PRINT March 1991


THE MORE REPRESENTATIONS OCCUPY the world, the more the world eludes representation. Trying to evoke the world, to make a subject of it, to catch it by the tail thematically or just evocatively—by means other than representation—has become a mark of ambition in contemporary art. Now more than ever, Piero Manzoni’s Base del mondo (Base of the world, 1961), the inverted outdoor pedestal that, at a stroke, makes sculpture of the whole planet, looks like a philosophical milestone of art.

Clever strategies abound for embroiling the world in art and vice versa, but they too often end in brittle topicality or media-conscious, psychopolitical mannerism: think of the work of Hans Haacke, for example, or that of John Baldessari or Ashley Bickerton. Perhaps the real difficulty is that, even as we feel (and ever more keenly) the force of the idea that all life on earth is part of one system, we also sense that we each live now in a plurality of worlds whose overlap we can never determine with certainty. The contemporary artists who touch world-reverberating nerves in us are those who can objectify this impasse, as Tony Cragg so often does.

The Newport Harbor Art Museum is circulating the first American museum retrospective of Cragg’s work, “Tony Cragg: Sculpture 1975–1990,” organized by Paul Schimmel, chief curator at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, and by Marilu Knode, assistant curator at NHAM.1 The 40 objects in the show are a slender cross-section of Cragg’s prolific output of the past 15 years. Yet in range, adventurousness, intelligence,and physical sensibility, they already outweigh the life’s work of many a lesser modern artist.

“The world” still connotes the widest frame of reference that we use in making sense of life. Yet we cannot fail to notice that (except to zealots) no single scheme of understanding—neither the historical, the economic, the semiotic, the psychoanalytic, nor the autobiographical—offers itself as a key to the overpowering complexity of everyday life. During the 1980s, many people felt that painting was the art most responsive to this condition of overexposure, of constantly having to take in more than we can assimilate. The collision of signs from disparate sources in the work of people such as Sigmar Polke, David Salle, and Carroll Dunham was seen by many as a true report of consciousness outflanked and outpaced by too many sources of information. Other painters, as different as Gerhard Richter and Christopher Wool, have, through the exercise of style, sought pictorial structures that might serve as emblems of witness to a crisscrossing of frameworks that fails to add up to a coherent vision of the world as a whole.

Painting may envision a world, or an aperture into one, but a painting’s own position in material reality, unlike a sculpture’s, gives it little philosophical purchase on the social or mental construction of categories that give meaning to the world(s) around it. It is not just the physical character but the representational genealogy of painting that sets it at a disadvantage in taking the contemporary world(s) as a subject.

Sculptors who try too literally (or too representationally) to fabricate a world, like Tom Otterness with his colossal Cor-Ten-steel-and-bronze The Tables, 1986–87, come off as puppeteers or hobbyist gods. Yet modern sculpture has won the capacity to take the world as a theme in ways impossible to painting, founded as it is on picturing, on optical fiction. One way is to invoke the pressures of living through direct kinesthetic response, as Richard Serra does. This strategy identifies the mobile, perceiving body as the projector of world(s). Another is to choose or invent a surrogate creature that can undergo symbolically the tribulations of sentient action. Deborah Butterfield’s scrap-steel horses and Joel Shapiro’s block-and-beam figures are variants of this possibility. Richard Long offers another approach to evoking horizons of sense: to draw directly on the planet, to arrange some of its parts into a procedural poetry, or to use them indoors to ritualize and sublimate thought about culture’s hold on the earth. Cragg’s way is to use or make objects so that they reveal multiple identities, for our awareness that something belongs to several incommensurate systems or contexts is the mark of its being the stuff of the world(s).

In the new decade, sculpture is better positioned than painting to respond to a situation where it seems that too many incomplete answers are available for every question. While constantly testing the limits of what we are willing to accept as “sculpture,” Cragg illuminates this predicament. He accepts the “impurity” of all fabricated forms in a culture nourished on consumer goods and on the need to stimulate desire (both rational and compulsive) for them. He deals deftly with the surcharge of representation invested in every object by the pervasive forces of marketing. From work to work, he alters the value of perceptual and interpretive changes that occur when the viewer shifts physical vantage point. Yet his sculpture often seems to confer order on—or to hint at hidden orders within—the things and structures around them.

When I see some of Cragg’s recent works, I think of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”: “I placed a jar in Tennessee, / And round it was, upon a hill. / It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill. / The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild. . . . ” Cragg’s procedures are sometimes as simple as positioning an object in a room or several objects in relation to one another. (In other cases, his sculptures involve complex fabrication processes.) Frequently, his sculptures induce the feeling that by their presence, without apparent intervention, they organize the disheveled cultural and intellectual space around them.

To take an example, consider Cragg’s plaster ensemble Generations, 1988. The work consists of 13 elements. Three are large discus shapes: one sits atop a sort of plinth, the other two rest on the floor. Scattered and nestled around them are doughy-looking plaster shapes, each of which looks like it has been coiled tight after having been pressed thin and flat, as if with a rolling pin. The relations among these forms vibrate with associations that seem both absurd and inescapable. The discuses call to mind one of the landmarks of classical sculpture, the celebrated Roman copy of Myron’s lost Discobolos. Their sleek impersonality is a foil for the lumpish coiled slabs, whose pedigree runs from the process works of Long, Shapiro, and Serra to children’s mud pastries. The plaster slugs serve as “real” counterparts to the “ideal” paraboloids, though they also look as if they might be leftovers or failures generated in production of the perfected forms.

The discuses’ demotic ancestry includes the classic form of the “flying saucer,” the prototypical extraterrestrial transport that symbolizes our modern awareness of being lost in space and our lingering desire for supernatural salvation. (C. G. Jung believed that flying saucers were projected symbols of the mind’s wish for integration, of the self graced with a longed-for, unattainable wholeness.) This reading brings out the rolled slabs’ bigger-than-life look of larval dormancy. The possibility of seeing the sculpture representationally becomes both comic and chilling, not only because of the work’s sci-fi tilt, but because it coaxes forth from us a recognition of how tangled is our inward store of images—tangled and emotionally booby-trapped.

In the late 1970s, when Cragg first began to make his art public, he hit upon a mode of work that continues to be resonant with our sense of the present as showered with human leavings. He began arranging found objects and shards of scavenged material in loose configurations to form the silhouette (in some cases, the volume) of an image, symbol, or object. The retrospective includes a simple example titled Rockets, 1981. With strips of found colored wood, it outlines on the wall the sloping profiles of three missiles. They have a generic look at first, just enough nose cone and fin to put across the idea of a rocket. (The reference to the architectural soaring of the Gothic arch is also hard to miss.) But these are not just any rockets: they are recognizable as V-2s, the missiles with which Hitler’s forces reduced parts of London to the sort of splinters that Cragg has collected. There is an undertone of menace here, as though Cragg were signaling that he had detected a secret impulse in the debris of modern warfare to reconstitute itself into tools of destruction.

Cragg’s “mosaic” method, as Peter Schjeldahl calls it,2 extends the uses of found materials, redoubling their physical and cultural presence by making them ingredients of novel representations. We feel our readiness to see representations everywhere in the ease with which we shift between recognizing detritus—a cigarette lighter, glass frames, a tote-bag handle, a flyswatter—and regarding them as no-name particles of an implied image: an African sculpture (African Culture Myth, 1984), or national flags (8 Flags, 1980), or a narrative mural (Riot, 1987).

In the retrospective, Five Bottles on a Shelf, 1982, is the zero-point of Cragg’s found-object work. It shows how his gesture of tilting and exhibiting objects of mass manufacture differs from the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. The piece is a row of five timeworn plastic bottles, each a different color and shape, on an eye-level shelf. Cragg somehow cancels the “readymade” ploy just by reiterating it: his presentation of these humble unaltered articles comes across as a plea that we look carefully at them. To do so is to feel, perhaps for the first time, the unsung energy squandered on making each bottle’s design practical while giving it the visual force of something not to be missed even in the forest of packaging designs that is today’s supermarket. The five bottles are true icons of consumer society’s misspending of resources: of unrenewable, unrecyclable petroleum, of human labor and intelligence, and of the attention of the user. What is most surprising about Five Bottles on a Shelf is its elegiac quality, the poignancy that flows from the false heroism of the bottles’ designs and from the faith of their designers (or someone in the chain of production) in the persuasive power of form. What makes Five Bottles on a Shelf different from Duchamp’s ready-mades (or from Haim Steinbach’s enshrined commodities) is that Cragg sees the philosophical debate about the power of form in modern sculpture writ small in the esthetic body English of bottle design.

The variety of Cragg’s sculptural ideas is astonishing. But I have never before seen a selection of his work that makes its unpredictability appear related to Surrealism as the current retrospective does. In various works (many not included in the show), Cragg restates the Surrealist identification of bottles with the human body or its parts. Drawing on his own background in biochemistry, he has also restored immediacy to the sexual symbolism of mortar and pestle. But it is not so much the sculptors as two painters in the Surrealist lineage—René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico—whose visions are distantly echoed in Cragg’s art. The great steel Shell, 1988, which shelters two steel instrument cases, looks like something Magritte might have invented. Factory Fantasies I, 1981, is a tall wooden armoire from which Cragg has cut various silhouettes, leaving the objects so formed (one is a version of Duchamp’s readymade Trébuchet [Trap, 1917]) to lie on the ground around it. The treatment of the armoire naturally brings to mind the techniques of Cragg’s British contemporary Bill Woodrow, yet it also recalls the perforated objects in Magritte’s paintings as Woodrow’s sculptures never seem to do. Cragg has coated furniture with granules of colored plastic, giving it the look of the improbable stone articles envisioned by Magritte (in La Grande Table [The large table, 1959], and Souvenir de voyage [Memory of a voyage, 1955], for instance). And in Suburbs, 1990, what resemble giant, wood-handled rubber stamps also look like direct descendants of the faceless mannequins in de Chirico’s early paintings.

In pointing out these affinities, I am not trying to argue that Cragg is a latter-day Surrealist. Rather, his objects are an index not only of an accepted surrealism of everyday life but of the freedom of Cragg’s sculptural invention. Other allusions to classics of Modernism crop up in his work, too. A pair of large, two-part, untitled bronzes, 1988, in which flasks in different positions are joined by their mouths, makes reference to Umberto Boccioni’s Sviluppo di una bottiglia nello spazio (Development of a bottle in space, 1913). The juncture of the flask forms in each of these pieces has a voluptuousness that inevitably brings Henry Moore to mind and calls attention to the prudish quality of Moore’s sculptures. Another recent bronze, Mother’s Milk II, 1988, also based on a laboratory vessel, echoes the form of Constantin Brancusi’s pear-wood Turtle, ca. 1937.

These allusions are achieved so offhandedly that you wonder whether Cragg has even thought consciously about them. The answer really doesn’t matter: even without them the play of materials, the scale, the formal and sociological sources, and the sheer inventive unpredictability of Cragg’s work put him in the front rank of living artists. No other sculptor known to me derives such physical and psychological drama from the existence of objects and the human history of their production.

Scale is a factor that Cragg manages so blithely that it scarcely obtrudes itself on the viewer’s attention. In the “mosaics,” he plays off the chosen size of his image against the unchosen (by him) dimensions of its found components. Some of the fabricated pieces—particularly the most delicate of the glass works—cause us to wonder if (and how) the fabrication process may have set limits to the dimensions or complexity of the forms. In a large installation of Cragg’s work, you can sense the way he uses scale to manipulate bodily response. Standing near his ensembles of frosted-glass vessels, you feel ungainly and tentative. The big bronze flask forms, on the other hand, impose an aura of land-of-the-giants fantasy and physically affirm our intuition of the influence that science wields in the contemporary world. In some works, such as the eerie plaster Generations , scale intensifies uncertainty as to whether we are to view the forms symbolically or representationally as things in themselves. Many of Cragg’s fabricated objects incarnate a feeling of being enlarged or diminished from the proportions that would make their nature or purpose transparent. The scale of Cragg’s sculpture thus contributes to its function of being an obstacle to the flow of our customary unconscious transactions with things.

The retrospective’s installation in Newport Beach was punctuated by the exhibition outdoors of an untitled object, 1990, of ruthless simplicity and surpassing strangeness. It is a large, rough-hewn boulder of gray granite that has been carved only on the inside. Cragg arranged to have holes (each about three inches in diameter) bored into each of the boulder’s faces at close, regular intervals. The result is something like a giant stone sponge, ponderous and rigid, yet porous to light and air. It is one of the great antimonuments in contemporary sculpture, something that neither celebrates itself nor sinks comfortably into the background of ordinariness.

Kenneth Baker is a contributing editor of Artforum and art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle.


1. The exhibition was seen at the Newport Harbor Art Museum from 14 October through 30 December 1990. It will be at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., from 1 February through 31 March 1991; at the Power Plant, Toronto, 6 September through 27 October; and at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 16 November 1991 through 9 February 1992.

2. Peter Schjeldahl, “Cragg’s Big Bang,” Tony Cragg: Sculpture 1975–1990, exhibition catalogue, Newport Beach: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1990, p. 72 and passim.

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