On 15 December 1972 the mayor of Rotterdam put forward a proposal to the municipal council from the City Embellishment Committee to purchase a sculpture by the British artist Phillip King. At the time King was one of the leading exponents of the new abstraction in sculpture, which had begun in the early 1960s. His work had been exhibited internationally in group shows on new British art, but also at the Kassel Documenta (1963 and 1968) and the Venice Biennale (1968). In the Netherlands King’s sculptures were on view at Arnhem’s open-air exhibition Sonsbeek (1966) and there was a retrospective of his work at the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in 1969. It was the latter exhibition that drew the Committee’s attention to his work, and in 1971 their interest was further drawn to the work Quill, an elegant construction made of red and yellow steel produced that same year. They felt that the sculpture was a fine example of King’s work, exemplifying his artistic principles.

After several visits to Rotterdam, King found a suitable location for his sculpture in Zuiderpark, on a strip of grass next to a large pond between the Ahoy complex and Oldegaarde. The sculpture could be seen from all angles and it contrasted nicely with the green of the park and the blue or grey of the sky. The work enlivened its immediate surroundings and was also proof that the Committee’s attention was not solely on the inner city.

Phillip King was born in Tunisia in 1934. After the Second World War he moved with his French mother and English father to London, where he went to study at St. Martin’s School of Art in 1957. There a group of young talented students developed a new abstract form of sculpture, a British version of America’s Primary Structures, under the guidance of the teacher and sculptor, Anthony Caro. King became one of the leading exponents of the group and, following Caro, achieved international fame. With their preference for geometric pieces painted in strong colours, they turned their backs on Henry Moore’s abstract figuration and organic forms. They experimented with rough metals and fibreglass – materials that had previously been considered unsuitable for sculpture, and which gave their work an industrial appearance. Their sculpture was placed directly on the ground without recourse to a plinth. Although King originally created some severely geometric abstraction pieces, his work gradually became more playful than that of similar-minded artists, as the curves, bright colours and often lyrical titles of his work (Ghengis Khan, Rosebud and Barbarian Fruit) reveal. His sculptural language ranged from the entire spectrum of geometric forms to plastic figurative elements.

His 1968 exhibition in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was the crowning glory of Kings career. Shortly after this triumph, there was a radical shift in his work when he dropped the closed form of the cone – for years the basis of his sculpture – and began making open constructions composed of separate elements in different materials. In the early 1970s King made several works from thin, brightly painted metal based on the primary forms of a circle, square and triangle. The construction Quill is a fine example of this new fluid manner of working. Its yellow steel bands describe segments of a circle that appear to stick up out of the ground. A wavy line of red steel meanders through them, weaving them together. Again, as with all King’s sculptures, it is not on a plinth, but undulates like an arabesque in space.

Originally Quill must have been a gracious and decorative addition to the Zuiderpark. Alas, it was quickly used as a climbing frame, and while thought had been given to the structure’s solidity when it was purchased, the sinuous-looking sculpture could not withstand such treatment. After a while, the spot where it stood in the park became overgrown, the sculpture was lost from view and became quickly forgotten and neglected.
In 1988 Charlois borough council – responsible for the sculpture – requested that the Centre for Visual Arts (CBK) come up with a proposal for the future of Quill, which by this time was completely dilapidated. It was decided to remove and restore the work and find a new location for it. Following restoration Quill was exhibited at an overview of British twentieth-century art in Paris in 1996 and at a King retrospective in Florence in 1997. Since then the 600-kilo painted steel sculpture has been in storage, waiting for a new public life in Rotterdam.

Claudine Hellweg

Hilton, T., The Sculpture of Phillip King, London 1992. / Exhib. cat. Phillip King – Skulpturen, Mannheim (Kunsthalle Mannheim) 1993. / Exhib. cat. Phillip King, Florence (Forte di Belvedere) 1997.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015