Art meets nature
It’s 40 years since Britain’s best-known sculpture park placed its first works of art in the countryside. Tim Richardson looks at how art in the open air has developed since then
It’s 40 years since the first works were placed in the countryside at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Tim Richardson reports
THIS year, Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP, www.ysp.co.uk) celebrates its 40th anniversary with a major Tony Cragg retrospective. Since it was founded, the number of sculpture parks has grown enormously—by the mid 1980s, there were perhaps 100, but, today, there are at least four times that number worldwide. Many are privately owned, including important recent additions to the pantheon, such as Jupiter Artland outside Edinburgh and the massive Inhotim estate in Brazil, which spreads over some 5,000 acres, with 22 separate pavilions dedicated to individual artists.
Sometimes, it feels as if sculpture parks and open-air exhibitions are popping up on an almost weekly basis in Britain. The latest is the Borders Sculpture Park at Mellerstain House, Kelso, Berwickshire, which is holding an inaugural exhibition of inflatable fabric works by Steve Messam until September 11 (www.mellerstain.com), and the annual free Frieze sculpture show (https://frieze.com) in London’s Regents Park (this year featuring 25 works selected by Clare Lilley of YSP) opened earlier than usual this summer, finishing on October 8.
It’s become commonplace to stumble across temporary sculpture exhibitions at National Trust properties, thanks to specialist curators such as Meadow Arts; at notable private houses, including Chatsworth; at botanic gardens— Kew has presented blockbuster shows devoted to Henry Moore and David Nash; at Oxbridge colleges (notably Jesus College, Cambridge); and in public parks such as Kensington Gardens, where Rob and Nick Carter’s latest piece, Bronze Oak Grove, can currently be found. Even the pavilion created each summer in the grounds of the Serpentine Gallery tends to blur sculpture and building.
It’s clear that the concept of siting and creating sculptural works for park and garden settings is now mainstream in both the art and garden worlds. That wasn’t the case when YSP first opened its doors to the public on September 24, 1977, with a one-off £1,000 grant, a small exhibition of 31 sculptures and a bold idea concocted by art lecturers who were then employed at the college situated on the 18th-century Bretton Hall estate.
Yorkshire-born artists Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were early supporters of the venture, the former loaning or donating works, the latter providing funds. Both were sympathetic early on to the idea of siting their work in the open air. As Hepworth commented to the Yorkshire Post in 1962: ‘It would be very nice just to put sculptures on hillsides or in small valleys’—which was then a rather radical notion. In a letter written the year before he died in 1986, Moore made a simple but profound point to the director of the sculpture garden at Hakone, Japan: ‘When you are out in the open air in the sun, rain and clouds… it helps people appreciate that sculpture is part of life.’
That sense of freedom from the proprieties and rituals of the traditional indoor gallery
space has proved to be one of the strongest appeals of the sculpture park: visitors who might otherwise be intimidated by the idea of going to a ‘normal’ art museum, including families with children, find it to be a forgiving and freeing environment.
The first 20th-century sculpture park to be established was Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, USA (1931), although the deeply unfashionable nature of the figurative and often sentimental works in this collection means that it’s not always mentioned by critics. The four ‘grandparents’ of the modern sculpture park are generally held to be the Kröller-müller Museum near Amsterdam (opened in 1960, but designed on paper five years earlier); the Louisiana near Copenhagen (1958); the Storm King Center in the Hudson River Valley, New York (1960); and YSP itself.
Hepworth’s Family of Man (1970), consisting of nine mysterious bronze figures, first came to YSP in 1979 and has been a highlight ever since, although, in its current position, it’s perhaps too easily missed by visitors who are understandably attracted to the open pasture, lakes and woodland of the 500-acre landscape park. YSP is best known for its collection of works by Henry Moore, which are perfectly complemented by the late-18th-century landscape setting attributed to Richard Woods, a skilled des- igner who is now appreciated in his own right, not merely as a follower of Capability Brown. The scene is animated by grazing sheep, which have a tendency to rub against the bronzes, staining them and creating a conservation challenge for the YSP team.
Andy Goldsworthy, who creates sitespecific works, is the third important ‘local’ artist who has developed a relationship with YSP over the years. Noting that his career is about as old as the sculpture park, he has commented: ‘We’re probably made for each other, and we probably made each other.’ A major piece by the artist entitled Hanging Trees, Oxley Bank (2006), consisting of three horizontal tree trunks lain within
dry-stone walls in the estate ha-ha, can be discovered at the point where the historic designed landscape meets agriculture. As Mr Goldsworthy has stated: ‘There are so many so-called sculpture parks that are an easy option to dump a few sculptures in a field… That is so different from what is happening here.’
Site-specific work in general has become a much more important element at YSP since the 1980s, as it has at other sculpture parks, yet there are still only a handful that are dedicated solely to this practice; Fattoria di Celle in Italy was one of the first.
It’s proved even more difficult to integrate Land Art into the sculpture-park environment, partly because of practicalities (the work is often huge in scale) and partly for historical reasons—sculpture parks only really got going after the most fruitful period of Land Art had passed. However, there are, nevertheless, some good examples to seek out in sculpture parks, including Maya Lin’s 550 yards-long 11 Minute Line (2004) at the Wanås Foundation in Sweden.
Perhaps the biggest change at sculpture parks in recent decades has been the emph-
asis on conceptual work, as opposed to the more formal or Modernist preoccupations of ‘first-phase’ sculpture parks such as YSP. There is also more of a focus on the largescale or the spectacular—witness Anish Kapoor’s massive red ‘trumpet’, Dismember
ment Site 1 (2009), at Gibbs Farm, New Zealand, or Louise Bourgeois’s Crouching
Spider (2003) on the lake at Château La Coste. These are artworks with an unmistakable ‘wow factor’ that would be difficult to achieve in an interior gallery space.
YSP’S Peter Murray relates how, ‘in the early years, great patience and ingenuity were required to deal with the bureaucracy, politics and lack of funding’, but, today, the park is able to mount an average of 10 exhibitions a year in a variety of venues, indoors and out. In addition to the parkland, there is the monumental Underground Gallery, opened in 2006, the Longside Gallery (2003) in an elevated rural position at the southern end of the estate, which houses the Arts Council’s collection of some 500 sculptures, and the much smaller Bothy Gallery, used for films and smaller installations.
Major permanent works on show at YSP include pieces by Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra and Anthony Caro and a skyspace by James Turrell situated inside a repurposed 18thcentury deer shelter.
The ‘sculpture park’ as a curatorial genre is properly understood as a 20th-century innovation, conceived specifically as the outdoor equivalent of a modern-era art gallery and defined by professional curatorship. For this reason, the term is not generally applied to gardens containing sculptures that are created as standalone works of art in their own right. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills falls into this category, as does Joan Miró’s Labyrinth at the Fondation Maeght in Saint-paul de Vence in France. Even Sir Frederick Gibberd’s garden at Harlow in Essex could not be termed a ‘park’, despite the fact it’s a collection of works by various artists. The domestic setting militates against that definition, as does the sense that this is a place that’s been created as an artistic whole by one guiding sensibility.
There are, indeed, some fundamental distinctions to be made between sculpture parks and sculpture gardens. The main difference is one of scale. In addition, a park is more likely to be regularly open to the public and will probably contain a diverse range of work. The sculpture gardens attached to the studios of artists such as Hepworth, Auguste Rodin and Isamu Noguchi are not usually described as ‘sculpture parks’. Neither are gardens that contain sculpture as part of an overall coherent design—as at the Bloedel Reserve near Seattle, USA, or Nikki de Sant Phalle’s Tarot Garden in Tuscany. And nor —solely because of scale—are most sculpture gardens now routinely attached to museums (the first of these was Philip Johnson’s 1939 MOMA sculpture garden in New York).
The sculpture trail in a forest setting (sitespecific Grizedale in Cumbria is an example) is perhaps a genre in its own right, because the unbounded atmosphere creates a different set of expectations for the visitor.
Ultimately, sculpture parks are collections of individual artworks ‘set’ within a landscape that is understood primarily as a kind of complementary framing device, rather than as an entity with its own creative dynamism.
Noguchi himself was eloquent about these nuances. Interviewed in 1986 at the opening of his Cullen Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, he noted: ‘There are many kinds of sculpture. A garden is a living sculpture. A sculpture on a pedestal is a thing on a pedestal. Monumental sculpture goes outside the realm of art into architecture.’
He went on to describe a visit to the UNESCO Garden in Paris that he’d designed almost 28 years earlier. ‘It was overgrown with weeds, jabbering away and having a wonderful time,’ he said. ‘The garden is all on its own with nobody taking care of it. I’ve never seen it look so beautiful.’ In effect, the garden element of Noguchi’s garden had become more important than the sculptural works it contained. This can never be the case in a curated sculpture park.
Such moments hint at both the potential shortcomings of this genre as well as its extraordinary artistic possibilities in relation to landscape—possibilities that have barely been explored.
‘ The open air… helps people appreciate that sculpture is part of life’
Tony Cragg’s Points of View is part of a retrospective at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Shattered by Steve Messum is part of XXX, a trio of ‘architectural interventions’ at the Borders Sculpture Park at Mellerstain House in Berwickshire
An outdoor location allows for large-scale spectacular works, such as Marc Quinn’s Love Bomb at Jupiter Artland, near Edinburgh
Andy Goldsworthy’s Hanging Trees (2007) lies in the YSP estate’s ha-ha
The Family of Man (1970) by Barbara Hepworth, an early supporter of the YSP