Phillip King (1934–2021)

August 2nd, 2021

Influential British artist Phillip King, who helped find a new language for postwar sculpture with playful, vividly colored forms that at times evoke Matisse cutouts in their seeming weightlessness, has died at age eighty-seven. Thomas Dane Gallery, which represents the artist, announced his death on Thursday. In the 1960s, King emerged as the most unpredictable member of the New Generation, a group of British sculptors who shed the traditions of their medium, ditching the plinth and experimenting with industrial materials, bright palettes, and abstract shapes. 

Born in 1934 to a French mother and English father, King grew up near Carthage in Tunis, whose sunny sands and Islamic architecture would later inform his work. After earning a degree in modern languages from Cambridge University, he became interested in sculpture after a visit to the Louvre in the 1950s, when he was in the British National Service. He enrolled at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, where he began studying under Anthony Caro, and like him, spent time assisting Henry Moore. Originally unenchanted by nonrepresentational sculpture, King changed his mind during a trip to the Parthenon: The marble temple, perched on a rocky outcrop, made him rethink the relationship between earth and abstraction. “Greece allowed me to rediscover how things can be of the mind but also of nature, and the idea of using gravity as a way to make things stand up,” he told The Guardian in 2014. Upon his return from Athens, King destroyed his entire output and began anew. With his first painted sculpture, Rosebud, 1962, he started his career in earnest and created one of his most celebrated works: a painted fiberglass-and-wood cone, coated in matte pink with a green lining, in which nature and artifice tenderly entwine. (The piece was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art at the request of its founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr.)

Alongside fellow Caro students such as David Annesley, William Tucker, and Isaac Witkin, King took part in a series of exhibitions at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in the mid-’60s that gave the New Generation its name. The shows, which saw the artists place their sculptures directly on the floor, proved groundbreaking, and their loosely linked style—bold, lighthearted, and partly inspired by recent American painting—was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, winning the endorsement of Clement Greenberg and featured in curator Kynaston McShine’s landmark “Primary Structures” survey of Minimalist art at New York’s Jewish Museum. King showed at Documenta in 1964 and again in 1968, the same year he and Bridget Riley represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. His work resides in several major museums and his public art can be viewed in England, Australia, Japan, Scandinavia, China, and the United States, among other places. In addition to sculpting, he was a prodigious teacher, and from 1999 to 2004 served as president of London’s Royal Academy of Arts. In 2010, he received the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

The critical success he enjoyed in the ’60s eluded King in subsequent decades, but he refused to repeat himself. Whether working with steel, bronze, stone, ceramic, paper, polyurethane, or found objects, he employed few assistants and mostly eschewed preparatory sketches, preferring to let intuition guide him. He showed up to the studio nearly every day until his death, in search of new forms. He called sculpture the art of the invisible. “It’s below the surface, you can’t see what’s going on,” he explained. “The sculptor is the one who has to understand the inside.”