Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain

by Echo Hopkins, October 2011

Widely known for his sculptures from the mid to late ’80s onwards, Barry Flanagan’s earlier works may seem surprisingly disconnected from the general perception of his work. Upon closer inspection of these early works (1965-82) at the Tate Britain, however, one can begin to link themes in his work of the mid ’60s to those of his later creations, a task which curators Clarrie Wallis and Andrew Wilson set out to achieve. While he was studying on a “vocational” course at St. Martin’s School of Art from 1964 to 1966, Flanagan discovered the works of the French Playwright Alfred Jarry whose writings impacted the artist, introducing Flanagan to absurdist logic and “pataphysics,” the science of imaginary solutions, ideas that he applied to his sculptural and drawing pieces at the beginning of his career.

Upon entering the first room of the exhibition you immediately encounter a large piece comprised of an assortment of sewn fabric, bits of plastic and a fake flower. This sets the tone for the next few rooms, which display the artist’s work from the ’60s, all of them examples of Flanagan’s singular use of materials. Felt, sand and hessian: these are materials that he would come to use repeatedly for the next decade. There is a soft-edged quality to the each of the pieces, flowing lines and organic shapes. He used malleable forms, which he left to determine their own shapes. Sand-filled felt constructions were left to sag and bend, an example of the surrealist influence of leaving certain components of art to chance. Pieces such as ringn ’66 and heap 4 are examples of this ideological vein, an indented pile of sand left to spread as it naturally would and a pile of tubes draped over one another. After determining the basic framework of a piece, Flanagan removed himself and let physics take over.

In the late ’60s and into the early ’70s Flanagan’s work shifts from unstructured materials and chance-driven process towards the incorporation of rigid, form-defining materials such as wood and steel. This turn in his work is manifest in the Tate exhibition by works like june 2 ’69 and VII 78 moon thatch, pieces that hint at the move towards the even more solidly cast forms he would make later in his career, represented in the latter rooms of the exhibition. At this point Flanagan began working with the notion of placing his pieces into corners of a space, playing with the concept of boundaries between two- and three-dimensional objects.

But yet another shift would occur before his mature style of the ’80s, this one marked by a visit in 1973 to the marble quarries of Pietrasanta, Italy. Having previously deliberately avoided traditional sculpture materials, he started creating carved pieces placed on plinths of wooden blocks placed at right angles. Fascinated by the idea of artisans passing on tradition, his works such as a nose in repose become a marriage of tradition and anti-tradition, carved sculpture as had been produced for centuries coupled with his own investigation of natural forms.

The trajectory of Flanagan’s career is perhaps made clearest by the drawings displayed in the fifth room of the exhibition. Presented here in a linear fashion are drawings spanning the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. The progression from flowing lines to figural drawings, of animals mostly, is clearly defined. The last section of the exhibition finally leaves the viewer in a room surrounded by works of the ’80s, the era in which Flanagan started gaining prominence with his exhibition at the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale.

These bronze-cast animals, far from the sand-filled, earth-tone felt sculptures at the beginning of the exhibition, manifest the breadth of Flanigan’s output. On first glance these would seem to be the works of a completely different artist, but a careful parsing of the show would make these last pieces seem inevitable in the development of Flanagan’s ever-evolving style. This evolution is made clear in the show without losing sight of what inspired Flanagan in his beginnings.

Barry Flanagan: Early Works 1965-1982
27 September 2011–2 January 2012
Tate Britain
Millbank, London