A Collage of Steel Elements
BRIAN WALL has been making abstract sculpture in welded steel since 1956. One of the most inventive artists to use this medium, he explores within the airy but still self-contained field of each work the potentials of balance and imbalance, of movement and stillness, of touching and separating.
He makes the rods, blocks, and ribbons of steel trace the dynamics of direction and return, of over and under, of across and between, of divergence and convergence. Above all, he investigates the tension between implied completeness and fragmentary statement. Apparently not prone to theory or verbalization, he does talk of simplicity in a positive way; but perhaps absence of the unnecessary and therefore presence of only what is truly needed comes closer to an accurate description of his sculpture. After
all, his works are not really very simple. The more they are investigated, within their own abstract terms, the more complex they seem.
His sculptures are constructions for no purpose other than their own vital existence, satisfying the artist's sense of each work as it develops and then subsequently allowing shared experience with the viewer.
Until recently, Wall almost always painted his sculptures with an even, matte coat of paint, generally black. Sometimes he has used white; at least once yellow. But now, he is using colors that are not only strangely intense, but in some cases, like "Straw," contain interesting variations of hue and texture that are unlike his previous works. The paint is always subservient to the strong silhouette of the sculpture it colors, but it certainly adds a sensuous and even emotional element to the work.
Wall's sculpture has developed with steady - even perhaps slow - deliberation. I have the feeling that he relinquishes methods he has found serviceable only after long cogitation, and that the same applies to the introduction of any new characteristics. A kind of calm certainty presides over his art, probably because the simple conceptual basis of it has remained unchallenged, by himself at least, over the decades.
His approach comes out of European Constructivism and Neo-Plasticism. His earliest sculpture was clearly inspired by architecture, and by the strict horizontals and verticals of such artists as Georges Vantongerloo and Piet Mondrian.
Their extreme concentration on such singular elements, to the exclusion of the descriptive, referential, or symbolic - not to mention prohibition of curves or diagonals - acted on many later artists as a kind of clarifying stream, washing out irrelevant concerns and distractions, allowing painters and sculptors new freedoms to make painting or sculpture serve only its own inherent ends, to allow form, line, direction, energy to be in and of themselves.
In this way, the visual language of art might be used as its essential message or expression. In sculpture, this could mean that the materials out of which a piece was constructed might be the equivalents of a painter's brushmarks, areas of color, lines, and surfaces. But the traditional sculptural materials of cast bronze or carved stone, for instance, bore connotations of depiction that had become extremely hard to escape. Thus the attraction to materials such as fiberglass or welded steel.
Steel, by the 1950s, had long been an essential ingredient of 20th-century architecture, engineering, and industrial design. Constructivist artists like Naum Gabo had not hesitated to use steel or plastic. Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez had made sculpture, years before - though not abstract at all - using steel sheet and steel rods.
The American sculptor David Smith, fully aware of its Detroit associations, made steel his sculptural material, painting it as if it were a truck's bodywork to be protected forever against wear and weather. So when Wall started working in steel, there was a history to it already. And there were others who went for steel with parallel engagement, the one to subsequently achieve the widest reputation being Tony Caro.
In the 1960s, Caro and Wall received much critical attention, their work exhibited often. Their shared materials were obvious. Their differences were subject to analysis. It would have been absurd to see them as some kind of artistic twins solely because they both made abstract sculpture with a new kind of freedom and lightness, painted, moving over the ground as if plinths had never been invented.
Yet, unavoidably, it has to be said that their sculpture belonged to the same period, and a similar aesthetic - like, perhaps, Pieter De Hooch and Jan Vermeer. Nevertheless they were, though perfectly aware of each other's sculpture, working independently. Perhaps there were influences back and forth, but each certainly demonstrated that a certain syntax, a kind of collage of steel elements joined at tenuous junctures, did not belong exclusively to one artist. No one had a monopoly on I-beam sections, or
convexities of steel sheeting.
The spread of an artist's reputation can depend on factors other than the quality or timeliness of his art. A certain ambition, a convincing underpinning of theory that can be argued verbally can certainly help. And geography, even in this age of instant and universal communication, does have a bearing.
Caro has become an international figure of extraordinary repute, cataloged, written about, exhibited - and that even in spite of a distinct falling-off of the favor given to abstract sculpture in the last decade or so.
Wall's story is somewhat different. He moved to California from London in 1968, and still lives and works there. He has certainly been exhibited in the western United States, but the table sculptures shown on this page were part of his first solo exhibition in London since he left, apart from a few pieces in mixed shows.
Who knows if a certain element of chauvinism in his native land hasn't contributed to this neglect?
The show at the Francis Graham-Dixon Gallery, London, this summer attracted remarkably little critical attention, suggesting that Wall's work, though distinctly his own, may be too much like Caro's to be conveniently fitted into the accepted pattern of the history of British art in the last 30 years. That pattern should definitely adjust to let Wall back in.
His residence in the States may have given him opportunities Britain's smaller market and smaller appreciation of modern art would probably have denied him; but in a peculiar way his move to California has been a kind of disappearance for an artist who is without question British in sensibility. His work should be better known worldwide.