Reel 3, 1969. Mild steel, sprayed and stove-enameled zinc, approximately 257 x 500 x 340 cm.

Phillip King: A Life in Sculpture

Phillip King was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2010. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

Red Erect, 1998. Steel and aluminum, 90 x 95 x 55 cm.

In 1960, Phillip King returned to London from a trip to Greece, cleared the entire contents of his studio, repainted it from top to bottom, and started afresh. The work that he made over the next three years helped to revolutionize British sculpture and announced him as one of the most important and radical sculptors of his generation. The eight works shown at his first one-man exhibition in London in 1964 have now become icons of modern British sculpture, notably Declaration (1961), Rosebud (1962), Genghis Khan (1963), and Tra-La-La (1963). Their daring and strident originality is undimmed to this day, just as King hoped it would be: “I want people to stand aghast for a second, and I hope they’ll do it again and again with my best work.”1 These extraordinary sculptures were just the beginning. Each decade since has brought new works of exceptional vitality and innovation, from joyful masterpieces in brightly painted steel, such as Dunstable Reel (1970), to the raw materiality of pieces like Tracer (1977), and on to a new flowering of color in his recent work, epitomized by Sun Roots II (2008). For more than half a century, King has forged ahead with an unwavering commitment to extending the expressive possibilities of sculptural form. He has continually explored new materials and processes, testing the traditions of sculpture while challenging and redefining the successes of his past work. King’s contribution to modern art is celebrated this year with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center.

Sun and Moon, 2007. Painted stainless steel, 860 x 480 x 300 cm.

King’s memories of his childhood in Tunis, where he was born in 1934, are of hunting for Roman coins around Kheredine, near Carthage. Instead he found a large vein of clay and used it to model animal figurines, which he sold to family and friends. He came to London with his family shortly after World War II and later spent a formative year in Paris as part of his National Service. He traces his love of sculpture to time spent in the Louvre and the experience of running his hands over an ancient Greek marble carving of a woman’s torso to try and understand its subtlety and power: “I knew instinctively that there was more to the form than I could see…I discovered that with sculpture things go on beneath the surface that you are aware of but cannot put into works.” The encounter made him realize that the sculptor’s eye has to be a “surrogate for the body…you feel bodily through your eyes.”2

In 1955, King returned to Britain to take up a place at Christ’s College Cambridge to study Modern Languages but quickly found himself drawn back to sculpture. He began to work in clay, producing a group of expressive figurative sculptures. In 1957, after just two years teaching himself to model, he hired a small gallery space at Heffer’s Bookshop in Cambridge and held his first exhibition. Seizing the initiative, he sent a private view invitation and return train ticket from London to Cambridge to Anthony Caro, who was teaching at Saint Martin’s. Caro came, was impressed, and offered King a place at Saint Martin’s. There, King continued to develop his figurative work, modeling in clay and plaster. To this day, he identifies himself principally as a modeler rather than a carver. This set him apart from the direct carving tradition of avant-garde British sculpture, which he encountered particularly in the work of Henry Moore, for whom he worked as an assistant from 1959 to 1960. By this time, King was allowing his expressive modeling to distort his figures, sometimes to the point of near abstraction. They demonstrate a powerful feeling for bodily form, with affinities to the sculpture of Matisse and Germaine Richier, among others. But, for King, these early works were too closely yoked to the climate of British sculpture that had dominated the postwar period and was fast feeling outdated. In the 1950s, themes of anxiety, vulnerability, and mounded body abounded, from the so-called “geometry of fear” sculptors, such as Lynn Chadwick and Kenneth Armitage, to the early works of Caro and Eduardo Paolozzi. “It was somehow terribly like scratching your ow wounds,” King recalled, “an international style with everyone sharing the same neuroses.”3

Rosebud, 1962. Plastic, 152.5 x 183 x 183 cm.

By the time that King took a Boise Scholarship to travel to Greece in 1960, he had joined the staff at Saint Martin’s. He left for Greece deeply concerned about the course of his work. A visit to Documenta II in Kassel, where he was the work of the American Abstract Expressionists, confirmed for him that a gulf existed between modern sculpture and the vitality of modern painting. But he was skeptical as to whether abstraction could allow him to maintain the fundamental connection with nature that he sought in his sculpture. His visits to the Acropolis were transformative: “It seemed to me that, in Greece, architecture grew so naturally out of the environment, it wasn’t something just plonked down like a formula…It seemed of nature and not about nature.”4 Here was an uncompromising abstraction, organized by a profound understanding of natural principles. For King, it opened the possibility of using abstraction to explore man’s place within nature without trying to convey that experience by imitating natural appearances, however expressively.

When he returned to London, he destroyed most of his clay and plaster works. In the blank space of his freshly painted studio, he made Window piece (1960-61) and Declaration (1961) as his first major statements in sculptural abstraction. Both embody an austere classicism, stripped of obvious associations and allusions, their energy invested fully in the purity and strength of their formal elements. Declaration, a sequence of circles, squares, and crosses made of rendered cement and joined together with a steel bar – a sort of totem pole of Platonic forms laid on its side – marks King’s growing need to work from his intellect rather than proceeding from intuition and emotion alone. His sketchbooks from this period are threaded through with writings, which try to formulate the general principles and universal underpinnings that he sought to explore in his sculpture. But his was not a search for ideal form as Declaration might initially suggest. King’s writings and sketches are not preconceived blueprints for sculpture but a way of energizing himself to work. His sculptures emerge from their making and within the limits of their material, rather than being made to plan. Yet at the same time, they aspire to reveal universally viable principles – forms and compositions that transcend personal emotions, local circumstances, and external references. This was the sculptural challenge that emerged as king moved into abstraction, and it has remained central to his work ever since.

Spring-a-Ling, 1983. Steel plate, mesh, steel, cable, and chain, 195.5 x 216 x 138.5 cm.

In the early 1960s, this challenge led King to think about the very origins of sculpture and what might constitute the first “sculptural act.” The work of Brancusi seemed to suggest that stacking was primal. However, the idea that lifting and leaning may have equal claim as a sculptural origin captivated King (examples were close at hand in the Neolithic standing stones of the British Isles). Drift (1961) explored the idea with a large plaster form supported by two lengths of wood leaning against one another. This inverted V-shaped form gave rise to the development of the cone in the seminal Rosebud. Although connected to King’s initial experiments in abstraction, Rosebud is a sculpture of breathtaking originality that could not have been anticipated from what had gone before. Made of plastic, which King modeled and shaped by hand and painted vibrant pink, it was a provocative statement of what a radically new sculptural language could achieve. Its power lies in its potent combination of gravitas and play. Rosebud is the result of serious formal concerns, which revolve around issues of interiority and exteriority, volume and mass. The outer pink plastic skin appears to stretch tight around an inner blue-green skin, glimpsed along an open slit on one side. But the body covered by these skins is invisible – an absent presence, volume without mass. As we ponder the implication of these formal ideas, the title, Rosebud, continually pricks our consciousness. It pulls us into the realm of representation, which the sculpture itself both confirms and denies, and teases that our profound contemplations might all be based on an enormous pink plastic flower.

In Genghis Khan, the invisible core of the cone appears to cleave apart the outer skin, as the inner sheath floods out of the bottom and sides and explodes out of the top like some erupting volcano. Again the title cues us to a representation or even symbolic reading. But our inability to map such associations convincingly onto King’s sculptures confirms their independence. The thrill comes from the great risks that King takes in balancing sculptural integrity with the dangers of its undoing.

Ascona, 1972. Painted mild steel, 231 x 457 x 457 cm.

Coming out of sculptural age of latent “chromophobia” (to borrow David Batchelor’s term) and anxiety-ridden seriousness, King’s work of the 1960s produced a keenly felt and radical impact. In 1965, he was a prominent presence in the Whitechapel Gallery’s landmark “The New Generation,” which made the case for a new dawn in British sculpture with works by William Tucker, David Annesley, Tim Schott, and other young artists. King was quickly identified as a leading figure of this powerful new flowering of talent. He was given his own exhibition at the Whitechapel in 1968 and that same year represented Britain at the Venice Biennale alongside Bridget Riley.

Throughout his career, King’s pursuit of sculptural invention has been driven by an exploration of different materials. In the later 1960s and early 1970s, steel replaced fiberglass and plastic as his principal medium. His establishment of a large studio space outside London in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, allowed him to work on a bigger scale with large steel sheets. The work of this period is invested with his earlier ideas about sculptural origins. Dunstable Reel (1970) clearly maintains a sense of its origins, as if cut and folded upwards from the horizontal plane of the steel sheet. But the result of its release is a joyfully liberated Matissian dance of form and color. The weightlessness of King’s sculptural choreography belies the actual weight of its steel sheets, working in defiance of gravity’s pull.

Shogun, 1980. Wood and steel, 216 x 254 x 188 cm.

Intense color remains central to king’s work of this period. Always applied to the surface of his sculptures, it acts as an independent and transformative element, rather than being integral to the material. King’s ability to use color to affect sculptural form is nowhere more evident than in the four-part Blue Blaze (1967), which relies on its blaze of color to unify the somewhat disparate forms into a whole composition. But if color changes form, then the reverse is also true. The slanted, stepped forms catch the light differently, altering the intensity and shade of the blue as if they were differently colored brushstrokes.

In 1969, King made his first trip to Japan. He remembers the powerful effect of experiencing “a culture that believed in connecting with [raw] materials on a very basic level.”5 This discovery surfaced in his work from the mid-1970s onwards as he began to use unpainted steel and roughly hewn materials such as slate and wood, exploiting the power and beauty of their natural surfaces. These elemental qualities are matched by a renewed effort to address the relationship between sculptural form and the forces of nature. In works such as Tracer, elements strain against one another as if being pulled by a great gravitational force. Rather than springing upwards like Dunstable Reel, here sculpture is conceived as a suspended moment of tension between the hand of nature and the hand of the artist pulling in different directions. In other works, such as Shotgun (1980), thick lengths of steel tangled with tree trunks maintain a precarious balance as if tossed together and deposited after a great flood. And yet the artfully arranged coil of machine chain filling one of the work’s empty spaces asserts the presence of the sculptor’s hand – as if announcing that this was no accident.

Maquette for Obelisk Drift, 1994. Bronze, 28.5 x 32 x 17.8 cm.

In 1978, king was commissioned to create a work for the newly completed European Patent Office in Munich. The architect invited him to “challenge his building,” and King was not shy. Cross-bend (1978-80) springs off the rood in an energetic tumble of massive steel blocks. It undoubtedly challenges the ordered formalism of the building itself, but rather than subverting the architecture, Cross-bend incorporates it into one large sculptural vision grew from his understanding of classical architecture. Cross-bend dramatizes the invisible action of gravity and the dynamic interaction of mass, volume, and space that would otherwise go unnoticed. For king, sculpture is “the art of the invisible,” and it responds to forms and forces that are known but not seen, as he first realized as a teenager in a the Louvre.

King, who was appointed CBE in 1974, has served as a trustee of the Tate Gallery (1967-69) and was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy of Art in 1977. His numerous solo exhibitions have included major retrospectives at the Hayward Gallery (1981) and the Forte Belvedere in Florence (1997), where he was the first British sculptor since Henry Moore to be honored with an exhibition. King has continued to teach throughout his career, for many years at Saint Martin’s (1959-78), but he has also assumed professorships at the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin (1979-80) and the Royal College of Art (1980-90). When he was elected as a Royal Academician in 1990, he took up the post of Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools, where he continues to teach. He was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1999, a post he held until 2004.

Such standing might have encouraged him to rest on his laurels, but he has remained a risk-taker. In the mid-1980s he began to explore symbolic figuration (along-side his abstract work), breaking the ultimate avant-garde taboo of his earlier years. King had been aware of figurative elements emerging in Red Between (1971), but they had not been given further expression. The death of his 19-year-old son Antony in a diving accident in 1984 directed King into the realm of the memorial and the monumental, which ushered in a new sculptural language. The obelisk became a recurrent theme, epitomized by works such as Monument for Hiroshima (1987-88). This would lead to the “Fire King” series (1989-92), a personal combination of symbol, figuration, and narrative arranged in surrealistic compositions that King modeled in the flower-arranging material Oasis and then cast in bronze.

Still Life with Moon, 1998. Plastic and nao paper, 42 x 35 x 18 cm.

King’s desire to push sculptural boundaries and to explore different materials has continued unabated. In the mid-1990s he returned to clay, this time inspired by Japanese pottery. The outcome was an astonishing group of ceramic sculptures exploring the form of the vessel; their subversive drive is matched by a deep reverence for the traditions of both sculpture and pottery. His 2008 exhibition “Living with Color” made a further unexpected conjunction, this time between sculpture and furniture. The show blurred the boundaries between the two in ways that questioned sculpture’s status and sent up the idea of art’s self-imposed divorce form everyday life – most brilliantly expressed in Hat Stand and Bin (Homage to Malevich).

A visit to King’s London studio offers tantalizing suggestions of what might come next. One is presented with an ever-swelling sea of brightly colored maquettes that jostle with earlier pieces in an array of different materials. New large-scale sculptures, such as Sun Roots II, demonstrate the inventive power of King’s creative process and his remarkable ability to turn his own sculptural tradition, accrued over the last half century, to new account. Almost exactly 50 years after his birth as a modern sculptor is an appropriate time to celebrate King’s lifetime achievement. However, a walk around the studio, with Kind excitedly discussing developing works and new ideas, makes it quite clear that his achievements are far from complete.

Barnaby Wright is the Daniel Katz Curator of 20th Century Art at the Courtauld Gallery in London.


1 King quoted in Norbert Lynton, “Latest Developments in British Sculpture,” Art and Literature 1964: No. 2.

2 Interview with the author, 2009.

3 King quoted in Charles Harrison, “Phillip King Sculpture 1960-68,” Artforum December 1968.

4 King quoted in Lynn Cooke, The Sculpture of Phillip King, 1969-72, unpublished MA thesis, Courtland Institute of Art, 1978.

5 Interview with the author, op. cit.