William Tucker, the sculptor, discusses the recent Moore retrospective
THE EFFECT OF THE EXHIBITION as ever, was of sheer mastery: of an artist who never, or hardly ever, makes a bad sculpture. It was Moore’s Seated Warrior in the Holland Park exhibition of 1956 that decided me on a career of sculpture. I had never looked seriously at sculpture before, yet that piece looked so complex and yet so assured, so masterful, so right, as to make all the work around, mostly of a far more obvious expressive appeal, such as Clatworthy’s Bull, figures by Frink, Butler and Chadwick, seem somehow too simplified, too accessible.
Even after twelve years of thinking about and working at sculpture I find it impossible to rid myself of this first impression. Mastery. Things stick in one’s memory, like an interview with John Russell some years ago in the Sunday Times, in which Moore said something to the effect that ‘he could turn anything into sculpture’.
And yet-this mastery over matter, the degree of control over visual and tactile reality-knowing so well in advance how an object will turn out, its presence and effect-all this seems to me now at variance with that concept of ‘innocence’ established for modern art by Cézanne and Monet. Paradoxically, in this context, the mastery of a medium, and real achievement in it, are in conflict: what is needed is the ability not to know: to prevent the physical consequences of an idea modifying that idea while it is still in the mind.
Perhaps Moore’s present identification with Michelangelo may be based on an awareness of this problem: that in sculpture it is possible to control reality to a far greater extent than is possible in either painting or architecture. For Michelangelo a sense of dissatisfaction with his own mastery in sculpture might explain both his involvement in painting and architecture, where the problems and stimulus were greater, and the almost willful failure to complete certain sculptures, as though he had set himself problems of expression that were in effect insoluble.
The myth of the sculptor’s heroic struggle with material resolves itself as the artist’s struggle with himself, with his own facility.
No one can doubt the sincerity of Moore’s engagement with the past, especially with Michelangelo – to which such pieces as the clumsy elm-wood Reclining figure of 1959–64 are a monument – but one can surely question whether the degree to which he has separated himself from the main current of modern art since the war has resulted in an achievement that, while it appears heroic, is so in terms of the past and not of our own time.
It is not easy for a young English sculptor to evaluate Moore’s work and I suppose many people would ask if it is necessary. The protective fury aroused by Anthony Caro’s Observer article and the recent letter from a group of younger artists to The Times, indicate that it is impossible to discuss Moore’s position and achievement without being accused of disloyalty, even treachery. In the long term Moore’s reputation cannot be enhanced by the absence of any debate on the importance of his work. If it has the quality that is claimed for it, it can surely protect itself. My own feeling is that what Moore has unselfishly given to British art, by setting his ambitions and standards higher than any English artist for a century, and achieved by raising the whole level of aspiration and effort of British artists, has been, in the last account, at the cost of his own contribution to the evolution of modern art in general.
The unreality of Moore’s present position, the absence of communication between him and other artists, except through the filter of a respectful audience, also tends to obscure the exact nature of his contribution to British art. For example, we are given, in the catalogue introduction by David Sylvester, instances of the correspondence of his work, previous to 1939, with Picasso, Brancusi, Arp, Giacometti; but nothing since the war. How has his work influenced, or been influenced by, successive generations of British sculptors? Surely the transition from the textured, directly figurative images of the 50s to the present abstract or near-abstract smooth carvings and polished bronzes needs more explanation than the pressures of his own development. No artist works in a vacuum: there is a sense in which modern art is a conversation between artists. Moore’s early and acknowledged debt to Picasso in no way belittles his achievement in that area – in fact the ‘anatomy’-type pieces, the stringed sculptures, and the Three points of the pre-war years, in the period when Moore was finding his way in modern sculpture, and was challenged and stimulated by what was going on in Paris, contain a far higher proportion of really strong and inventive pieces than anything he has achieved since. One artist states a theme; another develops it; a third turns it on its head; and so on. This is the way art grows and changes; it is a natural and necessary process, and artists gain and do not lose their identity by taking part in it. Those who would isolate Moore from it have done neither him, nor art, a service.
Moore’s most direct source of influence on the development of English art in recent years has been through the generations of young sculptors he has successively employed as his assistants. This exhibition, nor the catalogue introduction, does nothing to illuminate this subject. Several sculptors who have worked for him have gone on subsequently to make original statements of their own. These artists clearly felt they had something to learn from Moore: what was it, and how has it affected their work? What is it that distinguishes sculptors who have worked for him from those who have not? In general, there is a reticence about Moore’s use of assistants that seems unrealistic in view of the facts: Moore certainly could not have carried out the great volume of public work in late years without help: surely there must have been some sort of dialogue between him and his assistants, if the experience was to be of value to either party.
What one really asks for, on an occasion like this, is not that Moore should change his personality-indeed he is capable of a self-renewal that continually surprises, as in the beautifully ordered Bridge-prop reclining figure of 1963, and the most recent polished bronze Vertebrae reclining figure – but that the way in which the artist and his work are presented could be a great deal more varied and less pious. For example, where does Moore stand, by comparison with Brancusi, Calder, Arp, Lipchitz, Gonzalez, Smith, Laurens, Giacometti? To me his achievement seems comparable with that of Lipchitz: both solid and workmanlike careers of artists whose approach to sculpture was physical and intuitive, rather than conceptual; who both during the course of their careers produced work that introduced new elements into modern sculpture; but the general tendency of whose work has been toward the renewal of a public, monumental (and, for our time, rhetorical) tradition, rather than re-thinking the basis of sculpture itself.
In terms of opening up something new for sculpture, Moore’s re-discovery or at least re-affirmation for modern art of the horizontal axis has been his most fruitful contribution. Whereas for Moore this has largely meant laying the block horizontally and opening it up, various pieces, such as the Composition (reclining figure) of 1934, point to the possibility of a freer form of horizontal articulation that has notably been developed by Anthony Caro from 1960 on.
Meanwhile, disappointingly, physical comparison of Moore’s work with other masters in the Tate must wait until the gallery has rectified the balance of its modern sculpture collection. One unimportant piece each by Brancusi and Laurens, nothing by Gonzalez or the pre-war Giacometti, hardly give one the opportunity to measure Moore’s stature against the standards he himself has set.