Artists’ reputations often reach a nadir a decade after their death. Lynn Chadwick died in 2003 and his status remains unclear: expressive pioneer of Britain’s postwar “geometry of fear” school, or a synthesiser – dovetailing Giacometti’s angular nerviness with Henry Moore’s monumentality – who ran out of steam after the 1960s?
The centenary of Chadwick’s birth this year prompts rediscovery. The Royal Academy is displaying a quartet of his late “Beast” sculptures in its Annenberg courtyard: spiky, geometric animals in different stages of movement – “Beast Alerted I”, “Stretching Beast I”, “Crouching Beast II”, “Lion I” – whose stainless steel surfaces reflect patterns of changing light, enhancing their dynamic effects.
There’s more: opening next week, Blain Southern is mounting a trio of shows in its London, Berlin and New York galleries which constitute a substantial overview, while next month a mini-retrospective at Osborne Samuel follows, launching a new monograph by Michael Bird (published by Lund Humphries).
Blain Southern London focuses on the 1950s-60s, when Chadwick developed his metal works inspired by human and natural forms. The language is the epoch’s tightrope-walk between figuration and abstraction – David Smith, Alexander Calder, Moore. But Chadwick’s simplified figures differ crucially from Moore’s in technique – constructing and assembling steel rods welded into three-dimensional shapes, later cast in bronze, rather than carving or modelling – and thus in their skeletal lines, rough planes, giving an edgy, uncertain character.
“Teddy Boy and Girl” is a dancing couple with attitude, evocative of new aggressive teenage fashions – draped coats, drainpipe trousers – heralding a recurrent motif in Chadwick’s oeuvre: the tense compositions of two figures, often with a female triangular head and male, rectangular one.
“Moon of Alabama” references the satellite Sputnik 1 but, standing on spindly legs with a pyramid-like head, looks anthropomorphic, menacing. “Stranger lll” is an enormous powerful/vulnerable winged creature, surely ancestor to Antony Gormley’s “Angel of the North” – and a marker point on 20th-century British sculpture’s long elaboration of human figuration.