Woodrow enjoyed his time at St Martin’s, studying sculpture, between 1968 and 1971. ‘It was a fantastic experiment. Sculpture was wider than painting – you could try all kinds of new things. I had been a country boy, escaping from the house at eight in the morning and coming back at eight in the evening after cycling all day in the New Forest. Nobody had a clue where I was, but my mother was very supportive.’
Woodrow’s father Geoffrey had served with the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War: ‘He flew fighters off an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.’ But after his parents split up, the young Woodrow saw little of his father. Growing up in Hampshire, he didn’t visit London until he was 17. And although he says his tutors at St Martin’s tended to be ‘severe about anything rustic’, he nevertheless made works like Untitled (1971), where two large photographs of branches in landscape settings are joined, surprisingly, by a real branch.
When the Whitechapel Art Gallery gave him an exhibition in 1972, Woodrow was only 24. He was delighted to be acknowledged so soon by a prominent London institution. He was now anchored in the metropolis, living in Brixton off Acre Lane. ‘It was lively and violent in different ways. But I learned to be street-savvy, and you think you’re immortal at that age. I was becoming more urban, and starting to use the material that was available. Stuff I found on the street became my natural material.’
He started encasing found objects – such as telephones and hairdryers – in plaster, so that they looked like ‘contemporary fossils’. In 1979, Woodrow covered a carpet sweeper and a vacuum cleaner in concrete and called them Standing Stones. ‘Washing machines and spin dryers were so easy to find on the street,’ he recalls. ‘People didn’t repair them – they were put out for rag- and-bone men, and washing machines had a huge surface area of material for me to work with.’
One of the most dramatic results of Woodrow’s obsession with street junk was Hoover Breakdown (1979), where the vacuum cleaner appears to have erupted and spilled its contents right across the floor. Two years later, in Spin Dryer with Bicycle Frame Including Handlebars, he decided to cut metal out of the discarded machine and make a skeletal bicycle that was still joined to the spin dryer in an unpredictable marriage of parts.
By this time Woodrow was exhibiting at the Lisson Gallery in London along with other leading sculptors of his generation such as Tony Cragg RA and Richard Deacon RA. They were soon hailed as the proponents of so-called New Sculpture, and Woodrow welcomed the label. ‘It was very positive in the beginning because it was saying this is something new and different. There was no manifesto or organised group. We were individuals and that was our strength.’
Only Woodrow could have made Self-Portrait in the Nuclear Age (1986), where he used items as disparate as a shelving unit, a wall map, a coat and a globe to express his unease at the precarious state of the world. This sculpture also conveys Woodrow’s growing restlessness about his work as an artist. His 1987 Lisson show turned out to be his last with the gallery. ‘I was wanting to change because I had marked out that particular scene. I knew what I was doing, and when you know what you’re doing it’s not interesting any more. That state of mind coincided with the collapse of the economy and the art market in the late 1980s.’
Woodrow finally parted company with the Lisson at the beginning of the 1990s, but in 1989 he had been given a show at the Imperial War Museum in London. Now using bronze – formerly a heretical medium for his generation of sculptors – he displayed new works as anguished as For Queen and Country (1989). Here a wounded soldier, without hands or feet, and with a blood-red gash on his face, struggles on crutches. Letters in gold leaf beside a discarded sword spell out the word ‘reminder’. Next to this, a crown contains more letters and if you add the ‘A’ and the ‘L’ formed by the crutches you see the words ‘Royal remainder’. Another bronze from the same year, Un Till The Land, is about ‘how war rapes the landscape’.
This change in direction was remarkable. ‘I’m not interested in developing a brand,’ says Woodrow, ‘I’m interested in doing something entirely different the next day. For a time in the 1980s I did the cut-out work, but I don’t like being tied to one thing. This is why I was independent for 15 years after I left the Lisson Gallery. So my status, market-wise, could be better.’
By 1997 Woodrow was using glass, urethane foam, wood, steel, wax, rope and gold leaf to make a major piece called Beekeeper and Four Hives. ‘I didn’t want a figurative representation of a beekeeper. The beekeeper becomes a marionette. I was excited by its dependence on gravity, as opposed to the fact that bees defy gravity by flying, and also by the fact that the marionette is controlled by someone else.’
Since 2000 Woodrow’s art – which he still makes in his London studio – has thrived on incessant change. He has recently been preoccupied with images of skulls, after finding a deer skull. ‘Then I went to the Horniman Museum in London and made lots of drawings of skulls there. I came back to the studio and tried to make a skull, without reference to the drawings. I made hybrids, not one particular animal, and the whole thing evolved out of that.’ At this year’s RA Summer Show Woodrow displayed his daring Self-Portrait in the Year 2086 (Trophy) (2010), where bronze lines grow like plants from a linear form based on his own skull. Woodrow tells me that he is currently making Self-Portrait in the Year 2089 for his new exhibition. ‘But,’ he emphasises, ‘I’m not haunted by mortality. We come and we go, it’s as simple as that. Bees only live for six weeks. But I certainly don’t see my retrospective show in terms of signing off. It’s to do with fighting and trying, and I look forward, rather than back. I make the work for myself. People are always telling me things about it and I think: “Oh, really?” But I would never close the door on what the work means, and that’s what makes it fascinating.’
• Bill Woodrow RA is open until 16 February 2014.
• The Sculpture of Bill Woodrow by Julia Kelly and Jon Wood, £40, Lund Humphries
• Alphabet by Bill Woodrow, £16.95, RA Publications.
• Bill Woodrow RA is open until 16 February 2014.