Santa Barbara

William Tucker

Pamela Auchincloss Gallery

Santa Barbara is not a place where you expect to see important new sculpture, but that is what William Tucker’s recent show of big bronzes offered. With the first group of bronzes he showed in New York in 1984, Tucker emerged completely from the shadow of his mentor, Anthony Caro–and of every other sculptor who had been a formative influence–and revealed himself to be an artist of real maturity and inventive power.

Amid the current vogue for conceptual sculpture, it is a relief to encounter work as viscerally convincing as Tucker’s. His bronzes are a world (or maybe just a generation) away from that of younger artists such as Haim Steinbach and Joel Otterson for whom mass-market gewgaws have enough resonance to count as sculpture, or as grist for it. For Tucker, sculpture is unequivocally a process of personal invention rather than a strategy for shaking loose the repressed, repressive messages of objects in our lives. If his stance and technique make him look like an old-fashioned Modernist, the effect of his sculpture makes him seem as engaged as any sculptor working today. His work cuts directly to a level of kinesthetic response that sculpture, or anything else in everyday life, rarely reaches. It counteracts the negations of bodily awareness that we confront constantly in a world where simulations have become the benchmark of “reality.”

In the presence of Tucker’s big bronzes, you don’t feel the physical threat that you get from some of Richard Serra’s work. Tucker’s objects do not teeter menacingly or sport bladelike corners or stiletto prominences. Instead, they address your imagination as bodily presences. As you move around each piece, it vibrates with figural implications without ever resolving itself into an image. Even the two small “Horse Heads” are only nominally horse heads and lend themselves to being seen as figurative at all only from certain vantage points. Although Tucker’s works recall Henry Moore’s references to inorganic natural shapes and Rodin’s truncations of the human figure, such educated allusions are eclipsed in turn by aspects of the objects that are dumbly literal. For a moment a piece may look sophomorically phallic (Kronos and Horse Head II) or like a rock formation (Tethys and Horse Head V) or a huge foot (Ouranos). Yet you can never really lose sight of these objects as masses of metal with lumpy shells of plaster in their past.

These new bronzes—all from 1986—reinforce a response I had to the first group Tucker showed in New York. I can’t help but think that if Philip Guston had made sculpture late in his life, it might have looked like this. The muscular ambiguity of Guston’s drawing is closely akin to the uncertain figural identity of Tucker’s bronzes. And because he is working in sculpture, Tucker is able to give great vividness to the sensation that Guston’s imagery provides of having the immediacy of a full-bodied perception of things restored to you, if only for a moment.

Kenneth Baker