CAN’T STAND THE RAIN, 2019. Paint, collage, ink, and paper, 150 x 185 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Taking Turns: A Conversation with Richard Deacon and Bill Woodrow

For over 30 years, British sculptors Richard Deacon and Bill Woodrow—both internationally recognized for their individual work—have engaged in intermittent collaboration. To date, they have produced more than 60 “shared sculptures,” and they are now showing their first-ever collaboratively made drawings, created between 2019 and 2020. Currently on view at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, U.K., “We Thought About It A Lot, and other shared drawings” features large-scale works employing collage, frottage, and pencil, pen, and ink. Combining figurative and abstract elements, these joint productions range from the geometric and graphic to compositions that appear spontaneous and gestural.

Deacon and Woodrow, who met at St Martin’s School of Art in 1969, came to prominence in the early 1980s along with other New British Sculpture artists such as Tony Cragg, Antony Gormley, and Anish Kapoor. The pair made their first shared sculpture, Democratic Process, in 1990. Over the ensuing years, five distinct bodies of sculptural work that sit outside their respective solo practices have showcased their playful, lively interchange of ideas. As Deacon says: “Woodrow/Deacon is an artist. An artist that has a CV and a body of work and a whole set of exhibitions, and is separate from the work of Richard Deacon or Bill Woodrow.”

Bill Woodrow and Richard Deacon, Big Hat, 2006. Photo: Courtesy the artists

Chris Sharratt: What’s different about making drawings together rather than sculptures?
Bill Woodrow: I would start from the very personal point of view of drawing being instant—that’s what I like about it. It is instant in the way that it’s made, in that you’re thinking at the speed you’re working or working at the speed you’re thinking. And the thinking is a combination of what’s happening with your hand and in your brain; there isn’t a separation in time. If you’re making a sculpture, sometimes it takes so long that you lose the connection, that instant thing. Something is produced in front of you, and I like that reward.
Richard Deacon: What Bill says is true—you put the pencil on the paper and it’s like joining up an electric current, and then the circuit starts to work. That’s really not the case with most other things you do.

CS: How do you decide when it’s time to make work together?
RD: Unlike what we do independently, the work that we do together is determined by the fact that there is an occasion to do it, and a decision about how to start. There isn’t a Woodrow/Deacon studio where we turn up and say, “What are we going to do today?” The various bodies of work that we’ve produced are either procedurally defined or materially defined, whereas in our individual practices there is a continuity to what we do. So, for Lead Astray (2004), using lead was a decision that followed on from the small-scale works that we made for Monuments (1999), which were bronze cast. I can’t really recall what made us say, “We’ve never done any drawings together, why don’t we work on a piece of paper together?” Apart from the fact that Jonathan Watkins, director of Ikon, was interested in us doing a show, which initially we’d thought of as being a survey.
BW: I think we made the decision to work on paper before Jonathan got involved, but the important thing you mention is that having a material or procedural thing sorted out before you start something saves time; it means you can start straight away. The way we work together, we can’t spend two or three weeks figuring out what we’re going to do. Having that sorted out gets the whole process going very quickly. 

RIVER DEEP, 2019. Ink, oil stick, paint, and paper, 210 x 150 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artists

CS: What’s the process like when you make work together, particularly when making these new drawings?
BW: With the drawing and with the sculpture, there are never four hands on it at the same time. When it’s your turn, you are responding to something that you haven’t done, so it’s a slightly different road layout that you have to maneuver through. That does make it a different way of making a drawing. When you’re taking it in turns, you’re still responding to the previous mark, but it’s not yours, so you have to regain some ground and sort out what’s been done.
RD: Whatever you bring to it—whether it’s coffee, pencil, ink, wax—the piece of paper is what’s common to us, the bit that stays there all the time. That’s the surface; you leave a residue on the surface, and that residue either is or isn’t what you want. The piece of paper that bears the mark is the thing that holds it all together.
BW: Listening to that, what I’ve realized is that there was no ownership of what was on the paper—I had no sense of having to leave Richard’s marks, and I had no sense of having to keep my marks. It was like the ownership of what was on the paper during your turn was totally yours, so there wasn’t a responsibility to keep bits or not. That’s a really good thing because you don’t get precious about something and—with hindsight—you know that whatever you’re going to put on there can completely change or disappear.

CS: Does that also hold true when you’re working on the sculptures together?
BW: For me, it’s the same whether it’s a sculpture or a drawing. There’s an understanding between the two of us that nothing is sacred. When it’s your turn, it’s your turn. You could pick it up and throw it away and start again—there aren’t rules in that sense.

EACH #10, 2020. Ink, collage, and paper, 56 x 76 cm. Photo: Courtesy the artists

CS: Do you see these drawings as self-contained, a body of work in their own right, or are there obvious links to previous works?
There’s some piscatorial and ornithological and oceanic bits that seem to reference things we’ve done before. There are references to ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s songs, which is a continuous aspect of how we converse with each other and the kinds of references we employ. And there are things that are completely new. We’ve known each other a long time, so our conversations circle around common interests and concerns that aren’t necessarily just to do with art. And you would also find that in the drawings I do separately and in the drawings Bill does separately.
BW: Richard is definitely right that there are references to subjects that we’re interested in. If there’s an inference in the question of whether these drawings relate to the sculptures we make, whether they’re drawings for sculptures or to figure out sculptures, then the answer for me is “no.” They exist very much as things in their own right. Personally, I very rarely use drawing as a way of figuring out what’s happening in a sculpture or of figuring out how a sculpture looks. The great thing about these drawings is that they exist on their own rather than being there to explain something else or to inform about other work.
RD: The drawings come after the sculpture, it’s not that the drawings are in preparation for the sculpture. This is quite unusual—Woodrow/Deacon is quite an unusual artist.

CS: Clearly your long friendship is important to Woodrow/Deacon as an artist. Is that the reason it endures?
RD: The friendship is key to the continuity of the relationship. And the friendship is the most important aspect of it. It enriches the whole thing.

“We Thought About It A Lot, and other shared drawings” remains on view at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, U.K., through November 21, 2021.