David Smith at the YSP


David Smith: Sculpture 1932-1965 is YSP’s headline exhibition for 2019 and their principal contribution to the inaugural Yorkshire Sculpture International. As usual with their main exhibitions there are a large number of works in the Underground Gallery, with more outdoors, outside the gallery and up on the large lawn.

Smith challenged sculptural conventions and was the first artist in the USA to work with welded metal, becoming known for his mastery of steel. Although hugely influential to the development of abstract sculpture internationally, few of his works are held in non-US public collections, so he is rarely shown in Europe.


Smith was an innovator – he was the first artist in the USA to work with welded metal, rather than carving or casting. He wasn’t the first to do this, he was influenced by Picasso and the Spanish sculptor Julio González, but he took the idea and developed it. He was also influenced by Russian Constructivism, Piet Mondrian, and Alberto Giacometti’s biomorphic forms. He influenced others too, including the British sculptor, Anthony Caro.


His works are industrial, influenced by his experience of working as a welder and riveter in a car factory  during a summer job and during WWII he worked as a welder for the American Locomotive CompanySchenectady, NY assembling locomotives and tanks.


At first, Smith used an oxyacetylene torch, but during World War II he mastered electric arc welding at the American Locomotive Factory.   He ran his studio in Bolton Landing, upstate New York, like a factory, stocking with large amounts of raw material and working to a routine, just like a factory worker (albeit one who worked long hours!).


As well as welding, he used other industrial processes, bending and forging metal.


And creating finishes using angle grinders, to score the surface of the metal, and paint.


In 1962, he was invited by the Italian government to relocate and create sculptures for the Festival of Two Worlds. He was given a warehouse and a team of artisans who helped him in producing 27 pieces in 30 days. After his time there was over, still buzzing with ideas, he had tons of steel shipped back to Bolton Landing to keep working. 


There’s an interesting article about his life, working methods and creative process by his daughter, here.

Idris Khan at the Whitworth

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A new exhibition of works by the Birmingham born artist Idris Khan has just opened in the at the Whitworth in Manchester. This is the second exhibition of works by the artist at the Gallery. In 2012 they showed The Devil’s Wall (2011) three large, black, cylindrical sculptures, along with a series of works on paper.

For the current exhibition, a new wall drawing has ben created which can be seen on the right in the picture at the top of this post. It was difficult to take a photograph which fully captures the impact of this work which is made up of lines of text in English and Arabic printed onto the wall using rubber stamps – here’s a close up


Like some of his other works, to me, the wall painting resembled a stellar explosion.

Beginning or End (2013), a meditation on Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and the cyclical nature of life and existence, was created using the same approach as the wall painting. However it’s painted on a dark background


Eternal Movement (2011) was commissioned for Sadler’s Wells Dance House was inspired by Muslim religious texts.


It’s meant to represent part of the Hajj pilgrimage where devotees walk back and forth seven times between two mountains near Mecca.

Death of Painting (2014), a series of five oil works on paper, are displayed on the wall directly opposite the wall painting.


They were inspired by Kasimir Malevich’s iconic black square painting. Khan’s composed  black squares were created by writing a text with thick oil sticks over and over again on paper. Close up it could be seen that the squares were not “pure” black – traces of the writing could be seen.

The Rite of Spring (2013), created from layering photographs of Stravinsky’s score on top of each other.


From a distance the work just looked like a textured black and white pattern. Close up, however, the notes and staff of the musical notation could be made out.

I’ve enjoyed all the exhibitions shown in this new gallery space, created when the Whitworth was renovated and enlarged. The gallery is bright and airy and suits the modern works that they’ve displayed here.

William Scott Textiles at the Whitworth


Having just explored the Whitworth’s excellent exhibition of textile works, it was interesting to see William Scott’s textiles Skara Brae and Skaill included in the  Abstract Landscape exhibition showing in one of the galleries on the first floor.

‘Skaill’, a tapestry made by Edinburgh Weavers from a design by Scott that was painted to scale with gouache and wax resist. The resulting work is a subtle mass of broken textured forms that hint at rock and edgelands. The work corresponds with its neighbour, ‘Skara Brae’, a length of screenprinted cotton also designed by Scott. This piece, printed in the colours of rock and lichen, speaks clearly of the sunken, stone-lined features of the ancient dwellings of Skara Brae in Orkney. It is an abstraction only until the viewer recognises the source of inspiration. (Spectator)

“Beyond Limits” at Chatsworth

For a number of years now, Sotheby’s have held an exhibition of sculptures in the gardens at Chatsworth. It’s advertised as a “selling exhibition”, but I doubt if the vast majority of visitors would have to means to contemplate purchasing any of the works on display. I guess Sotherby’s use it as an opportunity to show of their wares to prospective clients who will, no doubt, be invited to be lavishly entertained in the sumptuous surroundings of this grand stately home of the Duke of Devonshire at private showings. But the exhibition also a great opportunity for more ordinary mortals to see some outstanding Modern Art.

There were works by some artists I knew, such as Anthony Gormley and Lynn Chadwick, but there were plenty of discoveries too

In my view, large works of sculpture such as those included in the exhibition, are enhanced by being located outdoors in parkland – and the Gardens at Chatsworth with the Palladian mansion certainly provided a  magnificent backdrop.  Being sited outdoors allows different perspectives to be obtained – from a distance and from close up and from different angles. For me, a large complex work Hoop-La by Alice Aycock wouldn’t have worked indoors. But in the park we could get an overview from a distance, get close in to appreciate the complexity of the work and the artist’s craftsmanship, view it from different angles which revealed different perspectives, shapes and effects created by both the work and the changing view of the garden, lake and house. This was also true for many of the other works on display. We felt that the curators had done a very good job at selecting appropriate locations for the sculptures.

Visiting the exhibition was the main motivation for our short break in the Peak District. We were lucky as it turned out to be a fine day – it would have been less pleasant walking round the gardens to view the sculpture if had been raining. The exhibition has become an annual event and I think that we’ll be making the effort to return next Autumn.

Henry Moore’s Reclining Figures at the Hepworth

Walking up the top of the stairs at the Hepworth on New Years day we were greeted by a display of three large reclining figure sculptures by Henry Moore. Hailing from nearby Castleford, he was a local lad. Two of the sculptures, one carved from elm wood and a second cast in bronze (from 1962), are from the Hepworth's own collection.


The third, a large four piece polished bronze work is on loan. This is one of his later works from the 1970's and is the sight that greets visitors reaching the top of the stairs and entering the exhibition space.

It's a very striking work; partly because of its size but also because of its highly polished finish. Although it wasn't my favourite. That was the earliest of thre three works – the one carved from elmwood and created in 1932.
To me it's a very attractive piece. A warm colour and texture with a very pleasing effect created by the grain of the wood. And it was very difficult to avoid succumbing to temptation and running my hands across the smooth surface – strictly fobidden of course. But visitors were allowed to touch the Hepworth's bronze (nott he shiney one), providing special gloves which the Gallery had available and would supply to visitors, were worn.
There were also three smaller figures – maquettes- on display in a glass cabinet.
It was only a small display, but coming from different periods of Moore's life, showed how hos approach to the reclining figure, a major theme throughout his career, changed and developed.



Graham Sutherland at Abbot Hall

Estuary (1946) Gouache and crayon on paper Bequeathed to Abbot Hall Art Gallery in 1992 © Estate of Graham Sutherland

The latest exhibition at the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal is devoted to the work of the British artist, Graham Sutherland (1903-1980). His work included  abstract landscapes, still life, figure pieces, religious  subjects and portraits – including a notorious portrait of Winston Churchill which the former Prime Minister’s hated so much that it was destroyed by his widow.

As title of the exhibition, Exultant Strangeness: Graham Sutherland Landscapes, indicates, it’s devoted to one aspect of his work. But it’s a comprehensive survey, covering the whole of his career. I’m reasonably familiar with his work, especially after seeing a good selection of his paintings on display in St David’s, Pembrokeshire, a few years ago.   Although I like abstract works, there is something about his style, with the strange, surrealistic shapes and the muddy colours, that just doesn’t appeal to me. But I went to the Abbot Hall with an open mind.

During the early part of his career, in the early 1920s, Sutherland specialised in producing etchings and the first room was devoted to this aspect of his work. According to the information panel in this room, he turned to painting after the bottom dropped out of the etchings market in the USA at the tie of the Wall Street Crash. The prints displayed were very different ot his later works. They were realistic, figurative pictures, influenced by the likes of Samuel Palmer. And they show that Sutherland was a talented draftsman and skilled print-maker.

I’m not sure that the following was in the exhibition, but it gives a good impression of this aspect of his work.

Graham Sutherland OM, ‘Pecken Wood’ 1925

Pecken Wood 1925 Picture source Tate website

Turning to painting his work became abstract and he was clearly influenced by the surrealists – he participated in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936.

This is an example of his work from this period

Graham Sutherland, Narrow Road between Hedges, 1938-9

Narrow Road between Hedges (1938-9) Oil on canvas
© Estate of Graham Sutherland

Looking at it the last thing that came to mind was a road between hedges. It looked more like a couple of slugs, or prawns on a plate. And I found the colours horrible and muddy.

There were some paintings I liked, though. This one especially.

Graham Sutherland, Limestone Quarry, Working at the Cliff Face, 1943

Graham Sutherland Limestone Quarry, Working at the Cliff Face (1943)
Gouache and wax crayon on cardboard © Estate of Graham Sutherland

It was created during his time as a war artist. The overall style was very reminiscent of the works of John Piper from this period, particularly the Welsh landscapes I’d seen in Cardiff and Manchester. And the figures were very similar to those drawn by Henry Moore of miners and people sheltering in the London Underground during the war.

I also quite liked his painting of some hills in Pembrokeshire – ‘Western Hills’ (1938-41) – although I wasn’t sure about the shape of the hills – and this small painting of a small boulder

Graham Sutherland, Small Boulder, 1940

Small Boulder (1940) Watercolour The Radev Collection © Estate of Graham Sutherland

I found that I generally preferred his watercolours and drawings to his oil paintings.

The last room concentrated on later works. I wasn’t taken with them. They were particularly muddy and I wasn’t particularly impressed by his composition and draftsmanship.

Leaving the exhibition, my overall view of Sutherland’s work hadn’t changed. However it was worthwhile visiting as I learned more about him and his work. I found his etchings interesting and the picture of the limestone quarry showed a different aspect of his work which I’ll probably investigate further.

Kurt Schwitters – “Throw them up and let them sing”


Kurt Schwitters, London 1944 (Source: Wikipedia)

Neglected for many years, the name of Kurt Schwitters has started cropping up all over the place. Tate Britain are due to hold a major retrospective between 30 January and 12 May next year of the work he produced during his  limited time in Britain as a refugee from Nazi Germany. But his work has been quietly celebrated for many years at the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal, close to where he made his final home and created his last masterpiece.

Originally on the fringes of the German Dadaist movement, Scwitters invented the concept of Merz

‘the combination, for artistic purposes of all conceivable materials’.

He used any materials that came to hand – paper, cardboard, scraps of print, bits of wood, string, cotton wool, bus tickets and anything else that came to hand.  Schwitters considered them to be equal with paint. He incorporated these found objects and everyday materials in abstract collage, installation, poetry and performance.

The term Merz  originated from a fragment of found text from the sentence Commerz Und Privatbank Schwitters used in his picture Das Merzbild.

Learning that he was wanted by the Gestapo for an “interview” in 1937 he fled to Norway but when the Nazis invaded in 1940 he had to flee again, this time to Britain. Initiallly he was interred as an “enemy alien” in Scotland and then the Isle of Man. He was released in November 1941, moving first to London and then, in 1945, settling in the Lake district.

Without any income he often had to sleep rough and tried to earn money by selling portraits and landscapes. However, when he received a grant from the New York  Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) he started to create his last great work of art, the Mertzbarn near the tiny hamlet of Elterwater in the picturesque Langdale valley. However, his health was failing and he died in Kendal, on 8 January 1948, a few days after he’d been granted British citizenship. The wall of his Mertzbarn was removed and is now displayed in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Although he was unappreciated for many years the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal had the foresight to obtain a number of his works for their collection. They include some characteristic collages and a sculpture created using found objects. But the collection also includes some figurative works, portraits and landscapes, that he sold to make some money when he had no other source of income.  We were able to see all of them during our recent visit to the gallery in a special exhibition shown in conjunction with a film – Throw them up and let them sing by Helen Petts, made in response to Schwitters’ life, which was commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad – the arts festival of the 2012 Olympic Games.

My favourite of the works from the collection was a small oil painting including found objects -“Flight”(1945). It’s only 43cm x 35.5cm but was quite striking .

Kurt Schwitters - Flight

The title of Petts’ film is a quote from Schwitters describing what he did with his ‘merz material’ when creating his collages.

The film

“explores landscape, rhythm, texture, sound, improvisation and walking, using footage shot in locations that were a major inspiration to Schwitters: Norway, where he holidayed and first escaped to as a refugee from Nazi Germany and Loughrigg Fell, Rydal Terrace and the Merzbarn in the Lake District, where he spent the last few years of his life.”

Helen Petts kept a blog while she made her film which can be viewed here.

Throw them up and let them sing can’t be viewed on line, but Helen has posted a video showing the Merzbarn wall.

Finally receiving greater recognition, as well as the Tate retrospective a campaign has been launched to create a memorial in Elterwater close to the Merzbarn.

A large selection of his art works can be viewed here.

Turner, Monet, Twombly at Tate Liverpool

I’ve been looking forward to this exhibition since it was announced. We went along to see it on Monday and I wasn’t disappointed.

The exhibition, that had previously been shown in Stockholm and Stuttgart, explores the similarities in the late work created by three artists born in three different Centuries – J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851), Claude Monet (1840–1926) and Cy Twombly (1928–2011). The curator has grouped the pictures in themes, attempting to show the connections and similarities between the later works of the three artists.

According to the exhibition guide

In seven themes Turner, Monet and Twombly are brought together, not in competition, but as a means to explore the ways in which artists share interests, values and preoccupations.

Through the juxtaposition of their work, the exhibition also aims to underline the modernity and undiminished relevance of Turner’s and Monet’s work while simultaneously revealing the strong classical traits in Twombly’s paintings and sculptures.

It’s quite pricey to get in – the entrance fee is £12 – but this is why we decided to join the Tate. It means we can go and revisit before it finishes at the end of October.

As usual, photography was not permitted, but there’s an interesting video produced by the Tate about the exhibition on Youtube.

There’s also a video on the Liverpool Daily Post website where Tate’s Assistant Curator, Eleanor Clayton, discusses the exhibition.

It was Monet and the other Impressionists that first sparked my interest in Art and although I initially was attracted to his earlier figurative paintings, I soon began to appreciate the works he produced later in his life from his house and garden in Giverney, especially the water lilies (Nymphéas) displayed at the Musée Marmottan and Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

The Tate exhibition includes five of Monet’s water lily paintings, displayed in the final room of the exhibition, including one owned by the National Gallery and two which have never been seen in Britain before.

In the National Gallery’s picture the forms of the water lilies are hard to make out. Like the other vegetation and reflections in the water their shapes are hard to distinguish and the picture is a mass of colours that blend into each other.

I guess I’ve been spoiled by having visited the Musée de l’Orangerie as their display of Nymphéas in their special gallery are nothing short of breath taking. But the water lily paintings on display in Liverpool are certainly worth seeing as are his other works in the exhibition, including paintings of Rouen Cathedral, the Thames, the Houses of Parliament and other scenes from his garden and the Normandy coast and countryside.

Turner is another favourite artist who was, to my mind, way ahead of his time. Although he painted traditional Romantic landscapes and mythological works, it is clear that his real interest was in the effects created by light and stormy seas. To me many of his works are pure abstract with swirling patterns of colour. In many cases, even where people, buildings and other features are present they are indistinct and hard to make out.

Before visiting the exhibition I didn’t know much about Cy Twombly other than what I read in the obituaries when he died last year, and I don’t recall seeing any of his works previously. As much as I enjoyed viewing the Turners and Monets, one of the highlights of our visit was discovering Twombly’s work. It’s always good to see old favourites (and works not previously seen created by favourite artists), but it’s even better to discover, and enjoy, work by an artist I’ve not really encountered before.

Twombly was a pure abstract artist: in the pictures on display there was no attempt to portray “real” objects. He used bright colours in many of the works on display with swirling patterns which reminded me of Turner’s approach. His Quattro Stagioni: (1993-5) is a series of four paintings representing the seasons. His interest in change and the passage of time is reminiscent of Monet who painted several series showing changes that occur during the day or over days, weeks and months – his paintings of Rouen Cathedral and his haystacks, for example.

I think the exhibition is successful in it’s aim to show the connections. But there are many differences too. All three artists were extremely accomplished but  both Turner and Monet’s work was, in many ways, revolutionary and I’m not sure whether the same can be said of Twombly. Time will tell.

Paule Vézelay

The new Wigan public library in the town centre opened a few weeks ago. One new development is that there are a number of prints from the Council’s art collection on display. There are works by a number of well known artists including David Hockney and Victor Passmore. But one I spotted and that I quite liked was by an artist I’ve never heard of – Paule Vézelay. There was an information panel next to the painting with some details on the artist, including a brief biography.


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Paule Vézelay – A Group of Five Contrasted Forms (1970)

With a name like this my first impression that the artist was male and was probably French. In fact she was a British woman born in Bristol in 1892 as Marjorie Watson-Williams.

Although I’d never heard of her before seeing the print in the library, she was well known enough to have her self portrait displayed in the national Portrait Gallery in London.

Paule Vézelay, by Paule Vézelay (Marjorie Watson-Williams), circa 1927-1929 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

She studied art in London and originally was a figurative painter, but moved to France in 1926 where she was influenced by abstract art and became one of the first British artists to adopt the style, exhibiting with Hans Arp and Wassily Kandinsky in Milan in 1938. I guess she changed her name in an attempt to gain credibility, which wouldn’t have been easy for a woman who was also English when the art world was dominated by men from the continent.

She returned to England at the outbreak of the Second World War. The Tate held a retrospective exhibition of her work in 1983 and own a number of her paintings, reliefs and sculptures covering the range of her work, including some figurative paintings from early in her career

Paule Vézelay The Bathers 1923

The Bathers (1923)

The print on display in the library is a later work – one of a series of silkscreen prints produced in collaboration with Tanagra and Curwen between 1970 and 1976 (I can’t find anything out about them despite Googling them, but I guess they must be established silkscreen printers). Although it is obviously an abstract design, some of the objects depicted could be taken for  human figures and trees, depending on how you look at them.  Some of her earlier abstract works are more complex, with more diffuse shapes and bright colours. She also continued to incorporate figurative elements within her work after she adopted the abstract style.

Five Nudes - Details

Five Nudes (1931)

However, quite a lot of her paintings, particularly after she left France, are composed of fairly simple shapes, carefully arranged and with a relatively limited palette.

Paule Vézelay Eight Forms and Three Circles 1959

Eight Forms and Three Circles  (1959)

As well as the Tate website, there’s a good selection of images of her work here.