Hybrid online

28th August 2016

In 1966 the British artists Gerald Laing (1936-2011) and Peter Phillips (b. 1939) made the sculpture Hybrid, which is illustrated above from the immaculate online catalogue raisonné for Gerald Laing’s work. Working in New York, the artists used a polling kit (shown in a Life feature below) to ask 137 artists, critics, curators and others what the form, materials, colours and the like should be for an ideal work of art. The forms the respondents filled in were fed into an IBM computer at Bell Labs which then determined the parameters of the object. As John J. Curley writes in his essay ‘Hybrid sculpture of the 1960s’,

Hybrid is a transnational sculpture that can be reduced to transmittable sculpture that can be reduced to transmittable information. And, furthering the implication of the title, the information was a tabulation of averaged Anglo-American artistic tastes.

Life Hybrid

I came across the fascinating Hybrid tale thanks to an exceptional publishing project that is itself something of a hybrid. Curley’s essay is one element of Issue 3 of the open access online journal British Art Studies (BAS) from the Paul Mellon Centre and the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA). And I want now simply to pen a couple of paragraphs expressing my admiration and enthusiasm for BAS.

BAS aims to provide

an innovative space for new research and scholarship of the highest quality on all aspects of British art, architecture and visual culture in their most diverse and international contexts… [and] a forum for the growing debate about digital scholarship, publication and copyright. We have developed a purpose-built website and carefully considered elements such as identification, preservation and licensing.

Moreover, BAS is beautifully designed and a true pleasure to navigate and read online. The recently published Issue 3 is the first ‘special issue’ and is devoted to ‘British sculpture abroad, 1945-2000’. Edited by the much-missed former Director of Tate Britain Penelope Curtis and Martina Droth, YCBA’s Deputy Director of Research and Curator of Sculpture, the collection is composed of academically rigorous but at the same time accessible essays exploring the ways in which sculpture understood or constructed as ‘British’ was received and responded to in Europe, North America and around the world in the post-war years. As the editors write,

We asked our contributors to look critically at all three terms, but to pay special attention to them in combination. What happens to ‘British Sculpture’ when it is shown abroad? Does it acquire new meaning? Does it reverberate locally, or back at home? How do we understand the distinctions between the meaning of [Henry] Moore in 1950s Yugoslavia and in 1970s America? How does the Englishness intrinsic to the language of conceptualism affect its reception relative to place? We sought to find commentators who themselves reflect a variety of national contexts and positions relative to the subject.

In addition to the Introduction, this issue of BAS features five major essays, broadly aligned with the post-war decades, by Henry Meyric Hughes, Jon Wood, Elena Crippa, Greg Hilty and Courtney J. Martin. And then there are 21 shorter and more focussed case studies, also written by notable scholars and by participants in the stories they relate, plus two artist projects, from Gerard Byrne and Simon Starling.

Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth are central figures in the field being explored here, as is the postwar taste maker Herbert Read, but the stories run through to the ways in which the YBAs were promoted abroad, to the important 1989-90 Hayward Gallery show The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain, and to the increasingly globalised sense of the art world and its wider contexts that have become dominant since the 1990s. For anyone who is in any way intrigued about the histories of the visual arts in Britain and the world over the past seven decades, this is an essential collection that will engage and inform and provoke and surprise.

Gerald Laing’s catalogue raissoné is published in October and to mark this the Fine Art Society is mounting a retrospective that will run 19 September to 13 October at 148 New Bond Street, London, W1S 2JT.

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