasant arts and crafts. For example, David Brett wrote: ‘Superficially this has to do with appearance; his sculptures in rough timber and rusted iron have something agricultural about them, with their quirky technology, rugged workmanship and individual character. We are never very far from farm fencing, old carts and ploughshares’ (Brett 1989, pp.31–2). Neagu himself has written of the ‘Hyphen’ form in his work:

Hyphen is my recurrent instrument of work as the plough is for the farmer. Conceptually it relates the essence of the earth to the body of man and to the ideas of the harvest ... the man knows that the salt in the soil and his planted seed will, one day, become a round fruit. As there is a hierarchy of quality: mineral, vegetable, animal, human - so there is of organisation in geometry: triangle, rectangle, spiral, sphere.

(Paul Neagu, exh. cat., Third Eye Centre,
Glasgow 1979, p.2)

The so-called ‘Hyphen’ for which the artist is probably best known, and from which the ‘Rocking Hyphens’, also known as ‘Edge Runners’, derive, is a recurrent form in Neagu's sculpture. At its simplest, it is an open rectangle supported on a tripod. The points of the three ‘legs’ can be joined to form a triangle or they may be read as points on the circumference of a circle. Thus the ‘Hyphen’ contains within its form the possibility of rectangle, triangle and circle. For a more detailed discussion of these works, see Paul Overy, ‘Hyphen’ in Paul Neagu, A Generative Context (1965–81), Sunderland 1981, pp.68–9. Neagu has made ‘Hyphen’ sculptures since 1975 and numerous different versions of varying sizes, made in different materials are illustrated in Overy (1981) and in Paul Neagu, Hyphen 1975–1985: A Sculpture by Paul Neagu, 1985.

The artist originally developed the ‘Hyphens’ in the context of his mixed media performances and installations. According to Sarah Kent, they ‘encapsulate within their structure ... three tiers of human development ... In writing, a hyphen binds two words together, but also keeps them apart at a fixed distance. Similarly the ‘Hyphen’ sculptures are a visual link and a conceptual bridge between three stages of awareness ... For Neagu they are tools that aid transformation from one phase to the next’. Kent records that for the artist the legs of his sculptures represent the mother (nature), the father (culture) and their offspring (art) (Sarah Kent, ‘The Flavour of the Olive’ in Paul Neagu: Sculpture, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Arts 1979, [p.12]). Kent (pp.11–12) described Neagu's ‘Hyphens’ as containing ‘an astonishing variety of references’, despite their basically similar constructions: ‘Elongated and spindly legs’ for instance, ‘create the impression of a fast running but ungainly animal, such as a young giraffe, or a long legged insect like a praying mantis. Short, stocky legs, on the other hand, contain architectural references. They are reminsicent of the pillars of a gateway or the structural elements of traditional Rumanian houses ... Neagu's use of second-hand wood gives his sculptures the used and weathered quality of rustic building and old furniture.’

In conversation with the compiler on 10 March 1989, the artist said that he worked on T05032 over a period of two years. It took him longer to resolve than much of his work. He recollected that he began to work on it in 1981 and completed it in 1983. He had started a number of works similar to T05032 in 1981, many of which he subsequently modified. He had originally intended T05032 to be simpler. He bought the beams for this work and had deliberately selected ash, a hard wood that was once used for making wagon wheels. The rockers were steam bent, a traditional method of bending wood, by a firm (since closed) that Neagu discovered near Birmingham. The rockers were placed in specially constructed boxes where they were subjected to constant steam. The sculpture was completed in North London at a studio he then had, at Orsman Road. It was afterwards left ouside in order to weather the wood. Neagu told the compiler that at the time he always used hard woods for his sculpture, sometimes combining different types of wood in one work.

The inspiration for the pattern of holes on T05032 came from a postcard he had obtained from the British Museum showing a pair of small Benin ivory leopards from Nigeria (H.M. The Queen, ?early nineteenth century). The surface of each carved leopard is covered by a regular, raised spotted pattern of black inlay. Neagu was drawn to this schematised depiction of leopard markings and thought that by applying a similar idea to his sculpture he could create a more exciting, sensuous and animated surface. His first approach, echoing the patterning of the Benin ivories, had been to drill holes at regular intervals into the surface of the sculpture and to insert small ball-bearings into these. However, he told the compiler he found this solution too ‘post-modern’, and afterwards gouged out each ball-bearing with a chisel, with the result that the holes are now rough and uneven looking. He eventually decided to stain the wood of the sculpture and leave the holes in their rough state. On the 30 July 1987 Neagu told the Tate Gallery Conservation Department that the metal spikes protruding from T05032 suggested to him a traditional Japanese hair arrangment and that the holes in the wood aided the total weathering of the sculpture.

Neagu told the compiler (10 March 1989) that he generally makes his sculpture in three sizes: maquettes, medium-size or table-size pieces, and monumental works designed for public spaces. Over the years he has moved from hard woods to metal, using first mild steel and, more recently, stainless steel. However, he still makes wood maquettes for his steel sculptures, and he commented that he preferred to work in wood.

Between 1975 and 1987 Neagu made more than eighty sculptures, together with additional drawings and paintings. He eventually evolved a number of recurring shapes into a pantheon of nine symbolic sculptures executed in stainless steel. To these Neagu gave the title ‘Nine Catalytic Stations’ (from ‘catalysis’, meaning the effect produced by a substance that without undergoing change itself aids a chemical change in other bodies). All these sculptures are based on a circle, a triangle, a rectangle and a spiral. The shapes, designed to work together as a group, divide roughly into earthbound plough-like structures and exploding starburst shapes. Some are hybrids of the two types. T05032 is closely related to ‘Edge Runner’, 1983 (repr. Edinburgh exh. cat., 1988, [pp.50–1]), designated by the artist the final work in the group, although completed earlier than all but one of the other eight sculptures. The complete group, all reproduced in the Edinburgh catalogue, comprises: ‘Hypen’, 1987, the upper part of which formally resembles T05032 but whose ‘legs’ are connected by a solid triangular base (repr. [pp.34–5]); ‘Double Hyphen’, 1986, which comprises two ‘hyphens’, one supporting the other, smaller, one (repr. [pp.36–7]); ‘Open Monolith’, 1985, described by Neagu as a conic star shape, whose base is curved, so that it resembles the runners of a sledge (repr. [pp.38–9]); ‘Fish’, 1986, an abstract representation of the stages of the upward trajectory of a leaping fish, apparently arrested in mid-leap and anchored to a circular base (repr. [pp.40–1]); ‘Wake’ 1987, a starburst supported on widely splayed legs (repr. [p.43]); ‘Starhead 1980’, a twisting, two-legged, upright star shape (repr. [p.45]); ‘Fish over Gate’, 1987, a combination of ‘Fish’ and ‘Hyphen’ (repr. pp.46–7]); ‘A-Cross’, 1987, a combination of ‘A Cross’ and a ‘Hyphen’ (repr. [pp.48–9]); and, finally, ‘Edge Runner’, which, as noted above, is very similar in shape to T05032.

The artist told the compiler (10 March 1989) that he had made at least seven works that were close to T05032. He had made numerous drawings of this rocking form since 1979. He owned a red and yellow graphite and wax crayon drawing of 1982, measuring 100 cm by 60 cm, that related directly to the Tate Gallery's work. In a recent letter to the compiler Neagu (5 January 1995) listed eleven related ‘Edge Runner’ sculptures:

‘Edge Runner’, 1981, ash (artist, repr. Arta, vol.37, no.4/5, 1990, p.30)

‘Double Hyphen’, 1984 (repr. ibid., p.15). The surface of this work, like that of T 05032, has been drilled with small holes.

‘Rocking Hyphen’, 1982, welded steel, 28 × 75 × 41 cm (artist, repr. Neagu 1985, p.31).

According to Neagu, this was one of the forms included in his exhibition Paul Neagu: Catalytic Sculpture Court System at the Gallery K, Tokyo in August 1986.

‘Edge Runner’, 1982, steel, 300 × 185 × 160 cm (repr. Neagu 1985, p.30). This mild steel sculpture was shown at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1983 and at the London Business School exhibition Paul Neagu, Catalytic Sculpture, in late 1984 and early 1985. According to the artist, the sculpture was then painted and shown in Scotland in five different locations. In 1993 the paint was stripped off and the work was sent in three sections to Romania for a mini-retrospective at the Brukenthal Museum, Sibiu, Transylvania. It remains in Romania.

‘Edge Runner’, 1994. This was originally a stainless steel maquette on a mild steel base, and measured 35 × 82 × 50 cm. It has since been painted crimson by Neagu and separated from its base (artist, repr. Neagu 1985, p.31).

‘Edge Runner’, 1985. A small white wood and gesso prototype, measuring 23 × 72 × 54 cm (private coll., repr. Neagu 1985, pp.56–7 and on exh. card for Paul Neagu: Drawing, Painting, Sculpture, Narrow Water Gallery, Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland, Oct.–Nov. 1988).

‘Edge Runner’, 1987, 23 × 72 × 54 cm (repr. as part of ‘Epagoge’, 1991–3, in Paul Neagu: Epagoge. Sculpture and Drawings, exh. cat., Flowers East Gallery 1993, p.2 in col.)

‘Edge Runner’, 1983, stainless steel, 93 × 170 × 108 cm (artist, repr. Nine Catalytic Stations. Paul Neagu, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery 1987, [pp.14–15]).

‘Edge Runner’, 1988 (artist, not repr.). This is described by Neagu (letter to the compiler, 5 January 1995) as ‘a special bolted wood version where the two curvilinear “soles” are straighter’.

‘Edge Runner’, 1990, wood and gesso, 37 × 87 × 54 cm (artist, not repr.). In this model for casting in bronze, ‘the two bent soles are incorporated in a more sinuous body’ (letter to the compiler, 5 January 1995).

‘Edge Runner’, 1990–2, bronze, 37 × 87 × 54 cm (artist, not repr.).

‘Edge Runner’, 1992, bronze, c.38 cm long (repr. as part of ‘Epagoge’, 1991–3, in Flowers East Gallery exh. cat., 1993, p.2 in col.).

According to the artist, this list of eleven works is ‘the short story of the “Edge Runner's” [or “Rocking-Hyphen's”] three-dimensional existence, but most important is also the “Runner's” inscription-circumscription within the family group of the nine catalytic forms or stations’ (letter, 5 January 1995).

The artist told the compiler on 10 March 1989 that T05032 has to do with opposites, because front and back rockers face in contradictory directions. He described it as being about wanting to rock on the one hand but also not wanting to. He said that the work could be regarded as a coin that has two sides. This he regarded as characteristic of the human condition and the need to analyse situations from more than one point of view or angle. Neagu intended this work to be about paradox and transition, the incorporation of more than one point of view into one organic composition, giving a two-sided, Janus effect.

The artist has approved this entry.

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

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