Saturday, 7 August 2021

Britain says “Farewell” to one of its Giants of Modern Sculpture, Phillip King

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Phillip, who has died at the age of 87, was born in Tunis, capital of Tunisia, North Africa, in the Spring of 1934, five years before the outbreak of the Second World War. The son of his French Algerian mother, Gabrielle and British father, Thomas, who had started a trading company in the city, given the fact that his mother was French and Tunisia was a French Protectorate, it is not surprising that he grew bilingual. His was a privileged childhood where, at the family home in Khereddine, the residential city in the northern suburbs of Tunis, he would be brought sweetmeats on silver trays, courtesy of Ahmad II, the Bey of Tunis, the Tunisian monarch whose summer palace stood next door. 

He was 8 years old when, in 1942, three years after the outbreak of the War, the city was occupied by French and German Axis troops and was there when it was taken by British and American troops the following year. Phillip made no mention of this, but did recall : "I've always had an interest in materials. It started off with a passion for sand. I was brought up by the sea and used to play around on the beach. If you dug holes in certain spots you could find clay mixed with the sand and I used to make small things out of it". He was five or six at the time and recalled, of his pots and animals : “I even tried to sell them”.  

He attended Saint-Joseph-de-l'Apparition School of Carthage, which was also attended by the future, Italian-Tunisian actress, Claudia Cardinale, of whom Peter said “annoyingly, I can’t remember", which is not surprising, since she was 4 years younger than him. 

He said his mother collected paintings, including one by Albert Marque after he married a friend of her sister’s. "It was a portrait of Algiers. Later, he came to stay with us and there are paintings of his that were made looking out from where we lived. I could recognise the landscape". Years later Phillip would say his work was influenced by Islamic architecture and its use of colour which formed the background to these early years.

He did recall that when the family moved to England in 1946 when he was 12, just after the end of the Second World War : "My father was very nearly shot as a spy, perhaps because he was a spy”. Paul said that he could always draw well, but art was not encouraged at his secondary school which was Mill Hill, a fee paying independent public school for boys in London where, on his own admission, he was more interested in playing rugby rather than becoming proficient in art. However, he admitted : "I also loved literature and was so shaken by reading Camus’s La Peste that I wrote to him via his publisher. It must have been something pretty heartfelt, as Camus responded by sending me a signed copy with a little note saying only that he had been moved by my letter”. 

In 2019 Phillip returned, as a guest speaker and Old Millilian, to the School and awarded a prize to the sixth former who had made the best speech describing an artwork of their choice. Apparently he 'shared memories of his time at Mill Hill Art Department in the 1950s which offered a great perspective on life in 2019'. (link) Phillip joined the School when he was 13 and lived with his parents in the nearby Mill Hill Hotel, because his father didn't wish to buy a house. 

At the age 18 in 1952, he was 'called up' for his two years compulsory National Service in the armed forces and because he was bi-lingual, found himself posted to Paris and recalled : “I could speak French and was supposed to be joining a general’s staff. But when I got there my post had been taken by someone else and so I found myself living this very independent life, with my own flat and a lot of time to explore the city”. 

He got into photography, wrote poetry and even started a novel. He also went to the Louvre where he began to make drawings of the sculptures and said : “I found that, while I could sense there were certain forms within the marble, no matter how hard I looked I couldn’t see them. In those days, there were no invigilators and so you could touch the statues if you wanted, and when I did, I could feel the curves I had sensed. It made me think for the first time about sculpture being the art of the invisible; it was quite a discovery”.

At the age of 20 in 1954 he took up his place as an undergraduate studying Modern Languages at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he added Italian to his language repertoire. However, he had eschewed formal art tuition at university and said : “I wanted to be self-taught, but I was so incompetent, technically speaking”. He received no encouragement for his parents and said : "I wasn’t encouraged to become an artist in any way, and I did it in spite of my father encouraging me to do something else". It was in his second year that he had turned his focus to art and said he "became more and more involved with sculpture. I found a basement in a street near my college and I just started working". He produced a series of small clay works that were exhibited and sold well. He said : “I made £50 having spent £30 to hire a gallery". 

It was 1957 and exhibited at Heffers Gallery in Cambridge. Phillip had seen and admired an exhibition of Anthony Caro’s work at Gimpel Fils and sent him an invitation to view his work and included a train ticket to Cambridge. Ten years his senior, as a sculptor, he was already having some international success and was credited with the significant innovation of removing his sculpture from its plinth. Then, sitting it directly on the floor, he removed a barrier between the work and the viewer, who was invited to approach and interact with the sculpture from all sides. It was almost certainly Anthony who was instrumental in Phillip joining St. Martin's School of Art for a year as a student, after graduating from Cambridge in 1957. Anthony had been teaching the students there for four years and was already busy inspiring a younger generation of British abstract sculptors.

On arrival at St Martin's Phillip recalled  : "The drawing classes were very full, but the sculpture classes were empty, so I joined them instead and rediscovered working with clay. After a couple of weeks I decided I didn't want to go to class anymore, but wanted to be on my own. I found a cheap basement that I could use as a studio and the first thing I did was to get hold of some clay. I eventually managed to find a local company that made pipes for sewers and got a dark, black clay from them. To help me feel comfortable in my new place I thought I would have a sandpit. I made a wooden frame in the corner and put a few bags of sand in. It was a comforting thing to have but I never did anything with sand until many years later". 

Still enrolled as a student Philip said : “All the talk in the pub with my friends was about painters. I thought people like Rothko and Pollock were using a kind of physicality as part of the making process, but there didn’t seem to be anything in sculpture that resembled that kind of adventure”. 

He saw that these abstract impressionists were revolutionizing art in the United States and said : "They were doing things in painting that left sculpture behind".

After his year at St Martin's, Phillip followed in the footsteps of Anthony and worked as one of the assistants of Henry Moore, during which time his own work still remained firmly rooted in the  figurative tradition. In 1959 he visited the 'Documenta II Exhibition' in Kassel, Germany and the sculpture of Constantin Brâncuși, who Phillip was to call an early “idol”. He had died in France at the age of 81 in the year Phillip joined St Martins and was being hailed as the Patriarch of Modern Sculpture and had said : "There are idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things".

Phillip's role as an assistant to Moore came to an end in 1960 and having been awarded the 'Boise Scholarship', had travelled to Greece to study ancient sculpture and architecture. If his visit to the Louvre had been his first apocryphal moment, Greece was to be his second. He said that as a result of the visit : “Brâncuși made sense. Brâncuși had discovered the pileup, physically putting one thing on top of another. What really struck me in Greece was the way the Parthenon rooted itself into the landscape. My later reluctance to see abstraction as something worthwhile was to do with it being cerebral and not from nature. Greece allowed me to rediscover how things can be of the mind but also of nature, and the idea of using gravity as a way to make things stand up”.

On his return to Britain he said he : "Put to one side everything I had done before" and destroyed all the work then in his studio, including the Matisse-like nudes and started afresh, giving his workspace a general clean-up and symbolic coat of white paint. He began a series of drawings, the results of which included two seminal sculptures, his concrete 'Window Piece' and concrete and steel 'Declaration' in 1961. 

He later said : "I had to get special tools for Declaration because it was made of green-coloured concrete and marble chippings. I called it Declaration because in a sense it was a manifesto piece for me. I suddenly established new ideas about fundamental forms and sculpture being off the pedestal and extending on the ground and stretching out. I was also interested in repetition and symmetry"

Tim Hilton, art critic of the Guardian, has suggested that 'Declaration' with its neat, symmetrical row of  circle/square/cross/cross/ square/circle, was  probably the first time in British sculpture that repetition of non-organic forms has served as a principle of the sculpture’s composition’. The Deputy Head of The Courtauld Gallery, Barnaby Wright, said that, for Phillip, this period 'opened the possibility of using abstraction to explore the experience of man's place within nature without trying to convey that experience by imitating natural appearances'.  

As the 1960s unfolded, Philip became an influential member of the British sculptural group, known as the 'New Generation', which was experimenting across a variety of colour, material and form with the aim to rid the medium of its traditional connotations. He began working with fibreglass in 1962, crafting his famous 'Rosebud' and said : “From Brâncuși I was thinking about adding one thing to another as a way to make things stand up, and when leaning two leaves against each other I came up with the cone shape”

"When I first started making sculpture, the 'truth to materials' notion of the 1950s, which Henry Moore had quite a lot to do with, was an anathema to someone of the 1960s like me. I was anti-material in a sense and that is what attracted me to fibreglass. I was one of the first people to use it as a material in itself. Most previous fibreglass work had used moulding techniques : you took a female mould of a form that you'd already made in some other material, put the fibreglass in and came up with a positive". Working directly with fibreglass Phillip "would make a male mould and build something - Rosebud, for instance - around it. I made a cone out of linoleum and I tried to put fibreglass directly on top but it started to collapse. I strengthened it with plaster and then added the fibreglass directly and sanded it down". 

'Rosebud' was his first painted sculpture, he said : "The whole idea was to colour it. I wanted an almost painterly finish - originally it had brush marks in pink, with a deeper red showing through. It was a quality I wanted to pick up from painting, but it didn't really work and I abandoned it. In the end I used an acrylic finish to get a smooth, matt surface. The idea was to suggest that the surface itself was coloured - that it had a total skin, equivalent to the surface underneath it". 

His 'Tra-La-La' in 1963, used brightly coloured plastic and in the same year his colourful, cone-based 'Twilight' used plastic, wood and aluminum. 

This was followed in 1964 by 'Genghis Khan'. When he titled the piece, he was originally thinking of Coleridge’s poem, 'Kubla Khan' and its opening lines : 'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree/Where Alph the sacred river ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea'. The title led some to see the sculpture as anthropomorphic and possibly a helmeted warrior? Apparently, when it was displayed in the grounds of a gallery in Germany, and the police were called after complaints that someone was camping in the woods.

Phillip recalled his meeting David Smith the American abstract expressionist sculptor and painter, best known for creating large steel abstract geometric sculptures. : "In 1964 I went to the States and I taught for a year at Bennington, where I made 'And the Birds Began to Sing'. It was in fibreglass to start with, and then David Smith said to me "Whatever you do in fibreglass you can do just as well in steel". When I got back to this country, as a sort of experiment I went to Aeromet, a fabricator that Caro used, and they made 'And the Birds Began to Sing' in sheet steel." It was his fourth cone sculpture and related to the nursery rhyme, “Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie . . . and when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing”. Unlike 'Genghis Khan', Phillip titled it after it was  finished. 

Following the 'New Generation' show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1966, both Anthony Caro and Phillip were included in the seminal 1966 exhibition, 'Primary Structures' at the Jewish Museum in New York representing the British influence on the 'New Art'. In his three large works of 1967, 'Span', 'Call' and 'Blue Blaze', he used separate forms disposed over a certain floor area as  components of one sculpture. None of these pieces was conceived from the start as a whole with so many component parts; each started from one or two forms which were added to until the space "read’’ the way Phillip wanted it to read. 

This was followed in 1968, with Phillip having both his fibre glass and brightly painted steel pieces, exhibited at the Venice Biennale. It was a time of student revolution all over the West, and when he left a Venice where there were troops in St Mark’s Square, he returned to an equally febrile atmosphere in London. Back at St Martin's he and Caro had long operated an informal 'hard-cop', 'soft-cop' system of dealing with the emerging generation of artists such as Richard Long and Gilbert and George, who had little time for conventional sculpture. Phillip was the 'soft cop', always trying to find something positive to say, and Long has spoken about him being one of the more sympathetic tutors at St Martin's.

Philip recalled : “The 60s were a very exciting time, but also very fraught. At St Martin's in '68 and '69, people were questioning everything so much that you couldn’t really be a teacher. That was good in a way and eventually gave rise to new artists who were very independent and anti-authority”. For Phillip, born of the pre-War 1930s generation, there was a gulf between him and the post-War 1940s baby boomers who were now his students. For him, only in his mid-30s, there was a feeling that he had become part of  'The Establishment' and “might be sidelined at any minute. The idea of the avant garde became worrisome – the notion that you could do something new, and that it would eventually be upgraded, didn’t make sense any more”.

With the coming of a new decade Phillip moved in a new direction and recalled : "At the beginning of the 1970s the idea of working with a material other than steel began to be attractive. There was some demolition work going on next door and I made some brick pieces, started using steel mesh with brick, and then when they demolished the roof I started using slate and steel. I wanted to work in slate in a big way, so I went to Wales and found a quarry. I lived in a caravan for a while, working in the quarry, putting things together and collecting bits and pieces. Eventually, myself and half a dozen students loaded about 20 tons of slate on to a truck and brought it to my studio, and that was my stock. Later on I bought a stock of elm".  

In 1978 his resulting exhibit at the Tate Gallery titled 'Within', was made from thirty-two pieces of slate, steel and elmwood fixed together by bolting, glueing and welding. Phillip compared his approach to the carver's methods of making sculpture - revealing something that is already there, like discovering a possible construction from within the material. ‘Within’ was assembled at Phillip's Bedfordshire studio. He worked by selecting pieces from a pool of material in and around the studio and then altering and reshaping the pieces as he was working. His approach was improvisatory with he and his assistant trying out a number of possibilities for the placement and fixing of each element. He tried to make the active process as short as possible and the time in between, the time for thinking as long, at no point was it a preconceived process, but one that proceeded by trial and error.

Phillip said that in 1981 : "I began Shogun with a round steel ball, which I picked up - actually, I nicked it - from the roadside. It was lying about after being used for demolishing buildings. It weighed about 300 pounds, but with an assistant I managed to get it on to the back of the van. It was in the studio for years and then one day I used it in 'Shogun'. I bent the steel around it and started doing this and that. I more or less finished the sculpture, but I knew there was something wrong, though I didn't know what. Eventually it occurred to me that I had to get rid of the steel ball, and it suddenly clicked. It was a hard thing to do, because the ball was the inspiration that got me going and I ended up throwing out the found object". 

In 1984 personal tragedy struck when his 19 year old son, Antony, drowned while swimming in the Mediterranean. He had been born eight years after Phillip's marriage at the age of 23, in 1957, to Lilian Odelle. The news was brought to him as he worked with a group of students by the Thames and this, coupled with the fact that his Dunstable studio burned to the ground and he lost his workplace, all his materials and much finished or half-finished sculpture, must have had a profound effect on him. "Sometimes" he told friend, he had "a private religion" and he became less productive and his work became more figurative, as in 'It’s a Swell Day for Stormy Petrels' made after a visit to a New Zealand inland sea. He also made realistic elements in his 'Sun, Bird, Worm, House', a small bronze with a sun-like orb, a stylized bird, a wiggling brown worm and an upside-down house. 

At the age of 56 in 1990 Phillip became Professor Emeritus of the Royal College and was made  President of the Royal Academy of Art for what would be a 5 year tenure and presumably declined the knighthood which traditionally accompanied the position. He took over at a time when the Academy was facing financial trouble and later said it distracted him from his work : “There was work pressure, health pressure and academy pressure. It did affect my productivity, and for a time I was only producing about one new work a year. But I always felt as an artist it was too easy to stay in your ivory tower, and I fought against that, not least by teaching, but also by taking on public roles”.

Phillip provided some insight into his thinking when he recalled that in the summer of 1991 : "I learned how to make poodles out of balloons - I saw a guy doing it at a fair in France. He could do a poodle in about 15 seconds flat; it took me about three minutes. Translating that on to a gigantic scale is an absurd thing to do, yet it has a resonance in its absurdity. I don't know whether it's the object itself that has the magic, or the idea of an ephemeral thing turned into a vast enterprise, but I liked it".

In 1992 William Feaver, art critic in 'The Observer' wrote that Phillip : 'is the one sculptor of his generation prepared to jettison what he has proved himself good at in order to explore what cannot be programmed'. Phillip validated this the following year when he turned unexpectedly to Japan and ceramics and two years later made the powerful unglazed, vessel-themed works. Phillip said : "If something is new in my work and developing I know it instinctively, if it doesn’t obey the rules I usually follow. If it breaks fresh ground in some way, it’s exciting. I mean, I call sculpture the art of the invisible – because it’s below the surface, you can’t see what’s going on. The sculptor is the one who has to understand the inside".

Phillip's 'Darwin' was a painted steel work completed in 2010 and commissioned by the University of Cambridge on the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth in 1809. It comprised of an 8-foot square in magenta which represented a window with an open shutter, reminiscent of his 'Window Piece' from 1961. The work contained themes and shapes that had recurred in his body of work over the previous 50 years. The circle, he explained, represented the moment of conception of an idea, while the triangle was “the dynamics of it, Darwin himself, in this case” and “The window is the way in which things then move out into the world”.

In 2013 Phillip was interviewed at his 'Une exposition du Consortium / Centre d’art contemporain à Dijon Commissariat (link) and a year later, at the age of 80, he said that he still thought "about sculpture all the time” and was in a “constant state of keeping an eye open for things that might be a trigger” and at that time a broken children’s toy found on the pavement featured in another new piece he was working on. 

In 2014, in his studio he was filmed assembling, with the help of his assistants, his unit, 'Recoil', which was due to be exhibited at the Tate Gallery. (link)

He said :
  "I'm really pleased with it. It's got a real dynamism, that's why I call it 'Recoil'. It has things going one way and things going the other way - push and pull - the kind of release from gravity, as it were. I have to cope with gravity and play with it and go with it and go against it and so on. So it's all about that".

Phillip said that although in the past he was : “scared of the blank page, I’ve learned that something will always turn up. The idea that you "go for a walk", as Klee said a long time ago, is a good one. And it doesn’t matter if you sometimes find your road blocked, or you go down a blind alley. The detours are all part of the journey”.

"If something is new in my work and developing I know it instinctively, if it doesn’t obey the rules I usually follow. If it breaks fresh ground in some way, it’s exciting. I mean, I call sculpture the art of the invisible – because it’s below the surface, you can’t see what’s going on. The sculptor is the one who has to understand the inside".

Phillip's legacy.

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