Peter Startup: The White Sculptures
‘I’m just going to go and stick a bit of wood’: this was Peter Startup’s way of telling his family that he was going to his studio. Though his late works, exhibited here, were in wood and white plaster and earlier he had worked for some years in bronze, becoming adept at casting and chasing, his material of choice was wood. Reyner Banham wrote perceptively of him: ‘There is no doubt that he, not the wood, is the master, and he approaches the material with the creative disrespect it plainly deserves.’
Apart from a few early works in granite and a massive installation made of oak at the 1966 ‘Forma Viva’ symposium in Yugoslavia, Startup’s sculpture was consistently of a size to be handled by a single man. His diary records his ‘first exhibited piece’, made in 1947, a ‘figure in concrete and sheet metal’ (there was not much choice of materials in those days) and an elaborate work called Phoenix, in laminated and partly gilded walnut which he showed in 1954. By the end of the 1950s he had ceased to carve and had developed an idiosyncratic theme of wooden figures that he fitted together from found pieces in a fairly basic way that ignored fine joinery.
Metamorphic Form (1964) represents a group of interlocking ‘metamorphic’ works in dark and painted wood: an inquisitive viewer could take a section out and put it back in a different position. In hindsight this was perhaps Startup’s interpretation of the idea of transformable sculpture that was current in the early ‘60s. He was once invited to demonstrate the workings of his metamorphic sculpture on television but unfortunately the work expanded under the heat of the studio lights and locked solid. In 1966-67 Startup made the works that can most confidently be described as ‘still lifes’ in that they take the forms of bottles and pots. Zenith (1967) is a transitional piece in white painted wood that makes a link to later works such as Reflection (1973) that incorporate furniture. Conforming to the human figure in stance, it is topped by a bottle that also disconcertingly doubles for a human arm. Oddly enough, we are not made overly aware of the whiteness of Startup’s plaster sculpture; it is modulated with the precision of a musical scale by light and engages us principally by the mutability of its forms and its shifting identities.
The body proposes a context, a home. Many of the pieces shown here were made for ‘New Work 2’ (Hayward Gallery, 1975) for which every participant was given an individual room. Working in plaster, Startup returned to a way of conceiving sculpture that may have developed from his long experience of casting and the constant shifts that it entails between positive shapes and negative spaces that metamorphose into reality when they become positive shapes in casting. He presumably chose a still life scale for the Hayward show to suit the space, making sculpture that purports to furnish a domestic setting. He was drawn to experiment with negative spaces and the spaces occupied by shadows, which does much to account for the strangeness of the still life sculptures: at first they look like ordinary pots and jugs but they quickly reveal themselves to be not only extremely fragile but fractured or altered because they incorporate negative or shadow spaces. Reflection appears to be an ordinary modelling stand (this item of studio furniture makes several appearances, supporting smaller objects) but in walking round it, it becomes an abstract form incorporating its own shadow, which has assumed a solid sculptural identity. Some of Startup’s ostensible still life objects have an oddly ad hoc appearance - an echo perhaps of his habit of hoarding bits of wood and things that might be useful – they are unidentifiable though sculpturally self-contained. Other pieces are more obvious surrogates for still life - surrogates because it is a condition of still life, whether sculptural or painted, that it is ‘real’, that it consists of objects that can be put to use. Identifiable or not, Startup’s white plasters vividly recall Morandi’s still, silent images in that both artists in very different ways unlock the eloquence of domestic objects.
Some works, in which only the scale is domestic, have a startling resemblance to folded paper and many others, like Unfolding Column, are covered with enigmatic, random numerals and letters – occasionally taken from car number plates. At some time Startup seems to have appropriated and cast from a number of printing matrices which bore the reversed image of a typeface. The delicate surfaces trap light and shade in endless modulations while the shapes are widely varied, from a small pyramid on a circular base to two pairs of miniature half columns which are clearly architectural in origin though they share a domestic scale and are covered in letters. Apparently some of these works incorporating type were intended to be reproduced in aluminium but only one such cast was made, for his posthumous exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery.
Startup had a much-interrupted art education in the 1940s; he was ambitious, clever and receptive and had a much wider range of experience at an early age than many artists, which perhaps helped to develop his undeviatingly individual approach to sculpture. He wrote (in Living Arts, 2, 1963) of his concern with ‘a developing idea of what sculpture is’; it seems that this drove him throughout his short career and enabled him to develop the strange, individual voice that echoes so strongly today.