I only met Barry Flanagan the once, as I recall he had dropped in to the old Royal College of Art Sculpture School in Queensgate, London to see Phillip (King), who then led the department. Flanagan was my hero. I had worshipped his quicksilver, fugitive outputs since my teenage years and so finally to have the opportunity to speak with the great man was a much-anticipated, genuine blast. We were introduced. I was overawed and tongue-tied; he, shy and awkward and overly thoughtful. A conversation impressive for the absence of utterances on both sides. Blast indeed.

But let’s have at it; through the taught and pedagogic paths of Birmingham and St. Martins, Flanagan should have become the next in line to assume the mantle of Caro or Turnbull or King, but despite his physical proximity, he never became aligned to any of them.

In a letter to Caro (dated June 1963), Flanagan cited consistent rejection and failure as being a major – and positive – influence on his practice as a sculptor. In this dispatch, Flanagan describes himself as having worked his way through 15 jobs, 5 art schools, 26 addresses and 2 continents in three years between the ages of 17 and 20. He concludes that whilst he didn’t really learn much conventionally, the vacillations of this route enabled him to ‘…have thought the business out for myself.’[1]

Now there aren’t many exhibitions these days that make me feel emotional, and against all my expectations and the odds, this one did. I have seen a lot of art lately (and I mean a lot), but entering this space was a most unlikely and welcoming experience which made me realise that many of my recent encounters with contemporary art and sculpture had been missing something. It’s easy to say now that Flanagan was probably as close to an English Beuys as we are ever likely to have (without some of the gepäck [2]) but this show demonstrates Flanagan’s most extraordinary variaty, versality and creative courage. His feeling and empathy with materials, film, photography and installation even now, resonate almost uniquely: I mean, how can an Imperial ton of sand be/look/feel so incredibly energised?

Emanating from this mercurial sculptor’s work is a sensibility borne of Mallarme, Gomringer and the concrete poets, tempered by the iconoclastic daring and spectacle of Arte Povera, and dignified by the artist’s open embrace for the practice of sculpture as the fundamental plastic art. It is a source of great professional and personal regret for me that Flanagan became known as ‘The Man Who Sculpted Hares…’[3]; I cannot help but cringe involuntarily as I perambulate by the seemingly ubiquitous gallery/shops in most small European towns that sell shoddily welded metal animals and badly seen, badly drawn and badly modelled leaping hares.

Etched into my brain is another media encounter with Flanagan talking – barely comprehensibly- to a BBC news features reporter about his version(s) of the San Marco horses; when asked by the TV presenter what he thought he was doing by re-creating these masterpieces of historic Venice, Flanagan, (after an extraordinary lengthy pause) responded: ‘I am engaged in the proper business of a sculptor’, and when further prodded by the reporter what he meant by this, Flanagan replied with disarming honesty, ‘I am making sculpture’. Ridicule followed of course, as this encounter appeared to fit the media stereotype of the artist as mute/flake perfectly. Even now I recall all-too-clearly my non-artist chums ribbing me for admiring this eccentric Celt who copied horses and could barely string a sentence together. Those were the days.

There is something about Flanagan’s work that captures the strangeness of the late 1960’s and the decade of the 1970’s, the strange mix of knowingness and innocence, of making and unmaking and of narrative and conceptualism. The prostrate figures of ‘heap 3’ lend a rather darker tone, whilst the ‘4 rahsb 2’ rival even Eva Hesse for presence and facture. The ‘grass’ series photographs are simply stunning and the installation, curation [4] and selection a delight. In summary, I would argue that we ignore the multifaceted and multidisciplinary audacity of Flanagan at our creative and cultural peril; his work captures the spirit of his time and of time more generally through an intimate engagement and proximity to materials rather than images or words. So this is what is perhaps, for me, tangibly missing in this moment. Always exceptions of course.

To misappropriate the great Salfordian poet (Dr) John Cooper Clarke, ‘I must go down to see again’[5].

Barry Flanagan: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral is at Waddington Custot Galleries, London W1S 3LT, until 14 May 2016 [6]
Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964-1979 is at Tate Britain, London, UK, until 29 August 2016


[1] Bibliography: Published in vols.6, 11, 15, 15 of Silâns (1964-1965) J. Flanagan B., Jackson, A, Leenders. R, Plubronze Limited. United Kingdom: Lethaby Press, Central St Martins College of Art & Design.
[2] How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare - ''wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt'', was a performance by Joseph Beuys that took place on 26 November 1965, Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf, Germany.
[3] Bibliography: The man who sculpted hares: Barry Flanagan, a life (2012) Directed by Peter Bach UK: BBC. In-line Citation: (Bach, 2012).
[4] Exhibition at Waddington Custot, curated by Dr Jo Melvin, Director of The Estate of Barry Flanagan, art historian and Reader in Fine Art, Special Collections and Archives at Chelsea College of Art, University of the Arts, London.
[5] This exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of Flanagan's first solo show, held at the Rowan Gallery, London, in 1966; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral was the title American writer and curator Gene Baro gave to his review of that show.