Working Model for Three Piece No. 3: Vertebrae is an important and dynamic work encapsulating the major themes which Henry Moore explored throughout the 1960s. Bringing together concepts of the multipartite reclining figure with the interlocking of shapes, this sculpture is underpinned by an exploration of the spatial, formal and metaphoric possibilities of vertebrae.
Conceived by Moore in 1968 and based on a small maquette, the present sculpture was to serve as the model for the monumental Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae (1968-69) which measures over twenty-four feet. Moore was later commissioned to create an even larger version for the plaza of I.M. Pei's City Hall in Dallas. Casts of the present sculpture are in the collections of the Tate, London and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
Alan G. Wilkinson has suggested that Moore may have derived his inspiration for the initial maquette for this sculpture from a flint stone, one of many which Moore kept in his studio (see A. Wilkinson, Henry Moore remembered: The Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Toronto, 1987, p. 231). As Moore himself admitted, stones along with other natural objects such as shells and driftwood helped him 'to start off ideas', but of greater importance was 'the human figure and its inner skeleton' (Moore, quoted in C. Lichtenstern, Henry Moore, Work -Theory - Impact, London, 2008, p. 59). It was the fundamental tension, energy and movement generated by the skeleton which appealed to Moore and this can be recognised in the dramatic forms of the present sculpture, alternately upward pointing and smoothly curving. Indeed, although the present sculpture may appear to approach abstraction, Moore was unequivocal about the natural origins of his vertebrae sculptures: 'it may seem to some people abstract but it's not. It's all organic form' (Moore, quoted in The Dallas Times Herald, 6 December 1978).
In Working Model for Three Piece No. 3: Vertebrae, Moore combines two innovative and seemingly contradictory strands which shaped his work at this time: the division of the reclining figure into separate, fragmentary pieces and the interlocking of forms. It was in 1959 that Moore began to create two-piece reclining figures, later moving to reclining figures of three and four separate parts. This division of the reclining figure into multiple units was a major development within Moore's oeuvre and suggested profoundly new and exciting ways of working. Central to the genesis of the idea of the three piece sculpture as opposed to those of two elements was, as Moore stated in an interview of 1963, the structure of vertebrae: the 'solution was finding a little piece of bone that was the middle of a vertebra, and I realised then that perhaps the connection was through one piece to another' (Moore, quoted in A. Wilkinson, ed., Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations, Aldershot, 2002, p. 290). This notion of the underlying connections between separate pieces is made explicit in Working Model for Three Piece No. 3: Vertebrae through the manner in which the vertebrae-like pieces touch and fit together.
Alan Bowness has noted the 'vertebrae' of the title points to the fact that the reclining element here is of distinctly lesser importance than the manner in which the forms now interlock - 'like the bones of a spinal column' (A. Bowness, ed., op. cit., London, 1977, p. 9). This interlocking of form had been explored by Moore in such works as Locking Piece (1963-64) and Two Piece Sculpture No. 7: Pipe (1966), where sculptural units are drawn together into relationships of tension and linked interdependence, sometimes with sexual connotations (see ibid., p. 17). Robert Melville wrote of the larger version of the present sculpture in these terms, seeing it as 'a bacchanalia of golden biomorphs, emblematic of universal coition' (R. Melville, Henry Moore: Sculpture and Drawings: 1921-1969, London, 1970, p. 32).
One of Moore's aims at the time, particularly evident in the present work, was the creation of interesting and varied viewpoints which would actively engage the viewer in a process of heightened visual cognition. Here, Moore creates these many viewpoints through sculptural pieces which, although not identical, are of similar form; they are variations on a theme. In describing his vertebrae sculptures, Moore explained that, 'each of the forms, although different, has the same basic shape. Just as in a backbone which may be made up of twenty segments where each one is roughly like the others but not exactly the same ... The two or three forms are basically alike but are arranged to go with each other in different positions' (Moore, quoted in D. Mitchinson, ed., Henry Moore Sculpture, London, 1988, p. 204).