(First published 22nd May 2007)
The sculpture of Tony Cragg offers a good example of the course of abstraction in sculpture at the end of the twentieth century, the search for formal values, a ‘truth to materials’. A recent show at Haunch of Venison, Zurich, illustrates his achievements, consolidates his reputation.
Cragg emerged in the 70s, in the wake of Minimalism and his first works of note collect sundry lengths of timber into strict rectangular stacks, then small items of refuse into varied formats either on wall or floor. In this, the work follows on from the Minimalist strategies of a Carl Andre or Donald Judd in looking to elemental construction for materials, an equivalent to basic symmetry or pattern in painting. But where Andre or Judd struggle to distinguish material from construction, pre-empt build by materials, Cragg, slightly later, is soon able to suggest a more flexible arrangement. Collected elements or material are variously sorted by colour, size and shape into an overall format, yet the spacing of elements as much prompts construction, or the overall shape, as construction determines elements, especially in works such as Britain Seen from the North (1981).
Materials and their construction becomes a two-way affair and this expansion to the Minimalist equation of materials and construction remains a cornerstone to Cragg’s work. Along with the two-way adjustment, Cragg’s choices allow that materials need not begin from merely size, shape or colour, but may use more complex properties, notably depiction, as well as prior construction. In this he moves decisively beyond Minimalism, is part of a broader trend in the late 70s - early 80s, that includes Richard Deacon, Bill Woodrow, Bertrand Lavier and Reinhard Mucha.
In works such as Karzenarbeit (1985) the plumbing fixtures are combined into a serpentine cordon around suitcase and other furniture, collect and construct the pipe, while measuring other containers. Similarly, in other works, various hooks, door knobs or drilled holes are collected beyond any further function as in Unschärferelation (Relation of Sharpness) (1991) or Three Tigers (1991). Note that the ‘holes’ in Three Tigers do not make them leopards – merely amount to an absence in the material or function. It is this two-way pull between material and function that now counts as abstraction in sculpture and formal properties amount to how we discern ambiguity to material or function. Door knobs are more decorative or nodule-like for being applied abundantly to table or chair, furniture more prone or passive for collecting them.
This balance between functions is continued in works which combine conspicuously organic and mechanical aspects, such as in Kolbenneblok (1989) or I’m Alive (2005). The highly polished finish of I’m Alive, allowing of course for continuous, ‘live’ reflections to its surface, as well as suggesting industrial standards, even as its snaking form resists obvious function. Other works may seem equally, a massively enlarged machine part, elementary life form or token figure and the richness or potency of Cragg’s work lies in the smooth assimilation of seemingly contrary meanings, the quick salute to Boccioni, Brancusi, Moore, Hepworth, Smith and Late Caro. Some works engage figuration more directly, play with a collection of layers or plys, draw sculpture toward more traditional depiction. Unquestionably Cragg’s popularity rests with this impressive synthesis of means and ends, of building by collection or recycling, modelling or casting.
The work also provides a useful contrast with more conceptual or commissioned approaches, by artists such as Jeff Koons, Wim Delvoye, Damien Hirst or Tobias Rehberger, amongst others. Such work is described as readily-mades in Post 25 and essentially they apply industrial or standard process to unlikely ends or products. This contrast between process and product obviously shares striking similarities with Cragg’s approach. The difference is that the readily-made looks outside process for a novel application, while Cragg’s more traditional approach – the steadily-made, say, looks inside process, for novel materials. The difference ultimately is one of degree, and obviously the approaches compliment one another, help to show how sculpture prospers, before and after abstraction and the twentieth century.