Welcome to the #9 email in our series on Sculptors' Materials. This week, we are looking at the use of aluminium in sculpture.
Aluminium is a relatively young metal compared to its older siblings iron, gold and bronze which have been used for millennia. Due to it’s strong affinity for oxygen, aluminium is rarely found in its elemental (native) state but rather as oxides, sulphates or silicates which are widespread.
The first written record referring to Alum, an aluminium sulphate, dates back to the 5th century BC when the Greek Historian Herodotus noted it a valuable Egyptian commodity most often used for fixing dyes in textile industries.
However it was not until 1824 that the Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted managed to extract the metal aluminium. As the process could only produce the metal in very small quantities aluminium remained rare and more expensive than gold for many years. As such jewellers and sculptors used aluminium as a precious metal and Napoleon the Third is reported to have had a set of aluminium cutlery made for dining with his most prestigious guests.
Bracelet Aluminium and Gold Circa 1850
Surtout aux puttis Aluminium and Gold 1859
In the 1880’s discoveries made by Paul Héroult and Charles Martin Hall and later Carl Joseph Bayer meant that aluminium could be extracted on a more industrial scale and made more accessible. As a result the price of aluminium dropped and the metail became widely used in many industries and everyday items. Aluminium's ability to form hard yet light alloys with other metals made it particularly useful for aviation and demand for aluminium soared during World War I & II.
Nowadays most aluminium is produced from the ore bauxite which is mined mainly in Australia, China, Guinea and India and extracted using the Bayer and Hall-Heroult processes. Aluminium is soft, non magnetic and ductile and has a much lower density than other metals, approximately one third of that of steel, giving it one of its most important qualities for sculpture: lightness.
Alfred Gilbert (1854 - 1934) The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, Piccadilly Circus 1893
One of the first public sculptures to be made in aluminium was The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain by Sir Alfred Gilbert at Piccadilly Circus. Commonly but incorrectly referred to as Eros, the sculpture shows Anteros god of requited love and brother of Eros. The Memorial commemorates the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury and his philanthropy. It has a bronze base for weight but the aerial figure was cast in aluminium. At its inauguration the Memorial was called "one of, if not the very ugliest monument that can be found in any capital in Europe" but has since been used as The Evening Standard's logo and has become one of the great icons of London.
Geoffrey Clarke and assistants casting at his studio in Suffolk mid-1960s
Geoffrey Clarke (1924- 2014) was a pioneer in using aluminium in sculpture, first exploring open casting by impressing an image into the foundry sand bed and filling it with molten aluminium. Later, in the quest to achieve more three dimensional works, Clarke carved expanded polystyrene (another new material) with a hot wire which then vaporised on contact with the hot liquid aluminium leaving a solid form. Creating his own foundry where he could experiment at will suited Clarke's temperament perfectly and meant that he was able to create his large-scale commissions without outsourcing elements to a traditional foundry.
Jonathan Clarke, British sculptor and son of Geoffrey Clarke, has continued to perfect his father's technique. In the short film below Jonathan Clarke shows how he makes his works using polystyrene and aluminium.
Steve Hurst, 29th Division, 1971, Aluminium & Painted Wood
Many other artists have turned to aluminium as a material to solve the problem of weight. As a relatively new material for sculpture in the 60's it is wonderful to hear first hand accounts of how artists have tackled the material. For Steve Hurst it was the supply of Post War scrap aluminium that was attractive as well as its lower melting point. He says;
My first metal castings were made in aluminium. There was a simple explanation for this. Like Geoffrey Clarke, Ray Arnatt and many others I made my first furnace using an army-surplus field kitchen cooker and heavy duty Cemco drum lined with fire clay. I had a problem; I could not get the cooker burner to reach the temperature (1400 degrees) to melt bronze. So I melted scrap aluminium. (800 degrees). Aluminium is by no means easy to melt and pour into a mould. Aluminium scrap needs a Sodium modifier to modify the grain structure and a cover-flux to prevent impurities entering the melt. Because it is such an excellent conductor of heat it cools quickly in the mould. So the sprue system needs to be much thicker than for other metals and it must have reservoirs for the mould to draw extra liquid metal. Once cooled and turned out of the mould aluminium is not an easy metal to file or work. But, despite it’s eccentricities, it is still a lovely and a versatile metal. It is also relatively light, no mean advantage when you have to move sculpture around yourself.
Bruce Beasley, Chiron, 1966, Aluminium
Whereas Bruce Beasley wanted to find a material that could cast solid delicate forms without weight: In my earliest cast work of the 1960s I was confronted with a serious problem. I was making sculptures by cutting shapes out of Styrofoam packing cases and then gluing them together to make the sculptures. The very lightness and strength of the styrofoam made it possible to produce an original sculpture with thin, outward reaching forms that would have been impossible by modelling in clay. The very nature of the styrofoam made possible the visual vocabulary of these pieces.
The dilemma was that the originals were inherently fragile and for the sculptures to exist they would have to be cast in metal...So I needed a metal that was light enough that I could cast the sculptures solid. And that is why I started casting with aluminium. and it turned out that aluminium is easy to cast in that it stays very liquid when filling a mould. But as cast Aluminium is a dull grey and aluminium does not patina with the rich range of colors that bronze does.That forced me to find other ways to bring life to the cast surface of the aluminium.But it was the very nature of the lightness of aluminium, and its’ ease of casting that made it possible to make these sculptures.
A SELECTION OF ALUMINIUM SCULPTURES:
1968 Enamelled aluminium 63 x 96 x 36 cm Edition of 8
2013 Handmade aluminium rings Approx. 65 x 55 x 35 cm Unique
c.2014 Painted aluminium 71 x 106 x 35 cm Unique
Their Name is Light
1962 - 2017 Jesmonite and painted aluminium 71 x 89 x 51 cm Edition of 3
A FEW FACTS ABOUT ALUMINIUM:
- More than 160 million metric tons of bauxite are mined each year. Bauxite was named after the village of Les Baux where the French geologist Pierre Berthe found the ore in nearby deposits. Berthe was the first to discover that bauxite contained aluminium.
- Aluminium was used by Paco Rabanne in the 1960s as one of the materials for his Twelve Unwearable Dresses. One of them was a mini dress made with square and rectangular aluminium plates joined with metal rings.
- Nearly 75 percent of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today. Infinitely recyclable and highly durable Aluminium retains its properties indefinitely.
- Aluminium also occurs in the minerals beryl, cryolite, garnet, spinel, and turquoise. Impurities in naturally occurring Aluminium Oxide, such as chromium and iron, yield the gemstones ruby and sapphire, respectively.
- Aluminium is one of the only materials in the consumer disposal stream that more than pays for the cost of its own collection.
- Using aluminium together with stainless steel in a marine environment can be problematic due to galvanic corrosion. This is an electrochemical process whereby the aluminium corrodes in preference to the steel when in contact and an electrolyte such as sea water is present.