Monumental ScaleHENRY MOORE: THE SIXTIES
his innovations with space and mass and form – made properly engaging with his latest creations a near-impossible act
Henry Moore made the cover of Time magazine in 1959. The decade that followed was, if not definitive for the British sculptor’s legacy, perhaps the most telling. Already a household name for the public sculptures that he produced during the inter and postwar years, Moore was taking commissions from around the world throughout the 1960s, en route to becoming one of the UK’s wealthiest working men. His status as an international icon was secure. Perhaps too secure, some muttered, for a former leader of Modernism’s avant-garde. Meanwhile, his sculptures were growing in scale.
“Size was one of the most important changes to his work through these years,” says curator Hannah Higham at her latest exhibition, Henry Moore: The Sixties. She’s standing beside a three-metre model of ‘Large Spindle Piece’ (1968) in a warehouse on Moore’s 60-acre estate in Hertfordshire, which now serves as a foundation for the artist. The piece, she explains, is more abstract than those semi-figurative sculptures that Moore is best known for – ‘Reclining Figure’, for instance, or ‘Mother and Child’. This is characteristic of Moore’s later work. The sculpture is also enormous by the standards of the practice at that time.
“Material innovations were changing the way he worked,” Higham says, noting that ‘Large Spindle Piece’ was one of the first works Moore made using polystyrene to develop the mould – a material that’s easy to transport and work on at scale. The portable studios Moore designed in the 1960s also used plastic for their lightweight transparent panelling. “These let him construct his larger pieces on-site,” Higham says, “and see how they interacted with the landscape around them.”
Beside making bigger sculptures in the 1960s, Moore was also making more of them. His wealth and fame drew hundreds of commissions that he satisfied by casting bronze works out of foundries in the UK and Germany. He was aided by a team of assistants, with at least two on his estate at all times. “Antony Gormley joined him for a few weeks,” Higham says; every young prodigy in the field was eager to work with Moore.
But for all his popularity, detractors were not hard to come by. It takes no great stretch to imagine that Moore, once the wild child of the sculpting world, had become too comfortable with his newfound status as a figure of the canon. His bronzes seemed old-fashioned to the period’s young conceptual artists and Pop Art pioneers. And in 1967, leaked plans for a new wing of the Tate dedicated solely to Moore caused uproar in the UK arts community. The news was linked to a vast donation of artworks from Moore to the Tate, which fuelled speculation that he was conspiring with the institution and contributed to the general sense that he was taking up space that other, younger artists needed more.
It’s to the credit of The Sixties that it considers attitudes towards Moore at the time. Beside featuring his sculptures, drawings, prints and hours of documentary footage, newspaper clippings posted on the gallery walls show how Moore’s contemporaries wrestled with his fame. The sculptor Anthony Caro, once an apprentice of Moore’s, writes in The Observer in 1960 that his former instructor had ‘grown out of touch with postwar developments in art’. Brian O’Doherty’s 1964 article in The New York Times suggests the old radical’s style had become anachronistic: ‘a man using the strategies learned in a war that just isn’t on any more.’
But both authors acknowledge that Moore stands between two reputations: one of the true modern greats and an overrated contemporary artist. Both also admit that the weight of his early achievements – his innovations with space and mass and form – made properly engaging with his latest creations a near-impossible act. ‘When you try to think clearly about Henry Moore,’ Caro writes, ‘you are deafened by the applause.’
Now, 35 years after his death, a level assessment seems possible. Made at monumental scale and in staggering quantities, Moore’s works from the 1960s are engaging if not groundbreaking. ‘Locking Piece’ from 1964 is a touchstone for his more abstract work, simulating tension through two interacting forms; 1962’s ravine-like ‘Knife Edge Two Piece’ demonstrates his fascination with the contours of the landscape and his tendency toward sharp, bone-like juxtapositions.
But perhaps more significant than his artistic output was what the decade revealed about the strength of his legacy. Caro and O’Doherty both conclude that, regardless of their arguments, all of Moore’s work deserved serious consideration. This is still so. Sixty years on, though not quite deafening any more, the applause continues.
Henry Moore: The Sixties, is showing at the Henry Moore Studios & Gardens in Hertfordshire through 30 October 2022.
All images reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation.