Acclaimed artist Tony Cragg has been exploring the limits of sculptural form since the late 1970s. His monumental creations, made from materials such as wood, glass, steel and bronze, are singular accomplishments that can take years to complete.
Inspired by Cragg’s recent exhibition Sculptures at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Curator’s Dan Golden spoke with the artist via long distance call to the coast of Sweden, where Cragg lives part of the year.
Dan Golden (DG): Can you hear me?
Tony Cragg (TC): Yes, yes.
DG: Great. You're moving furniture right now?
TC: Yeah. That's right.
DG: The glamorous world of an artist, right?
TC: Yeah, exactly. As one imagines.
DG: Great. Well, your new show at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Salzburg looks amazing.
TC: Thank you.
DG: I have some questions, and you may have answered similar ones in the past, so I apologize in advance if you have.
TC: I never give the same answer twice, anyway.
DG: (laughing) Okay. First question: in recent years, you've worked extensively in bronze, wood, and steel, as well as in some other specific materials. What is the significance of these particular materials to your work?
TC: In a general sense, one of the big developments in sculpture in the last number of years has been that artists know they can use virtually every material possible. During the 19th Century in Europe, sculpture was a matter of copying the anatomy using a certain range of materials that were good for doing that, and this in turn engendered the ethos of craftsmanship as well.
Since the beginning of the 20th Century, sculpture is essentially about how all materials and material forms affect us. In my early work, I was using a lot of materials, found materials, anything I could get my hands on. There was still a sense at that time that one was looking for a new material to bring into the art world. This is still the case to some extent but it is no longer the prime motivation to make sculpture. It is, of course, always interesting to discover a new material, but fundamentally we know that in a finite world we can't keep going on discovering new materials.
Even since the mid-'70s, during the period of my studies, there was already the feeling that the --at that time dominant--conceptual or Duchamp strategy of bringing non-art materials into art was running out of energy. In the early '80s already, 1980 to '83, I realized that the work I'd made with found materials gave me an insight into the particular character of the industrial world, industrial objects, and this provided me with themes that are the basis for the work I make now. I realized I couldn't keep on just finding things and arranging them, and that I would have to make more things and learn how to make forms. This became a conscious endeavor on my part--I worked through glass, and plaster, and wood, and a lot of other materials.
In the last 15 years, I've also become interested in putting sculpture in an outdoor context. Then suddenly this world full of a wide range of materials to work with disintegrates because there are not many materials that you can put outside. Certain metals, stones, they become the materials that one resorts to use.
DG: Going back to your early works using found materials: where did you find these things?
TC: Everywhere: sometimes scrap yards, everywhere I could get my hands on materials.
DG: Was there a particular struggle when you transitioned from working with found materials to using stone, steel and wood?
TC: Well, no. In 1983 I made a work that I called Minster, which was made of circular objects, disks, circles, and cylinders that I stacked up on top of each other without fixing them together, to make very tall, slender minster-like spires. Just everything I found. The idea was that gravity was the glue, if you like.
Then shortly after that I was obliged to fix them because people kept walking up to them, shaking them, and then they’d get a painful bang on the head. Then I realized, "Aha, okay. If I have to fix them, then there is no need to make the columns straight and vertical".
Obviously circles and cylindrical forms are generic forms in biology, and what we have to consider is that our own, very organic figure is made up of, or consists in all its aspects of, a myriad of very precise geometric figures. In our minds there's a very big aesthetic difference between an organic form and a geometric form, but the fact of the matter is our own bodies wouldn't function on any level, not on the molecular level, not on the cellular level, not on bone level, not on the organ level if it wasn’t for its geometries.
I found this duality of the organic and geometric aesthetics that represents so many classical dualities in human nature to be a really important and profound subject... and very relevant to the appearance of our material surroundings, in view of the fact that industry only makes simple geometric things. Because the production methods have to be cheap, because they have to be economic, they take the simplest way of making things. Look around you: straight edge, flat, bland, circular, nothing really very exciting. Our industry makes a lot of lowest common denominator decisions about what we get. We suffer from, from well, an impoverished world of form, in fact. We turn a forest into a car park and take a tree down and cut it into blocks. Well, it's simply depressing, isn't it? Obviously, that's not quite fair. I suppose it is a wonder that we can make anything and Nature has had a long time to make the complicated and intricate things it does... so complicated and so unimaginably intricate that we can't even imagine how they have been made, but I think we should try.
DG: You mentioned that when you started working outdoors in sculpture you wanted things that could sustain – can you expand on that a bit?
TC: I once said that "I make things in my studio, and the minute they start to move towards the door, they're in a state of decay". It's probably not a good idea to say that. On the other hand, there is something to it. There's an ideal, and after that the aging process takes over. Sculpture is fortuitous in many ways because it has the possibility to have a long life; it certainly outlives our own lifespan.
Nowadays sculptors use a lot of materials that have shorter lives than the traditional sculptors' materials. I make things in plastic, and in glass, wood and lots of other materials, but even working with wood is not a permanent solution because it's an organic material that eventually decays. Especially once you get outside in the all-weather environment and with social interaction, there are many reasons that the sculptures have to be very strong and stable.
DG: Do you use any 3D software when designing your forms, or is everything developed and built by hand?
TC: The ideas, and everything I develop--the themes, and the content of my work--I worked entirely by hand through the '70s, through the '80s, and through the '90s. People ask about my early forms, what program did I use? In 1989 there were no computers for those things, so I already developed this language of form, of both the rational beings and the early forms before there were any computational developments.
On the other hand, if there is a technology, why wouldn't you use it? Any sculptor would have used the sharpest chisel. He doesn't use a blunt one. You use the best tool you can get. The one thing I don't want to do is to generate sculpture in a computer. I believe that this would destroy my pleasure and the excitement of making and so on. I can't do it and I don't even know how to do it.
One thing the new technology is very useful for and many sculptors are using it to enlarge things. The traditional way of enlarging things is very difficult and time consuming. It takes days and days. Now it's relatively easy to have someone come in, scan the work, and work up a model from there. Even then it is only a beginning and I don't accept the work as it is, and continue to work from there. As soon as I have made an enlargement I work with it, cutting it up, modifying it, and changing it around, just using the bits.
The other thing that I find very useful to use digital technology for is if I want to put volumes inside each other. That's something I've tried to do for many years in my studio, in handmade internal forms. I managed, but certainly putting volumes inside each other has been made much, much easier by newer technology. For the last nine months, in the new work I've been making, I'm back to cutting forms out of wood, modeling polyurethane and carving shapes out of other materials. I’m not against computational assistance; it's just that the main thing for me is I want to have an emotional response to the form I create, an emotional relationship to it. So as a tool for certain tasks, new techniques definitely have a role, but I don't want to just generate the things without a psychological dimension.
DG: What are your thoughts on artists who have their work fabricated for them?
TC: I think it's very legitimate, actually. I see young people and most artists are doing it nowadays. Nobody asked if Don Judd made his own sculptures. He didn't. He never made anything.
There's been a long history of artists doing sketches and letting it be made. That's exactly what I don’t do. I have a studio with twenty people in it, about ten of whom actually make the work with me, and we are working here with the materials. Only in this manner can I approach the degree of complexity I want to attain. In the '80s, the early '80s, where artists were saying, "Let it be made," just send off a sketch or a model; that was not a solution for me. I just had to learn more about making things myself, so that's that.
DG: How does nature impact your sculptural approach?
TC: I'd love to make work that has the same degree of complexity and fascination that the natural world has. Nature has had a long time to make stuff, and that's why it's so mind-bogglingly complicated and so impressive for us. I think human beings make really boring things. It's boring, geometric, and repetitive, and I think we should use whatever means we have to make better things and reject the mediocrity of industrial manufactured goods. Sculpture is one of the rare uses of materials that enhances the wealth of form around us.
DG: That makes me think of one of your pieces, Lost in Thought, which is really complex, and all out of wood--is that right?
TC: Yes,.. Lost in Thought is a handmade adventure made entirely in wood. It took 15 months to make and three or four people working on it on and off. It's based on a sculptural reference to the figure, or at least what we want to be exposed of the figure. The simple fact is though that the very last thing that any of us, you, I, or anybody is going to do is tell anybody what we're really thinking or what we're really feeling. Firstly, we get dressed to hide ourselves; then we learn to behave in certain ways. We use our manners and conventions to mask our true expressions. We do anything that makes us conform and covert. I wanted to infer this in a sculpture; it can only ever remain in wood because it's just much too complicated to cast.
DG: All your work is so unique. Are there any pieces that stand out for you? I don't know if “breakthrough” would be the right word... but where you feel like you've touched upon a new vocabulary?
TC: Yes, continually. Everybody asks "Where do you get your ideas from?" In the assumption that good ideas make good art, but this is just not true! There's simply no direct correlation between good ideas and good art. On the other hand, I have a certain set of themes and things I've been working on for a long time and slowly make progress with. But practically, one of the main influences an artist has is the work they just made, the last work that they have finished. A finished work offers the possibility of reflection that leads to some possibilities, some new potential, some kind of expression that I could aim for when I set about to make the next work.
If I'm lucky, there is an incremental step forward in most of the work. Some steps are bigger than others. A lot of the things, like with the early forms, sometimes I thought, "Well, it's not going to go on much further." Then suddenly I think, "Wow", and it opens up a whole new world of new things that I'm really interested in. The latest work I'm doing now is really... one could say that its roots lay in the early forms, but they have really nothing in their appearance that would lead one to know that.
DG: Your use of color is distinct, powerful. How do you select the colors you use in your work?
TC: It’s totally subjective, as it should be... totally subjective. I love mixing up color. I love working with the materials, bronze, and steel. Materials have their own color; they have their own innate color. You can go a long, long way on those colors, but after a while you want to see some other quality happening. It's a very painterly process. I mix up the paint. I take ages to make a decision about the color, and a lot of doing-things, and then sometimes I want to take the paint off again. My assistants hate me when I say that, but sometimes it cannot be avoided.
DG: Oh, you have done that?
TC: Oh, yes. It’s not easy after making a big complicated sculpture to say, "Oh, take the paint off."
DG: That’s got to be a long process.
TC: Yeah. I don't go to the foundry for a day or two after that.
DG: Smart move. Do you view your works on paper as parallel explorations, or are they sometimes studies for your sculptural work?
TC: Well, there are three kinds of drawings. One is doing drawings in the studio with my assistants. Second is doing drawings on my own; I wouldn't say design, but certainly trying to resolve certain questions about specific works and problems I have, thoughts I had about the work. The third is to make drawings just for themselves without having a sculpture as an aim.
Drawing is an enormous adventure. You put the pencil on the page, and you just don't know where you're going to end up. If you do, it's boring. I always remember one thing, which I think is amazing, and I would reflect on this. If you have two points on the page, you want to join them up; you can join them up with a straight line, or a slight curve, or a wobbly line, or maybe go off the edge of the paper a bit around the room, around the universe, or whatever. You suddenly realize there is an infinite number of ways of joining up two dots on a piece of paper. You get some sort of idea of the potency of drawing as an activity. I think that is why the third kind of category of drawing is really me just enjoying drawing, just sitting down.
DG: Are there any new materials or techniques that you are exploring right now that we might see in an upcoming exhibition?
TC: Well, yes. In the next exhibition, which is soon, there will be a new body of blown glasswork, which I made in cooperation with Berengo, in Murano, working with their master glassblower, Suvano.
Then I've made a series of new works that are so complicated, really, you can't make them in bronze. They're too heavy. Steel is not good enough either, so I've made them in aluminum. They have quite vivid and remarkable color surfaces on them. These are new approaches for me.
DG: Looking forward to seeing the new work... One more question: can we talk about your sculpture, Hardliner? It’s a great piece, and seems like a merging of your early work with more recent explorations.
TC: Hardliner, yes. Hardliner was the beginning of a certain kind of work where I--if you like--deconstructed the early forms. The early forms have so much complicated inside life, like everything else, our own bodies and everything. We don't see it. We only see things from the surface. We don't see what's happening underneath. There's a psychological pressure to always see beyond the simple surface. Hardliner is an attempt to get underneath the skin of the work.
DG: Great. I think you've covered everything. I really appreciate your time. I love your work, obviously.
TC: Thank you so much.
DG: Thank you again. It's been a pleasure.
TC: All the best.
DG: Take care. Bye.
Tony Cragg's exhibition Sculptures at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Salzburg ran July 30 - August 31, 2016.