Liverpool/West Yorkshire

William Tucker

Tate Liverpool/Yorkshire Sculpture Park

WILLIAM TUCKER'S CAREER has been sliced down the middle. Born in 1935, he made his name in the '60s as one of the younger generation of abstract sculptors associated with Anthony Caro at St. Martin's School of Art in London. In 1974, Tucker published The Language of Sculpture, a history of early modernist sculpture, which rather summed up this phase of his career. It led Albert Elsen to call him a “spokesman for an academic abstract art.” He emigrated to North America in 1976 and wound up on a farm in upstate New York Soon after, he abandoned constructed abstract sculpture, and started to model in plaster semifigurative forms with rough surfaces, which were then cast in bronze. He has continued to work in this vein ever since.

The largest survey of Tucker's work ever held in Britain took a quite extreme view of his bisected career. for the early sculpture was shown at Tate Liverpool (with just a smattering of pieces from the '80s), while the late work was shown in bulk at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, on the other side of the country. But the stylistic and temporal split is misleading. Tucker has called his earlier work a “prolonged anatomy lesson” in construction, but this terminology applies just as well to the late work. And his sculpture has always been concerned with an apparent loss of overarching structure. He pares away at forms, but instead of finding a complete skeleton with a complementary network of attached muscles and veins, as it were, he discovers a succession of disparate jointed sections whose position in the greater scheme of things is unclear. Or to use an archaeological metaphor: It is as though, having investigated the site of a lost city, one were to discover plenty of hinges but no doors or walls.

Unfold, 1963, is a painted steel sheet, folded like a Rorschach test, that resembles a pair of spread-eagled legs; Karnak, 1966, looks like a grid of bulky security bars, one half of which has been bent up at a 30° angle; Mirror, 1978—one of Tucker's last works in constructed steel—is a jawlike damp, its identical sections held slightly ajar. Such “jointing” continues unabated in the modeled bronzes. Gymnast II,1984, is a thin vertical slab that has almost been bent double. These casually sited objects are at once celebrations of freedom of movement and laments for a lack of integration. This is given an explicitly sexual twist in Source, 1983–84, a jointed piece consisting of a phallic vertical element that sits on a scrotumlike base, which projects horizontally. It is at once a fertility symbol and a gravestone, erect and castrated.

The most impressive of all Tucker's pieces are a series of horses' heads, made in 1986-87. These were partly inspired by the fragmented head of the horse of Selene from the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. The animal is shown in an exhausted state, after pulling the chariot of the moon. with flared nostrils and distended veins. Generations of British artists have admired its anatomy. Tucker's modeling is extremely lumpy and inchoate, as though the object were a quivering lump of excrement. The head seems on the point of being tom from the neck. These spasms, part agony, part ecstasy, make one think of Surrealist works like Giacometti's Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932. Even more lumpy and amorphous are Tucker's most recent works, shown in a gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as well as in a muddy section of the grounds. These sculptures are like heroic torsos that have been deprived of both skin and bone.

James Hall