Installation view of “Breaking the Mould: Sculpture by Women since 1945,” 2021. Photo: Anna Arca

“Breaking the Mould: Sculpture by Women since 1945”

West Bretton, Wakefield, U.K.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

“Breaking the Mould” features the work of 50 postwar female sculptors—from early examples by Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth, Karin Jonzen, and Rosemary Young to recent pieces by Phyllida Barlow, Holly Hendry, Jessie Flood-Paddock, and Grace Schwindt—all selected from the Arts Council Collection, which holds around 250 sculptures by more than 150 women. After debuting at YSP (an optimal venue for an expansive show like this), the exhibition will continue to travel as part of the Arts Council’s 75th anniversary celebrations, touring to New Art Gallery Walsall, Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts, and Ferens Art Gallery, Hull; the show remains on view at YSP through September 5, 2021. 

Though the works are organized into three broad categories—“Figured,” “Formed,” and “Found”—these themes are only intended to provide a loose framework, revealing how shared sculptural concerns have emerged over the course of art history through materials and methods. Indeed, myriad approaches can be explored, from traditional techniques in bronze, wood, and steel to less familiar configurations in human hair, fabrics, and mixed-media, such as Anthea Hamilton’s Leg Chair (Jane Birkin) (2011). “Breaking the Mould” combines instantly recognizable works, including Phyllida Barlow’s Untitled: Dunce (2015) and Sarah Lucas’s Nud Cycladic 7 (2010), with lesser known, delightfully surprising pieces, such as Rosemary Young’s exquisitely poised Girl Drying her Foot (undated) and Kim Lim’s Samurai (1961), made of four carved forms, carefully and harmoniously balanced.

The selection, which aims to offer fresh critical insights into works ignored or bypassed in the art historical canon, enters into one of the most vociferous debates in the art world right now. Although the intended challenge to standard narratives of modern British sculpture is explicitly stated at the outset, measuring the constraints of the past through the prism of 21st-century discourse can be problematic. Practitioners are, without doubt, frequently erased from history—due to pervading fashions, lack of influential contacts and support, or merely as a result of sporadic output—yet these obstacles are not exclusive to women artists. What the exhibition makes clear is that the strongest works transcend time and historical repackaging to remain continually relevant on their own terms, simply because of their artistic excellence and innate resilience.

Barbara Hepworth’s Icon (1957), a rounded mahogany form inspired by a visit to Greece, is immaculately rendered, epitomizing her consummate mastery of woodcarving. Animal 3 (1969), from Lygia Clark’s “Bichos” series, consists of hinged aluminum sheets—geometric shapes resembling “little beasts or bugs”—designed to be manipulated by the viewer’s hands. Geometric structures are also paramount in Eva Rothschild’s practice, as demonstrated by Your Weakness (2004)—a sharply angled piece in which two black cones, one upright, the other fallen, are connected by a dynamic zigzagging ligature. In Untitled (6 Spaces) (1994), Rachel Whiteread cast the area beneath six chairs to create six resin cubes that echo the principles of Minimalism and, most significantly, transform negative space into a positive sculptural mass. Cornelia Parker’s Fleeting Monument (1985) is an elusive meditation on time, with hundreds of three-inch models of Big Ben morphing into a spiraling cone. In Mona Hatoum’s kinetic + and – (1994), another spherical configuration, a motorized arm rotating over a bed of sand generates marks only to erase them—a cyclical process that is extraordinarily mesmerizing to watch. 

Though many of the featured sculptors certainly encountered barriers, it is perplexing to categorize Barlow, Hatoum, Parker, and Whiteread—who have been consistently championed and widely shown—as marginalized. “Breaking the Mould” provides no neat answers to the conundrum it raises; rather, it has opened the door to a more vigorous debate. As is the case with a survey of this kind, only one or two works from each artist can be included so, in a sense, the exhibition merely skims the surface of its intent. Nonetheless, with so many fine examples on view, it has to be hoped that “Breaking the Mould” will galvanize interest in sculptural practice and precipitate further, more in-depth, displays of individual female sculptors’ work.