The problem involves questions of purpose and meaning. Since for Tucker sculpture is essentially without purpose in the usual sense of function, and moreover is passive, a sculpture cannot actively give meaning to a place. Any such function is incidental, or at least secondary, to Tucker’s understanding of sculpture’s essential being. Thus Tucker has very limited expectations of sculpture’s public function, writing in 1972:
‘…it seems to me unduly optimistic to hope that the envisaged
confrontation with sculpture can alter people’s minds or their attitude
to their surroundings, except in the most marginal way, and I am certain
that this is not sculpture’s central function.’
It could easily be contested that Tucker’s expectations are overly pessimistic, but one needs to set them in their time. Tucker probably had in mind a whole range of public sculpture projects, especially in new town or modern housing developments in the 1950s and 1960s, objects which earned such descriptions as ‘plonk sculpture’ or ‘the Turd in the Plaza’. He might also have had in mind the well-intentioned but often misconstrued attempts at exhibitions in public places. For Tucker, sculpture is public by virtue of its physical existence as object in the world and not by sharing in, or participating in any functional sense in an idea of ‘public-ness’.
There is a sense in which questions of private and public are also pertinent to Tucker’s writing and its relation to his sculpture practice. For, however private one’s musings on sculpture or the formulation of one’s own theories of practice, their articulation in published form represents as public a statement as the public exhibition of a piece of sculpture. Tucker’s personal private interests become a matter for public contemplation and consideration. Like the sculptures, they are out in the world.
The above quoted examples from Tucker’s writings in Studio International demonstrate that in order to understand Tucker’s most prominent public statements in the period 1974-1975 it is necessary to go a few years backwards and forwards and look at other instances of Tucker’s written and spoken words.
The relation of Tucker’s writing to his practice is not immediately apparent, nor often explicitly addressed. On the rare occasion when an article is illustrated by his own work, as in his essay on sculpture in Studio International in January 1969, the connection is difficult to ascertain. In that article a series of three drawings appears across the two-page spread. They are not captioned and are not referred to in the text. The drawings are not dissimilar to the kind of linear construction found in ‘Cats Cradle’ (1971), or in drawing style to the ‘Tunnel Variant’ pen and ink drawings (1974-5).
Tucker and his work make a number of appearances in various guises in that January 1969 issue of Studio International, which was devoted to ‘Some Recent Sculpture in Britain’. The work ‘2/5/A’ (1960) was illustrated in an article on the sculpture course at St Martin’s School of Art along with the cover of a student magazine called First edited by Tucker. This cover is illustrated with a photograph of Tucker’s hand holding a Venus of Willendorf figurine. Elsewhere in this issue of Studio International Tucker’s words appear, both in the afore-mentioned ‘Essay on Sculpture’ and as a participant in a symposium discussing the work of sculptor and teacher, Anthony Caro. It is difficult enough to discern the relation between Tucker’s work and writing, let alone to relate these seemingly different and divergent ‘Tuckers’: teacher, writer, sculptor and representative of St Martin’s so-called ‘New Generation’ appearing at one and the same time in a single issue of a magazine. It is even more difficult to reconcile this apparent flexibility with the later dogmatic defender of formal object sculpture that Tucker becomes in The Condition of Sculpture.
In the preface to The Language of Sculpture Tucker indicates that he writes ‘from the perspective of a sculptor working now, rather than that of the historian, critic or connoisseur.’ Critic or connoisseur he may not have been, but he was and arguably has always been, however much he tried to distance himself from it, writing from the perspective of an historian. In March 1976 Tucker gave a lecture to the Sculpture Department at St Martin’s School of Art. It was called ‘Confessions of a Formalist’.
Tucker began with his own history, and more specifically with the historical moment of his becoming a sculptor. ‘It is twenty years exactly since I made my first sculpture and decided to be a sculptor’ he states, and then adds, crucially I think, that before becoming a sculptor: ‘I was a history student at Oxford…..’ The transcript of the lecture has those five telling dots after the statement.