Barry Flanagan was one of the most versatile, imaginative and radical sculptors of his generation. Outside the art world he was best known for several permanent public sculptures, such as his giant bronze Hare on Bell at the Equitable Life Tower West in Manhattan, and in London, Nine Foot Hare in the Victoria Plaza Hotel and Leaping Hare on Crescent and Bell at Broadgate. ARTKABINETT social network for fine art collectors is celebrating the Chinese year of the rabbit with a tribute to this wonderful artist.
But he also had some spectacular temporary installations, such as the procession of huge bronze figures that marched down the median of New York's Park Avenue, before regrouping in Chicago's Grant Park. Students at Washington University, St Louis, refer affectionately to "the bunny", currently on loan there, a Flanagan Rodin-tribute hare called Thinker on a Rock.
These not strictly anatomically correct bronze animals (which include elephants, cougars and horses) echo human traits and dispositions, but never in a cute or sentimental way: they display human energy, and hint at human emotions, but remain animals.
The wonder was that the bohemian, unworldly Flanagan, who began his artistic career pioneering the use of humble materials -- such as the hessian, sand, plaster, rope, sticks and stones later associated with, for example, Eva Hesse in America and Arte Povera in Italy -- was ever able to afford to cast his pieces in bronze.
Though he later took Irish citizenship, and for a while made Dublin his base, Barry Flanagan was born in Prestatyn, North Wales, across the border from Liverpool, where his father worked as a set designer at Warner Brothers film studios.
(Barry was one of four children; a brother, Mike, was lost overboard in the 1976 Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Yacht Race.)
Of this time he said: "I was a fully-fledged sculptor from the age of 17. I stepped right into it and embraced the physical world."
As a tyro sculptor he was no stranger to hard work, and he made his way at first doing odd jobs as a builder, frame-maker and even as a baker. He was quick to absorb some of the technical skills of each of these -- he called them his "recipes".
These same adjectives applied to Flanagan's talk, which was often elliptical and allusive; it sometimes required patience and mutual affection to enjoy the best of his conversation, though the rewards were substantial. His real mode of communication was oblique and non-verbal, but he was Irish enough to relish the craic.
His default mood was mirth, and despite the accident of his birth in Wales, he was essentially Irish in the fashion of Beckett, Shaw and Joyce.
In the 1960s his work was often associated with the minimal and land art movements, making impressive pieces from rope, for example, or impermanent works of draped fabric and poured sand, such as One Camion Sand Piece (1969).
In 1970 he used found objects -- a Parker-Knoll sofa, a wall mirror and a cello -- to make Sixties Dish. He also began to carve stone, and to model clay and other material. In 1975 he made a series of small pinch pots from lumps or raku clay, which defy you at first glance to say whether they have come from a child's playgroup, a Japanese potter's studio or an archaeological dig.
After 1973 he drifted away from his "soft sculptures" and started making free-standing objects using more durable materials.
Without revealing that he was a sculptor, he took a job in a stonemason's yard in Oxford, and had visited quarries in Italy, learning to use a chisel. Flanagan was peripatetic, and seemed to move his family, which was then Sue and his daughters Samantha (Flan) and Tara, and a lurcher, to where the stone was.
He got very interested in the Hornton stone typical of Banbury buildings, and made several stacked, sometimes painted, pieces.
Flanagan's best commercial move was when he joined Waddington Galleries in 1976, for his dealer, Leslie Waddington, not only held him in esteem, but affection (and Flanagan was still with Waddington at the time of his death from motor neurone disease on 31 August).
In his later work the hare became his emblem. He was first struck by the hare's appearance in a butcher's shop. (Flanagan's inspiration was often commonplace. It is often forgotten that the 1976 row about the Tate's acquisitions policy stemmed not only from Carl André's bricks, but also Barry's blankets.
Though he also said he was inspired by the sight of a capering hare on the Sussex Downs, and used for reference George Ewart Evans and David Thomson's study The Leaping Hare (1972; "The hare is a symbol of enlightenment, not only of the spirit but of the dawn, the dawn of the day and the dawn of the year which we call spring"), and knew the significance of the hare in mythology (in France and Central Europe it lays eggs at Easter), Flanagan's hares do not carry much of this historic symbolic baggage ñ they don't symbolise life, they live it.
In 2006 the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin held a major retrospective and ten of his big bronzes paraded down O'Connell Street. He cherished being a Royal Academician; he was elected in 1991, the same year he was appointed OBE.
courtesy: Paul Levy/The Guardian