Sculpture is an art of the open air. Daylight, sunlight, is necessary to it, and for me its best setting and complement is nature. I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in, or on, the most beautiful building I know.
-- Henry Moore
This is an important statement to consider when visiting Late Large Forms, Gagosian's current exhibition, held at their space on Britannia Street and run in conjunction with the Henry Moore Foundation. It is a show that gambles on one very simple and very direct curatorial conceit. Here are placed nine Moore sculptures from the latter half of his career, a period during which he was able to fully realise, through reputation and resources, a desire to work at a much-increased scale. The crux is that those on display have not been shown inside a gallery before. It is in view of this one decision, relayed against Moore's own opinions as to the correct context for his work that this entire exhibition’s prospect rests.
These works are not rare examples of type. Because of Moore’s position within the canon of twentieth-century sculpture, as well as what could be phrased, either positively or negatively, as his sculptures' 'universal' appeal, he is one of the most visible practitioners that Britain has produced in the modern period. Both nationally and internationally, Moore’s sculptures are less an addition to and more a prerequisite for many galleries' collections. Of equal importance, from mid-century onwards, his work became the apparent ornament of choice for the approach to many a corporate or state headquarter. If there is one challenge in showing Moore's work, it is to make it unfamiliar. In this, at the very least, Gagosian succeeds.
On entering you are immediately confronted by Reclining Figure: Hand. Pushed up behind the staircase, you might also notice Seated Woman: Thin Neck. These take little advantage of their setting and so, in the context of this exhibition, are largely uninteresting. If they serve any practical purpose it is to quickly re-introduce Moore, his handling of form and texture, before you venture into less stable territory. This begins in the next, smaller room, where two reclining figure pieces appear to be backing away as if trapped. There is a general uneasiness about them - as if their organic aspect has somehow been affronted - that makes them strangely unappealing, if no less interesting.
It is the enormous open space of the rear gallery that holds the main attractions, however. Large Two Forms, its interlocking masses challenging the architecture of the building itself for supremacy, greets you with a sullen, placid tension. Reaching out to your left, several more sculptures repeat this moment of perturbing misrecognition. With the skylights casting a flat, static glow across its surface, Moore’s bronze is less animated, less giving. It is as if his biomorphic forms have been sedated and prepared for examination.
The encroaching walls combine with the size of the work to create a medium from the air it displaces. With this emphasis on negative space, that which is caught between each sculpture and the sheer planes of the gallery is made of equal importance to the work itself. Because of this, though the room is not nearly filled, there is a risk of suffocation. The whitewash that dresses those planes, its fine white powder, offers a moment of comparison to Moore’s range of surface treatment that these works have not previously been subject to. They feel effusive, luxurious, and even a little sickly. As a general point of reference, the texture of the walls sets each sculpture not only against itself, but also against the others.
Not least of all is the way the artist’s work is made the subject of sound. This room, with its arrangement of broad, hard surfaces, is naturally attuned to the creation of an echo. Inserted into this haze of vibration, the size and material of Moore’s work mean that they begin to act as baffles, bending, cupping and directing that sound. It is entirely possible to explore the rear gallery by closing your eyes and stepping heavily against the polished concrete floor. After some time you will begin to recognise, appearing out of the resultant noise pattern, an aural image of Moore’s work that few will have had the opportunity to appreciate: awkward specters that lurch suddenly into apprehension before fading back into the clean, bright static.
Late Large Forms does not treat Moore’s work gently, but then what would be the purpose of that? His sculpture has had much of its vibrant energy suppressed, but in exchange we are given new opportunity for precise and sometimes uncomfortable analysis. Here Moore is laid up on the table, hovering close to unconsciousness, and we must not be afraid to take on the role of clinician.