Starhead (Middlesbrough, Paul Neagu, 1984)

Paul Neagu c.1972

Paul Neagu was a Romanian artist (born in 1938) who moved west of the Iron Curtain in the 1970s – during the repressions of Ceaușescu’s rule – to pursue his practice in the UK.

This cross-cultural leap led to early setbacks, as Neagu “struggled against a British art world that preferred to see the artist as a maker of things rather than, as he saw it, art”.1 In spite of this ideological disconnect, Neagu made his reputation as an artist and teacher in the UK, having an influence on a generation of British sculptors.

An abstract sculptor, he eschewed the Social Realism predominant in his then-communist homeland. Instead he focused on tactile forms, stating, “the eye is fatigued. You can take things in better with your ten fingers, pores and mucous membranes than with only two eyes.”

One of Neagu’s long-term obsession was a set of works called Nine Catalytic Stations; cosmological, abstract forms that he usually arranged in a set pattern according to the points of the compass.

The north east point of this series was always a form he called ‘Starhead’. One of the points of the star was always left open, either at the base or another point, a pattern some scholars have interpreted as representing freedom, escape or potential. It’s fitting that Neagu chose the Starhead for the north east point of his artistic compass, as that’s the one that made it to the North East of England – specifically Middlesbrough – in sculptural form.

Some of Neagu’s Nine Catalytic Stations (see above) were produced as monumental sculptures, but Middlesbrough’s version of Starhead – a stainless steel, 9 pointed star perched on two legs – was made on a disappointingly, almost ridiculously small scale. Divorced from the context of the other stations, any power the piece could have conveyed is squandered in magnitude. Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge comes unfortunately to mind. And it’s this minimisation which has ensured that this work – by a significant artist in the heart of a busy university campus – goes largely unknown and unnoticed.

The reason Starhead provides a convenient coat-hook rather than towering over our heads is – of course – one of funds. Northern Arts had originally been working with the artist to create a monumental version of the sculpture, but financial constraints meant that the plan didn’t come to fruition. Instead, a smaller version of the piece was created in 1984 and offered to Middlesbrough Council, who installed it on Gilkes Street. The work was later moved to Teesside University (outside the Centuria building), where it stands today.

The original Gilkes Street location of Starhead, featuring Middlesbrough poet Morbid
Triple Star Head in Milton Keynes. Photo by @phill_crowe

But the statue wasn’t even meant to be in Middlesbrough. Three years earlier, Hartlepool was the likely destination for the sculpture, which was supposed to be a full 36ft tall. This would have been even bigger than Triple Star Head: a monumental work from 1987 that stands near Furzton Lake in Milton Keynes (see photo).

Starhead was offered to Hartlepool for free. But in 1981, council leader Bryan Hanson nixed the proposed sculpture, claiming that “we have enough scrapyards in Hartlepool without providing another”. The rejection made the local newspapers, where councillor after councillor took potshots at Neagu’s proposed sculpture. Only Councillors Stan Kaiser and Bill Isley provided dissenting voices in this bloodbath, with Isley stating “most of the great composers including Beethoven and Mozart were criticised and I think we should give this a chance,” while also noting that “Salford Council was far-sighted enough to invest in the works of Lowry”. Go get ’em Bill.

Source: Evening Gazette. 17th December, 1981.

Instead, Starhead (greatly reduced in size) made its way over to the Boro. Go and give it a visit. I’d suggest getting down on your knees, looking up, and imagining what could have been.

Thanks to Middlesbrough Libraries for the press clipping, Morbid the Poet and Judy Hume for the photos and – as ever – Tony Duggan for the invaluable information.


Paul Neagu: from microcosm to macrocosm by Ada Muntean

Paul Neagu: hyphen as consequence and catalyst by Kirstie Gregory

Artist’s homepage

Obituary from The Guardian

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