by Tom McGlynn
The Hare is Metaphor
PAUL KASMIN GALLERY | APRIL 18 – JUNE 9, 2018
The question of poise comes up in different ways when viewing Barry Flanagan’s survey at Paul Kasmin Gallery: Strictly sculptural poise (from the ground to the plinth) but also conceptual poise, the balancing act that an artist needs to sometime effect to get their point across. What was Flanagan’s position, his body of work balanced on point? In consideration of both the early and late work assembled here, it seems as if the artist preferred to keep himself a capriciously moving target; however, the leap from his earlier Post-Minimal works to the cast bronze hares that became his later trademark is more stylistic than conceptual. The lax poise of his earliest cut, sewn, and stacked fabric pieces on view share, to some degree, the same elusive qualities of his later, tiptoe-buoyant hares. The youthful works do exude a retrained cool, while the mature bronzes exhibit an extroverted appeal. Yet what ties these seemingly disparate threads of work together, paradoxically, is the artist’s attitude that formal consistency should itself be constantly kept in play in order for any artwork to retain a reasonably vital half-life. Flanagan was, after all, included in When Attitudes Become Form, a 1969 show that celebrated artists who embraced stylistic indeterminacy in the service of brash conceptual personae.
The show gives ample opportunity to test this proposition. A vitrine of the artist’s early papers includes a statement collated by Lucy Lippard for the Art Gallery of Vancouver’s 1970 exhibition 955,000 (also featuring Eva Hesse, Vito Acconci, and Adrian Piper, among may others) in which Flanagan states: “The future of art carries with it no precedent available in my literary thought mechanisms to appraise or solve it.” Another document in the vitrine contains handwritten notes for a performance held at Frankfurt’s Dorothea Loehr Gallery in 1967, and has instructions which include: “Turn all lights off for 10 secs., on for 10 secs., off for 10 secs., etc.” The latter seems to predict Martin Creed’s Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227: The lights go on and off (2000), in which the younger artist enacted an operation of simply switching on and off lights in an empty gallery space, and both statements share with Creed a certain attitude of irresolute restraint.
This restraint can be said to characterize the early sculptural works on display here as well. Consider a work like Untitled 1979 (1979), for instance. A 39-by-24-inch square of hessian (burlap) is cut, as if peeling an orange, with the resultant circle then “piped” with a desultory gesture of white paint. It exists in an aesthetic limbo, halfway between an unfinished craft project and a cast-off from a badly drawn dress pattern, yet it retains a vital and colloquial pathos that simultaneously disarms and disorients in its simple, materially-reduced appeal. (It also feels more aggressive and less formal than similarly casually-posed works by artists such as Richard Tuttle or Jacob Kassay.) In another, even earlier, sculpture, heap 3 ’67 (1967), a splay of violet, green, and yellow sewn tubes of burlap are filled with sand then tied off crudely at each end with colored ribbons and laid across each other in a mound on the gallery floor. The piece presents a very Hessian (as in Eva) aspect in its organic and inorganic crossover. There is a very contingent quality to its installation, an inherent re-arrangeability that Flanagan was prone to impart to this phase of his career which lent heap 3 ’67, and other similar works here, an overall freshness that remains undiminished over fifty years later.
Flanagan’s work became known on a much wider and more international basis when he turned from the casual/conceptual informe of his 1960s and 1970s work toward the bronze castings of hares and other animals, which became his signature style in the last half of his career, up to his death in 2009 at age 68. Inspired by a chance vision of a hare leaping across the Sussex, England countryside, where he maintained a studio, Flanagan procured a hare carcass from a local butcher and used it to begin modelling his now-famous sculptural leitmotif. It is at this point that one could say that Flanagan substituted the idea of reductive, fluctuating form with an embodied, symbolic herald in his sculptures. His hares, often strongly anthropomorphized in their poses, become the symbolic carriers of the artist’s will toward escaping formal capture.
The artist puts in the place of the casual/phenomenal of the early work the stylized/anecdotal, which, in the context of Minimalism’s still strong sway in the art world of the late 1970s, could actually be seen as a radical move. The expressionism of Flanagan’s hare sculptures struck a harmonizing chord a bit later on, when older, more figuratively symbolic forms of painting and sculpture were atavistically exhumed for the reified painterly heroics with which they could potentially brush aside, or magically jump over, the deepening morass of postminimalist/postmodernist pluralism. (The hare works came about at approximately the same time that the so-called Neo-Expressionist moment in painting was ascendant, in the early 1980s, with painters such as Julian Schnabel and Georg Baselitz.)
With the benefit of such hindsight, one might consider this phase in Flanagan’s career anew. But a question still remains: What does it mean when an artist recalibrates their aesthetic compass so radically, and in such a procedural sense, that it drastically changes the final path that that compass seemed to chart at the beginning of their career? Do we, as viewers, generously grant the artist the license to shift their pose (poise) or do we hold them to their previously staked-out artistic territory? (There are a few extraordinary examples of others doing this. Consider Philip Guston’s move from lyrical abstraction to clunky, cartoon-like figuration, for example.)
Flanagan, in the exuberant, playful, and downright whimsical aspect of his hare sculptures gives the impression that he really could have cared less about such formal distinctions or fixed aesthetic positioning. In Large Monument (1996) the artist assembles a cast of bronze hares that approximates a highly condensed version of Rodin’s The Gates of Hell (1880–1917). To top the amorphously shaped, lumpen “monument” Flanagan positions three wildly dancing hares in place of Rodin’s brooding shades, while at its bottom he sits a single hare in the pose of Rodin’s thinker. It is a wickedly simplified version of the original, and borrows freely from its historic form without being slavishly wed to its original allegorical weight. Although Rodin was one of Flanagan’s favorite artists, the sculpture is far from a simple homage. Flanagan’s irreverence for such a traditional bow of mutual respect seems to have been the artist’s way of maintaining the ultimate word on who would or would not fence him in. With a piece like Large Monument, Flanagan seems to be saying that, if he is going to strike a pose (or formally contradict himself), it will be on his own terms. Flanagan’s abiding legacy might not, in the end, be his bronze hares—rampant in civic squares, museums and hotel lobbies globally—but rather the idea that eluding the historically-determined stewpot of the foolishly consistent aesthetic recipe is the ultimate art.
- When Attitudes Become Form, curated by Harald Szeeman at the Bern Kunsthalle in 1969, was the result of the curator taking the lead from artists whose “intensive intentions” he felt led to a more mutable, and perhaps even eccentric, sense of contemporary art morphology.
TOM McGLYNN is an artist and frequent contributor to Artseen.