In Pursuit of the Question Mark - George Wyllie: A Retrospective 1965-2012

January 2013

Publication: The Times

In his poem, ‘Second Hymn to Lenin’, published in 1932, the Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) wrote:


Are my poems spoken in the factories and fields,

In the streets o'the toon?

Gin they're no', then I'm failin'to dae

What I ocht to ha'dune.


Grieve’s predicament, as he saw it, was to re-unite an unadulterated native culture with its people. It might be argued that the artist and famously self-described ‘Scul?tor’ George Wyllie managed to do just that. Judging by the support of figures such as Alex Salmond and Sir Sean Connery, a rave comments book as well as a popularity amongst school-children few artists few artists achieve, Wyllie was that rare figure: a truly popular artist with a serious intent.


Born in Shettlestone, Glasgow a decade or so before Grieve’s poem was published, George Ralston Wylie suffered from what he called – with characteristic humour – the ‘disadvantage of a happy upbringing’. On leaving school he worked for Sir William Arrol’s structural engineering company designing cranes and later for the engineering department of the post office. In the in the Navy he had seen the effects of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.


After the war Wyllie worked after the war as an exciseman – for some of the time in Northern Ireland. He moved to the safety Gourock with his wife Daphne to bring up a young family, all the while making art in his spare time.  He took early retirement in 1970 when he decided the time had come to become ‘a full-time artist’.


A turning point had been an exhibition of Italian “semi-engineering sculpture” had seen at Kelvingrove Gallery, his primary educational resource in the absence of a formal art education. Such work led Wyllie, by means of a fervent autodidacticism, into that of other engineer-sculptors such as the American-born George Rickey. Later, Wyllie benefitted from Rickey’s foundation as well as forming a lasting friendship.


Two seminal works stand out from the 1980s:  ‘The Straw Locomotive’ and ‘The Paper Boat’, both in their won ways elegiac, show-stealing responses to the decline of heavy industry on the Clyde. The Straw Locomotive was burnt as it hung from a gallows-like crane in Springburn in 198?? While the Paper Boat, a full-sized sailing vessel based on Wyllie’s boyhood toys, toured Europe and famously made an appearance on the Hudson near the World Trade Centre in 1990.


Many of Wyllie’s kinetic works (which are powered by the wind and so appear rather lifeless indoors) using equilibrium, steel, stone are to be found here. Some are in homage or dedicated to important personages in his life such as Daphne and Joseph Beuys whom he met in 1981 under the auspices of Richard Demarco. Wyllie and another Scottish artist, Dawson Murray, helped Beuys install ‘New Beginnings are in the Offing’ – a huge pair of doors from the Poorhouse in Forresthill, Edinburgh – at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.


This exhibition, which cries out for a more capacious and sympathetic venue, is a welcome tribute to Wyllie’s eclectic, eccentric, vigorous, humorous yet deeply committed career. Its strengths are its weaknesses – a result of Wyllie’s productivity as much as anything else: too much material in too small a space. Naturally by including as much material as possible the organiser have tried to do justive to Wyllie’s enormous oeuvre which extends across many genres and mediums: thsatre, poetry, journalism, installation and film-making  to name but a few.


Greater space and documentation, as well as some functioning electronic gadgetry, would help with interpretation.


That said, this is a show, now in its final week, which shouldn’t be missed.