New York

Tony Cragg

Start with the drawings—a not-inconsiderable part of Tony Cragg’s recent exhibition, with twenty-one of them (all dated 1998) on view. What they explain is that for the artist a surface, volume, or object is not a stable thing. It’s something in process. With their rocking, swirling movements of bowl- and vase-like forms, the drawings recall the most profound moment in Italian Futurism: Boccioni’s Development of a Bottle in Space, 1912, which demonstrated that it was more difficult but also more interesting to render, not the speeding of a train or the rioting of a crowd, but rather the motion—through time and under the pressure of perception—of a thing ordinarily understood as static.

Though it’s a little harder to make out, Cragg’s recent sculptures are just as much about the Heraclitean motion of a still object as are the drawings. As with the Boccioni, each is the complex development of a simple form through time and space. And yet there remains an essential, unchanging simplicity to that mutable existence that gives these works a classical serenity. For example, the two bronzes called Early Form, both 1997, and one called Taurus, 1998, are large concave volumes, oriented horizontally, that look as though they’ve been twisting and turning through an uneasy sleep. At first the form underlying them might seem to be a trough with rounded edges, but longer observation suggests that it’s an even simpler bowl-like structure that’s been simultaneously twisted and stretched around the resulting axis in a twofold transformation.

A couple of smaller bronzes called Thin Skin, both 1997, make things even more complicated by showing their insides as well as their outsides. Since their continuous surfaces are perforated with large circular holes, we can see how the “skin” folds in on itself to evolve layered volumes. The perpetually modulating curves give rise to bulbous forms that here invaginate and there extrude—forms that fuck themselves.

For all their sometimes febrile organicism, Cragg’s forms possess a mathematical precision. They suggest an engagement with topology, the study of the properties of shapes as they are distorted in space. The two Thin Skin works and three similar, larger pieces called Envelope, all 1998, put me in mind of the topological form called the Klein bottle, a continuous one-sided surface (like a Mobius strip) that also has no edges (like a sphere); such a form is possible in a four-dimensional space, but can be represented three-dimensionally only by having the surface cut through itself.

If I’m right in thinking there is a mathematical basis for Cragg’s explorations of the relations between surface and volume, then one might posit a connection with sculptors of the ’60s who were attracted to mathematical systems, such as Sol LeWitt or Mel Bochner. But theirs was a static, deliberately redundant or rudimentary geometry whereas Cragg’s is transformative. In that sense his new work is closer to the other great sculptures on view in New York this year, Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses, 1997, which also involve a continually changing curvature. Here again, though, the difference is telling: while Serra’s ellipses, which the viewer enters into like architecture, operate primarily on a phenomenological level, Cragg’s self-contained objects, as traditional floor and pedestal sculpture, invite metaphorical readings as well. They seem linked to Ovidian dramas of bodies changing into other bodies, erotic metamorphoses of yearning matter.

Barry Schwabsky