The Crib, 1995–96. Steel and wood, 88 x 142 x 171 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Doing Is Thinking: A Conversation with John Gibbons

Not only is John Gibbons regarded as one of Ireland’s most significant artists (though he has lived in London since graduating from St. Martin’s School of Art), he is one of the few Irish sculptors to have achieved an international reputation. He absorbed the idioms of Anthony Caro, for whom he worked as an assistant, but plowed his own furrow, working doggedly in steel—first using scrap parts, then virgin steel. Although he is often seen as an abstract artist, he makes no distinction between abstraction and figuration in his work, blending styles to achieve a synthesis of industrial, organic, and architectural form.

Brian McAvera: I would guess that Julio González, David Smith, and Giacometti were important for your development. Is this a fair comment?
John Gibbons: Early Giacometti is wonderful. The Palace at 4 a.m. was an inspiration for Beginning (1995). González probably became seminal for me at St. Martin’s. His work is fresh, alive, and he’s modeling with steel; it keeps you curious. The pieces cast in bronze, however, haven’t got it. It’s the artist’s touch, as with Rodin and Smith, that is so powerful: they are modeling with light. I remember visiting a restorer in New York, who had a phenomenal Donald Judd. Judd went to various fabricators before he found the right one. He articulated every corner, every edge. Caro is the same. He directs every single thing, from the length of the weld onward. Nowadays, many things are made without that kind of input, and the decision-making is left to technicians. It’s like a great musical conductor versus a poor one—it’s all about how you pay attention to the detail.

BM: You were born in 1949 in Ennis, County Clare. Ireland was a backwater then, and emigration was the norm. What led you to become an artist?
JG: My father was a civil servant and a reader of books. I’m dyslexic. I had a wonderful time in the countryside observing nature; I learned how to plough with a horse and to use other farm equipment. For me, the town was utterly boring; it wasn’t like a day out in the wilderness. The landscape was very important to me and still is. I was working with my hands, with animals, looking and seeing. Every landscape that you experience is through your own landscape. It’s impossible not to be affected by your upbringing, environment, and culture. It’s there, forged into you. I spent summers in Westport with my grandparents. I got on well with my grandfather, who was smart, a bit of a rogue and perceptive. He sent me on treks into a particular wood to look for a white blackbird. I could never tell whether my grandfather was joking or not, but he gave me license to explore, to be myself, to focus on my interests.

There was no art in the family, except for my father’s cousin, Alpho O’Reilly, who was head of design at RTÉ, Ireland’s national public service broadcaster. After the news, an image of the Madonna would come on for the Angelus. One day, someone was having some fun, and this image was directly followed by a Picasso nude. I hitched a ride to Dublin—I was 15 or 16—to see it in an exhibition. There was a huge Kenneth Noland, but the only thing I really remember was the Picasso—an extraordinary depiction of life.

We lived in a theocracy, which crippled Ireland; it suffocated me, and at 15, I had already decided to leave. Some of my peers had run away but had been brought back. There was no escape. So I knuckled down, did well in the Leaving Certificate, saved some money, and left. I studied accounting, but then I met a woman whose brother was in the band King Crimson, and she told me that I should go to art school. So, I went to night school at Hammersmith and ended up focusing on life drawing. I applied to a full-time course, but was rejected because I didn’t have enough experience. My parents got me into Limerick College of Art and Design. I didn’t want to go back, but I didn’t want to waste another year doing night school, so I went to Limerick for a year and then to Cork.

Beginning, 1995. Painted and waxed steel, 330 x 500 x 94 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BM: At what point did you opt for sculpture? Was it at Limerick (1969–70) or the Crawford Municipal School of Art in Cork (1970–72)?
JG: I messed around with clay and papier-mâché in Limerick. I wasn’t allowed into the portrait class even to observe, which was frustrating. Cork was equally frustrating. Every summer I went back to London and worked in the Houses of Parliament, gardening; I clocked in at St. James’s Park, where I met the Queen Mother’s gardener. In 1971, she introduced me to Oscar Nemon, whose studio was in St. James’s Palace. He showed me a piece and asked me how I would cast it. I remembered enough from Limerick that he told me to come back the next day, and I started learning from him.

It was wonderful working in the studio—looking was the first order of the day—and I decided not to go back to Cork. I was challenged, learning real stuff about sculpture. One day, Nemon suggested I go to the Tate Gallery. That visit changed my life. I had found work that made sense to me. I bought the catalogue of Alistair McAlpine’s collection (gifted to the museum), which included Annesley, Turnbull, and Tucker. All of the artists I liked, except for one, went to St. Martin’s, so I applied and got in.

BM: You were at St. Martin’s from 1972 to 1976. What was the transition like, and who did you study with?
JG: St. Martin’s saved my life. It was pronounced and powerful, a struggle and a challenge, and highly competitive. I worked every day until nine, unless I had to be at Nemon’s studio. When I started at St. Martin’s, Bill Tucker told me to see an Anthony Caro show. “Who is he?” I asked. Bill was shocked. The first critique I had at St. Martin’s—we had one a month—was amazing, confusing, and exhilarating. Five or six tutors were taking the heads off each other. I had to go to the library and check everybody out to see where they were coming from.

Frank Martin had developed two courses in sculpture called A and B (each with its own staff), because students in the year before me wanted to make things and rebelled. The A course was for conceptual work, and the B course was for makers, but, being St. Martin’s, students ignored the distinction. We were feral. I was in the B course, where the range of articulation was extraordinary. In the second year, Bill did a series of seminars—research for his book The Language of Sculpture—and taped them. He never gave his opinion, but he drew people out.

In my third year, they realized that I had not given them any essays or a synopsis for the thesis. I said that I wasn’t interested in a degree, that I was there to learn about sculpture. But they persisted, and I decided to do something on González. There was very little on him, so I was forced to really look at the work. I wrote something up and gave it to Bill along with my notes, and he accepted it. It was a different time—you couldn’t do that now.

Messenger/After All…, 2017. Stainless steel, 57 x 56 x 58 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BM: You’ve used “Form and Metaphor” as the title of an exhibition. What, for you, is the relationship between them? And why at this juncture did you shift from scrap steel (piping, tanks, and rods) to steel straight from the mill?
The title “Form and Metaphor” came from the curator Paul Moorhouse. I wasn’t consciously trying to get rid of metaphor. With a found object, you have to use the messages that are there. For me, it’s important to make a sculpture and not just a “recognizable object.” It’s to do with how the object is resonating with me. But I eventually became bored and decided to use virgin steel. It’s in the world but not really formed by it. It’s a way of being challenged. I got too used to working with found steel and needed to change.

BM: In your solo exhibition at Angela Flowers in 1992, you showed welded steel works—large-format structures with an industrial look such as The Calling, Faith, Jerusalem, The Alliance, and The Communion. They could almost be remnants from an abandoned factory. What were you trying to do?
JG: No idea, except for Jerusalem, which was a direct response to Saddam Hussein sending Scud missiles into Israel. Certain works respond directly to places or events. There is a sculpture in the studio now, which is a response to the destruction of the arch in Palmyra.

When I came to London from rural Ireland, it seemed a very engineered culture and landscape—the scale, the magnitude, the number of people. In hindsight, I suspect that a lot of my work responds to how one is moved about—in buses, the tube, trains. I used to hitch or travel in the family car in Ennis. I had only taken a train once or twice and was rarely if ever on a bus before London.

BM: In the mid-’90s, you developed your signature “cage” pieces such as The Crib (1995–96) and To Be (1996–97), which are usually thought of as being about containment. What was your rationale?
JG: I did not set out to make “cage” sculptures; they came out of working with the material. I need to follow my intuition—it’s what keeps me interested and motivated. The idea of inside versus outside, body versus spirit, has had a long fascination for me. David Annesley, a friend of Ken Noland’s, was one of my tutors at St. Martin’s. He told me how Ken painted, and I wondered how you could make sculpture like that. When I decided to work with virgin steel—steel with no memory—I got all of the lengths into the studio and started moving the bars on the floor with my foot, generating spaces. As I did that, I remembered David’s story about Ken. I started to weld diagonals to maintain the spaces, and that’s how the “cage” pieces started. When Ken saw them, he said that he didn’t think anybody could make sculptures from his Plaids paintings; then he offered me some of David Smith’s steel.

Within, 2001– 02. Stainless steel, 45 x 41 x 39 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BM: In 1999, you produced a group of small bronzes—closed-in, organic forms suggesting animals and plant growth. In works like Within (2001–02), those organic aspects seem to have cross-fertilized with the hard-edged “cages” to produce rounded, “soft” structures. Why the shifts?
JG: I was just being curious. Nature uses a lot of lateral thinking; it’s not linear. There’s only one chromosome that separates the male from the female. I’m curious about all parts of who I am. You can get used to working in a certain way and that gets boring.

BM: Around 2007, you started making “wrapped” works—dense pieces that suggest a sci-fi world of hybrid forms, stitched, folded, and incised. Are they now mutating into objects with religious associations?
JG: There are temple-like pieces going back to the ’80s. Tomorrow (1982–84) uses a niche and architectural ideas. Religions are a means to an end—one is looking at the world through different eyes. I am always looking for ideas. Movies, particularly sci-fi films, are an image bank; they’ve become very sophisticated visually.

BM: Are you in any real sense an Irish sculptor?
JG: Is Beckett French? If you use that logic, you will have stripped Ireland of most of its great artistic achievers. Francis Bacon is an Irish artist; he is in-your-face Irish, there is nothing English about his work. Culture is what declares our humanity, irrespective of where it is made or who makes it. Curiously I seem to be beyond the pale: my work is not shown or collected by Dublin museums, nor do they come to my exhibitions.

Tomorrow, 1982–84. Painted and waxed steel, 88 x 26 x 52 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BM: What is your philosophy of sculpture?
JG: To make is to do, and doing is thinking, and thinking has all the ingredients of intellectual activity. Sculpture of value has all of this: it’s what differentiated us from animals all those years ago. Visual art holds the oldest and most continuous evidence of our human intellectual life.

BM: What have you been working on recently?
JG: I am working on new pieces in the “Presence” series, with a more open core, and another series with suspended elements. The “Panel” works, which were originally inspired by images of tsunamis and storms on the west coast of Ireland, have now become increasingly sparse, more like wall drawings. I’ve also started a group of works with forged elements that I got from Tony Caro’s studio, including She Moved/Her Hair and the “Messenger” series. There is other work going on, but I’m not sure where it is going to or coming from. I prefer to be aware in hindsight. I do not want to become too conscious of process, as it is a killer.

Brian McAvera is a playwright and critic based in Northern Ireland.