The economic recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s fuelled a marked change in British art.
It was, says Dr Jon Wood, research curator at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, a period when “traditions began and ended.”
In curating a new exhibition, entitled Making It: Sculpture in Britain 1977-1986, he has drawn together more than 50 works from a generation of artists who were building on the avant garde conceptual art of their 1950s and 60s predecessors but in a way that harked back to an even earlier time of experimental sculptures made from ‘found’ objects.
The clue to understanding the pieces in the show is in the title. As Dr Wood explains: “After a period in the Sixties and early Seventies when there was so much conceptual art being practiced – performance, photography etc – there was a real hunger for a younger generation to start making things again. They were carving, modelling, assembling objects, reconfiguring.
“In 1977 Britain was in deep recession and things were difficult so the artists were being creative with what was at hand; they looked in skips, recycled, upcycled, salvaged and used their resourcefulness. Most of the artists in the exhibition were born in the years following the Second World War when the idea of making sculpture expanded quite rapidly, with artists using ‘found’ materials – everything from coal and Sellotape to fabric. They did things like casting their bodies and used a lot of mixed media. It was entrepreneurial.”
A majority of the work in the exhibition, which opens at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park on April 1, has been taken from the Arts Council Collection and among those featured are a number of artists who went on to enjoy prominence in sculpture – including David Nash, Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, However, the aim of the show is to demonstrate the diversity of artists working at the time. Dr Wood, who chose to feature 49 artists, says the exhibition has the ‘wow’ factor.
He explained: “We want to give the public a fantastic exhibition so my first judgement call was very subjective. I asked myself ‘does it wow you in 2015’ while it was made 30 or 40 years ago. That was a really important concern. But finding work in different materials and using different approaches was important too. We have tried to mix it up to show the diversity of the period, a period when a lot of people were trying things out and testing ideas.”
In fact, the use of ‘found’ objects in art dates back to the early 20th century and the work of artists such as Picasso, Miro (whose sculptures were seen at the YSP in 2012) and the Surrealists. But, as Dr Wood points out, these earlier artists were seeking out items that were quirky and symbolic to represent dreams and reality, whereas sculptors in the 1970s and 80s were using ready-made objects in a literal way, as materials.
Art often reflects economic and social conditions and Making It is a snapshot of what could be termed the austerity art of the late 1970s and early 80s, a period that was followed by rapid economic growth. The more affluent late 80s and 1990s provided quite different conditions for artists and proved to be a boom time for the group now known as the Young British Artists.
“In the 1990s there was more money for buying art and they benefited from this,” says Dr Wood.
“They were working in a different economic situation and it gave them permission to explore new terrain. They were able to make confrontational work. Art history is not a seamless process but there is one thing you can say - the next generation that came after, Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists, were standing on the shoulders of these artists from the early 1980s.”
Making It is a touring exhibition and will close at the YSP on June 21.