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The Sculpture of William Tucker

On 30 August 2001 Victory [ and opposite], an                tecture or drawn graphic forms can be seen in works from the
assembled abstract form cast in concrete, was officially inaugu-       early 1970s: the Shuttler [cat.nos 62–4], Cat’s Cradle [cat.nos
rated as part of the Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires. In          65–8; see plate 3], Beulah [cat.nos 69–77 and 88–90], Fugue

March 2003, Maia [; see back cover and p.10], a              [cat.nos 79–81] and Porte [cat.nos 82–7] series. Victory doesn’t
modelled sculpture, cast in bronze and resembling a female             share these works’ concerns with perspective and structural
torso, was unveiled in Bilbao. This near contemporaneous               and optical illusion. But perhaps Victory’s most significant
inauguration of two major public works by William Tucker               precursors were two ambitious, large-scale works made just
marked the surprising confluence of apparently opposing                before Tucker left Britain in 1976: Tunnel [], shown in

sculptural idioms with their origins in different periods of the       The Condition of Sculpture, the exhibition Tucker curated at the
sculptor’s working life.                                               Hayward Gallery in 1975 and, most directly, Angel [].
     Maia belongs to a series of female torsos which began with             Tucker had a sense that Angel marked a departure in his
Dreamer (1990) [] and Demeter (1991) [;            work, choosing not to show a first version of it in his substan-
see plate 8]. They were enlargements of fragments culled from          tial exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in 19734 and naming

the studio floor and then worked by hand – ‘chunks of plaster          it after a passage from one of his literary inspirations, Rainer
hacked from large sculptures in progress, shards cracked out           Maria Rilke. In Rilke’s second Duino Elegy the angels are
of pails of hardened plaster, squeezes of unused setting plas-         described ‘in abstract and almost exclusively spatial terms, as
ter’.1 Tucker developed and extended their forms by making             “… hinges of light, passages, stairways, thrones, spaces of
intermediate clay enlargements. They grew into ‘mother-                being, shields of rapture … mirrors, each drawing back into its

images, at once full and whole, the single bounded and enclos-         face again its own outstreamed beauty.”’5
ing womb’.2 Their sources were destructive gestures and                     Tucker had an opportunity to realise Angel as a permanent-
discarded materials: fragments from the studio floor (compared         ly sited public sculpture in a location in Livingston, Scotland
by Tucker to a ‘beach or lava bed’) ‘hacked’, ‘cracked’ and            [; see p.11]. Enlarged to twice its original propor-
‘squeezed’. They became figures: fully rounded, modelled,              tions, its scale – at a height of almost five-and-a-half metres –
enclosing forms.                                                       is impressive, though its location, on an area of grass adjacent
     Victory had a longer gestation. It has a symbolic rather than     to a road intersection and bordering the playing fields of
literal ascent from the floor, suggested by a ‘shadow’ outlined        a school, domesticates the work. It is relatively unscathed:
on the turf at its base, as if the sculpture had been cast in the      unmarked by obvious vandalism and bearing only the shine and
ground, excavated, and then levered upright. Tucker envisaged          wear on the tubular elements protruding from each of its sides
that that process would happen literally, and although it proved       that has resulted from its use as a climbing frame. This larger
impossible, the wish still figures visually in the final form of the   Angel also loses the direct human scale reference and some of
monument. The ‘first’ Victory was made some twenty years               the illusion of instability that Tucker noted in the first, smaller
earlier, in 1981 in Tucker’s studio in Greenpoint, New York: it        version. Increased size has given it greater visual – as well as
consisted of a wooden frame covered with cardboard. Three              actual – stability. Tucker has long held an ambition to realise a
subsequent versions were made between 1981 and 1983, one               much more monumental version, 29 metres high – the height of
in plywood and a further two in plywood covered with plaster           Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column. At such a scale, Angel
and a coat of fibreglass/resin, which at the time Tucker saw as        would no doubt appear altogether more imposing, yet further
an available substitute for concrete.3 It belongs to a series of       removed from human scale, but maybe the distance necessary
large-scale constructed works with an open geometric form.             to view the work as a whole would reinvigorate the effect of the
Victory shares formal connections with earlier work. A strong          protruding rods as Tucker envisaged them, as ‘shading’, and
sense of frontality is a feature of most of Tucker’s work from the
early 1960s and the open, linear structure reminiscent of archi-                     Victory 1981, second (fifth) version 2001 (
10   The Sculpture of William Tucker                                                                                                                                      The Sculpture of William Tucker   11

                                                 the sense of the whole form visually twisting in space. As yet
                                                 the opportunity to realise this project has not arisen, but his
                                                 continued interest in its realisation attests to something that
                                                 Victory actualises: Tucker’s belief that a work conceived more
                                                 than twenty years earlier in a different sculptural idiom to his

                                                 current practice can still be a viable and meaningful endeavour.
                                                 In the case of Victory, that opportunity presented itself in the
                                                 form of an invitation in 1999 to submit proposals for a monu-
                                                 mental sculpture to commemorate los Desaparecidos (the
                                                 Disappeared) – the victims of state terrorism under the military
                                                 dictatorship in Argentina (1976–83). Both practical and emo-

                                                 tional reasons precluded an attempt to submit a modelled form
                                                 along the lines of his current works, such as Maia. Practically
                                                 he did not think that there would be adequate funds to cast a
                                                 massive piece in bronze. Emotionally, after reading extensively
                                                 about ‘the dirty war’, Tucker felt that he ‘could not come up
                                                 with an image for a sculpture in modelled plaster that [he] felt

                                                 could be an adequate and dignified memorial to the victims’.6
                                                     Its voided centre seems apt as a memorial to this particular
                                                 tragedy, with its avoided figuration evoking an absent – in this
                                                 case disappeared – body or bodies. Victory differs in one
                                                 crucially important detail from other sculptures from this period

                                                 of Tucker’s work in having an incomplete or broken frame.7 This
                                                 feature, rendering the form open at its upper edge, reads as
                                                 both broken and incomplete, but also open to the sky or
                                                 heavens, facts dramatised in Marcelo Brodsky’s photographs
                                                 of the work. This ‘meaning’ is fortuitous, deriving from the

                                                 formal attributes of the sculpture, rather than being intended by
                                                 the sculptor for this particular monument.
                                                     In comparison to the spare linearity of Angel, Victory is more
                                                 volumetric and substantial and there is an increased attention
                                                 to surface texture, but like other works from the same period of

                                                 Tucker’s work, Victory remains frame-like: always open at the
                                                 centre, always enclosing space.8
                                                     In 1987 Tucker wrote: ‘the right triangle of Angel and the
                                                 parabola of Tunnel (1975) [] parented a ten-year series
                                                 of images – triangles, trapezoids, circles and ellipses, whole
                                                 and in part and in combination. My sculptures were identified
                                                 by titles – Fear [], The Trap [; see plate 4],
                                                 The Hostage [], and so on, invoking the nightmares
                                                 of Kafka to attest to each statement of doubt or anxiety; but        cause. Indeed, the concurrence of these two monumental               Angel 1976
                                                 also perhaps, it seems to me in retrospect, to the absurdity of      commissions demonstrates the potential viability of both             (
                                                 the entire project: to create monumental sculpture of human          abstract and figurative strategies for making successful public
                                                 significance with every attribute except the one essential –         sculpture in the twenty-first century.
                                                 mass, substance, the solid core’.9                                        The figurative in Tucker’s work came first. His first sculp-
                                                     Sculptures like Maia supplied the mass, substance and            tures – such as Warrior (1957) [] – were modelled while
                                                 core Tucker’s monumental enterprise demanded, but the reali-         he was a student reading History at Oxford University. This
                                                 sation of Victory on a monumental scale in 2001 suggests that        literal transcription of the body into sculptural form was rapidly
                                                 the development Maia represents did not make the more                rejected, and even when he returned to a more explicitly figura-
                                                 abstract strategy redundant. Circumstances allowed for both          tive way of working in the early 1980s there was, for a long
                                                 works to find permanent public sites and Tucker was happy            time, a wish to preserve the ambiguity of things. Much later, in
                                                 to see an unfinished project finally realised some twenty years      the 1990s, Tucker was forced to recognise this desire to
                                                 after it was initiated as a monumental sculpture for a great         preserve ambiguity as symptomatic of a deep taboo against the
                                                                                                                      powerful effect on us of mimetic forms – forms imitating or
                                                 Maia 1996–7 (                                             representing the real world – rather than a simple problem of
30   The Sculpture of William Tucker                                     The Sculpture of William Tucker   31

                                                 Figs. 13–16:
                                                 (opposite). Arc
                                                 (aluminium cast)
                                                 and related drawing,

                                                 Museum; drawing for
                                                 Sectioned Arc, 1978;
                                                 drawing for Arc in
                                                 Segments, 1977;
                                                 wood model for Arc,

                                                 Figs. 17–18: (above).
                                                 Drawing for The Rim,
                                                 Usdan Gallery,
                                                 Bennington College,
                                                 1979; The Rim,
                                                 Conference, The
                                                 Mall, Washington DC,

                                                 Fig. 19: View of
                                                 Tucker’s studio at
                                                 Greenpoint, Brooklyn,
                                                 New York, with wood
                                                 models for The Rim
                                                 and Track (larger
                                                 version), 1981
98           Catalogue of William Tucker’s Sculpture                                                                                                                    Catalogue of William Tucker’s Sculpture   99

     Tunnel (1975)
     laminated masonite
     213     384      327 cm

     (83 7⁄8  151 1⁄4    128 3⁄4 in)
     Collection: Tate Collection, UK (presented
     by the Artist, through the Contemporary Art
     Society, 1989, accession no. TO5560)
     Exh: The Condition of Sculpture, Hayward
     Gallery, London 1975, no.35, ill., p.79

     [alongside illustration of Tunnel 1960 on p.78]
     Notes: ‘another unique piece whose form
     would be determined by the properties of a
     very different (and unstructural) material.
     Fascinated by the perfect parabola that a
     sheet of masonite assumed when supported

     only by a horizontal bar across its centre,
     I set about adding layer after layer of the
     material to form an arch high enough to enter
     on one side (“the front”), about 6 feet deep
     and perhaps 12 feet across. It is divided by a
     central vertical wall, which acted as a support

     for building the sculpture from the start. As
     the piece developed a second flat wall was
     introduced on one side, completing the
     symmetry of the main parabola, but allowing
     the free, suspended end of the major
     element to increase its curvature

     progressively into the section of a spiral.
           Because the profile of the curve is
     considerably smaller on the “far” side of the
     sculpture, the effect from the front is that of
     an accelerated cone of perspective, with the
     tilted plane of the sculpture combining with

     the ground plane to close the onlooker’s
     visual field. This, with its interior always in
     shadow gives Tunnel an oppressive cast,
     quite opposite in feeling to the upward and
     outward thrust of Angel.’ [WT]

                                                                 99                                               100
                                                                 Portrait of K                                    House
                                                                 1975                                             1975
                                                                 wood                                             oak
                                                                 228.6    330.2    27.9 cm (90     130   11 in)   229    422     36 cm (90 1⁄4   166 1⁄4   14 1⁄4 in)
                                                                 unique                                           unique
                                                                 Collection: Private Collection, USA              Collection: The Artist
                                                                                                                  Exh: William Tucker Sculptures, Edinburgh and
                                                                                                                  touring, organised by the Arts Council of Great
                                                                                                                  Britain 1977–8, no.17

Plate 5: The Rim
1979 (

                             Plate 6: Ouranos
                             1985 (
Plate 9: Frenhofer               Plate 10: Eve
1995 (                2001 (