Beyond Limits: American post-industrial sculpture in the rolling hills of Derbyshire 

For the last twelve years Sotheby’s has held its annual show of contemporary outdoor sculpture at Chatsworth House, one of England’s finest stately homes. Each year the curatorial team provides a stunning recontextualisation of large-scale works, dotting them around the house’s Capability Brown-designed gardens. The show has varied in theme year on year – international artists, British artists – but this iteration takes as its focus the great American pioneers: Sol LeWitt, David Smith, Julian Schnabel amongst others.

As the senior international specialist Simon Stock commented, American mid-century and contemporary art seems to be having a moment in the UK. The Tate’s current exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power comes hot on the heels of their Agnes Martin blockbuster, and Abstract Expressionism and America after the Fall at the Royal Academy.

For obvious reasons, it is perhaps no surprise that America is in vogue, yet what is particularly interesting about many of the works on show at Chatsworth is how they speak the language of post-industrial decline. Girders and oxidised steel seem particularly jarring in the luxurious context of Chatsworth's grounds – in the house’s 2010 refurbishment, its window frames were regilded – but it is a productive tension. Works like Beverley Pepper’s Curvae in Curvae (2017) or Richard Serra’s Lock (1976-7) or indeed, Mark di Suvero’s The Cave (2015) feel arresting in their rarefied surroundings, the rawness of their materials amplified. Likewise, the three works of former art world wild child and polymath Julian Schnabel are reinvested with their iconoclastic rebelliousness when set amongst the Palladian and neoclassical set pieces of the Chatsworth estate.

A different juxtaposition comes from Wendell Castle’s 1971 Big M – with its large, cartoonish shape and colour – and the looming dark void of Tony Smith’s 1967 Source. Together these pieces have a playful sense of possibility, of stretching the limits of what sculpture could and should be. In this vein, what looks like a simple pile of bricks provides the exhibition’s most conceptual piece: Sol LeWitt’s Irregular Progression (Griesdorn) (2003), a sculpture that has no form beyond a set of precise instructions on how to construct it.

The golden stone of Chatsworth at times threatens to overwhelm some of the works, and it is strange to see them in the context of a house rather than a gallery or sculpture park, but the successful works rise above their context. Perhaps the most elegant is David Smith’s Voltri Bolton X (1962), a work that was formed from casts of abandoned industrial objects he found in a factory in Voltri where he worked in the lead-up to the Spoleto Festival. Smith’s sculptures have often been described as “drawings in space” and it is this lightness that seems to fit so well in the grounds of Chatsworth, the object elevating the context, as much as the other way around. §

Tony Smith, Source, 1977.

Robert Indiana, One through zero, 1990.

George Rickey, Column of four squares excentric gyratory III, 1990.

David Smith, Voltri Bolton X, 1962.

Wendell Castle, Big M, 1971.

Wendell Castle, Big M, 1971.

Joel Shapiro, Untitled, 2011-2017.

Robert Morris, Barrier, 1980s.

Julian Schnabel, Golem, 1986.

Robert Morris, Barrier, 1980s.

Julian Schnabel, Si Tacuisses, 1990.

Sol LeWitt, Three-sided pyramid, 1991. 

Sol LeWitt, Irregular Progression (Griesdorn), 2003.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Leaning Fork with meatball and Spaghetti II, 1994.