Publication: Financial Times
In 1969, Paul Neagu proposed a manifesto of “Palpable Art”, stating, “Art must give up its purely visual aesthetic if it wants to survive”. At its root was his credo that sculpture should be immersive, appealing to all the senses. Thus the Romanian-born artist made work that drew the eye but also engaged our senses of touch and taste. He made work out of bread and cake ‑ knives and forks are part of his sculptural vocabulary – and gave performances where movement and repetition, as well as sound, were key elements.
The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is staging the most comprehensive exhibition of Neagu’s oeuvre to date, bringing together more than 120 works including film, sculpture, drawings, prints, texts and archival material. The show spans the years 1968, when his art was first introduced to a western European audience, to 1986, when Neagu completed his masterwork, the sculptural ensemble, “Nine Catalytic Stations”.
“Nine Catalytic Stations” — a grouping of complex shapes arranged in a circle — evolved over many years. With individual titles such as “Fish over gate”, “Starhead”, “A-cross”, “Edge Runner” and “Double Hyphen”, these forms can be seen to incorporate some of Neagu’s fundamental ideas. They allude to Christian ritual and symbolism and, in turn, to some of the artist’s performance works, themselves deeply observed and steeped in the religious traditions of his homeland. Here, the work occupies an entire gallery, a high-ceilinged room with daylight filtering in from above, lending it both the sculptural and spiritual resonance of a small henge. The surrounding walls are hung with detailed drawings - brimming with ideas, language and cyphers – that show the genesis and development of the project.
Neagu, who died in 2004, aged 66, was fiercely intellectual — multilingual, poetic, deeply and widely read and as much philosopher as he was artist. His approach, which saw object-making, drawing and performance as part of a whole, embraced the idea that symbolism and metaphor were functions of sculpture. Many of the works at this long overdue retrospective are not easy to encounter, to assimilate, to rationalise and to understand - but close inspection is rewarding.
Neagu himself worked variously as a cartographer and electrician, and these skills and their attendant materials and techniques all have a bearing on his work. Many of his drawings (often plans and schemata for three-dimensional pieces) were executed on paper used for barometers and other technical instrumentation. They are beautiful, full of cryptic writings and strange images, such as his “Hyphens” – a term he used for a group of works that manifested themselves both as images and objects.
As sculpture, the Hyphens were often fashioned from wood, coated with gesso, and have a rectilinear structure from which three prongs or sensors emerge like the needles of an ink barometer. They also refer visually to a shoemaker’s last, an anvil, a plough and other archetypal forms. They act as the honed depository for Neagu’s ideas: an intellectual coda, a summation of a life of artistic exploration.
But what do the Hyphens mean, beyond their allusion to existing forms? What ideas do they carry? Neagu wrote: “Hyphen as sculpture, lost, reinforced, lost several times, re-founded as fulcrum, as meeting point between subject and object; as sculpture and idea bounds up (sic) libido, ego and the self in one contemporary symbol.” However complex its description, it seems clear that, to Neagu, the form, expressed in an unending array of permutations, was a fundamental articulation of his thought.
Neagu’s phenomenological approach did not find many apologists in British art schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Neagu left Romania for Edinburgh and then London in 1970, taking the post of associate professor at the Royal College of Art in 1976, where he went on to be an influential teacher. Many art schools were in the grip of formalist modes of thought, as espoused by the likes of William Tucker, whose view of sculpture seemed narrow and prescriptive by comparison.
This may partly explain why Neagu’s work found so little acceptance and understanding in his adopted country. There were exceptions: the critics Mel Gooding and Paul Overy were highly receptive to Neagu’s ideas, while the Edinburgh gallery owner and artist Richard Demarco played a crucial role in his move to the UK. Demarco had travelled to Bucharest in 1968 on a tour of Romania and Poland and by chance met Neagu in the studio of another Romanian artist, Ion Bitzan. The following year Neagu exhibited in Hamburg and, at Demarco’s invitation, in Edinburgh.
Although Neagu lived in Scotland for just a few months, he continued to have a long association with the country and with Demarco. He had exhibitions in Edinburgh in 1971 and Glasgow in 1979. Throughout the 1970s he took part in Demarco’s experimental summer school, Edinburgh Arts, making and presenting his work around the British Isles.
From a small council flat in Islington, north London, Neagu developed his artistic vision with an all-consuming passion and dedication. His early works, including some he made in Romania, tie his work not only to the craft skills of his country, such as woodworking, but also to the work of Romania’s pre-eminent artistic master Constantin Brancusi.
On show here, a series of early works including “Great Tactile Table” and “Object Tactile” (both 1970) are at once mystical and profound. Constructed from wood, leather, nails, canvas and other basic materials, they are, in part, homage to Neagu’s father, a shoemaker. They invite a tactile response with the smell of the wood and leather taking us back to some other era, in a far-off place, where a man in an apron and set of simple tools, with hands supple and practised, might spend weeks fashioning something with care and reverence. At the same time, these boxes, containers and assemblages look to Duchamp in their modernism and conceptual framework.
The Henry Moore Institute has been at great pains to conceive, curate and display this exhibition. For example, in Gallery 1, which houses the “tactile” objects, ledges and broad shelves have been constructed at chest height so that the viewer can be brought into much closer contact with the work. High on the wall above the entrance to another gallery hangs a great star, “Untitled (Starhead)”, which has been positioned so that it majestically looks down on exhibits and visitors alike. It’s a thoughtful reference to the fact that in 1987 Neagu won a major public art commission, to be titled either “Starhead” or “Triple Starhead”, to be located at London’s Charing Cross Station, which was never built.
This is an important show marking the diversity, power and depth of Neagu’s achievement; an acknowledgment of the artist’s great stature that should have taken place in his lifetime.
‘Paul Neagu: Palpable Sculpture 1968-1986’ runs to November 8, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds; henry-moore.org