The example of the series ‘What Sculpture is’ serves to problematise any simple analysis of Tucker’s views on sculpture. It prompts us to consider individual sculptures through our direct experience of them as well as by examining sculpture generally in the matrix of history. It also alerts us to the importance of the context in which the writings were conceived, written and presented. Whilst ‘What Sculpture is’ is certainly a much more problematic text than The Language of Sculpture or The Condition of Sculpture, looking at the three texts together demonstrates the variety of types of writing Tucker produced. Judith Winter in her Spotlight text points out the sheer diversity of Tucker’s sculpture: not just in the sculpture represented in the Arts Council Collection, but also through a long and varied career. The lack of a defining ‘style’ has seemed as much a problem in characterising Tucker’s sculpture as his writing. Indeed, one of the conclusions one is likely to make having read a selection of Tucker’s writings and looked at the range of sculpture in even as limited a range as is represented in the Arts Council Collection, is that resolution is impossible. It is not possible to summarise Tucker’s theories or practice in a few sentences. It may also be that one has to acknowledge a more fundamental and familiar issue: that sculpture and writing exist in a complex relation to one another, and that presenting one in the medium of the other is always fraught with difficulty.
Whilst interest in Tucker’s sculpture has waned since the mid-1970s – a situation this exhibition hopes to rectify – Tucker’s book The Language of Sculpture has long been popular reading amongst students of sculpture and art history. Ironically, it may be that the sheer public prominence and popularity of this book has hindered any thorough-going re-examination of Tucker’s writing or sculpture, the prevalent assumption being that whilst the sculpture is difficult, at least we know what he stands for in his writing. Tucker the formalist theorist, a ‘spokesman for an academic abstract art’ as Albert Elsen put it, seems easy to pigeon-hole and easier to condemn as such a position has become increasingly unpopular, characterised as reactionary and dogmatic. The intention of this text has been to problematise this easy assumption, showing the range of Tucker’s approach to writing, his complex negotiations with the history of sculpture and the careful manipulation of his words depending on their intended audience. It is hoped that a new airing of the works and writings will open yet more new avenues of investigation.
The three key texts published in the period 1974-1975 that form the basis of this discussion of Tucker’s writings are:
The Language of Sculpture
(Thames and Hudson, London 1974, and 2nd edition 1992)
The Condition of Sculpture
A selection of recent sculpture by younger British and foreign artists (Arts Council of Great Britain, Hayward Gallery, London, 29 May – 13 July 1975)
‘What Sculpture is’ Studio International
Parts 1 & 2 December 1974; Parts 3 & 4 January/February 1975; Parts 5 & 6 March/April 1976; Parts 7 & 8 May/June 1975.
The discussion also makes reference to these pieces of writing by Tucker in the magazine Studio International:
‘An Essay on Sculpture’ January 1969, pp.12-13’
‘Notes on sculpture, public sculpture and patronage’ January 1972, p.9.
…and an unpublished transcript of the lecture Confessions of a Formalist given in the Sculpture Department of St Martin’s School of Art London, on Friday 12 March 1976.
Published to accompany the tour of the exhibition which begins at Leeds City Art Gallery 16 February – 1 April 1995.
With thanks to Judith Winter and to Isobel Johnstone, Curator of the Arts Council Collection, for this opportunity to collaborate with the South Bank Centre