January 8, 2012 4:09 pm

United Enemies, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

Edible pyramids, buried pots, posturing pop stars: an absorbing exhibition shows how British sculpure defied convention in the 1960s

A spirit of anarchic rebellion galvanised British sculpture during the 1960s and the following decade. The very first exhibit in the Henry Moore Institute’s absorbing United Enemies still has the ability to surprise. More than 6,000 oranges, carefully assembled in a work called “Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges)”, confronted visitors entering the show on opening day. Roelof Louw, a London-based artist who was South African by birth, made this extraordinary sculpture back in 1967. But he invited everyone to help themselves to the fruit, and at Leeds more than 1,500 oranges had already been taken by the time I arrived. Louw’s glowing pyramid will soon disappear altogether; as this page goes to press, only 1,000 or so oranges remain. The one I devoured was delicious, but the unease I felt about helping to destroy this sculpture also made me realise how provocative Louw’s work must have seemed at the time.

After all, it mounted a shameless attack on the whole notion of sculptural solidity and permanence. Henry Moore, who had done so much to transform British sculpture earlier in the 20th century, would never have wanted anyone to dismantle his work. But during the 1960s and 1970s, anything seemed possible, and Jon Wood, who has curated this fascinating exhibition, captures the seismic unrest of the period. His mischievous title conveys the differences between rivalrous young sculptors who nevertheless shared a revolutionary urge.

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As early as 1961 Stephen Willats drew an uncompromising study of explosive blobs and splashes, inscribed “Remains of shape after 500 ton press has been dropped on it”. And the first section of this show is alive with artists similarly determined to flout accepted ideas about what sculpture should be. In 1972 Keith Arnatt made “Art as an Act of Retraction”, a row of 11 monochrome photographs showing him munching each word of the sentence “Eleven portraits of the artist about to eat his own words”. Bearded and dressed in black, Arnatt looks implacable as he uses his own mouth and body as a living sculpture. Gilbert & George pushed this idea further, performing live and solemnly miming to the sound of an old music-hall song, “Underneath The Arches”. In 1970 they printed the words of this song on a piece of burnt paper called “The Sadness in Our Art”, accompanied by wistful little drawings of the young artists themselves as “we dream our dreams away”.

The sense of melancholy intensifies in the show’s second section, which explores vertical standing forms. John Davies’s three life-sized figures, made of resin, fibreglass, paint and mixed media, look like actors in a desolate play by Samuel Beckett. One of them, balanced on a chair, seems transfixed by a bird’s wing attached to his nose; another, standing next to him on the floor, looks stunned; both gaze at the humiliated third, who kneels on the floor and wears a dunce’s cap. They all seem involved in a macabre ritual.

The exhibition’s final section centres on the ground as a focus for sculptural activity. Richard Long dominates the space, but his earthenware “Untitled (Pot)” is a great surprise. At first, in 1966, this vessel was buried in the ground while Long worked in his native Bristol. But after he came to London, the pot was painted with a rural image and its lip filled by a carefully modelled plaster landscape.

By 1972, Long had found fame as a pioneering explorer of open spaces. His photographic album called “An English Frontier” documents a winter walk he undertook along Hadrian’s Wall with six companions. They included Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow, who did not acquire wide reputations of their own until the 1980s. Jim Rogers, another member of this epic expedition, recalls waiting “before we set out on the last leg of our journey because our tents were frozen like sheets of cardboard”.

Two years earlier, another cluster of emerging young sculptors – Bruce McLean, Paul Richards, Gary Chitty, Robin Fletcher and Ron Carr – had banded together to become Nice Style, a group whose work straddled the divide between performance and sculpture. For their 1974 piece “High Up on a Baroque Palazzo”, for example, at London’s Garage Gallery, “the world’s first pose band” donned dinner suits and adopted exaggerated poses, mimicking pop bands such The Bay City Rollers as well as the posturing pretensions of high society.

A special room in the Leeds show is devoted to the antics of Nice Style, who disbanded in 1975. But outside the Henry Moore Institute, on a cold evening last month, they reformed for a one-off performance on the gallery steps. It was a triumph: in their highly stylised movements, “body sculpture” sprang back to life in all its physical aplomb and satirical glee.

To March 11

www.henry-moore.org/hmi

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