Tony Cragg

Tony Cragg occupies a somewhat paradoxical position. While many consider him the finest English sculptor of his generation—and his work looms large in survey shows of British sculpture—he has lived since 1977 in the German industrial town of Wuppertal. Yet since his move to Germany he has never really lost sight of Britain. In many respects, his distance from Britain has enabled him to put it into perspective. His best-known early work, the wall relief Britain Seen From the North, 1981, is a map of Britain laid on its side, made from brightly colored detritus, with a separate flanking figure, also formed of detritus, looking toward the map from the north. At the time this piece was made, it was widely seen as a critique of the Thatcherite policies that were laying waste to Britain’s industrial heartland. Even in 1987, ten years after his emigration, Cragg was inspired to make a huge wall relief, entitled Riot, after unrest in Britain.

The selection of ’90s work presented in this show suggested that Cragg is turning his attention to a more respectable part of British culture: the work of Henry Moore. Cragg has made multipart, floor-based biomorphs for some time now, but his debt to Moore, which takes the form of a post-industrial pastiche, is unmistakable in more recent works like Secretions, 1996. Secretions consists of a cluster of twisting biomorphs whose surfaces are completely covered with a tightly packed layer of dice. Presumably, Cragg is saying that all life is a gamble, but this ostensible theme is undermined by the work’s formal perfection. The dice are rigidly fixed on forms that are fundamentally stolid monoliths, suggesting sterility and inertia rather than flux. A more suitable title might be (pace Giacometti): “No More Play.”

The problem with Cragg’s work is that he tries to reduce disparate things to neat, self-contained packages. A connoisseur of material culture, he often uses scratches or marks to create highly decorative, all-encompassing surface effects that resemble elegant calligraphic nets. Spyrogyra, 1992–95, a spiraling bottlerack with a range of colored, sandblasted bottles sprouting from it, seems as though it ought to be aggressive, raw; but it’s actually rather toothless and stale. There’s the obvious reference to Duchamp, and to a figure who is perhaps Cragg’s key reference point, along with Moore—Giorgio Morandi. But the sandblasting, a tasteful surface effect that quarantines the viewer from the interior of the sculpture, marks it as quintessential Cragg. There’s something oddly Victorian about all this. It was standard practice among nineteenth-century sculptors to make a clay modello from which studio assistants could create a full-sized marble version, before the artists added finishing touches. Critics often complained that the sculptors’ intermittent involvement alienated them from their materials, leading to inappropriate and blandly uniform surfaces. There is a similar effect in Cragg’s Untitled, 1993—an arangement of wooden chairs, a piano, and pieces of wood—which is given spurious unity by clusters of wall-hooks screwed into every available surface.

Cragg’s Nautilus, 1996, is a cluster of closely packed biomorphs that sit on a horizontal, lozenge-shaped shelf that is itself supported by more biomorphs. Each element is made from white silicone, although at first glance it resembles marble. “Nautilus” was also the name of the submarine in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but the vertiginous excitement and chiaroscuro atmosphere in Verne’s novel has been bleached out of Cragg’s sculpture. The final, sterilizing touch is a parallel sequence of horizontal lines combed across the surface of each form. If this really were the Nautilus, Captain Nemo would need to wear a pinstriped suit.

James Hall