Huddersfield Art Gallery

The first retrospective of the work of sculptor Carl Plackman comes almost three years after his death of cancer. Posing its organisers with the ultimate curatorial challenge, the exhibition, which opened in Huddersfield – the town where Plackman was born – this week, was brought together out of often un-labelled, un-dated boxes, using archival photographs and the memory of his widow, Jane Patton for guidance.

There are many certainties about the work of Carl Plackman. That it was groundbreaking, complex, ambiguous, enigmatic. As 20th century conceptual art, it is highly influential work. Glance through the substantial exhibition catalogue and you can see the extent and breadth of Plackman’s influence, and the respect and admiration in which he was held by artists, critics, students, among them Phyllida Barlow, Damien Hirst, Tony Cragg, Richard Wentworth, Michael Sandle, Terry Friedman and Arturo Di Stefano.

Plackman’s training was in architecture, his interests were gymnastics, poetry, film, he came to art almost by accident, a default that launched him into the mode of expression he so intrinsically craved.

In his work, Plackman often strived to explain life. In so doing he created a language of signs and symbols, leitmotifs, constructs. Those seeking to comprehend his language find themselves in a world rich with significance yet meaning often lies just beyond grasp.

That is not to say that Plackman’s sculptures and drawings are exclusive or arrogant. To the contrary, their elusiveness is alluring, puzzling perhaps, but ultimately compelling. The work is open, in that it is extremely personal. Plackman himself was intensely private, gentle, reserved and sensitive.

In earlier works such as Container: The Hardware of Life (1979), Plackman literally framed pieces of prose: atmospheric, solitary pieces of writing that have echoes of Paul Auster. Here, he overtly showed his fascination with words, but this trait was later to become refined into Plackman’s own language without words. Not that his personal artistic language is designed to be translated, or even completely understood. Plackman’s son Sam writes that his father would never have desired any one given understanding or interpretation of his work. He adds that the work was so personal to his father that to him, exhibitions were like standing naked in the middle of a gallery.

Influences are diverse: Joseph Beuys, Renaissance painters, Beckett, Hitchcock, Tarkovski, Kurosawa. Somehow, too, his Jewish German roots shine through, making his work very European.

While Plackman’s work can be melancholic, there are very apparent strands of humour. His architectural training allowed him to express his joy with the way things fit together. Sometimes these pieces of work offer something unexpected. In the drawing Ad Infinitum (2000), the foreground portrays a stacked tower of kitchen paraphernalia and machines, beside them two metal keys fitted together. The couple linked in fellatio in the background are almost hidden in this work that celebrates the simple pleasures of interlinking.

In the catalogue, Damien Hirst recalls an instance where Plackman remarked ‘so you’re interested in the action of the world on things?’ producing from his pocket a worn spherical unidentifiable object that turned out to be a walnut his son had given him. He had carried it around in his pocket with his keys and coins for years, and it had been worn down, smoothed, changed. Again, walnuts, loaded with a personal symbolism, along with chairs, string, spheres, vessels appear repeatedly throughout Plackman’s work.

While this exhibition is not exhaustive – there are many pieces that proved to large to fit in Huddersfield’s gallery, others that proved impossible to reconstruct – it provides us with as definitive a look we’re ever going to get again of this unsung hero of twentieth century sculpture.

Yorkshire-based free-lance writer-journalist