Odalisque, 2008. Plaster, 76 x 109 x 49 in.

William Tucker: From the Formal to the Primeval

William Tucker was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2010. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.

Emperor, 2002. Bronze, 65 x 78 x 41 in.

William Tucker is a sculptor whose work and conduct embody the conscience of his medium. There is pervasive sense, in all he does – in his widely influential writings about sculpture as well as in the work itself – of agitated industry, whether he is striving to define, to eliminate, to amass, or to complicate. Radical shifts in his way of working indicate an almost existential search for the essence of sculpture, and an equally strident defense of it.

There is often a palpable tension between complexity and singularity in Tucker’s work: one sense both a determination to force materials or processes to yield their maximum and, in a competing direction, a bracing of extremes, carries across to a consideration of his career as a whole, for Tucker’s journey over 50 years of sculptural activity has taken him from one resolute stylistic and procedural position to another.

The Rim, 1961. Steel, 13.75 x 13.75 x 6.75 ft.

His life has traversed comparable terrain. A Briton, born in Egypt and raised in England and Ireland, he moved mid-way through his career first to Canada and then to the United States, where he is now a citizen. The Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed on Tucker by the International Sculpture Center throws into relief the striking disparity between his mature achievements in one center and the next. Take a representative piece from his English period, one of his “Cat’s Cradle” series of steel rod constructions (1971), for instance, and set it next to a trademark monumental bronze from the American period, such as Okeanos (1987). The contrast is almost caricatural – like an effete youth next to a beefy hulk. The earlier work is a fastidiously streamlined, skeletal, three-dimensional drawing, while its companion is a gargantuan massed volume that reads like an unruly cross between a meteorite and a stray limb (or a turd, as some commentors have indecorously observed). They seem to come out of entirely different aesthetics. The steel construction is exclusively optical, concerned with shifting perspectives of lines in space. The mammoth bronze casting, a belligerently awkward, 12.5-foot-high lump that resists attempts to grasp its totality, lays claim to touch (despite its scatological connotation) at least as strongly as it does to sight. The “Cat’s Cradle” works are ethereal as Okeanos is grounded.

Dancer, 2002-04. Plaster, 92 x 93 x 94 in.

And yet, for all extremity in contrast, the sculptural evolution that had propelled this restless thinker/maker has never entailed a gratuitous lurching from one form to the next. On the contrary, each development turns out, in retrospect, to have been born of inner necessity, accompanied by self-effacingly expressed acknowledgement of dissatisfaction with a previous way of working, despite the rigor and integrity of that earlier position.

This one-man paradigm shift, however, does not entail a clean break or clear-cut epiphany. Echoes and corresponding anticipations between concerns from one period to the next frustrate neat categorization. Inevitably, if “before” and “after” are viewed as opposing camps, each holds a hostage. Sphinx (1980) is an imaginary casting of the negative space – a proto-Rachel White-read – described within the mild steel outline construction of an earlier piece titled Building a Wall in the Air (1978). A return to this open-construction idiom occurs quite recently, in Victory (2001), made when Tucker was entirely ensconced in volumetric, cast, modeled mode of sculpture. Victory won an international competition for a memorial to the Disappeared of Argentina’s infamous Dirty War of the late 1970s. For such a commission, casting a solid lump seemed both impractical and inappropriate. A broken-triangle pediment directly recalls an earlier formal language, which, despite a lack of any such intended symbolism, takes on new resonance in Buenos Aires to embody the absent-presence of los desaparecidos.

Atreus, 1987. Bronze, 46.5 x 43 x 23 in.

And yet, there is no escaping the almost violent contrast between the British Tucker and the American Tucker. When Tucker left Britain in the 1970s, no one on either side of the Atlantic would have guessed that he was on track to be the late-20th-century heir to a monumentality tradition. It is true that he was turned on to sculpture, like so many of his generation, by Henry Moore, whose heroic fallen warrior, seen at an open-air sculpture exhibition in London’s Holland Park, galvanized the young Tucker, then an undergraduate at Oxford, to think of sculpture as his vocation. But Tucker was closely associated in the 1960s with a group of young sculptors who broke decisively (some would say oedipally) with Moore’s romantic humanism. Led by Anthony Caro, Moore’s assertively independent former assistant, these artists were committed to severely pared-down, geometric abstraction and a formalist, Modernist mode of inquiry. Their work often played against gravity, favoring an industrial vocabulary of new materials and synthetic colors.

The Void, 2005. Bronze, 26.75 x 35 x 24 in.

Tucker enrolled at Saint Martin’s School of Art at an axiomatic moment for British sculpture. He worked with Caro, after an initial meeting at which the younger Tucker stormed out in disgust. He was also deeply influenced by his peers Isaac Witkin, with whom he shared digs, and Phillip King, whose intellectual leadership was the subject of such anxiety on Tucker’s part that he destroyed a group of early works when he became convinced that they were derivative of King. All of these artists became lifelong friends. While British sculpture of this “new generation,” with Tucker as a leading member, constituted an international Modernist vanguard, it took its intellectual cue from the late works of David Smith and the criticism of Clement Greenberg. It is ironic, therefore, for an artist whose career splits along geographical lines, that, in his British phase, Tucker worked within “American type” sculpture, whereas, on coming to the new world, he reconnected with European tradition, in particular with a French sculptural aesthetic that he had kept at a certain theoretical distance. Tucker’s landmark book, The Language of Sculpture (1974), based on a series of lectures delivered at Leeds University in 1969, argued strenuously against “romantic histrionics” in sculpture, stressing weightlessness and play. This influential book offered revisionist accounts of Rodin and Degas and, to Tucker’s later regret, was dismissive of Giacometti. Tucker was resolutely streamlined enough to be included by Kynaston McShine in “Primary Structures” (1966), the landmark exhibition that heralded minimalist art. Even so, the uniform fiberglass cylinders in his “Four Part Sculpture” series (1966), which arguably represents Tucker at his most reductive, retain elements of movement that militate against minimalism. Movement would be a defining characteristic in much of Tucker’s open-form linear sculpture of the later 1960s and early 1970s, in the voluptuously twisted (with a tube bender) steel tubes of his “Beulah” series (1971) and the elegantly skewed steel-bar frames of his “Porte” series (1973).

Four Part Sculpture 1, 1993. Painted fiberglass, 91.5 x 228.6 x 228.6 cm.

One way to reconcile the cerebral, optical, linear Tucker of the British period and the hefty, earthy, neo-romantic humanist he has become in America is to stress, in place of look, feel, working method, or subject, the strenuousness of inquiry. It is as if he needed to deal with the essence of the medium exhaustively in order to then move beyond the language of sculpture and give shape to equally essential human experiences. Tucker gave evidence that the same man was at work in both continents and paradigms in a statement that he made to Norbert Lynton in 1977, saying that he wanted to “speak a human rather than an art language.”

It should be acknowledged that personal crisis as well as changes in location and ambition helped to move Tucker’s work in a radically new direction. In Canada, he witnessed the demise of his first marriage and a period of serious illness. His marriage to the American expressionist painted Pamela Avril, whom he met a Bennington College in 1979, also had bearing on his development. Additionally there was a crucial, transitional body of work, made between the old world and the new, whose open forms recall his linear abstraction but whose robust finish and rough materials speak of a new drama and earthiness. The House of the Hanged Man (1981), a pitched structure in found wood, takes its sinister title from a Cézanne painting of 1973. The brooding, existentialist titles of this period, such as those derived from Kafka, The Prisoner and Portrait of K, resonated with his desire to reconnect his work with social experience rather than abstract phenomena.

Greek Horse, 2003. Bronze, 56 x 42 x 24 in.

Tucker’s 1970s open forms are also defined by his characteristic inclusion of protruding (often intruding) spokes. Building a Wall in the Air, for instance, is made up of joined bench forms of mild steel whose legs dig into the negative space of the sculpture’s interior. These forms, in turn, would beget the individual furniture-like objects – figures almost – in one of Tucker’s early series in bronze, the “Guardians” (1983). The bronze forms initially grew from his process of roughly applying plaster to wooden structures to create an animated surface. The limb-like extensions in the “Guardians” became more forcibly embodied in the “Gymnasts” of the following year, a series inspired by watching the Los Angeles Olympics on television, and, of course, an homage to Degas.

Siren, 1994. Bronze, 150 cm.

Tucker’s move to time-hallowed materials and his reconnection with humanist subject matter coincided with a 1980s resurgence of figuration and expressionism. His dealer, David McKee, wrote in a catalogue preface in 1987 that in naming new sculptures after gods and Titans, Tucker had “self-evidently reflected a Modernist interpretation and moved closer to more classical concepts” of sculpture. The return to myth, besides connecting with the transavanguardia of other transplanted Europeans, recalls the classicism of an early rappel á l’ordre like that of Picasso, Cocteau, and Stravinsky in the 1920s. But there is nothing effete about Tucker’s bronzes since the 1980s. On the contrary, they are brutal, blunt, hefty, and primordial. Seeing an exhibition of his bronzes from this period at the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, for instance, in Cross River, New York, in 2007, the sensation was far closer to chancing upon a circle of prehistoric dolmen than a classical ruin. Tellingly, Tucker was drawn in his titling to the pre-Olympian pantheon of Thetys, Okeanos, the Dactyls, Ouranos, and Gala, more archetypal deities than the Olympians who followed them.

Tucker’s bronzes meander in and out of legibility. Some are lumpen masses that defy efforts to pin them down, though their general shape and the wealth of surface ambiguity betoken bodiliness, even if a given part cannot be named. Others, like his extensive “Horse” series (1986-87) or his “Philosophers” (1989), are relatively specific in how they are to be read. But even at their most elegiac, Tucker’s sculptures are unforgivingly difficult. They are often almost oppressively big works; even when he occasionally produces hand-sized maquettes, the invested energy ensures a sense of the monumental. They connect to a fascination with Rodin that leaves behind the polite formalism in Tuker’s 1960s analysis of the master to insist, instead, on the primeval.

Tauromachy, 2008. Plaster, 62 x 99 x 55 in.

As much as the archetypal and heroic romantic Rodin, it is the fragmentary and ambiguous, deconstructive Rodin that informs Tucker’s sculpture. Andrew Forge detected the key characteristic in late Tucker when he demonstrated the ability of parts to denote the whole. An ambiguous fragment can appear as foot, fist, penis, or torso, slinking from one reading to the other like Polonius’s cloud. More essentially, however, it can also stand for the whole, empathetically imparting a bodily sense. As Tucker himself said in 1992: “To project an inner sense of the wholeness of the body has been the task of sculpture from the makers of the standing stones at Avebury in England and the Venus of Willendorf to Degas and Rodin, and it still can be in our time.”

David Cohen is editor and publisher of artcritical.com and gallery director of the New York Studio School.