Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun,
August 31, 2006
 

 

WILLIAM TUCKER
Ward Pound Ridge Reservation

William Tucker Eve (2000) [foreground] bronze, 92 x 60 x 64 inches, and Vishnu (1994) bronze, 84 x 65 x 66 inches. Photograph, and Labor Day Weekend cover, by Rick Rogers

 

Initially, they didn’t look like sculpture.  I know what Tuckers look like, and was keen to find them, but the initial impact of the monumental bronzes grouped on a sloping bank in Westchester County’s Ward Pound Ride Reservation on a rainswept Sunday afternoon recently was of nature not nurture: They have the defiant sense of stuff that belonged there, like boulders or meteorites, and had been there longer than any of the park’s visitors could imagine.

On closer inspection, the group of five pieces, ranging in date from 1985-2001, take the aspect of a prehistoric stone circle, rather like the henge at Avebury in Mr. Tucker’s native Britain.  (Born in Egypt in 1935, the artist immigrated to the United States in 1978.) Before they register as individual, self-contained sculptural expressions, the works cohere in their temporary group as a singularly effective ensemble.   A sixth work by Mr. Tucker is installed at a distance from its peers.

Even as you try to engage with a given piece it resists interpretation.  It isn’t that they are going out of their way to alienate, or play the modernist/post-modernist game of defying aesthetic experience.  On the contrary, the surfaces are highly energized with expressive handling.  The bronzes are cast from modeled clay or plaster, and despite their scale (the tallest piece, “Eve” [2000] stands at over 7-1/2 feet) there is much evidence of the originating hand of the artist.  But the works revel in ambiguity, constantly evading fixed cogniscence.   You make out a limb or what could be a facial feature, but as soon as you move on to what should be a neighboring feature the first one has slunk back into the crowd of inchoate pummeling.

“The Hero at Evening” (2000) – the title is a reference to Simon Bolivar on his last journey as recounted by Marquez in “The General in his Labyrinth” – offers the most legible face of the group.  A nose, a half-closed eye, the brow, and an ear on this reclining head buck Mr. Tucker’s penchant for diffused form.  But still, the totality defies immediate recognition.  In its scale and outdoor location it resists its eponymous heroicism to remain matter in transition, whether geologically, as a boulder, or biologically, as a turd.  Much of the emotional charge in this artist, however, resides in the sense of interconnectivity between the human form and the experienced universe.  Engaging with his work, trying to read it and allowing yourself to be seduced by the strange totality, puts you in mind of the existential physicality of creating it.

When Mr. Tucker left Britain in the 1970s, no one on either side of the Atlantic would have guessed that he was on track to be the late Twentieth Century’s heir to the monumentalist tradition.  It is true that he was turned on to sculpture, like so many of his generation, by the heroic achievements of Henry Moore.  But Mr. Tucker was closely associated in the 1960s with a group of young sculptors who broke radically with Moore’s romantic humanism.  Led by Anthony Caro, Moore’s rebelious former assistant, these artists were concerned with severely pared-down, geometric abstraction.  Their work often played against gravity, favoring new materials, synthetic color, an industrial look.  Sculpture wasn’t supposed to look like a body on a plinth any more.

Mr. Tucker was a key player in this new aesthetic.  His landmark book, The Language of Sculpture (1974), was based on a series of lectures delivered in Leeds the previous decade, and argued against “romantic histrionics” in sculpture, stressing weighlessness and play.  His own work was resolutely streamlined, using twisted piping or construction elements, exploring sensations of space through line.

But there was a key to his later shift towards volume and mass, traditional materials and a timeless sense of physicality, in the brooding, existential titles he gave early works: “Portrait of K.” (after reading Kafka); “The Prisoner,” and “The House of the Hanged Man,” a work in wood from 1981 taking its title from a Cézanne painting and seen recently at the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, “Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection” which included several works by Mr. Tucker. 

Still, it represented a major shift in gear for an effete abstractionist who has been a spokesman for sculptural formalism to embrace the traditional medium of modeling and casting in bronze and to produce works of monumental expressivity.  Previously, Mr. Tucker had been signed up to a view of sculpture that privileged “pure opticality,” in which painting and collage set the standards for sculpture to follow.  Now, legibility gave way to generalized emotion.  Vision had to make room for the sense of touch.  The figure was back.  He told a critic that he wanted to work in a “human rather than an art language.”   It was as if this modernist pharisee had been blinded on the road to Damascus.

A key series of transitional works were his gymanasts from the early 1980s.  These took up the linear aspect of his earlier work, and retained a purist simplicity, but intimated bodily movement, had tactile surfaces, and admitted to gravity.  They were also his homage to the sculptures of Degas.

But by the mid-1980s he was launched in what has become his signature style.  Like earlier modernists harking a “return to order” (Picasso after World War I for instance) he turned to classical myth.  But tellingly, as with “Thetys” (1985) the earliest work in his Westchester exhibition, he was drawn to the pre-Olympian deities, to the primordial Titans, as more suited to his chthonic sense of primordial emergence from chaos.  Thetys was the daughter of Uranos and Gaia (who also lent her name to a piece) by whom her brother Okeanos squired the 3000 Oceanids.  The name is perfect for a work that offers a multiplicity of meanings.

From one side “Thetys” can read like a dolman, with its flat top leaning at a diagonal and perched precariously on a boulder-like base, into which it is merged.  But from another side there is a crease suggestive of flesh—the nape of the neck, perhaps, or an ankle with the foot extended, in which case the majority of this Titan goddesses body is to be imagined underground.  Many of Mr. Tucker’s works on the 1980s would tease with suggestions of bodily fragment that nonetheless cohere as self-contained figures.

“Vishnu” (1995) and “Eve” (2000) continue the primordial theme, and are the most convincing figural representations.  “Vishnu” is a torso with a heroically expanded diaphragm and belly.  We sense the concentration of muscle around the upper back and fragment of thigh.  Sighted on a misty, dark day this fulsome, masculine presence evokes Edward Steichen’s classic nocturnal photograph of Rodin’s Balzac.

“Homage to Rodin (Bibi)” (1999) displayed at a distance from the other pieces is the most portrait-like of the group.  While “The Hero at Evening” is clearer in its facial features, “Bibi” has specific, observed, felt-for human presence.  The title is an acknowledgement not only of Mr. Tucker’s link to a sculptural tradition that links him to the Venus of Willendorf and Michelangelo, but also a debt of honor to an artist he had belittled in his earlier theoretical writings. 

“Victory” is at once the most fragile and defiant work among the six.  It has the sense of a shorn-off top that puts you in mind of a fragment of Egyptian head where, despite half the piece missing, the quality of the remainder ensures its wholeness.  The seemingly inchoate modeling gradually coalesces into an expressive skull whose most distinct feature is its jaw.  Perhaps its title is a reference to the “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” the great Nike figure who greets visitors to the Louvre.  Or perhaps it signfies the persistence of an elemental impulse—to describe experience through representation of the body—as a “human rather than an art language.”

On view through April 2008 (Routes 35 and 121 South in Cross River, NY, 914 864-7317)

 

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