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Antony Gormley: Prints as Passion James Hall

Antony Gormley’s Expansion series ­– comprising sculptures, and now a set of seven related prints, entitled Woodblocks – engages with older theoretical models of human proportion. But it takes the genre of proportion studies to sublime, ridiculous, and even tragic extremes.

1  Erwin Panofsky, ‘The History of the Theory of Human Proportions as a Reflection of the History of Styles’, in Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957, pp. 55–107; György Doczi, The Power of Limits: Proportional Harmonics in Nature, Art and Architecture, Boston and London: Shambhala Publications, 1981; Hanno-Walter Kruft, A History of Architectural Theory from Vitruvius to the Present, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994. 2 As Gormley explains: ‘The metre is one ten-millionth (1/10 000 000) of the length of a quadrant along the earth; that is, the distance from the Equator to the North Pole. This means that the quadrant (a section/distance 1⁄4 of the Earth’s circumference) would have been defined as exactly 10 000 000 metres (10 000 kilometres) at that time, with the total circumference of the Earth defined as 40 000 000 metres (40 000 kilometres)’.

Ancient theories of human proportion were based on standard repeated modules derived from the foot, forearm, hand or finger. This reductive logic exemplified the Pythagorean belief in mathematical harmony as the structural principle of the divinely ordained universe. The most famous exponents were the Greek sculptor Polykleitus, whose lost Canon drew up the perfect proportions of a man based on a single module perhaps deriving from the little finger, and the Roman architect Vitruvius, who established ideal ratios for each component of a six foot tall male body, with the head as the basic module. Vitruvius also claimed that with arms and legs extended, the ideal male body fits into a square and a circle: the Vitruvian man.1 The popularity of such schema peaked during the Middle Ages (i.e. Byzantine Icons) and early Renaissance (Alberti, Leonardo), but then waned due to the vogue for more intuitive approaches. Michelangelo criticised Dürer’s treatise on human proportion, based on thirteen types for each sex, insisting that measuring compasses should be in the eye rather than the hand of the artist. The empiricism of the scientific revolution, predicated on anatomical dissection, further discredited codified schema of human proportion. Hogarth, in The Analysis of Beauty (1753), rejected any congruity between mathematics and beauty. The metric system, introduced by Napoleon, was no longer based on the ideal human foot, but on sub-divisions of the earth’s meridian. One of the last great theories of human proportions – Le Corbusier’s Modulor – attempted to create a synthesis of the metric and imperial systems, based around a male figure with a raised left arm, 2.2 metres high. Gormley is fascinated by the metric system, which marked a shift from a biological to a cosmological system of measurement.2 In his body cast sculptures, Gormley, rather like a modern Polykleitus, forged a new Canon based on his own body, which he understood as ‘everyman’. But this new Canon did not just seek perfection, contemplative poise and symmetry. It flaunted seams, scars, flaws and accidents (contingency) caused by the casting technique, weathering and human interaction. It also dramatised the dark side of the industrial canonical

Proofing of Woodblocks at Thumbprint Editions, London


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Bloodletting man in centre of circle of the zodiac, showing the influence of zodiac and planets – Zodiac man, c. 1420– 30 Ink and watercolour Wellcome Library, London Right: Antony Gormley Expansion Field, 2014 4 mm Corten steel 60 elements; variable dimensions Installation view, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland 3 Rebecca Comay, ‘Bodybuilding’, in Antony Gormley: Expansion Field, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2014, p. 49. 4 Gormley says: ‘The expansion works apply the “Hubble Constant” to the body. This is what replaced Einstein’s proposition of the Cosmological Constant as the necessary counter force to gravity. In fact it is not constant but increasing in velocity. At a distance of 3.25 million light-years (1 parsec) it is currently rated at 265, 680 km/hr. This is the “red shift” that is the direct result of the Big Bang circa 13.7 million years ago – the proof that we are experiencing spacetime as an emergent process’.

– the repressive, cloned anonymity; and the static, rusting obsolescence. For the Expansion Field sculptures, and especially in the new prints, the dissolution of a notional fixed or ideal system of human proportions has been taken even further. Gormley states that he is ‘testing the traditional notions of geometry by geometry itself – contesting given canons of beauty or notions of proportion by this ‘crash’ between the subjective, particular and the cosmological objective. In order to make the sixty Expansion Field sculptures (first shown in Bern in 2014), a 3-D pixellated digital scan of Gormley’s body in 21 poses was drawn on a computer screen (the speed with which this can be done means that a greater variety of poses can be struck than with the earlier body cast procedure, which required a pose to be held for a long time). Then the depicted body was overlaid – ‘seeded’ is the term used by Gormley’s studio3 – with a varied selection of between 12–19 cubes and rectangular blocks. They were initially kept separate and were not allowed to touch or overlap. The size and precise placement of the ‘seeds’ (Gormley also calls them ‘cells’) was determined intuitively. The next stage in the metamorphosis was to expand each cell equally in three-­ dimensions, a distance of anything from 5 to 90 centimetres. Each cell partially

overlaps and merges with the others (the 90-centimetre limit helps prevent the figures from becoming a cube, which they inevitably would do). He explains that the Expansion works ‘reinterpret anatomy in the language of architecture (the second body) and I then subject those volumes to an incremental expansion that mirrors that of the universe’. He sees this expansion as analogous to the Hubble Constant, the necessary counterforce to gravity – which is in fact increasing, so not constant at all.4

5 Art-Language, vol. 1, no. 1, May 1969. 6 For earlier print series, see: http://www.antonygormley.­ com/drawing/prints, last accessed on 9 February, 2016.

Seen en masse, translated into hollow, box-like welded structures of 4-millimetre-­ thick Corten steel, they have a desiccated, pixellated appearance that is both austerely monolithic and unstably fissiparous and crystalline. From certain viewpoints, they have an arty feel, and look like haphazard piles of monochrome canvases on stretchers – homages to the black square, cube, rectangle etc. This controlled viral expansion recalls the first of Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969): ‘Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach’.5 The mystical aspects of Gormley’s art are even more apparent in the seven Woodblocks – his fifth print series, and his first project with Alan Cristea Gallery.6


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Body Prints in production at Antony Gormley Studio, London

They are based on seven standing poses, which are both echoed and revealed in the Body Prints that will be exhibited alongside them (for these, Gormley had himself covered in crude oil mixed with petroleum jelly and then fell on sheets of paper laid on the floor).7 The artist’s feet are placed frontally and (in all but one) together. Four of the poses exhibit bilateral symmetry. The two most open poses feature the arms stretched out horizontally, and raised unevenly above the head. The expanded squares and rectangles are printed using inked up sheets of low grade plywood. They have a heraldic frontality, but not clarity. The plywood has been cut by hand using a blunt saw, then grated with a cheese grater, making the edge even more ragged (it is anyway almost impossible to achieve a clean cut with plywood). These are inked up with a bare minimum of black ink so that when printed, the grain shows through (it frequently resembles a crude cloth fabric, frayed at the edges). In the finished prints, the density of the ink varies depending on the number of impressions made on that particular spot. Single impressions – mostly but not always at the edges – are a misty grey.

7 The use of unconventional media and methods is common in Gormley’s drawings. Anna Moszynska, Antony Gormley: Drawing, London: British Museum Press, 2002. 8 All quotes (unless otherwise stated in the notes) are from conversations with the artist in January 2016.

However, Gormley does not really want us to think of them as grey, in case we forget the source and nature of the materials he is using: ‘The appearance of grey is a result of the “hatching” of the plywood grain. This is the index or forensic trace of the wood (that will, in time, also turn to carbon). The materials I use are as indexical as is the use of my body as a particular “case” of the universal fact of embodiment. The ink is carbon carried by oil. Carbon is what all life is based on. The crude oil from Dakota mixed with Petroleum jelly that I am using for the body prints (or “falls”) are all resulting from cretaceous deposits. This is the blood of the earth that contains its hereditary carbon DNA’.8 In keeping with this quasi-scientific approach, Gormley says that the Woodblocks ‘evoke the indwelling of the body’, and compares the effect to an X-ray. He also

Michelangelo Buonarroti Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and St John, c. 1562 Black chalk 40.5 × 21.8 cm Royal Collection Trust

9 Gormley included a reproduction of Mantegna’s Dead Christ, c. 1480, in the collage Male Perspective, 1997; A. Mosynzka, Antony Gormley: Drawing, op. cit., p. 169. 10 Interview with Arabella Natalini in Antony Gormley: Human, Florence: Forma Edizioni, 2015, p. 34. 11 Charles de Tolnay, Corpus dei Disegni di Michelangelo, Novara: De Agostini, 1978, vol. 3: pp. 414–422. See James Hall, Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body, London: Chatto and Windus, 2005, pp. 202–223.

cites the Turin Shroud, which reputedly shows a bolt upright body print of the dead Christ.9 But their affinities are as much artistic as ‘scientific/reproductive’. In their iconography (a single abstracted upright figure in different positions), seriality, and the vehement exploitation of vibrato and sfumato, Gormley’s Woodblocks recall Michelangelo’s late crucifixion drawings, which Gormley has long admired for their ‘profound understanding of entropy’.10 There are six surviving drawings from the 1550s and early 1560s which show Christ on the Cross flanked by the Virgin and St John, and two crucifixion drawings without mourners, as well as a couple of preliminary sketches.11 As the drawings with mourners were made on large folio-sized pieces of paper of the same size, and there are no drawings on the reverse, it is likely that these were made as finished works, aids to private devotion. But they look nothing like conventional finished drawings. Numerous revisions and redrawn lines make the images tremble like a palpitating mirage. They are drawn with black chalk, and in some, white lead body colour has been used both to model forms and to cancel out ‘mistakes’. The details of Christ’s anatomy are muffled and blurred – if they were ever visible in the first place. Michelangelo, then well into his seventies, suffered from long-­sightedness, which prevented him carrying out detailed work at close range, but the consistency of the ‘mistakes’ suggests they are expressive distortions. They map Michelangelo’s own heightened and shifting emotions, and positions, as he drew.


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Proofing of Aquatints at Thumbprint Editions, London

In Gormley’s Woodblocks, the overprinting of successive impressions is a kind of minimalist-geometrical counterpart to Michelangelo’s layerings, dissolutions, and reformations. The similarity is perhaps most apparent when Michelangelo rules the lines indicating the cross. These were redrawn several times, in different positions and at a variety of angles, imbuing even the cross with a sense of sudden spasmodic movement.12 The drawings never settle: Michelangelo changes the position of Christ’s arms, legs, body and head, whose orientation keeps shifting; he not only changes the position of the cross, but sometimes switches to a ‘Y’ shaped cross; the mourners keep moving.

Robert Delaunay Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif), 1912 Oil paint on canvas 457 × 375 mm Tate

waistlines. Some of the more bloated sculptures in Expansion Field, which Gormley calls ‘tankers’, do indeed look comically mock-heroic, as though ungainly sculptural expressions of the obesity crisis or of economic fat cattery; others are much more meagre. There is striking inequality within the group.

The Woodblocks, with their variety of standing poses, internal movements and marks, represent a form of secular, personalised ‘Passion’: it can scarcely be an accident that there are seven in total, with seven more Body Prints illustrated in this book – a total of fourteen. There are fourteen scenes in the Christian Stations of the Cross, each one representing an episode from Christ’s last day, starting with his being condemned to death, and ending with his entombment. Indeed, the ‘expansion’ of the squares and rectangles, and the progressive darkening of the image, does make it feel as though what Gormley calls the ‘indwelling’ body is being gradually coffined, interred and entombed. By the same token, the Body Prints are made with the inert falling body of the artist.

12 C. D. Tolnay, Corpus, ibid., p. 422.

The term ‘expansion’ is interestingly loaded and multivalent, which we can run with (Gormley’s laconic titles, rarely more than one or two words, seem deliberately designed to stimulate associations). Art historically, it suggests Rosalind Krauss’s famous essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ (1979) – a category into which Gormley’s pedestal-less non-gallery sculptures would broadly seem to fit; scientifically, one thinks of the ‘expanding’ universe. But it is most frequently used now in relation to expanding economies and the linked epidemic of expanding

13 Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, Francesco Borghesi, Michael Papio and Massimo Riva (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, no. 22, p. 117; nos. 31–33, pp. 123–125.

Equally resonant is the vitalist terminology of ‘seeds’ and ‘cells’. The stoics talked of planting the seeds of virtue and knowledge in the young, and the metaphor was deployed in one of the most ‘expansionist’ philosophical treatises, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486). This is the classic text of Renaissance humanism, and a stirring manifesto of human freedom and potential, that struck a special cord in the (Nietzschean) twentieth century. Pico invents a new creation myth, in which Adam is made last, and has no fixed place in the cosmos. As a result, he is a chameleon, the ‘free and extraordinary shaper’ of himself.13 At birth God plants all manner of seeds in him, which he is at liberty to cultivate or not: ‘If he cultivates his vegetable seeds, he will become a plant. If he cultivates his sensitive seeds, he will become brutish. If he cultivates his rational seeds, he will become a heavenly animal. If he cultivates his intellectual seeds, he will be an angel and a son of God’.14 Gormley’s expansions do, as it were,


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unfold in different directions, which we can easily interpret in existential terms: the Woodblocks have varying degrees of levity, gravity; lightness, darkness; spirituality, brutality. In the related Aquatints series (Matrix I – X), a variety of hexagonal shapes have been overprinted, creating labyrinthine perspectival shifts and layerings. The tone changes from pale limpid grey at the edges to deep black at the centre. The slipperiness and elusiveness of the geometrical structures recalls architectonic adaptations of Cubism – say, Orphic Cubism (Robert Delaunay’s window series), and Lionel Feininger’s Cubo-Expressionist houses and churches. The Matrix prints are indeed related to an eponymous piece of sculptural architecture, a ‘room’ made from openwork reinforcing mesh. Gormley conceived it as ‘virtual architecture’ that emulates the mutable way consciousness works.15 Although the individual hexagons in the Matrix prints suggest stereonomic plans for a room or house, endlessly reconfigured and reseen, the lateral horizontal spread of the hexagons also suggests an eye, and sight-related metaphors – the central darkness as a dark eyeball, blind spots or shutters; the shifting as a kind of perpetual ‘camera shake’ and an inability to find focus – or a yearning for a panoramic vision.

14 Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, ibid., no. 29, p. 121. Sergio Risaliti uses the Oration in a different way in Antony Gormley: Human, ibid., pp. 9–10. 15 Antony Gormley on Sculpture, London: Thames & Hudson, 2015, p. 216. Maaretta Jaukkuri, Antony Gormley: Meet, Stockholm: Gallerij Andersson/ Sandström, 2014. It has an Op-art feel.

The Aquatints are paired with the smallest and most filigree works in the exhibition, the Etchings. Altogether, there are eleven hard ground line etchings made with the finest of burin needles. Each one is a study of a standing figure. For Gormley, they are ‘literally spider web intonations of the way that I have been mapping the body’. A punctilious graffito of laser-straight lines sometimes maps the contours of the body; and sometimes passes through it and far beyond. They vaunt a prickly fragility. The less exploded ‘bodies’ in the series can appear swaddled or mummified, or else suggest the measuring point ‘x’s used by William Coldstream and Euan Uglow to mark out the key junctures of the model’s body and stitch it together. The marginally more exploded figures have a hint of Saint Sebastian (impaled with arrows), and of voodoo dollies. The most exploded of all recall the medieval ‘macrocosmic man’, with lines traced from surrounding planets to relevant body parts; and even that Russian offshoot of Cubism, Rayonism. These passiveaggressive bodies resist being comfortably pinned down – line becomes point; proportion disproportion. Here, the compasses really are in the eyes.

James Hall is an art historian and critic. His most recent book is The Self-Portrait: a Cultural History.

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Antony Gormley: Prints as Passion | Essay by James Hall  

Antony Gormley: Prints as Passion | Essay by James Hall