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Antony Gormley on Drawing

The Turner Prize–winning British artist, in town to unveil his show at the Phillips Collection, talks to “The Washingtonian” about his work.

Photograph by Lars Gundersen.
The morning after the unveiling of his first American drawing show at the Phillips Collection, Antony Gormley received a phone call from the BBC. A reporter had discovered that artist Agata Oleksiak, a.k.a. Olek, had “yarnbombed” some of his sculptures on Crosby Beach in England, covering the bronze statues in pink and purple crocheted knits. Gormley, to his credit, was impressed. “It’s absolutely brilliant,” he says. “It’s this perfectly, perfectly fitted multicolored thing, and it’s a nice tribute. I thought the barnacles were a perfect development, but this is one I could never have expected.”

Gormley is tall, with cropped black hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He’s quietly focused, and speaks softly but intently about his work, which he describes as philosophical rather than autobiographical, even though he is almost always his own subject. For an artist whose work is almost synonymous with public areas, an exhibition of drawings in a space as predictable as an art gallery might seem odd. But “Antony Gormley: Drawing Space” exposes in greater detail than ever the artist’s exploration of the human body. One series of prints, “Body and Soul,” features marks made by Gormley’s mouth, knees, spine, and even the tip of his penis. “I’m treating my life as a test site for the common human condition,” Gormley says. “I’ve no interest in manipulating or possessing the image of others for my purpose, and I think I would find it very difficult to command what I can feel for myself.”

Now 61, Gormley has been a fixture in the British art scene for several decades. In 1980, he created “Bed,” an installation depicting two human figures bitten by the artist into a square “bed” made from more than 600 loaves of bread. “The eating part was tedious,” he told the Guardian earlier this year. “I never want to have anything to do with industrially produced bread again.” In 1994 he won the Turner Prize—Britain’s most prestigious, if often controversial, award—for his work “Field for the British Isles,” which filled a space with 40,000 individual terra-cotta sculptures, ranging from 3 to 11 inches high.

“Event Horizon,” one of Gormley’s most famous installations, opened in London in 2007, placing 31 life-size casts of his body in different rooftop locations around the city. The work, which might be interpreted as suggesting figures about to jump, was moved to New York in 2010, and was recently installed in São Paulo, where Brazilian authorities have received numerous calls from concerned citizens about the people on top of buildings. Gormley says the work reflects his attempts to jolt humans into an awareness of their current state. “My work, while growing out of something like cubism, is not the same. It’s more psychological, and to do with a growing sense of the pathos of our inability to use our intelligence productively. We have some very fundamental core beliefs to shift as a culture,” he says.

“Drawing Spaces” is perhaps less visually surprising than some of Gormley’s work, but no less thoughtful. He explores inner and outer spaces in sketches made from materials such as paint, charcoal, casein (a milk protein), and even blood, breaking down the body into its different elements: eyes, lips, legs, fingertips. Two sculptures, “Aperture XIII” and “Clasp II,” present bodies formed from geometric structures—one a series of cubes, the other hexagons. Surprisingly flimsy and light, the works are undeniably human; “Aperture XIII” has the slumped, slightly rounded posture of a man waiting for a bus.

This is only the fifth drawing show in Gormley’s career. “I don’t think they pretend to the grand tradition; they’re not great works of art,” he says. “They’re little snippets of maybe half-formed ideas and feelings. They’re sort of pathetic. But I think even my monumental works are pathetic, because this is not a time of manifestos and exposed certainties, so the tentativeness of the pieces I think is important. They were purposeful for me in the making of them, but it remains to be seen whether they can have a bigger purpose.”

“Antony Gormley: Drawing Space” is at the Phillips Collection through September 9. For more information, visit the museum’s website.

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