Paul Neagu:
Palpable Sculpture

Romanian-born Paul Neagu remains somewhat of an outsider from the narrative of British art; whilst he exhibited widely in the UK during his lifetime, his work has remained far less widely known than the stars of British sculpture that he went on to teach, including Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Rachel Whiteread. To rectify this, the Henry Moore Institute’s exhibition adopted a curatorial approach described by curator Lisa Le Feuvre as focusing on ‘the work as object’.  The exhibition’s title of ‘Palpable Sculpture’ was taken from Neagu’s 1969 ‘Palpable Art Manifesto’ – an ode to phenomenological engagement with art – and reflected the curatorial concern to re-situate Neagu’s engagement with the sculptural object. Spanning drawing, film, photography, clothing and exhibition ephemera, this was not merely ‘sculpture in an expanded field’ to paraphrase Rosalind Krauss, but an exhibition that demonstrated the all-encompassing nature of Neagu’s practice across writing, poetry, painting and performance.

The first room of the exhibition formed a visual illustration of Neagu’s theories on the tactile and the perceptual. The works, small in size and portable in nature, took the functional form of folded boxes, waiting to be opened out and touched. A photograph of Neagu’s 1970 exhibition at the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh showed visitors touching sculptures that were suspended on wires from the ceiling, and a portion of this installation was recreated in the first room of the Henry Moore Institute – although visitors were unable to physically interact with the hanging mobiles. Neagu’s sculptural boxes also recalled the importance he placed on the influence of his father’s trade as a craftsman, and were characterised by a focus on texture and a wide range of materials, including terracotta, wood, wax, leather, newspaper and scrap metal. The box form has clear art historical etymology in Duchamp and Surrealism, and Neagu demonstrated a self-consciousness awareness of this in titles such as ‘Platform for Duchamp’ (1970).

The works were not merely limited to engagement with touch, but instead offered the potential for activation of all five senses. A forerunner to Gormley’s ‘Bed’ (1980-1), both ‘Bread and Knives’ (1971) and ‘Untitled (The Gingerbread Man)’ (1970), pioneered the use of food as a sculptural material. A screening of Neagu’s 1971 ‘Cake Man’ performance at the Sigi Krauss Gallery, in which waffles linked together by cream were stacked together to form a life-size figure, demonstrated the climatic fulfilment of this concept of edible sculpture.

Using the waffles as the individual building blocks for his ‘cake man’, Neagu established his concept of the human being as a fragmented object that is linked by a series of miniature and interconnected ‘ anthropocosmic cells’.  He asserted that these cells could catch experience, a concept that infiltrated both his drawing and sculptural practice. In the diagrammatic, semi-anatomical ‘Anthropocosmos’ drawing series (1972-3), he drew links between the micro and the macro, whilst the use of interlinking matchboxes containing mosaics in ‘Great Tactile Table’ (1970) suggested compartmentalising and collecting. The concept even extended to Neagu’s performance work; the 1971 ‘Jumpsuit’ used for the performance ‘Horizontal Rain’ was filled with horizontal transparent pouches. Through the collection of ‘experience’, the exhibition effectively established a connection between Neagu’s philosophical and phenomenological approaches.

The exhibition ended on a moment of reflection with Neagu’s master ensemble the ‘Nine Catalytic Stations’ (1980s) – a set of nine complex wooden and plaster shapes, individually titled and installed together in a circle. Described by Neagu as ‘liturgical sculptures…universal, to share, to witness, to save one’s soul’, they seemed to draw together the diverse elements of his multifaceted practice; their wooden craftsmanship was testimony to the palpable, whilst their ritualistic presence evoked the mystic otherworldliness of the ‘anthropocosmos’. The exhibition paid such rigorous attention to Neagu’s objects and his craftsmanship that both were allowed to transcend the limits of their material to develop into a kind of spiritual investigation – one that was endlessly fascinating and confirmed Neagu’s place within the poet-sculptor tradition of his East European heritage.

Clare Nadal is a writer, curator and art historian based in Sheffield.

Paul Neagu: Palpable Sculpture was at The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds from 13 August – 8 November 2015. See here for upcoming projects.

Image: Paul Neagu, ‘Anthropocosmos 457 Cells (Skeleton)’, 1972-3. Pencil, gouache, crayon and ink on perspex and paper, 150.2 x 150.2cm. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne / Bridgeman Images © The Estate of Paul Neagu. All rights reserved, DACS 2015.