The 1960s saw an expansion in British university provision following the Robbins report. This was the era of the campus university when universities were founded on sites of a minimum size of 200 acres. Sussex was the first in 1961 and was quickly followed by Keele, East Anglia, York and Essex. The University of Warwick received its first undergraduates in 1965 and they were accommodated at Gibbet Hill until a group of major buildings were completed on the main site in 1966-67. Their architect was Eugene Rosenberg, a leading exponent of modernist architecture, who with his partners F.R.S. Yorke and C.S. Mardall, were responsible for some of the major post-war public buildings in Britain including buildings at the University of Liverpool, Gatwick Airport, St. Thomas' Hospital and Homerton Hospital in London and Manchester Magistrates' Courts.
These buildings were characterised by Rosenberg's passionate dedication to public art. Shortly before his death he wrote "I am committed to the belief that the artist has an important contribution to make to architecture. The bond between contemporary art and architecture is not easy to define, but I believe they are complementary - that architecture is enriched by art and that art has something to gain from its architectural setting. If asked why we need art, I could give answers based on philosophy, aesthetics, prestige, but the one I put high on the list is that art should be part of the enjoyment of everyday life" . He noted that it was estimated that only 15% of the population visit museums and art galleries and that the rest "has found no access" to art.
Rosenberg was deeply committed to improving access and, to this end, as much as possible involved artworks in his architecture.
The post-war regeneration of Britain was characterised by a new interest in public art. As well as signalling investment in the environment, it offered an opportunity to affirm shared values in the austere aftermath of the conflict. One of the earliest commissions was made in 1948 by Hertfordshire Education Officer John Newsom, for the United Kingdom's first co-educational Secondary Modern School, Barclay School in Stevenage. Working with the school's architects, Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, he commissioned Family Group by Henry Moore which asserted the elements of a family: a child centred in the loving and protective embrace of its mother and father. In 1956, the London County Council committed £20,000 to sculpture for its new schools and housing estates. Elisabeth Frink's Blind Beggar and Dog of 1957 for the Cranbrook Estate in Bethnal Green offered a similar sense of a shared humanity to that of Moore's Family Group, but even the more abstract works such as Lynn Chadwick's The Watchers or William Turnbull's Sungazer had a sense of human activity.
Rosenberg took a more ambitious approach. An active, informed and interested collector of contemporary and twentieth century art, he encouraged the managers of the buildings he designed to view the works of art as part of a growing collection which would enrich the experience of the people using the buildings. A modernist himself, he appreciated the achitectural potential of the large colour-field paintings of the 1960s which engaged with spatial possibilities. He was less concerned with the articulation of social values than with the visual experience of moving through a building.
Many of the abstract paintings of the 1960s were made with a heightened consciousness of the viewer and their relationship with the artwork. In 1951 the American painter Mark Rothko had stated
"I paint large pictures because I want to create a state of intimacy. A large picture is an immediate transaction: it takes you into it".
Richard Smith introduced this statement to other artists at the Royal College of Art in 1956. In the Place exhibition of 1959 which featured works by Robyn Denny, Ralph Rumney and Richard Smith, it was noted by the media that 'They hang the paintings on the floor'. These large scale abstract paintings were articulated like walls through the gallery space. Their placement and the consequent experience created for the visitor was an integral part of the exhibition; 'it demands the participation of the spectator'. In effect, placement was replaced by place; an environment created by by the works themselves rather than the gallery. Unlike a mural, these works could be moved and so the sense of place resided in the work itself rather than in a particular physical location.
In a text written for the catalogue accompanying the Situation exhibition of 1962, Roger Coleman expanded this idea, arguing that the new generation of artists were developing a new concept of space and therefore a new relationship with the viewer. If paintings were denied the possibility of creating the illusion of recessive space then the alternative was for them to expand both in width and height to contain and confine the viewer. This was an 'environmental definition' of painting and was discussed in terms of the viewer's physical negotiation of the paintings . Coleman proposed that the paintings were to be viewed in a way which involved the movement of the head rather than the flick of an eye. One sense of the spatial relationships between the viewer and the artwork was articulated by Gillian Ayres in 1962 when she wrote of painting's own nature - a mark making its own image in its own space - the canvas viewed as a whole image and space - an essence - perhaps like a space a sailor of Magellan's would have felt when the world was flat and he had sailed off the edge'.
The embrace of the artwork, established by its formal characteristics, leads to the viewer's capitulation to its internal references and the loss of a sense of self which is dependent on references from the concrete world. The titles of the paintings tend to reinforce their formal characteristics and, more, more often than not, are a litany of colours: Red All Over, Cape Red, Red Central, Four Vermilions, Orange and Lemon with Whites or position the viewer in relation to the painting such as Roger Barnard's Towards. Occasionally, more associative titles develop like Joseph's Coat which is however, another assertion of colour, or Petersburg by Bernard Cohen in the Arts Council Collection which, in its complete lack of landscape references, reinforces the absence of firm foundations on which to base more literal interpretations.
It is perhaps ironic that these large paintings, made in studios converted from small bed-sits and destined for the silent, revelatory, sterile spaces of the new, white painted contemporary galleries, should be displayed in the corridors, foyers and seminar rooms of the University of Warwick, adjacent to notice boards, Health and Safety signage and often competing for the viewer's attention with the display boards and coffee paraphanalia of conferences. Their engagement with the viewer as paintings per se is disrupted by this presentation as public art. The place and placing of public art is often a substitute for the contextualisation provided by a gallery exhibition. For example, Antony Gormley's Angel of the North symbolises the regeneration of the North East and celebrates the engineering skills of the people of this area. However, Eugene Rosenberg did not select works which could be approached through knowledge of the University of Warwick itself. Interestingly, he did not, as elsewhere, commission works which became an integral part of the fabric of the University. In choosing works that were about spatial relationships, which were self- sufficient places themselves, the logic and resonance for these choices has been veiled.
It has take time to find ways to explain the reasons for these works. Initially, they were only accompanied by an engraved label stating artist, title and date. Unsurprisingly the collection was 'much disliked'. The relationship between viewer and painting is central to these works and yet, as public art, this relationship is unfulfilled. The gallery audience is endowed with the expectation of some sort of cultural exchange; the encounter between viewer and public art is unsought and the physical negotiation of these works and sense of removal from the world is thwarted. Following the appointment of curatorial staff in the University in the late 1980s, the collection has been assimilated into the managerial systems of museums and galleries. Since 1993 a strategy had been implemented to provide extended labels for the 737 items now in the collection, by 2001. These labels are generally based on a discussion of the aesthetic and theoretical context of the works on show and, in effect, recreate the context familiar to gallery audiences.
There is a curatorial attempt to assert the significance of these works as more than that of purely decorative objects.
This approach has limited success - it is not possible to turn the University into an art gallery; it's a working, living space. Of greater success has been a move, supported by the Lottery and the Contemporary Art Society which has allowed the University to commission works of art for particular spaces. This allows the works to acknowledge the public setting in which they are placed - to address a particular as well as a general audience, to respond to the light and volume of the space as well as introducing the artist's concerns and pre-occupations. By integrating art so firmly with not only the architecture but the purpose of the University, Eugene Rosenberg's original vision has been given new interest and meaning in the twenty- first century.