William Tucker: Recent Sculpture
McKee Gallery until June 3
745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, 212-688-5951.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 28, 2005
They say inside every fat man a thin one is trying to escape: Might the same be true of sculpture? William Tucker’s career traces a trajectory from the skeletal to the gargantuan. The work that brought him to the fore of advanced British sculpture in the 1960s was resolutely precise, linear, constructivist. No one would say his work was ever thin, intellectually, but it was lean in the sense of being emotionally contained and cerebral.
In the late 1970s, Mr. Tucker moved to America, and soon thereafter his work underwent a profound transformation. What he has become best known for today are expressive, densely modeled sculptural lumps. Monumentally slow to register, these have an awkward corporeality that is the extreme opposite of the deft, almost balletic structures of his early years. Yet, for all their weight, Mr. Tucker’s sculpture continues to be as much about the defiance of gravity as capitulation to it.
McKee has five substantial new works in bronze and plaster, a group of maquette studies for these, and a drawing. One piece is immediately recognizable as a horse’s head, recalling classical statuary. But some degree of ambiguity, a studied resistance to literal interpretation, remains the order of the day. Mr. Tucker’s work is more properly “figural” than figurative: His work makes reference to the body, but does so in terms of sensation rather than anatomy, feel not look.
Hefty though the form language remains, his bodily forms convey a sense of muscle, not flab. Without writhing Laocoön-like, or even implying directional movement, like many of Rodin’s figures, Mr. Tucker’s forms have a taut, contained, pent-up energy. They make us aware how much subtle, unconscious muscular engagement is required to keep a body erect. Rather like Henry Moore’s reclining women, a Tucker conveys that, properly understood, stasis entails its own kind of vitality and is by no means passive.
Earlier in his career, Mr. Tucker was well known for his scholarly, polemical writings about sculpture and his curatorial endeavors. His “Language of Sculpture,” based on a series of lectures delivered in Leeds in the 1970s, remains a classic among sculptors of a Modernist bent. In part this is due to the drubbing it received from postmodern theorists like Rosalind Krauss. Yet his insights remain enduringly fresh.
Mr. Tucker has moved in more traditionalist directions since then. But despite the seemingly radical shift in his own conception of sculpture — back toward an almost primordial sense of volume and mass — much of what he is doing now recalls the insights and curiosity of his earlier thoughts. This comes across in his attitudes towards two precursors of sculptural modernism: Rodin and Degas.
Mr. Tucker’s own work, like Rodin’s, makes striking use of the fragment. This isn’t a romantic appeal to the archaeological, nor is it about lobbing off extraneous limbs to make the remaining figure more streamlined and centered (as in Maillol or, for that matter, early Brancusi.) Rather, there is an organic sense that the fragment contains the essence of the whole, and that the whole, in turn, has the characteristics of one of its own parts.
Several of the works at McKee, including the sole drawing, depict or take their cue from the human fist. In an almost cartoony way — which defies Mr. Tucker’s ponderous, deliberative pace — this motif conveys a sense of “packing a punch.” Yet the fist is stationary and contained, a thing in itself that contains its own power, rather than an extension of the energy of an entire body. The shape of the disengaged fragment has its own figural implications.
In Mr. Tucker’s work of the last few years, there is a slight but discernible movement toward renewed clarity — the thin sculpture escaping from its corpulent jailer. None of the new pieces have the inscrutable, turdlike quality of his most enigmatic work of the 1980s and 1990s. Whatever is happening to the forms, however, the surfaces continue to bristle with ambiguity.
The pummeling is about more than mere texture. The elusive surfaces that result don’t seem contrived to generate intentionally multiple readings like the faceting in a cubist work, for instance. Instead, the surface agitation seems to come about as a result of nervous energy required to create the work and hold it up. There is a tense relationship in Mr. Tucker between depiction and being.
Degas is directly referenced in the most ambitious work in the exhibition, “Dancer,” (2002–04), a plaster work made in preparation for a bronze edition. A vast object — barely shy of 8 feet in any direction — it takes its inspiration from Degas’s dancer looking at the sole of her right foot. This is the work with which Mr. Tucker provocatively concluded “The Language of Sculpture,” extolling a pathos and heroism in this supposedly unemotional artist that outdoes all the “histrionics of romantic art, Rodin included.”
The Degas might recall the classical statue of the boy removing a thorn from his foot, but really it was an unprecedented sculptural form. The dancer is awkwardly twisted out of shape to perform an unnatural task that defies gravity. In order to freeze time and stand up, the sculpture, like the movement it depicts, must find its inner center. The energy of the Degas, as Mr. Tucker observed, isn’t from the ground up “but from the pelvis outward, in every direction, thrusting and probing with volumes and axes until a balance is achieved.” Because of the primitivism of Degas’s working method, actual balance was as essential as the illusion of balance.
The form is, whether consciously or not, a perfect metaphor of Mr. Tucker’s own sculptural aesthetic, with its struggle between the haptic and the optic, what is felt and what is seen. The dancer defies her body, out of bodily need, to see what’s beyond sight (some itch in her foot, perhaps). She wants to observe her own groundedness.