Phillip King CBE PRA (1 May 1934 – 27 July 2021) was a British sculptor, who helped to reimagine the very concept of sculptural art in Britain in the mid to late 20th century. King was a crucial member of the ‘New Generation’ art scene during the 1960’s, a movement which modernized the very principles of the medium of sculpture.
Phillip was born in Tunisia in 1934, and moved to England in 1945 to pursue a degree in modern languages at Cambridge University. However linguistics was not where his interest lied; he began to make sculptures during his time at university and from 1957 to 1958 studied sculpture at St Martin’s School of Art, under renowned British sculptor, Anthony Caro. He became a contemporary of Caro and one of his best-known students: within a year he was a part-time tutor at Central St Martins, and had also become an assistant to the leading 20th century sculptor, Henry Moore.
Free to Frolic, 2015. Painted steel, © Phillip King. Courtesy of Thomas Dane Gallery. Photo: Kistefos, Norway
Through his groundbreaking collection of works, King questioned the place and role of sculpture within the culturally revolutionised art scene in the latter half of the 20th century. He was one of a group of new artists whose works helped progress the medium to the forefront of contemporary art, and was deemed as the ‘New Generation’ for not only art but in particular for sculpture within Britain. He was part of a group of young British sculptors who all came to prominence during the 1960’s in Britain, helping to usher in an era of ‘New Art’.
These artists were trying to embrace new methods and most importantly new materials, such as fiberglass, plastic and steel, and what these unusual materials could allow them to create. Capturing the socially revolutionary spirit of the 60s , these artists tried to diversify what sorts of structures, materials, colours and techniques could be used in order to communicate messages of modernity and progressivism. For the works to be abstract was at the heart of this new wave of British art, King along with his peers began to gain attention when an exhibition, named ‘The New Generation’ was showcased at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1965. Similarly, Phillip’s showcasing at the ‘Primary Structures’ exhibition in 1966 at the Jewish Museum in New York, further solidified him at the forefront of British sculpture.
“Sculpture which flowers, without recourse to the conventions of the figure and the pedestal; sculpture which explores the floor, or reaches up vertically without a standing figure reference; sculpture which uses color positively as an optical and an environmental ingredient”
“It reflects a profound change of sensibility and one which calls into question the forms and the content and also the usages of recent times; that is to say, the way in which the work addresses itself to the onlooker, and the way in which the sculptor defines his own creative stance”
“They do not pursue a canon: any form can find a place in their work, any kind of form, or so one feels”
Colour on Fire, 2017, polyurethane, polycarbonate sheet, © Phillip King. Courtesy of Thomas Dane Gallery. Photo: Luke A. Walker
Phillip King subsequently became a trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1967 to 1969, which began his long and experienced career of being directly involved in many leading British artistic institutions. Similarly, in education King was able to progress his legacy as a revolutionary sculptor, sharing his wisdom with future generations. He taught at St Martin’s School of Art in London, from 1959 until 1980. Other schools included his time as a Professor of Sculpture at Hochschule der Künste, in Berlin from 1979 to 1980. He then went on to teach as a Professor of Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, London from 1980 to 1990, where he left the institution as a Professor Emeritus in 1990. King was appointed as a professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools, London in 1990. A position which he held until 1999, when Phillip was elected as President of the Royal Academy of Art, until 2004.
King’s most prestigious accolades included being elected as an Honorary Fellow of the Christ College, Cambridge, his alma mater, in 2002. He was subsequently awarded a Cambridge University Honorary Degree in 2012. Phillip was awarded a CBE in 1975, as well as receiving the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
Rosebud, 1962/1965, painted fiberglass and wood, in three parts , © Phillip King. Courtesy of Thomas Dane Gallery.
Despite all of the accolades and academic experiences which built his reputation, King was driven by a passion for revolutionising the very means of sculpture in all of its forms.
“There was a built-in paradox in the art of sculpture; although the most graspable of all the arts, the most visible, it was really about the invisible. An art of the invisible made visible.”
King’s indomitable revolutionary spirit was at the core of his extensive catalogue of works, constantly pushing him to advance and inspire. What tools, methods and use of bold colour could capture imaginations? How could this curiosity drive him to spend his life furthering his craft? For King, along with many leading contemporaries from the 1960’s onwards helped to transform sculpture and allow it to be a far more open art form which changed not only how it is presented but also how it was viewed.
In an interview to mark his 80th birthday in 2014, King commented upon the ever-continuing lure of the sculptural craft to him, reflecting that “[It] might ostensibly be the most visible of arts in that the viewer can quickly gauge size, weight, colour and so on, but there is also something that escapes you in the most mysterious manner […] Exploring that sense of mystery is one of the things that has kept me making things for all these years”.
Until his death in the summer, my grandfather Phillip was still working in his studio daily and creating new works at the impressive age of eighty-seven years old. He was still trying to further push the boundaries of what sculpture could accomplish. It was his life’s work,one which I had the honour to witness and perhaps not until now when it is sadly too late to ask, to truly comprehend and appreciate.
His life and legacy reminds me that if you are lucky enough to find your passion, a lifetime of dedication and hardwork is a life well spent.