Single Form (Eikon)

Barbara Hepworth British

Not on view

Barbara Hepworth, a preeminent British sculptor of the 20th century, is known for her pioneering work in direct carving, truth to materials, and her commitment to abstraction. The 1930s were a breakthrough period in Hepworth’s career when her material, methodological and intellectual approach to sculpture came into focus at the same time as she forged links with continental avant-garde artists such as Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian, and László Moholy-Nagy—a rare female presence in the largely male-dominated art world. The original plaster Single Form (from which this bronze version was later cast) quintessentially relates to Hepworth’s practice in 1937-38 when she explored the possibilities of the formal properties of tall vertical totem-like forms in the self-described manner of "constructive art."

Initially conceived as a carved plaster column set on a wooden base, the work was sent to Paris for an exhibition in 1938 not long after it was made. Upon the onset of World War II and its subsequent tumult however, the work remained in France until 1961, when it was finally returned to the artist. The plaster version of the present work remains with the Barbara Hepworth Estate.

From the 1950s, Hepworth began working in bronze: at that time she began revisiting some earlier works in order to cast them in metal. Single Form was one such work and this edition was cast in bronze in 1963. The bronze casts were distinguished from the plaster by the subtitle "Eikon," meaning "an image" in Greek, complicating its understanding of form as image or figure, as well as distinguishing it from the religious specificity of an "icon." While the vertical shaft has a mostly smooth surface, the base has been more roughly modeled to emulate the chiseled gouges of the wooden block upon which the original plaster was mounted, creating a perceptible visual difference in the textures of what were formerly two discrete parts.

Formally, this work relates to a group of works from 1937–38 that all bear the same title—Single Form—but which were realized in different kinds of wood. Most akin is a sculpture carved in sandalwood, and collected by Hepworth’s friend, the eminent diplomat and later United Nations’ Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld. Soon after Hammarskjöld’s untimely death in 1961, Hepworth was commissioned to make a memorial to Hammarskjöld in the United Nations Plaza in New York City. Also titled Single Form (1961–64), at 21 feet high it was her largest commission in bronze.

This bronze cast of Single Form (Eikon) dates to the same moment as the UN Plaza commission and it is possible that the optimism of the post-WWII new world order allowed Hepworth to return to some of the utopian universalism she had explored in her work in the 1930s. In an essay from 1937 she had noted that "A constructive work is an embodiment of freedom itself and is unconsciously perceived even by those who are consciously against it. The desire to live is the strongest universal emotion, it springs from the depths of our unconscious sensibility—and the desire to give life is our most potent, constructive, conscious expression of this intuition." This implicit understanding of the social function of art, in the context of what she was conceiving for the UN commission, may have precipitated a return to the Single Form sculpture from the 1930s and Hepworth’s decision to cast it in bronze in 1963. Yet she connected the form to structures even further back in time, drawing a connection between "constructive art" as she saw it and her understanding of the role of ancient menhirs such as those at Stonehenge. Indeed the reading of abstraction into the monolithic stature of these ancient forms relates them to Single Form (Eikon), whose elongated form recalls the verticality of a hieratic standing figure even as its affirmed abstraction establishes its investment in the possibilities of modernism.

Single Form (Eikon), Barbara Hepworth (British, 1903–1975), Bronze

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