The temptation to regard Henry Moore as the father of 20th-century British sculpture is strong. Together with Barbara Hepworth, he translated modernism into three dimensions. Tugging Picasso, surrealism, African and pre-Columbian South American sculpture, and landscape forms – animal bones, flints, stones – into his own organic vision of humanity, his early works trampled on the last vestiges of classicism as surely as TS Eliot’s poetry and Virginia Woolf’s prose.
Moore’s reputation as revolutionary didn’t last long. From 1950 onwards, his heirs were as keen to bury as to praise him. In 1952, the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale placed a work by Moore outside the building in which were gathered eight sculptors, including Lynn Chadwick, Kenneth Armitage and Eduardo Paolozzi, whose wilful disharmonies – immortalised by the curator Herbert Read as a “geometry of fear” – were less inspired by Moore than infuriated by him.
In 1967, Moore’s offer of works to Tate prompted a letter of complaint by 41 artists, including Moore’s assistant Anthony Caro, who feared that it would leave insufficient space for more radical work.
As the decades passed, Moore’s status grew shakier. The modernist images that spoke loudest to artists born in the second half of the 20th century were the carnal humiliations suffered by Francis Bacon’s subjects. The inertia of Moore’s monumental mothers to any contemporary concerns – existential anguish, politics either social or sexual, let alone ironic commentaries on such preoccupations – stripped him of relevance.
Any show that purports to spotlight the rapport between Moore and today’s artists has its work cut out because dissent and indifference must be part of the deal. To an extent, this exhibition at the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green – where Moore lived and worked for 50 years – tackles the challenge with honesty and verve.
It brings together 18 postwar artists. Some, such as Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Paul Noble and Simon Starling, had already made work directly in response to Moore. Two, Richard Deacon and Richard Long, were commissioned to make site-specific pieces for the rolling lawns and sheep-dotted fields that make Perry Green as beguilingly English as a village cricket match.
For many of the others, however, the dialogues are oblique; with Moore present only in as much as the works are talking back to a canon of titans from Picasso to Arte Povera, Ingres to Donald Judd. No matter. The loose ends are woven together by riveting catalogue texts by many of the artists elaborating on Moore’s significance, or lack of it, to them. Roger Hiorns states bluntly that he doesn’t “believe in them at all”. Hirst’s opening sentence is: “Often I think about Francis Bacon when I look at Moore.”
Moore is primarily famous for his outdoor works. The joy of Perry Green is the chance to see some of his finest – such as “Large Reclining Figure” (1938), a bronze matriarch watching her flocks from a hillock – in a rural setting designed by Moore’s wife, Irina, to show them to their best advantage. In fact Moore’s works are so at home at Perry Green that the visitors struggle to put down roots. Richard Long’s decision to make his mark with no more than a long strip of unmowed grass in the middle of an otherwise clipped lawn is mischievous rather than moving.
At its nuanced, protean best, Thomas Schütte’s take on the figure is as valuable as any today. Here unfortunately two large female figures – one reclining in a pastiche of sensuality that is more Picasso via Ingres than Moore, one in a yogic slump – are betrayed into banality by their refusal to take themselves seriously. They do, however, have the effect of making the Moores nearby, particularly the jagged dislocations of “Two Piece Reclining Figure: Cut”, sing out with earnest, exploratory pride.
The only artist to give Moore a run for his money is Rachel Whiteread with her glorious inside-out shed. A concrete, windowless bunker humming with inaudible secrets, it squats slyly in front of the pines as if mocking humanity’s efforts to stay sane.
Indoors, sparkling encounters await. Hopelessly overcrowded, the awkward airlessness of the Sheep Field Barn gallery is appropriate for the Abigail’s Party of sculpture inside.
Marooned in their formaldehyde prisons, Hirst’s cow and calf still miss the point that great art possesses a transformative frisson. But here they are wedged between two sublime madonnas by Moore – “Mother and Child” (1967) in rose marble which smooths and condenses those archetypal curves to mystical abstraction, and “Stringed Mother and Child” (1938), a single plaster cast sprouting two faceless heads from which cords fly back and forth like manifestations of the invisible leylines that hold the pair in an eternal bond.
Such genuine feeling lends Hirst’s beasts a touch of real tragedy. Elsewhere, the wary, feminist scepticism of Sarah Lucas – with a signature, sinister coil of stuffed tights plonked on a plinth-tease of breeze blocks – and Whiteread again, this time with a plaster cast that conjures a powder-pink amputee, “Untitled (Pink Torso)” (1991), save us from suffocating in a fug of postnatal sentimentality.
If evidence were needed that Long missed a trick with his mimsy strip of green, it’s in the juxtaposition between photographs of his land art and sculptures by Moore. Despite the murky quality of the black-and-white images of Moore’s works, their totemic gravity, as if they were growing out of the ground, is entirely resonant with the ephemeral yet sturdy essence of, for example, Long’s trail of stones on a Japanese mountainside.
On balance, it is those works whose rapport with Moore is tentative that produce the most provocative confrontations. Those works that critique his directly – drawings of discarded Moores by Paul Noble for example – risk shallow, reactive mannerism. Like a rubbery, spineless, serpentine abstraction of a Moore reclining figure, “Early Forms”, a 1993 bronze by Tony Cragg, is as dull as the introduction to Moore which he writes in the catalogue.
Two of Moore’s naysayers pull off coups. There could be no more deflating parody of a reclining figure than the elastic band Joseph Beuys twisted into a knot – think little and big loop as head and torso – and popped in a little open-fronted box. But for sheer potency and relevance, the stunner in this show is Bruce Nauman’s “Henry Moore Bound to Fail” (1967-70), an iron cast of Moore’s upper torso. Trussed in a shudder-inducing rope, the rippling, compacted slab groans with the silent, sullen fury of a bound, castrated deity. “Moore was pretty powerful … I figured the younger sculptors would need him some day, so I came up with the idea for a storage capsule,” was Nauman’s laconic explanation.
A final word on who is in and who is out, here. If the curators had tried to include every vaguely Moore-relevant contemporary sculptor, Perry Green would have been as crowded with objects as Moore’s extraordinary maquette studio (which any visitor to Perry Green must make the effort to visit). Yet it’s odd there’s no Paul McCarthy, no Thomas Houseago and that the only figure by Antony Gormley – who is Moore’s most argumentative and relevant heir – is confined indoors.
And what is atrocious is the lack of women, who number only two out of 18. What about Helaine Blumenfeld, Emily Young, Kiki Smith, Phyllida Barlow or, crucially, the twisted sirens of Rebecca Warren? Moore’s relentless idealisation of the mother might be excused as a sign of his times. But the plethora of female sculptors making serious art are a sign of ours.
‘Body & Void: Echoes of Moore in Contemporary Art’ until October 26, Henry Moore Foundation, Perry Green, UK. henry-moore.org