Commissioned to complement ‘William Tucker: Six Sculptures’
An Arts Council Collection Spotlight
Taken together, the book The Language of Sculpture, the exhibition The Condition of Sculpture and the series of magazine articles ‘What Sculpture is’, represent the most coherent public statements and demonstrations of William Tucker’s ideas on sculpture. These publications appeared in the period 1974 to 1975, and although Tucker has continued to teach and exhibit since then, this represents a particularly prolific moment in his writing. It is in these texts, particularly in The Language of Sculpture, that Tucker’s ideas are definitively formulated. Whilst his sculpture practice has changed dramatically, he has continued to stand by the understanding of sculpture developed in this book, commenting in his preface to the second edition of the book in 1992:
‘Some twenty years have passed since I started work on the lectures
on which the book was based; my perspective has changed radically
as my sculpture has moved in a direction I could hardly have anticipated
in the late 1960s. Yet if I were to rewrite these essays today, I think
the changes would be of emphasis rather than substance.
It is interesting to note that in the mid-1970s when Tucker’s prominence as a writer on sculpture was at something of a peak, his sculpture was seen to be in a less vanguard position than it had been a decade earlier. Tucker was a student (from 1959-1960) and a teacher (1963-1974) of sculpture at one of the most renowned art schools in Britain: St Martin’s School of Art in London. In 1965 Tucker’s sculpture was included in the famous and influential exhibition The New Generation, together with the other sculptors connected with St Martin’s such as David Annesley, Phillip King and Tim Scott. The New Generation were considered the leading British sculptors by influential critics such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. However, by the mid-1970s a new avant-garde was being promoted and, although many of its number emerged from sculpture departments in British art schools (including St Martin’s), their work was seen as breaking new ground in defiance of the traditional provinces of sculpture or painting. It was against this background, a new avant-garde that seemingly eschewed the ‘rules’ of sculpture and the enthusiastic promotion of these sorts of art-making on the national and international art scene. That Tucker framed his exhibition The Condition of Sculpture in 1975.
As Tucker explains in the introduction to his catalogue, the title ‘The Condition of Sculpture’ has a double meaning that encompasses two of his key concerns. Firstly, the state of sculpture – its health and well-being – and, secondly, the necessary conditions for sculpture’s existence. It is in connection with this second sense of ‘condition’ that Tucker develops his definition:
‘Sculpture is subject to gravity and revealed by light.
Here is the primary condition.’
This is first and foremost a statement about sculpture’s being in the world. For Tucker, gravity is of the sculpture, that is to say sculpture must exist of something that withstands the gravitational pull of the earth. Thus gravity is the internal condition of sculpture. Light on the other hand is the external condition of sculpture. Sculpture is matter, it is made of some physical material and its visibility depends on its external conditions of illumination.
Sculpture occupies the same spaces as people, and needs to be understood in that relation too, and thus a third condition for sculpture is its availability to human perception. Importantly for Tucker, sculpture is visible. It can be seen and crucially, for it to exist, it must be seen as sculpture. The viewer can physically move around the sculpture, but in Tucker’s analysis, movement remains the prerogative of the spectator and not of the sculpture. Although there is a sense in which we experience sculpture bodily, relating it to our scale and dimensions, the important faculties for Tucker’s theory are sight and intellect. We perceive the sculpture by seeing it as an object illuminated by light, and we perceive it as sculpture through our knowledge of what sculpture is. Therefore sculpture appreciation is a joint activity of sight and mind. It is not a bodily experience despite our physical proximity to the sculpture. When Tucker writes of the ‘touch’ or ‘feel’ of sculpture it is not that we actually touch or feel it but that these are intellectualised, evoked senses. Despite Tucker’s insistence on the object status of sculpture, it only becomes ‘sculpture’ for us through the mental faculty of Perception. In relation to the way in which we look at sculpture Tucker uses the word ‘gaze’ rather than the more straightforward ‘look’ or ‘view’. The word ‘gaze’ used in this sense, implies a more interrogative perceiving of a thing: an intellectual looking rather than a sensual experiencing.