Spotlight on the Collection: January 2016, “Two Forms in Echelon”

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"Two Forms in Echelon" (1961), Barbara Hepworth (English: 1903-1975), Bronze. 1986.160.
“Two Forms in Echelon” (1961), Barbara Hepworth (English: 1903-1975), Bronze. 1986.160.

Sitting before the round, textured forms that push up from a base into air, Two Forms in Echelon engenders visual play. At first, these are fundamental shapes from an antediluvian world: eggs from some beast we fear to name. Or perhaps portraits: the faces of beings from a post-post-modern existence humans have yet to enter. But something happens the longer I look. The rough, white interiority of the forms sobers my eye to the language of material and artistic choice. In the oddly-formal surface of polished, oxidized bronze, in the gentle interplay of the forms to each other, in the openings that allow a view inside and through and between, I realize Two Forms in Echelon is balanced, minimal without being “preachy,” and complete amid its cavern of meaning. This is a work of high modern sculpture created by a master. Imagine viewing the work in a sculpted green landscape surrounded by foliage from which they would appear and disappear as the wind rustled all the green around the forms, as they remained fixed. Amazing.

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) was an English modernist who rose to international prominence for her sculptural work. There are many iterations of Two Forms in Echelon, created across the postwar decades, molded from bronze, marble, and wood. The multi-media, multisensory, curvilinear forms that hint at human scale seem to elucidate Hepworth’s famous quote: “Body experience… is the centre of creation.”

“Echelon” is a noun with two meanings. The common usage is of rank or attainment one ascends to, e.g., “the highest echelon within the society.” The second is a military alignment of troops, tanks, airplanes, and/or ships in parallel rows with each subsequent row, projecting further into space than the one before. When drawn roughly on paper, an “echelon” alignment resembles a rudimentary drawing of a bird’s wing. Two Forms in Echelon is clear of its intentions. The forms are in echelon with each other, rising from the base separately but existing in regard and relationship.

Of Hepworth, modernist sculpture, and Two Forms in Echelon (to borrow a line from poet, Sylvia Plath) “I shall never get [them] put together entirely.” But that is OK. As the light begins to turn golden in the galleries, as the patrons begin to make their way to the doors at day’s close, as the electricity in the air calls us to the early winter holidays that signal the close of one year and the beginning of another, Two Forms in Echelon speaks to me of loss, of endings that leave the door open for new, more creative possibilities, of the beautiful necessity of winter to prepare the world for spring.

To learn more

From the artist’s estate:

From the Tate collection:

Review of the recent Tate retrospective of Hepworth’s work in the summer of 2015: