Interview: Peter Hide
The following is a transcript of an interview with Russell Bingham that appeared in the Summer 1994 issue of the Edmonton Contemporary Artists' Society newsletter, the Edmonton Review.
Russell Bingham: What made you decide to come to Edmonton?
Peter Hide: In the early '70s I decided that England was going down the tube artistically and that I wanted to move to North America. I wrote lots of applications and then I met Doug Haynes, who at the time was Head of the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta. He was in London looking for staff for the U of A, including staff for the sculpture area, and he offered me a post. So in 1977 I came to Edmonton. I had heard this was a very good albeit provincial centre and I knew of Terry Fenton. And I had already met Karen Wilkin at Clement Greenberg's in 1973 or thereabouts in New York. This place seemed important...
RB What keeps you here?
PH Well I think there is still a very vigorous art scene here in Edmonton and I've got a very good job. I like it here. It's easy to
get things done, to get steel and space is cheaper as well. On that kind of practical logistical level, things are easier.
RB What have you been doing in the past year? Are you still on sabbatical?
PH I've been on a six month study leave since January and that's allowed me to build up quite a momentum in my work. Recently, I've been exploring a horizontal wall format because I wanted to develop something that was more fluid and expansive. From the beginning, my sculptures have been sort of stiff and hieratic. I wanted to expand my range.
RB Explain what you mean by hieratic.
PH Well, for instance Egyptian or early Greek Kuros figures are hieratic -- stiff and angular. They don't have the fluidity of later Greek sculpture. Contrapposto, where a rigid side is played off against a fluid relaxed side, isn't an element.
RB You've become identified with the Edmonton type of sculpture which has tended to be involved with vertical structures and massed volumes, so this is quite a change.
PH Well I felt I wanted to expand my range, deal with modalities of feelings that I hadn't been able to deal with before or had only hinted at. I think the horizontal form is very interesting because in one sense it's inherently more abstract than the vertical form. I mean, in the vertical form, even though the parts may not relate to figure parts, there is a tendency for the sculpture to suggest anthropomorphic feelings or lurking imagery. But with the horizontal you can deal with things like sequences and episodic structures or some things that are probably more akin to music as in an unfolding stream. It seems more obviously to do with sequential arrangements. I mean vertical things can be a sequence, but there are always other associations there, like totems, figures...
RB Your sculptures tend to be more frontal now.
PH Yes. They're more front and back. They still work all around but obviously the side views are less significant. I think that when I made the vertical sculptures I was more concerned about making something that worked all around. A columnar sculpture doesn't obviously emphasize one view the way that a horizontal sculpture does.
RB Also, your new sculptures aren't as massive as...
PH Well they don't appear massive because they use more steel sheet. They are in fact bigger and heavier than the vertical sculptures.
RB You said earlier that this new format allowed you to explore new feelings. What do you mean by feelings?
PH Well, I would never say that I could be a lyrical sculptor because I think my sensibility is too ponderous, but I wanted to get away from the hieratic. I wanted to explore a more relaxed, more fluid movement in the sculpture as opposed to the staccato kind of movement that characterized my previous work.
RB So the feeling you're talking about is something that's innate to the sculpture. It's not like you're expressing your feelings through the sculpture.
PH I think there is a connection, but it isn't totally obvious. For instance I don't think you go into the studio and start feeling relaxed and expansive and say "today I'll make a relaxed expansive sculpture." But I think that probably the emotional tenor of ones existence can condition what type of sculpture you make. For example, if the sculpture is a struggle, then maybe it will reflect that in its form. It will have a sense of the conflict as a result. This doesn't contribute to the quality, though. It's neutral. In the same way, I think that some good sculptures are hieratic, stiff, tense, and some good sculptures are fluid, expansive and open. And some bad sculptures as well. It's not directly related to quality.
RB How do you see what you are doing in relation to other sculptors that you admire.
PH That's an interesting question. I have close ties to the Edmonton group of sculptors, certainly. But if you're talking about larger, more well-known figures I would say that the sculptors that most immediately have a bearing on me are David Smith and Anthony Caro. Regarding Caro, I think a lot of sculptors, especially those who were taught by Tony Caro, decided deliberately to move as far away from him as possible so as not to be seen as his disciples. The problem is that if you do that you move away from extremely fertile territory. I have been prepared to stay ostensibly closer to Tony Caro, although I don't think what I am actually doing in my work is the same.
I think that both the feeling in my work and the way in which it is made is different from his, but on a superficial level some of my wall sculptures might be seen to be similar to Tony Caro's York sculptures, say. The difference between us, perhaps, is that fairly early on I embraced the idea of making closed or solid form sculpture, not using much open space. Caro had always stressed openness and extension in his approach. I thought, what would happen if I structured forms and planes around a central point. In the first sculpture that I made this way, "Zenith," I immediately saw that this stellar form of structure did not simply guide the eye towards a dreaded focal point, but that the focussing tendency was counterbalanced by a greater emphasis on outline drawing that seemed to occur naturally, as a reciprocal force. With hindsight, it seems to me that the desire for emptiness at the centre as seen in Smith and Caro structures was possibly a carry-over from the "all-overness" of advanced painting of the time. I'm not saying that it was gratuitous. Both Smith and Caro made radical first-rate sculpture this way, but it was not -- as it seemed at the time -- the only way to make abstract sculpture. In any event, this new compacted way of structuring suited my instinct for weight and compression in sculpture.
RB You went to a sculptor's workshop in Philadelphia last summer. The sculptures that you did there were quite a bit different from the wall series. They're more hieratic again. Were you responding to the material? They're quite massive, and...
PH They're very massive, yes. To give a bit of history: In the eighties I made these very hieratic, as I see it, stiff sculptures and at the end of the eighties I felt I wanted to break out of that stiffness. And I did actually make two sculptures that I showed at Andre Emmerich that were upright but fluid as well. They had very massive forms but I was able to introduce more fluid or open centres. So with the Philadelphia pieces I was carrying on with the upright sculptures that I had been doing before, but much more massively and in a way trying to be more fluid. Trying to have freer outlines and trying to use forms that are more flowing, softer. I think that what's been happening is I've been developing two streams. I've got these walls that spread out -- which is a new area for me -- and I'm still working on the vertical form but in these very massive but hopefully more fluid works.
RB You travel a lot to places like Philadelphia and go back to England every year. How important do you feel it is to maintain this contact with the art world at large?
PH It's very important. Edmonton is a great place but it's isolated as well. It's a long way from the great museums and one doesn't see a lot of great historical art here. I think Edmonton's an important place. It may be the place where steel sculpture is being kept alive at the moment, but I still think there is a great need to compensate for the isolation of Edmonton by travelling.
RB And speaking of travel, you recently went to Italy.
PH It was the best art trip of my life, I think. Better probably than my first time to New York. Practically everything that I saw there I admired. The architecture, Donatello. As for Michelangelo, I don't really... I think he was a fantastic designer, and I enjoy a lot of things in his sculpture -- things about scale, about how to relate sculpture to architecture, about compression. But I find that in terms of feeling there's something overpowering and overwhelming. It's sort of oppressive. For example, the inside of St. Peter's is over-luxurious, over-rich. I think the total effect is gigantic, oppressive and overwhelming.
RB But as far as your feelings about Michelangelo the sculptor, are you saying that ...
PH To a lesser extent these things are there in his sculpture, but I think he's... I think there's some great ideas in his sculpture. I like the Medici Tomb and the figure of Dawn and the way... I may not like the execution, exactly, but the concept's there, you know. Donatello's a greater artist, though; delicate, refined.
RB Did you come away with anything that was unexpected?
PH I came away with a clearer view of Donatello as an artist and where he lived and how the social situation affected his art. And the sculpture that was there before Donatello, the Romanesque. Going to Florence reinforced my notion that art during that time was produced by a group and that it needed the collaboration of a lot of minds focused on the same idea, bouncing it about. I got a strong sense of a city state with the patrons involved in what went on and the artists working and knowing each other. And more particularly about Donatello, I got a strong idea of him as a young man, a middle-aged man, and an old man. I could see the art of different periods and the things he was trying to do.
RB Did any minor artists surprise you as being better than you expected?
PH There was a whole group of very good sculptors contemporary with Donatello. And of course I loved the Uffizi and I loved seeing the Roman copies of Greek sculpture. There was a beautiful figure of Calliope at the Uffizi, a marble, and it impressed on me how incredibly subtle the drawing was in the Roman copies of Greek sculpture, in classical sculpture generally. I tried to draw this figure of Calliope and I couldn't. It was too subtle. The outline and the way the outline was blended into the interior drawing was very subtle. I saw that there was a degree of refinement in the drawing and carving and in the realization of the form in relation to the profile drawing that was way beyond anything that people are doing in abstract sculpture today. That's not to say it's better as art, but I would say that I've often thought that maybe... When you look at a Duccio beside a Raphael, the Duccio seems clumsy but as art it is equally powerful. So there's an interesting point, there. Sophistication doesn't necessarily mean it's better.
RB But sophistication was a characteristic of Roman art ...
PH I think it was a characteristic of late Greek art and I think that Roman copies of late Greek art reflect that sophistication. I think that stone carving had reached an incredibly high degree of sophistication and it carried on in Roman times and then declined. It had to be rediscovered in Romanesque times, but you saw that in the lead-up to Donatello. The Romanesque sculptors who came before Donatello are quite good but they look clumsy by comparison.
RB Can you think of an artist from the past that you feel temperamentally close to?
PH I think that the person I feel closest to in terms of spirit is Beethoven. Beethoven and Cezanne. Both approached their art in a way that relied on struggle and focus and working and re-working. Their life's work seems to be a complete oeuvre -- the concentrated pursuit of an idea -- as opposed to someone perhaps like Manet or Velazquez. Not to say that I think that Manet or Velazquez are inferior artists. It's just that I identify with the other two much more.
RB Is there any particular sculptor that you feel close to? One, for example who sees form in a similar way to you...
PH Funnily enough, I don't think that... what we're doing now doesn't have exact parallels in the past. It's an odd mixture of architecture and sculpture. It's as if architecture and sculpture have been combined into a single art form, almost. At least the way I feel about it anyway. I don't relate exactly to anybody in the past. I've learned from Donatello, I've learned from Michelangelo and Rodin and primitive sculpture. African sculpture, New Guinea sculpture I've admired a lot.
RB It's interesting that you've mentioned architecture, because I've often thought of your art as being close to late Gothic architecture. That kind of fantastical, baroque period of late Gothic ...
PH I'm very interested in Gothic architecture and Gothic sculpture. And I'm very interested in Baroque architecture, particularly Borromini. Just at the beginnings of the Baroque in architecture where building facades are moulded in curves and there's a great feeling of movement and weight. When I went to Rome I would walk down these roads and I would see something that looked familiar and I would find it was a Borromini facade which I remembered from a book. And I think Borromini is a great artist. I was more interested in Borromini in Rome... But then there is Carravagio. I liked him, too.
RB Carravagio. Really?
PH Yes. Very... physical, powerful psychological presence and a great colourist. The thing that interested me about Roman art, was that you could see a certain Roman personality in the art, a grave, mighty monumental feeling. It's interesting to see how the Romans found their own particular variation in the classical. The classical style, like the Gothic, has national or regional variants and the common elements of the style serve to heighten the national differences of interpretation. Classical Greek art provided a geometric, formal underpinning for Mediterranean art in general. There's a way of treating the neck a bit like a cone and then the head as a sort of cylinder with a rounded top.
RB Like Giambologna.
PH Yes. But you can see it everywhere. You can see it in Ammannati, you can see it in this Calliope copy of a Greek sculpture from two thousand years earlier. Earlier you asked me about a surprise. Well, when I went to Florence there was a surprise. I was struck by how good Ammannati was in his bronze figures and how bad his carving was. Outside the Palazzo Vechio are three
gigantic carved figures. One is the centrepiece of an Ammanati group which consists of the bronze works also. There is also a copy of Michelangelo's "David" and a large sculpture by Bandinelli as well. None of the pieces are wholly successful either in terms of sculpture or in relation to the site. Viewed purely as sculpture, the Ammanati and Bandinelli look wooden, whereas the David copy on the other hand is graceful, but somehow the proportions are wrong (and you can see this just as easily in a copy). It's got a skinny little wasp-waist from the side view which seems insufficient to support the upper torso and head. On a broader level, these three giant figures give clear evidence of the idea--that I first heard from Clement Greenberg--about the process of carving declining and giving way to modelling and bronze casting in the sixteenth century. Ammanati's subordinate bronze figures are the clear winners in the context. The sheer size of the carved figures suggest compensation for a faltering confidence, also it seems they suggest that realistic handling and gigantism do not sit well together in figurative sculpture--this despite the fact that the scale of the square on which they are situated would seem to call for objects of this size. This impression is heightened by the fact that Donatello's "Judith and Holophernes" composition which is sited nearby is clearly too small for the site, marvellous sculpture though it is.
RB To return to what you said about Roman art, do you see a difference between the Roman as opposed to the Florentine approach?
PH I think Florence is like the Champagne area of sculpture, but I haven't fitted it all together. I think classicism in sculpture as a whole was seeing the geometry underlying the variation of the body and relating this to natural appearance. And that classical abstraction has been like a backbone to Mediterranean art.
RB How do you see this classical period as fitting into the history of art?
PH I'm not knowledgeable enough understand all of the implications of it and I haven't been to Greece either, but it seems to me that if you look at primitive art, it's very clearly geometric or abstract. And then as the story of art unfolds, artists were able to adapt this geometry to create a more naturalistic appearance in sculpture. And when you see the work in the flesh, so to speak, you can still sense--even in the most "decadent" late-Hellenistic work--the geometric underpinning of volume. I think that what Cezanne and Picasso have done is to give modern art a kind of geometrical foundation which is still in the early stages of development.
RB How do you respond to people who say that steel sculpture lacks warmth, that it doesn't have the same emotive quality that sculptural art had in previous generations?
PH Well, I think there is some truth to it. I don't think that the sort of feelings that Luca Della Robbia got in his terra cottas are possible in steel sculpture, for example, but all materials and approaches have advantages and disadvantages. Steel sculpture has great freedom, such as the structural freedom to make surprising juxtapositions and scale changes. The strength of steel enables one to consider configurations that no other material can have, and beause of the way that the arc welding process fuses steel, connections of very great delicacy are possible. But it isn't a warm humanistic material, no. But then I don't think that great art has to be that, necessarily.