Sculpture was talk of the town in Britain in the summer of 1972. It was being interrogated, debated, written about and photographed – and regularly appeared in regional and national newspapers, often with damning criticism and complaint. This was down to the City Sculpture Project, a hugely ambitious public sculpture scheme that supported the commissioning of large-scale works.
For a period of six months, between March and November 1972, sculptures were installed in eight cities in England and Wales. From Nicholas Monro’s over five-metre tall statue of King Kong in Birmingham, to Liliane Lijn’s revolving cone in Plymouth and William Turnbull’s six-part stainless steel sculpture ‘Angle’ in Liverpool, these works all reimagined sculpture’s relation to the city and the urban viewer.
This autumn the Henry Moore Institute, a centre for the study of sculpture, returns to this ambitious and fascinating sculpture project in the exhibition City Sculpture Projects 1972. Presenting sculptures and maquettes, some being remade by the artists especially for the exhibition, alongside photographs and archival material, much of the selected material has not been seen in public for over forty years. At the heart of City Sculpture Projects 1972 is the only explicitly figurative sculpture in the project: Nicholas Monro’s extraordinary ‘King Kong’. This sculpture stands five-metres tall outside the Henry Moore Institute, looking over the city's busiest thoroughfare. This will be the first time this sculpture has been lent to an exhibition since its 1972 showing and in the galleries, Monro’s maquette for the work is also on display.
This 1972 project marked an ambitious moment in the history of public sculpture in Britain. Large-scale works by living sculptors at the forefront of contemporaneous debates were placed in busy urban centres. The ambition was to showcase new sculpture that was disconnected from monuments and memorials. Importantly, it set out to stage dialogues between abstract sculpture and people living and working in urban environments outside London. City Sculpture Project boldly unsettled established viewing habits and expectations generating debate about contemporary sculpture’s relation to place. At the end of the six-month exhibition period each city had the option of buying the sculptures and having them on permanent display. None did and all the sculptures were relocated elsewhere – some were sold, and others destroyed.
City Sculpture Projects 1972 considers the ways in which this initiative took sculpture beyond the genre of the ‘open air’ urban park display, that had been popularised through exhibitions staged in the post-war decades in London’s Battersea and Holland Parks, and proposed a new model of art in the urban realm. This was a project that placed contemporary sculpture at street level, making it a part of the bustle of ordinary city life across Britain.