William Pye Water Scupture

The Spectator, 22nd May 2004

Sculptors and plumbers make a good team, as the fountains of Rome and Versailles testify, but you need to live in a baroque period like ours to appreciate their art fully. William Pye matured as a sculptor in the 1970s, at the end of a period of artistic puritanism, when 'design' and 'decoration' were not to be confused with 'art' and artists tried hard, exact, narrowly focused and 'true' to their material rather than entertaining.

The work in Pye's last substantial one-man exhibitions, in 1978 at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and a year later at Winchester, was very much of its time. Those minimalist constructions of shiny steel tubes and cables might suggest shafts of sunlight, waterfalls or musical instruments to the impure mind, but their truth to their materials was rigorous and their abstraction absolute, except in a series of small pieces called 'California Bronzes' there was more than a hint of landscape. Explaining himself in an interview, Pye, the son of a distinguished mechanical engineer, spoke of 'the movement of light, geometric puzzles, engineering perspectives. I'm very much absorbed in trying to infuse into my work the type of sensations one gets, say, on seeing a beautiful bridge'.

His purpose has hardly changed in the last quarter-century. What did change radically in the 1980s was his medium. Instead of the serried cables which sometimes evoked cascades, Pye began to use real water, to wrestle with the science of hydraulics and reinvent himself as an inspired plumber. Inevitably, this removed him from the conventional art world system of regular exhibitions in galleries. Apart from occasional spectacular contributions to the Royal Academy's summer shows, his work - nearly always commissioned - went out into private gardens, commercial atria and public places, the most recent being his Queen's Jubilee Fountain in Lincoln's Inn. The project that made him famous was the 'Water Wall', a continuous waterfall down the whole glass facade of Nicholas Grimshaw's British Pavilion at Expo '92 in Seville.

Getting these sculptures just right, siting them so that the tricky element they are based on plays its part with precision, must be a complicated business, demanding almost infinite patience and adjustment, yet much of their beauty derives from their outward simplicity. They are both entertaining, mesmerising, elegant and (in both senses) reflective. Pye somehow manages to encompass the humour and extravagance of the baroque without ceasing to be an artistic puritan.