Brian Wall sculptor

(b. 5th September 1931)

Brian Wall photographed by Adrian Flowers, on 6th February 1963

In 1956, Adrian Flowers visited the sculptor Brian Wall at his studio at Custom House Lane, Porthmeor in St. Ives. Using 120mm colour transparency stock, Flowers photographed a series of painted wood constructions by Wall, setting them up not in the studio but in the open air, on the flat sands of the beach. With titles such as Construction No. 1 and Construction No. 10, the modular black and white frames of these early works by Wall suggest the steel supports of Modernist buildings, while their inner panels, painted in primary colours, are in some ways the realisation in three-dimensional form of paintings by Mondrian.

Brian Wall with his “Construction” sculptures on St Ives Beach, 1956

Flowers photographed Wall and his sculptures several times over the following decades. A sequence of black and white portrait shots taken in February 1963 show Wall assuming various poses; seated, in close-up, head and shoulders, smiling, smoking a cigarette, making funny expressions, hand under chin. He appears by turns thoughtful, quizzical, good-humoured, tough and determined. One sheet of contact prints shows him seated on a high stool. A folder [ref 4456] also contains several large-scale prints, made from these negatives.

Contact sheet, Brian Wall photographed by Adrian Flowers, 6th February 1963

Born in Paddington on 5th September 1931, Brian Wall’s childhood was spent in London, although during WWII he was evacuated to Yorkshire. After the war he left school, aged fourteen, to work as a glassblower in a factory. In 1949 he enlisted in the RAF for two years, where he trained as an aerial photographer (as had Adrian Flowers and Len Deighton), before enrolling at Luton College of Art. Deciding to become a painter, in 1954 Wall settled in St. Ives, where initially he worked at the Tregenna Castle Hotel. Shortly afterwards he met Peter Lanyon, who helped him find a studio in Custom House Lane, where Wall worked alongside Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and Sandra Blow. In 1955 he was introduced by Denis Mitchell to Barbara Hepworth, becoming her first studio assistant. He also met David Lewis, who had written on the work of Mondrian and Brancusi, and in 1956 was elected a member of the Penwith Society, exhibiting his work in the Society’s annual shows.

Adrian Flowers photographing Brian Wall, February 1963

During these years, starting with the painted wood constructions, Wall developed his own sculpture practice, but quickly moved on making works in welded steel. The year after his first one-person show at the Architectural Association in 1957, he was included in the Arts Council exhibition Contemporary British Sculpture, and he also showed with the Drian and Grabowski galleries. In 1959, an article on his work was published in Architectural Design. Moving back to London, Wall became active in fine art education, serving on the National Council for Diplomas in Art and Design, and also on the Arts Council of Great Britain. In 1961-2, he taught at Ealing College of Art, before being appointed Head of Sculpture at the Central School of Art (now Central St. Martins), where William Turnbull and Barry Flanagan were also teaching. In 1961 Wall represented England at the 2nd Paris Biennale, and over the following years his work was shown in exhibitions throughout Britain. He featured in Bryan Robertson and John Russell’s 1965 Private View, a book documenting the rise of London as a centre for contemporary art.

A subsequent set of photographs [ref 5562] taken in London by Adrian Flowers record a series of medium and smaller sized welded steel sculptures by Wall, such as Untitled Steel Sculpture, Black 1964. Some were photographed in a studio setting, others in a laneway outside the artist’s studio. Several feature discs, and circles juxtaposed with straight pieces of steel, such as One Disc (1966); others are purely angular and geometric. Other photographs show the artist in his home, with family members, sculptures displayed on tables, and a geometric abstract painting on the wall.

In 1967 Wall had a solo exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and was included in the Tate’s British Sculpture in the Sixties. On 25th March of the following year his Always Advancing, a large public sculpture in the form of two A’s, was sited at Thornaby-on-Tees in Yorkshire. In 1968, Wall’s sculptures were included in an exhibition organised by the Whitechapel Art Gallery, New British Painting and Sculpture, that toured to cities in North America, including Portland, Vancouver, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco. The artist visited the US several times, becoming friendly with Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and the writer Clement Greenberg. In 1969, when the exhibition was shown at the art museum at Berkeley University, he was invited to become a visiting Professor there, and returned the following year, becoming a permanent faculty member in 1972. Although there were artists working in steel before Wall settled in San Francisco, they tended to work in less ‘pure’ modes. His presence in the area influenced several artists, including Fletcher Benton, to begin working directly, in a more abstract way, with welded steel. Taking up US citizenship, Wall became recognised more as an American sculptor and was appointed Chair of the Art Department at Berkeley, a post he held until his retirement in 1994. Throughout his teaching career, he continued to make his own work, setting up a studio and workshop in Oakland, where his assistant is the sculptor Grant Irish. He prefers to make his sculptures directly, working with pieces of steel on a one to one scale, rather than constructing maquettes, or working from drawings. This invests Wall’s work with qualities of lightness that are often absent in large-scale abstract metal sculptures. His pieces appear to teeter, tilt and turn. Circles, cylinders, I-beams and plates hover and jostle playfully. In spite of the massive scale, and the industrial materials he employs, there is a palpable pleasure and joy in his work.

Although Wall rejects the term “Constructivist” to describe his work—on the basis that his work does not relate to architecture, but emerges from a process of intuitive development—there is no mistaking the Central European and revolutionary Russian tradition of industrial materials used to make abstract art. This Constructivist tradition had been promoted in Cornwall during the war years by Naum Gabo, leading Ben Nicholson to adopt a pure minimalist approach to abstraction. Nicholson was an early influence on Wall who, from the outset, steered clear of the expressionist styles of Lynn Chadwick, Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage, as well as the organic forms of Hepworth and Henry Moore.

A retrospective exhibition of Wall’s sculptures, organised by the Seattle Art Museum in 1982, toured to SFMoMa. The exhibition included two early St. Ives painted wood constructions; Metamorphosis (1955) and Right Angle Deck Construction with Vertical Movement (1956)—both revealing how close the artist had been to architecture at the outset of his career. Although most of the works in the Seattle show were from the 1960’s and 1970’s, including the brightly-painted Early Yellow (1975), there were more recent sculptures too, including October Jump (1981), in which two I-beam girders are supported by cylindrical and plate steel forms. Through the last four decades, Wall continued to exhibit in the UK, showing at Flowers Gallery in 2008 and 2011; he also showed with Flowers in Los Angeles, Max Hutchinson in New York, and with John Berggruen and Hackett Mills in San Francisco. In 2006, a monograph on his work, written by Chris Stephens, was published by Momentum Press 2006, and in 2014 Wall established a foundation to benefit working artists. As recently as 2015 a solo show held at the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University featured sculptures monumental in scale but light in feeling, reflecting Wall’s interest in Zen Buddhism—an interest which began in St. Ives in the 1950’s, and continues to inspire his work to the present day.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

For further reading, refer to Brian Wall by Chris Stephens, Suzaan Boettger and Barry Munitz. Momentum publishing 2006.

Joseph Beuys

12 May 1921 – 23 January 1986

Joseph Beuys at the Whitechapel in 1972, photograph by Adrian Flowers

In February 1972, Joseph Beuys, by then something of a star in the international art world, visited London to perform Information Action at the Tate and Whitechapel galleries. The work consisted of a lecture and discussion, with Beuys drawing diagrams and cryptic notes on a series of blackboards, a technique that had become his signature trademark. This was far from being his first visit to the UK; two years previously Beuys had collaborated with Richard de Marco on a series of projects in Scotland. He also worked extensively with writer and curator Caroline Tisdall. The three blackboards resulting from the 1972 London event remained for over a decade in the store of the Tate education department, until in 1983, along with a board from a parallel event at the Whitechapel Gallery, they were accessioned into the Tate collection as artworks in their own right. Although in some respects souvenirs, the boards with their chalked diagrams still convey the excitement of the lectures, which were animated by the charismatic personality of Beuys himself. 

A series of photographs, taken by Adrian Flowers at the Whitechapel Gallery in Feb 1972, show Beuys with his characteristic gaunt expression, wearing a grey felt hat with black hatband. His face is lopsided, perhaps as a consequence of injuries received when he served in the German military during WWII. With its armband and brass buttons with crosses, the artist’s coat is also provocative, the red gorget patches on the lapels reminiscent of a military officer. Underneath the coat is visible the fisherman’s vest Beuys invariably wore. Another photograph shows the artist standing on a small balcony, high above the gallery floor, in a pose that again has historical resonances. A third image shows Beuys sitting on the bar of a scaffolding tower. The available props in the Whitechapel gallery space, ladders, towers and steeply raked rooflights, were used effectively, with Beuys becoming an actor in an expressionist stage set.

Joseph Beuys at the Whitechapel in 1972, photograph by Adrian Flowers

At the time of the Tate/Whitechapel event Beuys was head of sculpture at the Dusseldorf Academy, but his unorthodox teaching methods were becoming increasingly controversial, and in October of that year, notwithstanding protests amongst artists and students, he was dismissed. If anything, this increased his fame and, through association with movements such as Fluxus, over the following decade he enjoyed a successful international career, culminating in a retrospective at the Guggenheim in 1979. Seven years later, shortly after winning the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Prize, Beuys died aged 64. Over the decades following, while much of the mystique that had propelled him to the forefront of the international art scene began to ebb, his life, legacy and philosophies continued to fascinate biographers and critics, often eager to tear aside the veil of veneration with which this charismatic artist was regarded by his followers. He certainly mythologised his own life, creating fictional biographical details—such as his having been a Luftwaffe pilot, shot down in the Crimea, and rescued by local nomadic Tartars, who wrapped him in felt and carried him on a sled to a place of safety. These life episodes, heavily embellished rather than invented, were used by Beuys to explain and underpin the meaning of his artworks, especially his sculptures which often incorporated sleds, fur, fat and felt. 

As a teenager, Beuys had been a member of the Hitler Youth, had participated in the 1933 Nuremburg Rally, and later served as a radio operator in the Luftwaffe. His plane was indeed shot down in the Crimea, but he was rescued by German troops and saw further military service before the end of the war. In the post-war years, his art was largely based on a simultaneous reverence and revulsion regarding these aspects of his life. Often, albeit without any trace of humour, he brings to mind the fictional character Schwejk, an anti-hero who forms relationships with animals, and finds himself in absurdist situations. In essence however, Beuys’ ideas were not so innovative or revolutionary, but were based on the writings of Nietzsche and Rudolf Steiner, and on the training he received in the late 1940’s under Ewald Mataré at the Dusseldorf Academy. 

Joseph Beuys at the Whitechapel in 1972, photograph by Adrian Flowers

Beuys was an idealist, arguing for a spiritual rebirth for mankind, based on qualities of essential humanity. Drawing on shamanistic traditions, he regarded art, or what he called ‘social sculpture’, as a liberating force that could enact social change. He was often deliberately controversial in his lectures and pronouncements, comparing the suppressing of creativity in people—a consequence of industrialisation—as akin to the extermination policies of the Nazis. An ardent admirer of James Joyce, in the late 1950’s Beuys began work on a series of drawings inspired by the novel Ulysses. At one point, encouraged by the art critic Dorothy Walker, he considered setting up a free university in the Wicklow mountains, near Dublin. His assemblage of works, A Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland, is in the Museum of Modern Art at Oxford. He was also a frequent visitor to Scotland, where he collaborated with Richard de Marco on projects relating to Celtic history and legend, that formed part of the Edinburgh Festival. Beuys’s work in the UK and Ireland has been documented by his friend Caroline Tisdall, later art critic for The Guardian, who has also organised exhibitions and published several books on the artist.

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright

Adrian Flowers Archive ©