Marble takes flight

`THE Fiery Kind'' by British sculptor Stephen Cox is so named because of the warm, rich character of the red Verona marble in which it is carved. But it is a title that also inevitably colors the viewer's response to this strangely delicate work: It has something of the evanescence of flames, or of those wispy fragments that fly upward from a fire and dance waywardly in the currents of hot air. That such qualities have been achieved in the hefty medium of marble is extraordinary and paradoxical. In an interview with Andrea Schlieker in 1985 Cox described the motivation for this work and the group of works of which it is part as ``a strong feeling of wanting to be defiant, of taking a very resistant material and just throwing it up into the air....'' He made clear that he was intrigued, ``like a child playing with things and breaking the rules,'' by the notion of taking ``a piece of stone which weighs about a quarter of a ton and [making] it look effortless as if it was flying.''

It could be said that he has taken sculpture and made it look like painting. The effect of the rounded forms (abstractly suggesting some vegetable phenomenon like chestnuts or potatoes quite as much as being vaguely rocklike or human) scooped up and wafted away in an elegant linear flutter is to make carving into a means of nonsubstantial and illusory pic-torialism rather than the sturdy discovery of solid three-dimensionality. It defies the expectation that sculpture should have mass and weight and solidity.

Actually there is nothing very new in this aim. Throughout this century sculptors have explored means of escape from the ponderosity of sculpture and have done so in an extraordinary variety of ways, most of all perhaps through the use of new materials -- steel, plastic, fiberglass, and so on, but also by proposing new relationships of sculpture to its environment. Alexander Calder's mobiles are suspended in midair and move in response to the air's currents. Naum Gabo made sculpture that was a kind of continuum of transparent filaments, its ``form'' in-terpenetrated by space and light. David Smith in his late stainless steel sculpture allowed its monumentality to be partially countered by swirling light-reflections in their roughly burnished surfaces. Anthony Caro has (among other things) explored the possibilities of a horizontal orientation of forms, freed from the convention of a plinth and released from a central core. So a work like Cox's ``The Fiery Kind,'' liberated from gravity by making it, as sculpture, relatively two-dimensional, so that it seems to float weightlessly on the wall, is in line with some of the adventurousness of modern sculpture.

What is different about it is its relationship to the past. Cox is in one sense no traditionalist. But in another, his idea of art is deeply rooted in history. A British painter/writer he much admires is Adrian Stokes (1902-72), and Cox doesn't hide the fruitful connections of his sculpture with Stokes's ideas, particularly after starting to work in Italy in 1979. Stokes wrote that ``marble ... was the prime instrument of Humanism. For such fantasies as found their home in marble were humanistic fantasies. Therein was implicit the friendliness to man, the `natural' unstrained exuberance which treats of elemental nature with so little anxiety in proportion to its dynamic strength.''

Although Cox does not agree with Stokes's contention that to work in stone today would be anachronistic, he does put into practice something of the writer's poetic linking of the ancientness of rock with the primal process of making sculpture. It is amazing how many modern artists have continually looked to old art and old cultures for inspiration; but Cox is exceptional in the openness with which he shows his ``debt.''

Particularly it was 15th-century sculpture in Italy that assumed considerable importance for him. Stokes had described its ``stone-blossom and incrustation, with its love ... of movement, liquid and torrential movement ... with its equal love to carve shells and growth and steady flower ... '' -- all of which can easily be found in ``The Fiery Kind.'' It was what Cox calls the ``incredible flamboyance'' of the relief sculpture of Agostino di Duccio in Rimini that particularly appealed to and influenced him. Agostino was fascinated by the interplay of rounded human forms and the linear rhythms of waves and draperies flowing over, around, between them. Such interplay was more feasible in ``relief'' than in three-dimensional sculpture. And Cox found in relief a way of combining the sculptural, the architectural, and the pictorial; he clearly enjoys the ambiguities and enigmas set up by such a combination.

Cox is by no means the only highly original artist working today in a way that manages somehow to be true to the fact of the 1980s and yet unashamedly enjoys the relevance of previous cultures and styles. A recent display of his work at London's Tate Gallery showed how he has now also worked in India and produced sculpture involved with the atmosphere and techniques of sculpture as traditionally practiced in that country. It remains to be seen whether his closer-to-home immersion in Italian art continues. It certainly seems to be a necessity, anyway, for his art to escape from being too British and to find sustenance in other parts of the world. His art looks continually for a matrix; sometimes it comes dangerously close to archaeology in its love of the ancient and could become oddly rootless in its almost chameleonlike affection for other cultures. But in a work like ``The Fiery Kind'' it is still, instead, both quirky and refreshing.

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