Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Joanne Seaton's Catalogue Entry For Slab and Bar Relief

Catalogue entry for Geoffrey Clarke’s Slab and Bar Relief

Slab and Bar Relief, by British sculptor Geoffrey Clarke, from 1964 is cast aluminium and measures 290 cm x 260 cm. It is located on the exterior of Warwick Arts Centre on the University of Warwick’s main campus. The sculpture was commissioned in 1964 by Westminster Bank for their office on New Bond Street, London. The architects, R. D. Russell and Partners, commissioned Clarke to create a piece for the lobby of the building. The sculpture came into the University’s collection in 1992 when the bank’s building was being demolished. The sculpture was offered as a gift to the University as it was felt that the work would complement the already strong post-war British collection at the University and its inclusion in the collection is also significant due to the work that Clarke had done for the nearby Coventry Cathedral. It underwent conservation before arriving at the University, which Westminster Bank contributed towards.

The sculpture, on its arrival at the university, was located in the Sculpture Court at the Arts Centre, alongside works by artists such as Keir Smith, Peter Randall-Page and Michael Sandle. Works by Richard Deacon and Lillian Lijn were also close by. In 1994 it was relocated to its present position at the front entrance to the Arts Centre. Despite its intention on commission to be displayed indoors the type of aluminium, LM6, used by Clarke allowed it to be displayed externally successfully as it is not corrosive under ordinary atmospheric conditions.

Slab and Bar Relief is an abstract work which uses horizontal and vertical forms to create a protruding structure from a simple, rectangular backboard. Clarke has placed two vertical and six horizontal aluminium bars on the left hand side of the piece and, despite the right side being left clear, the work possesses a balanced appearance. The horizontal planes, of various lengths, are placed at right angles against their vertical counterparts at a variety of levels which also create equilibrium within the piece. Clarke created holes in the vertical bars for the horizontal planes but some holes are left empty, which creates a lightness to the piece, which otherwise may have seemed heavy due the use of metal as a medium.

This sculpture was created at a time when Clarke’s work was shifting in style and in material. This new work derived and was inspired by engineered forms from the industrial world, such as metal implements, machinery and basic units such as bars and beams. Previously Clarke had worked with organic rough forms in a variety of medium which included stained glass and iron sculpture. The years 1963 and 1964 saw him experimenting for the first time with combinations of smoother and linear vertical and horizontal shapes.

This change in style was combined by a profound change in the early 1960s in Clarke’s working processes as he developed a technique of casting in aluminium. Clarke wanted to create large, monumental sculptures for architectural projects, to be a ‘public artist’ and make a difference to people’s surroundings. However, he was becoming increasingly frustrated with iron as a medium which did not allow for large work. Clarke was the first and virtually the only artist to work in this manner of casting in aluminium which is a light material good for large works, especially LM6 which was easy to work with on a considerable scale. The method sees his original polystyrene models buried in sand which are then vaporised when the molten metal is poured into feeders to create the final shape. Clarke perfected this method by creating reliefs, such as the one for Castrol House in 1959, but the principal aim was to create free standing three dimensional sculptures without the need to make a traditional mould. Slab and Bar Relief is a good example of the advantages of this method as it was cast as one piece and allowed Clarke to create a large composition. The LM6 aluminium can be cast in a thinner and more intricate manner than other casting alloys helping to creating textural detail and it takes full advantage of the shapes most naturally cut from a cube of polystyrene. The work also displays the ability of this method to retain the natural surface texture of the polystyrene, which can be seen on the back rectangle in particular, creating a rough texture in the aluminium. The Slab and Bar Relief exists in four versions; every sculpture is individual as the polystyrene shapes are destroyed in each casting process therefore each subsequent mould would be carved uniquely by hand. The original lead maquette was sized 12.5 x 10.9 x 1.6cm, but the largest of the four sculptures is the one situated at Warwick University. There was one at an intermediate size created, 146 x 129 x 18cm, and was exhibited at the Redfern Gallery in 1965 amongst other places. The smallest cast sculpture, 20 x 18cm, was intended as an edition of ten, but this did not take place for an unknown reason. The process of casting in different sizes was new to Clarke at this time, beginning this practice in 1964. Thereby Slab and Bar Relief is a very good example of Clarke’s development in new methods of construction and style whilst retaining established and previously used subject matter and themes.

Born in Derbyshire in 1924, Clarke spent a year at Preston School of Art between 1940-1 and Manchester School of Art between 1941-2. He served in the aircrew of RAF for three years from 1943 and then enrolled at Lancaster and Morecambe School of Arts and Crafts for a year in 1947. He started at the Royal College of Art in 1948 on a Graphic Design course but he soon transferred to join the Stained Glass Department. However, Clarke wanted to express his ideas in a more concrete form, not in the solid volume of Henry Moore’s work, but in a linear and constructed manner. Clarke’s etchings from the 1950s display an influence of the Neo-Romantics with an illustrative quality and religious mysticism. Around this time Clarke also discovered the work of Paul Klee and he simplified his ideas and gravitated further towards a linear form in his work.

Clarke has always had a profound spiritual belief and spent a lot of time in the British Museum looking at early sculpture and primitive objects. Clarke was inspired by these artists as the objects they created were not for ‘consumption’ but were integral to life and the work was more than mere decoration. Clarke also undertook numerous commissions for churches, and completed a cross for the altar of All Saints and Martyrs Church, Langley, Manchester in 1964, the same year as Slab and Bar Relief. The Langley cross is composed of a ladder like structure implying a spiritual ascent by man to the heavenly sphere. The protruding elements of in the Slab and Bar Relief could also be read as an abstracted ladder, even though it is not immediately obvious to the viewer the work most likely has an strong underlying symbolism important to Clarke. This demonstrates a spiritual aspect to Clarke’s work, one which supports his ideals of being a public artist, and helps us to further understand the formalism of Slab and Bar Relief.

There is a dominant calligraphic element in Far Eastern bronze works which Clarke admired amongst the items in the British Museum. He is also attracted to ideograms which are written symbols that represent an idea or object directly rather than using a particular word or speech sound. This easily defines a Chinese character, and supports the idea that the bars and planes in Slab and Bar Relief are inspired by or allude to a Chinese character, despite Clarke not understanding the Chinese alphabet. The shapes in the sculpture can also have the ability to be appreciated for their aesthetic form without knowing their meaning. The formal qualities are enabled by the medium as the polystyrene helped Clarke to shape these calligraphic forms in a much easier and probably larger manner than iron or bronze may have allowed.

The linear and structural nature of this work may also make reference to the fabric of buildings, as Clarke saw art as integral to architecture. This belief was encouraged and enabled by the post war rebuilding as the mid 1950s saw a spell of increased building and architectural redevelopment. Clarke took full advantage and carried out over fifty architectural commissions from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s which included sculpture, mosaic and stained glass. However, Clarke liked to use aluminium as he could work quickly with it. Moreover, he felt the colour had a harmonising effect with architecture and it had the advantage of it being cheaper making larger works more economically viable. Clarke collaborated with architects and designers at the Festival of Britain in 1951 as he was chosen to represent the Royal College of Art and he created an iron sculpture for the interior of the Time Life Building in 1952 in London. His relief for Castrol House was followed by work for the P&O Liners Canberra and Oriana in 1961and work for the Nottingham Playhouse in 1963.

However, one of his most significant architectural collaborations was with Basil Spence at the new Coventry Cathedral from 1952-6, which is what makes his inclusion in the University Collection so appropriate. Spence had chosen the Stained Glass Department at the Royal College of Art to create the ten windows for the nave of the new cathedral. Three artists, including Clarke, created three windows each and all collaborated on the tenth window. Clarke also created a number of other works for the cathedral such as the High Altar Cross and candlesticks, the cross and candlesticks for the Undercroft, the Crown of Thorns and the Flying Cross. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1962.

Geoffrey Clarke has been included in many group exhibitions and also has had many solo shows. His first one man show was held at Gimpel Fils Gallery, London, in 1952. Also in the same year his work was included in the Venice Biennale and in 1953 he entered the competition for The Unknown Political Prisoner organised by the ICA. In 1963 he exhibited at Battersea Open Air exhibition, which included three monumental aluminium sculptures. In 1965 he had a retrospective at the Redfern Gallery, London and his work Table was acquired by the Tate Gallery. 1965 also saw his inclusion in British Sculpture exhibition at the Tate Gallery. He became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1970 and was selected for 'British Sculptors ‘72’, at the Royal Academy of Arts. He became a Royal Academician in 1975 and was included in 'British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century', at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1981. He had a one-man show in the Friends' Room at the Royal Academy in 1994 and a touring exhibition in association with Ipswich Borough Council Museums and Galleries, also in 1994. Most recently he has had exhibitions at Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and the Fine Art Society, London in 2006.

His work is held in many public collections such as the Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum and Arts Council of Great Britain. Internationally his work is held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the New York Public Library.