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1989 A New British Sculptor

“The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy is noticeably lacking in razzmatazz this year,” began Richard Dorment’s review of the 1989 Summer Exhibition.1 Despite David Hockney’s contribution of six portraits and a folding screen, Caribbean Tea Time (1987), there were few major talking points.2 The razzmatazz Dorment sought was more likely to be found in the exhibition showcasing the nominees for the Turner Prize, established in 1984 (although yet to secure the sponsorship from Channel 4 that would bring it greater visibility in the 1990s).

This lack of razzmatazz was perhaps inevitable, as the Summer Exhibition had long ceased to provide professional artists with a unique platform for showing their work. Between the well-established Academicians entitled to exhibit several works and the predominantly amateur or student artists who contribute by open submission, since the 1960s, at least, there has existed a class of successful artists with no lack of exhibiting opportunities and no need to submit their work to the selection process. As Dorment observed in his review, “we are still a long way from the day when all the best British artists will feel obliged to exhibit their works at the RA.”3

Explore the 1989 catalogue

One solution to this problem has been for the Academy to invite hand-picked artists whose presence would enhance the Exhibition but who would be unlikely to submit work otherwise.4 In this way, the Academy could target areas which were under-represented within the general submission. One such area was sculpture—in 1985, for instance, only a handful of sculptures by non-Academicians were exhibited. At the same time, a new generation of British sculptors including Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg, Alison Wilding, and Bill Woodrow (often grouped under the label “New British Sculpture”) had achieved significant international reputations, although none of these artists had exhibited at the Summer Exhibition. In 1989, the Academy President Roger de Grey invited thirty-nine artists to submit to the Summer Exhibition. These included Cragg, Deacon, and Anish Kapoor—none of whom chose to contribute.5

Another of the invited sculptors that year, and the only representative of “New British Sculpture” in the 1989 Summer Exhibition, was David Mach. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1982, Mach shot to prominence with large installations including Polaris (1983), a submarine made entirely from tyres, situated on London’s South Bank, and 101 Dalmatians (1988) at the Tate Gallery, for which he was considered for the Turner Prize that year.6 At thirty-two, Mach was then the youngest artist to have been in contention for the prize.

In common with contemporaries such as Cragg and Woodrow, Mach favoured everyday objects, often used in great quantities and acquired directly from manufacturers. Mach’s sculpture Her Feet Never Touched the Ground, which was shown in the Academy’s Central Hall (a prominent site for displaying sculpture) consisted of three pieces of statuary supported by more than forty Sindy dolls (Figs. 1 and 2). Mach has described the dolls as “contemporary caryatids”, likening them to the female figures supporting the entablatures of classical buildings.7

By the standards of Mach’s monumental 1980s installations, Her Feet Never Touched the Ground was modest in size, but it was constructed in much the same way as his larger works. Mach travelled widely, making new pieces in situ from a combination of his stock of mass-produced materials obtained directly from manufacturers and objects supplied by the host institution (a musician as well, Mach has compared this mode of working to gigging). According to Mach, the statuary was provided by the Academy—by incorporating it into his installation, he playfully referenced the cast collection which has been integral to the Academy’s teaching. The Sindy dolls, meanwhile, came from a large number that Mach obtained from their manufacturer, initially for his 1986 installation If you go down to the woods, at Cornerhouse in Manchester.8

Sculpture at the Academy this time was characterised by the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, Elizabeth Frink, and Philip King, and Mach was well aware that he had been invited to the Summer Exhibition to provide a different approach to sculpture. In an interview, he explained that he was one of a number of sculptors invited to the Exhibition to “jazz it up” but that “a lot of artists would not touch it with a bargepole.”9 Mach, who has described the Academy as a “club for mavericks”, exhibited at the Summer Exhibition again in 1991 and became an RA in 1998.10 Before long, however, several of the “New British Sculptors” became Academicians as well (Cragg in 1994, Mach and Deacon in 1998, Kapoor and Wilding in 1999, and Woodrow in 2002).

Dorment, who lamented the lack of razzmatazz in the Exhibition, was ambivalent about Mach’s sculpture, while at the same time acknowledging that there was nothing else quite like it:

In a class of its own is a sculpture by David Mach which formed the centerpiece in the rotunda, Her Feet Never Touched the Ground. This deliberately tacky affair, made of Sindy dolls and plaster casts, possessed for me precisely the aesthetic weight of a clever window display at Harvey Nichols. This is not a complaint: I rather liked it and it amused me … but I forgot about it as soon as I passed from the room.11

Dorment’s comparison of the sculpture with shop window displays is apt—in 1986, Mach himself said of his work that: “there’s a criticism of materialistic attitudes here which I hope points right back into the artworld where there is as much of a commodity market as anywhere else.”12 Equally, Dorment’s description of enjoying the work but forgetting it soon after mirrors the ephemerality of the sculpture itself. Like most of Mach’s work of this period, Her Feet Never Touched the Ground was not sold and was dismantled after the Exhibition, by which time the nomadic artist was off at his next gig.

  1. Richard Dorment, “Cutting Back on the Razzmatazz”, The Daily Telegraph, 9 June 1969, RA press clippings.↩︎

  2. Hockney was elected as an Associate in 1985, entitling him to submit up to six works to the Exhibition, but 1989 was the first time he had submitted more than two.↩︎

  3. Dorment, “Cutting Back on the Razzmatazz”.↩︎

  4. In 1976, for instance, Peter Blake was invited to select artists of his choice to exhibit in Gallery II, many of whom had not previously shown work at the Summer Exhibition.↩︎

  5. List of invited artists, RAA/PRA/10/16. Woodrow was invited in the following year.↩︎

  6. There was no official shortlist that year but eight artists were under consideration. Virginia Button, The Turner Prize (London: Tate Publishing, 2005), 62.↩︎

  7. Mach in conversation with the author, 25 January 2018.↩︎

  8. Mach in conversation with the author, 25 January 2018. Mach has also used Sindy’s American counterpart Barbie (Off the Beaten Track, Wright Art Gallery, UCLA, 1988).↩︎

  9. Robin Stringer, “The Sindy Dolls at the Royal Academy”, Evening Standard, 6 June 1989.↩︎

  10. Mach in conversation with the author, 25 January 2018.↩︎

  11. Dorment, “Cutting Back on the Razzmatazz”.↩︎

  12. Paul Bonaventura, “David Mach: Interviewed”, Artefactum (November 1986): 17–21.↩︎

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Explore the 1989 catalogue