If these were not sculpture they were not ethereal visions either. To the contrary, they were solidly realised in available, everyday materials: wood planks, a steel pipe, unfinished and polished concrete, coloured polyester resin. Not sculpture materials, but useful materials, inventively used to produce each idea so that our impression of each form cannot be separated from its physical identity at its scale, the actual scale of a human standing there, occupying a human space; not that of a model, something on a pedestal.
This scale came naturally to Phillip, confident in his engagement with the physical world, and in his Mediterranean origins (he was born in Tunisia and spent his early childhood there).
Phillip once told me of his discovery of fibreglass, which became for a while his signature material; of how he was looking for a material to build a boat, and first tried resin reinforced with steel mesh; the boat let in water and sank when launched in a local reservoir, so he turned to fibreglass reinforcement, which bonded perfectly with the resin. And what better material to make a cast from linoleum in the form of a cone, five-feet high with a diameter at the base of six feet, if that was needed to realise Rosebud, a thing which had never existed before?
After the initial shock had worn off I began to notice hints of a connection to modern works not well known in Britain, to Georges Vantongerloo and Max Bill, and to the Gestalt psychology Phillip used to speak of. Brancusi was an influence we shared, and Matisse, whose late cut-outs remained in our minds. But for most of our contemporaries, like my friends Basil Beattie and John Hoyland, the single major influence was that of the ‘new’ American painting. In my case, and at that time, it was certain works by de Kooning and Motherwell.
For Phillip I think it was Rothko, whose majestic, unified rectangles of sombre colour seem to hover free of gravity just as Rosebud seems to float just above the ground. But Drift and Declaration have each a different, tense relation to the ground on which they stand, or is it rest? Each one of these works has a character you could describe in terms of geometry and measure, and at the same time the ambiguous presence of a dream image; yet these aspects are not in contradiction.
Matisse said, in a 1941 interview: “In painting – in any oeuvre – the goal is to reconcile the irreconcilable. There are all kinds of qualities in us, contradictory qualities. You have to construct something viable with that, something stable. That’s why you work your whole life long and want to keep working until the last moment…”
I don’t know if Phillip knew this passage, but his life is a testament to it.
William Tucker RA is a sculptor.