BY Caroline Roux in Frieze | 28 SEP 17

The Great Outdoors

Frieze Sculpture's summer opening marks a growing enthusiasm for open-air work. Caroline Roux investigates

BY Caroline Roux in Frieze | 28 SEP 17

Visitors to the English Garden in The Regent’s Park this summer and autumn should be prepared for rather more than picnickers and people playing ball games. There is some confrontational contemporary art among the rosebeds, from the jagged points of russeted steel that make up Bernar Venet’s 17 Acute Unequal Angles, to the unrelenting stares of three monumental heads by sculptor Thomas J Price. Miquel Barceló’s bronze Gran Elefandret (2008) seems to be dancing dizzily across the landscape on its trunk, while an outsized knot in foiled aluminium by John Chamberlain (FIDDLERSFORTUNE, 2010) glistens pinkly under pale skies.

These are just four of 23 works that make up this year’s Frieze Sculpture Park, an extension of the fairs’ commercial presentation that also functions as a free outdoor art exhibition for the city. ‘Once you take it out of the neutral background of the gallery, work takes on a different quality,’ says Tony Cragg, whose undulating mass of folded, unpatinated bronze – Stroke (2014) – exudes an almost anthropomorphic energy as it rises from the park’s smooth lawns. Indeed, Chamberlain’s knot becomes an inadvertent frame for the surrounding greenery. Barceló’s elephant creates a confusion of scale next to the towering trees. Price’s emperor-like heads are darkly reproachful when drenched in London rain, and defiant when baked by the sun.

KAWS, GINAL DAYS, 2013, Afomosia Wood. Presented by Galerie Perrotin, Paris. Photograph: Stephen White

Outdoor sculpture has been part of the Frieze offering since 2004, but only this year has it been given its new title of Frieze Sculpture and been transplanted to the summer months (previously it ran from October through to chilly January). Its expanded presence is in direct relationship to an increasing interest in outdoor art, amongst both the public and collectors. ‘The market is growing rapidly,’ says London gallerist Ben Brown, who is presenting a soaring tower of footballs by Hank Willis Thomas that pays equal homage to Brancusi’s Endless Column and the escapist possibilities of Britain’s favourite sport. ‘More and more contemporary collectors are buying country houses with generous amounts of land attached. Whereas it was traditionally collectors in France, Italy and the United States who put artworks outdoors, the UK is becoming important too.’

Since 2012, Frieze’s outdoor presentation has been curated by Clare Lilley, Director of Programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP). ‘For me, it’s really important that there’s a correlation between the sculpture and the landscape,’ says Lilley, who this year received more proposals for Frieze Sculpture than ever. Applications come from galleries already participating in Frieze London or Frieze Masters (as well as independent exhibitors) and Lilley has deftly mixed 20th-century pieces, such as Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Standing Figure with Wheel (1990), with the contemporary work.

Anthony Caro, Erl King, 2009, rusted steel. Presented by Annely Juda FIne Art, London. Photograph: Stephen White

‘My job is to get to know the landscape, the angles, the views. It’s important, too, to think about how the trees and the colours will change over the months and to be familiar with how people use the space,’ she continues. And there is no doubt in Lilley’s mind that we experience art in the open air in a profoundly different way. ‘There’s a liberation created by showing work in the open air. People will strike up conversations around it.’

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where Lilley has honed her expertise, is a magnificent 500 acres of rolling countryside. Among this summer’s temporary works are Ai Weiwei’s super-sized Zodiac Heads (2011). ‘They’ve energised a whole area of the park,’ says Lilley. ‘It looks like the trees are standing up taller. And people come right up to the work and feel the heat emanating from the bronze.’

A major exhibition of Tony Cragg’s work – the largest to date – opened this year at YSP too, with twisting, turning bronzes and works on paper. The outdoor world is familiar territory for the artist, who runs his own sculpture park in
Wuppertal, Germany, in the grounds of a once-abandoned villa called Waldfrieden, which he opened in 2008. ‘I went to art school in the 1960s when artists were working outside a lot,’ says Cragg. ‘I was more interested in the urban environment then, but I realised that we represent ourselves better as artists when we work in a natural context. The sculpture becomes a marker, though nature is a greater maker. I’d love to create work that has the same effect as nature, but when you put anything next to a tree, you realize that tree is bigger than anything you’re going to make.’ The effect of this ambition on Cragg’s work has been to make simpler repetitive forms that revel in their materiality and engage in a sensitive dialogue with their surroundings.

People will strike up conversations around work when it's outside

Madeleine Bessborough opened her sculpture park, the New Art Centre at Roche Court, near Salisbury in south-west England, in 1994, after closing the gallery she’d run in London’s Sloane Street for over 30 years. ‘We always specialised in sculpture, but putting it indoors makes it somehow ornamental,’ she says. ‘A lot of our artists worked outside, and it felt right to return their work to the elements.’ Initially, she had a lot of larger scale works by Barbara Hepworth to show – ‘the grandchildren didn’t want the monumental pieces,’ she says – and gradually ensured they found good homes. ‘We sold to the Hirshhorn and the
Kröller Müller Museum: it was very satisfying.’

The enormous Wheelbarrow (red) (2013) in The Regent’s Park – one of Michael Craig Martin’s graphic drawings in space made in powder-coated steel – comes courtesy of New Art Centre and Gagosian Gallery. ‘The Park is much more tailored than Roche Court and much more populated,’ says Bessborough. ‘We needed to offer a piece that people would feel happy sitting next to. At Roche Court you can be a long way away – we have a beautiful bluebell wood, and we often have an Antony Gormley figure there.’ I’ve visited at one of those times and at a distance, it seems that a lonely man is lost in a sea of blue.

Michael Craig-Martin, Wheelbarrow (red), 2013, powder coated steel. Presented by New Art Centre / Gagosian. Photograph: Stephen White

The collector Frank Cohen acquired his first outdoor piece 20 years ago for his Cheshire home. ‘It was a Kenneth Armitage called The Forest,’ he recalls, ‘and I’ve had bits and pieces in the garden ever since.’ These range freely from the 1950s to today, from a bronze Fin by William Turnbull, standing like an upsized Neolithic implement on a rugged stone plinth, to a great big fibreglass egg by Gavin Turk. Cohen says the work resonates all the more in winter months when nature takes a more lifeless turn.

So what are the priorities for acquiring outdoor work? At Chatsworth, the spectacular seat of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, in England’s Peak District, the current Duke says that there’s only one: ‘for either myself or my wife to fall in love with it.’ The next is cost, he continues and then we never fence anything off, so it has to be robust.’ Their latest acquisition is Energy (2012–14) by Alexander Macdonald-Buchanan – four dynamic ceramic totems in an intense cerulean blue. ‘They provide an element of surprise and modernity in an ever-changing landscape,’ says the Duke.

At a very different castle, Chateau La Coste in the South of France, the hotel magnate Paddy McKillen has created a heady mix of sculpture, architecture, art exhibitions and wine-making under the Provençal sun. ‘The first piece we acquired was the Crouching Spider by Louise Bourgeois in 2003,’ he says. ‘At first she wouldn’t sell it to me, but then we explained that it would be installed in a basin of water designed by Tadao Ando, and she loved the idea.’ When the Korean artist Lee Ufan visited, McKillen recalls, ‘he walked and walked and was so moved by the experience, he offered to do a small pavilion, partially buried in the earth, with a single shaft of light coming through the roof.’ Inside, is one of his signature single brush strokes. Called House of Air (2012), it offers my own favourite moment at La Coste, though there is plenty more, from a proud Calder to a multi-coloured, multi-screen construction by Liam Gillick.‘They change with every hour of the day,’ says McKillen.

Indeed a natural context creates consequences it can be hard to predict. At Regents Park, Takuro Kuwata’s two tall works, both Untitled (2016), appear like psychedelic, superating funghi against the park’s elegant green backdrop, while Alicja Kwade’s minimal arrangement of mirror and boulders (one real, one cast in aluminium) called Big Be-Hide (2017) creates an optical illusion of interrupted space, while the reflection of trees and the sky becomes like a painting of the park, in the park. ‘In a sculpture park, you put something into the landscape, and there’s a whole new dynamic,’ says gallerist Kamel Mennour, who is presenting Kwade, and has worked extensively with McKillen. That tension between the man-made and nature seems set to fascinate us more and more.

For a visaul response to Frieze Sculpture, see artist Sarah Jones's specially commissioned project

Main image: Emily Young, Planet, 2012. Presented by Bowman Sculpture. Photograph: Stephen White 

Caroline Roux has written about contemporary art, architecture and design for 20 years and contributes regularly to the Financial Times and The Economist.