Tony Cragg is a British sculptor living in Wuppertal in Germany since 1977 when he was fresh out from Royal College of Art. He was born in Liverpool in 1949 and initially worked for a couple of years as a laboratory technician in a laboratory of rubber science. He left and was admitted into Gloucester College of Art and Design followed by Cheltenham College before he entered Royal College of Art in London in 1973.
Tony Cragg is a major artist among sculptors and has been very active in the contemporary world and debate. He is now the director of Kunstakademi Düsseldorf and was elected Royal Academician in 1994. He has been awarded a range of prizes through the years such as Turner and several more.
Cragg has worked with more raw materials for his art than almost anay other known sculptor, and I think that has been part of my liking of his work. He has said that the word material originates from the Latin word “mater”, mother, and means that the emotional perceiving of the material, both for the artist and the viewer, the material itself gives rise to the thought, its properties gives rise to the idea which produces the form.
When I read this quote, I did to some extent recognize my feelings when seeing and touching a particular fabric. I enjoy just fabric browsing and it is normally my reaction to a fabric that decides what it becomes. Now – this is somewhat pretentious (Some understatement!!) but I did think it was an interesting observation.
Stacking, splitting and crushing
He started his sculpturing by using mainly found objects and used them and challenged them in many different ways. He sees physical matter as the fundamental basis of experience. One of the first work he produced was a stool and little wooden pieces. In his early career he worked with stacking, crushing and splitting in a methodological and arranged way such as in “Stack”, 1975, mixed materials. This sculpture is very geometrical and could be interpreted by how manmade and natural materials are intertwined to form our environment. My own initial thoughts were that this particular piece of work was not very beautiful, and I rather felt it depicted a filled rather ugly shed. However, starting to look into what is stacked in that shed it becomes a bit more amusing when identifying the different objects and looking at it quite some different forms become apparent, there are coarse bricks in grey amnd with holes in them, there are wooden planks and there is folded or rolled material and it all forms a composition with a certain design in colours and form composition. I still do not think it is very beautiful.
Fragments of plastic and other material
He rapidly continued to collect fragments of plastic which he arranged by colour and made many interesting pieces of work by arranging patterns and reliefs on surface.
“New Tones Newton’s Tones”, 1978, consists of a rectangular arrangement on the floor of plastic fragments assembled in colour groups according to their position in Newton’s colour spectrum. It has been suggested that fragments of material waste is really to an urban society what fallen leaves are to nature. In my view that is quite a rational as well as mentally proper symbolism. I quite liked that idea not the least with that thoughts in mind – seeing the surfaces in forests and under trees and bushes as nature’s own scrap yard. and I also thought it was a rather interesting symbolism considering how beautiful nature can be in the autumn with all the leaves in different colours on the ground.
Another example of this period is a large mural , “Britain seen from the north”, fragments of plastic, 1981 and part of Tate collection. He made this at a visit to Britain and depicts himself studying England positioned in “horizontal” position from “the north”. He is looking at this region which suffered hard from the then economic climate but as he was living abroad he was an outsider. Further examples are “The streets are full with cowboys and indians”, fragments of plastic 1980, colours mainly in yellow and neutral. “Union Jack” 1981 depicts the flag made from arranging fragments of mixed materials and in the characteristic colours onto a surface. I still do like his “plastic” collages – in my view they are imaginative and I am attracted to the thought of making beautiful or decorative things from scrap material.
Further materials, stone and wood
“Three modern buildings, 1984” is made from the stacking of different types of bricks, in colours terra cotta, yellow and grey – a sculpture I like very much. There is a simplicity in this piece that attracts me. The holes in the bricks form windows, and the composition is brilliant.. This piece attracts me as in my eyes it is decorative and an eye opener as how a few of the coarse, kind of primitive bricks supposed to be used in thousands for the walls of a house can be tricked into becoming the sole components and still become “a complete” impression of a house.
“La citta”, 1985, wood, is a collection of regular pieces of seemingly sawed pieces, like little blocks that are assembled in a slightly circular, spiral form, held very tight together really reminding me of an Italian village or small town climbing around a hill top. The way the sculpture is displayed in the picture I saw, with window light coming from the top, the town looked as if it was bathing in sunshine strengthening the feeling of southern Europe. Beautiful and interesting! It even transmits a certain ambiance…I can imagine the little shops, bars and the central piazza…and the beautiful women and handsome men, as well as the little old women and med in black – walking through the little streets. It is amazing how this “collection of wooden blocks” can in this simple form create a very obvious village just by the way of it has been assembled.
A few years on, steel, plaster, glass
“Minster”, metal, plastic, wood and rubber, 1987-1990, is a huge sculpture/installation in five to six pieces, the highest is five and a half meter. It is typically stacked and made from machine parts in several materials and gives some impression to be minarets or a collection of churches from the Greek-orthodox culture or towers. Initially before I managed to look properly and saw that it was made up from stacks of many components - I did get some little internal flash about grenades from old times or very modern missiles --- made into church towers. Some of the round and conical parts are painted in red, green and blue. Tony Cragg has been quoted to say: “manmade objects are fossilized keys to a past time which is our present.” During this decade he also made large steel constructions and huge versions of laboratory instruments.
Next decade – the nineties
He did continue to make semi-scientific vessels such as the “Bromide Figure, 1992, a glass sculpture which also reminds me of churches and minarets but he gradually also started to make more “organic” forms and suggests that he examined the relation between the natural and artificial world. “Trilobites” 1988 depicts the prehistoric fossil, in its origin 4cm long and three-lobed, “infested” or imprinted by a laboratory vessel. Many interpretations are open – one being the examination of the relation between the artificial world and the natural – another could be the impact on nature of artificial, or scientific activities, or other interventions forced upon it by man. I do not like this sculpture that much as I have some difficulties for all possible worms or larvae and I cannot help the association. I feel the type of form or forms of these trilobites are coming back in several of Cragg’s works, the almost draped rounded forms or round sections in more or less soft forms – and I like these forms very much.
“Spyrogyra” 1992, glass and steel, I could see as an ingenous bottlerack– my very first impression was not quite as wild – or wilder - to me it was an immediate Christmas tree … The bottles have been sandblasted, hence been made more elegant than the originals. I think this is a really fun sculpture which I could even see as a big lamp had some of the bottles been illuminated.
“Ferryman” 1997, bronze, has a more organic form and has been produced from bronze perforated by round holes which gives the piece a light impression in spite of a rather compact and complicated form. It also makes it interesting as in some angles you can see trough the holes to some extent and light comes through.
“Forminifera” 1997 is made from plaster and steel and consists of a few huge laboratory vessels, with the plaster surface perforated by holes, a similar method t he has worked with in bronze as in the previous “Ferryman”.To me the impression goes to Roman amphoras even if the forms depicted in the vessels are not that of an amphora. I feel perhaps the whitish soft colour and the several forms anyway makes an impression of an archeological exhibition. Laboratory vessels are frequent forms in Tony Cragg’s work.
This last decade he has continued to develop the organic forms but quite a few of his recent works display the curved structures, kind of sharp edged curves stacked or twisted upon each other to form different characters. The faces seen in his different varieties of faces or heads “Bent Minds” and “Two Minds, 2002, can be traced in some other work. “I’m alive”, 2004, stainless steel could be almost a slender fish wriggling of life, or somebody standing in an athletic position or yoga position with a bent back – showing off his physical and mental capacity. I feel his “double-minds” are genial the way he depicts the dual concept – both elegant forms and thoughtful, with faces in two directions, one kind of twisted from the other. “Levelhead” 2006 is another of the same structural and conceptual feeling as is “Wild Relatives”, 2005, wood, which has some similar features.
During very recent years he has painted some of his bronze sculptures such as “Red Square” 2007 and “Outspan” 2006, yellow painted bronze. This gives a lightness to the sculpture which is quite interesting. He has previously worked with perforated bronze which also has given lightness and now colour adds both a very different impression as well as lightness.
Cragg in Paris, “Le Louvre”
Cragg exhibits right now at “Le Louvre” in Paris. He shows seven sculptures in the space under the glass pyramid. This is the first time ever an exhibition takes place underneath the pyramid. The first sculpture to be seen when entering the space is created for this occasion and exhibition. It is called the “Versus” and is red with a complicated layering of his round forms, almost like discs of various thickness and size, sharpness or bulk stacked upon each other in a complicated pattern, around an axis. In this sculpture one could stand looking for all kinds of forms or perceived form symbols. I lik this very much as it appeals to imagination and to round, round to follow his rounded structural forms. Further sculptures paired with antique sculptures in the museum are black, or perforated bronzes and become enormous contrasts to the Louvre classic sculptures!
I chose to explore Tony Cragg among the suggested artists as his recent sculptures were the first I came across when researching their works. I saw his double faces and some of his painted work and fell immediately in love with his feeling for form. I seem to be attracted to rather explicit form, bold and obvious forms. I have during my exploration of the cubists become very fond of the cubistic sculptors as well. More etheric impressions that I got from the first I came across made from Cornelia Parker appealed immediately to me as well, however for some unexplainable reason I chose Cragg. When I continued to study Tony Cragg I became extremely fond and impressed of his variety both in the form used and materials used. I was also struck by his view that the material in hand, commands the form developing – a somewhat concentrated interpretation on my side. It is interesting also to read an interview where he claimed that he does not make any thematic series – because when one piece of work was finished, that provided the base for a continued and further development instead of making another interpretation of that same concept. When looking at his several works with his “twisted” disks and round forms almost around an axis I feel that some themes can be traced – on the other hand he has been so enormously prolific and I have only seen a small fraction of what he has produced. He has also produced a large number of sketches and drawings, not only sketches of a planned sculpture. Many of them are also very interesting, but I chose deliberately to make my own impression and little “scratch on Cragg’s surface” only on his sculptural production!