Geoffrey Clarke Sculptor. Catalogue Raisonné.

Geoffrey Clarke Sculptor. Catalogue Raisonné by Judith LeGrove, Pangolin & Lund Humphries, London 2017.
ISBN 9781 848222540. £85
Published British Art Journal, volume xviii no 3 pp 107/8

Geoffrey Clarke had a very long career as a sculptor. This book lists 900 works spread over 63 years, from 1949-2012. Both the work and this catalogue represent substantial achievements and, like all books of this type, the contribution made to a proper understanding of the artist’s career is formidable.

The work of an artist as active and creatively adventurous as Clarke inevitably passes through phases. Different materials are preferred: the iron of many of the earlier pieces being largely replaced by the end of the 1950s by the use of aluminium; the individual commissions punctuating the career being scattered amongst an occasional run of a series of related pieces. The phasing of a career such as this may or may not be aligned with public taste or interest. In Clarke’s case, as with so many other artists, the glare of favourable critical attention lit up part of his career, but then, as it usually does, abandoned him and moved on to other artists. Two major public encouragements to his work were his appearance with a group of promising young sculptors at the Venice Biennale in 1952 and his high profile commission to work on different aspects of the new Coventry Cathedral in the late 1950s. For much of the rest of the time he was in the critical doldrums, his status fixed in the art historical mind, however much time passed, simply as an important sculptor of the early 1950s. The fact that he went on working steadily for another 50 years or so was largely lost on the art world. Judith LeGrove is single-handedly looking to remedy that.

There is a tricky analysis to be performed here regarding the appropriate status of Geoffrey Clarke’s work, as with so many artists. Has the art world made a mistake in crudely characterising Clarke simply as one of the “Geometry of Fear” sculptors, (the term used by Herbert Read to describe the 1952 Biennale group), expressing in his hand-made iron works of the early 1950s the tensions and fears of the post-War world of Western Europe? Is it right that his reputation should forever be grouped with the work of the other sculptors who were shown at Venice in 1952: Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi, Reg Butler, William Turnbull, Kenneth Armitage and Lynn Chadwick, not to mention other near contemporary sculptors, such as Hubert Dalwood and Austin Wright, whose work sometimes overlapped with the others? Was he no more than part of the wave of sculptors in this country reacting against, or moving on from, the preceding dominance of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, their moment in the sun then to be eclipsed in turn by the rise of Anthony Caro and others? Some contemporary support for this interpretation comes from the pattern of acquisition of works by the artist by the Tate Gallery. It owns five works of sculpture, dating from 1951, 1952, 1953 (x2) and 1964. With its tiny post-War purchasing budget, any decisions to buy works by contemporary artists represented significant commitments. In Clarke’s case none of the works from the 50s were purchased at the time; the first acquisition of one of those was in 1976. By contrast, the Tate owns 14 sculptures by Reg Butler, of which five relate to his winning entry for the Unknown Political Prisoner exhibition. Of the others, it purchased works dated 1949, 1950, 1953/4 and 1955 as early as 1950, 1959, 1954 and 1959 respectively. It owns 12 works by Bernard Meadows, the first of which (a piece from 1951) entered the collection in 1954 and the first purchased piece (from 1958) was acquired in 1960.

Well, it is not impossible that, with its endless need to simplify and reduce to essentials the careers of those making up the 20th century British art world, the critics have got it about right. One way or another some of the other sculptors in the group went on to achieve a longer period of critical attention or a more obvious degree of measurable artistic “success”. The prestigious Gregory Fellowships in Sculpture at Leeds, for example, were awarded to Butler (1950/2), Armitage (1953/5), Dalwood (1955/9) and Wright (1961/4), but never to Clarke. After the 1952 Biennale, sculpture by Chadwick and Armitage was shown again, with greater prominence, in 1956 and 1958 respectively. Clarke’s prints were included in 1960 but not his sculpture. Paolozzi’ s large personality and varied output ensured that he remained in the public eye for a long time. Butler famously won the ICA sponsored Unknown Political Prisoner competition in 1953. Clarke’s work in the 1950s was strong, imaginative and varied; occasionally spiritually powerful, always revealing the energy of a young man brimming with ideas. In order to catch the public mood, an artist has to say something which chimes with the Zeitgeist. In the face of sustained Communist aggression, the post-War world certainly had something to be anxious about and the work of these sculptors, and of the leading painters of the time, such as Bacon and Sutherland, was noted because it was regarded as reflecting that. Thereafter the work continued to pour out but there was no pressing need for the art establishment to take any notice of it.

That is the essence of the case for the defence of the art world, sifting and probing artists’ work in order to reduce it to something they could coherently write about and contextualise. The case for Clarke’s wider importance would follow a different course. To his supporters, the mere fact that he had some public attention in the 1950s was neither here nor there. A proper analysis of his career, now possible after his death and with the publication of this and other books by the author, suggests that his long period of production was full of peaks, whether or not the commentators chose to notice. It may also have had a few troughs in it, but modern champions of individual artists tend not to think like that.

The attraction of reviewing a catalogue raisonné, especially one like this with profuse illustrations but almost no supporting text, is that one can up to a point make one’s own mind up about the overall interest of the life’s work. There can be no doubt that Geoffrey Clarke was a skilled and imaginative artist throughout his long career. There is no sense that he lived on his reputation and simply churned out the sort of work which the market might have wanted had it carried on hankering after 1950s angst. He experimented; he toyed with sculptural ideas which interested him by producing serial variants; he branched off into totally new ideas and forms. His work was sometimes spiritually engaged; where necessary, it was practically aware of the need to accommodate settings (in his commissions for buildings, for example); it could be whimsical or even humorous at times. One is sometimes reminded of the work of the American sculptor, David Smith. At no point did he stop developing. Even in later life he produced an outstanding range of carefully constructed and elaborate boxes, with titles like “Artist Series”, and the “Artist’s studio”, which seem fresh and original, complex and fascinating.

I finished the book with a profound respect for Clarke’s life’s work. He was surely what a “proper” artist should seek to be – developing his ideas thoughtfully and inventively, always seeking something fresh. Although the basic commentators on the 20th century art world may not so far have appreciated the fact – they probably had no chance to without this sort of book on their desks – they should now be able to place Clarke much more fairly in context as another previously underestimated artist now peeping out from the long shadows cast by better known contemporaries.

The book is probably realistically as good as one could hope for, with 900 works to cover in a single volume. One would, of course, have preferred more critical apparatus. The entries for each work are the bare minimum for a book of this type. Certain types of scholar need provenance information, which is not provided here. That is not to complain; it is a function of size, time and cost – the reality of book production when trying to reduce such a large topic as this to manageable single-volume proportions. There can be no doubt that, with this book and others, Judith LeGrove is resuscitating this artist’s reputation and she deserves our thanks for doing so.