A new exhibition opening at the University of Leeds’ Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery later this month showcases the work of Austin Wright, an adopted Yorkshireman who came late to the art world.
The art and languages teacher decided to pursue a career as a full-time sculptor following a meeting with Henry Moore, who advised bluntly that Wright should “just get on with it”.
The show Austin Wright: Emerging Forms focuses on the artist’s sculpture and drawings between 1955-75, a crucial period for the development of his practice and reputation in the art world.
Although born in Cardiff, Wright (1911-1997) made his home in Yorkshire and was a key proponent of the sculpture scene, being one of the featured artists at the opening of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
The landscape of Yorkshire was highly influential on Wright and his practice. He said: “It’s a region that you come to know: like a face, you cannot assess it all in one look – you build it; it builds you. If I had to go anywhere else – it would only be to carry it in my head. It’s the one place that I needed to return to work. In a sense, I do not understand anywhere else.”
A key period for Wright’s practice was his time at The University of Leeds as a Gregory Fellow from 1961-64. His fellowship has been described by art historian James Hamilton as “the hinge” of his career.
The financial support of the fellowship enabled him to devote himself to his sculpture fully, but also introduced him to students, researchers and to a rich intellectually-stimulating atmosphere on campus.
The show tracks the change from Wright’s work in the 1950s, with his focus on human figures moving and engaged in activities, through to his more abstract work in the 1960s during the fellowship and beyond.
One important change was of medium: during his fellowship, Wright moved from casting in concrete and lead to aluminium – the material which he is most known for today. Equally important was meeting Leeds botanist Professor Irene Manton, whose electron microscope photographs of internal plant structures inspired Wright to move away from figuration towards natural forms, and to work on a greater scale with increased verticality.
“Austin Wright’s work has a quiet, contemplative quality that begs time to be fully appreciated. It’s not in your face.,” says Layla Bloom, University Art Curator. “Wright captures fleeting moments and subtle movements. His sculpture celebrates growth, change and the vital beauty of the natural world.”
Although he is best known and loved in the North of England, he did achieve national and international success following a recommendation from Wakefield director and visionary curator Helen Kapp. Kapp recommended Wright to the Director of the British Council, from which followed invitations to participate in the Younger British Sculptors tour of Sweden (1956/7) and Ten Young British Sculptors at the São Paulo Biennale in Brazil – where Wright was awarded the Ricardo Xavier da Silveira Acquisition Prize.
Austin Wright: Emerging Forms, opens on November 22 at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery and runs until March 17, 2018. Entry is free.