Sculpture and Visual Language: An Interview with Tony Cragg

British artist Tony Cragg, whose exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center is his first at a U.S. museum in more than twenty years, describes himself as a “materialist.” Admitting the negative connotations of such a label, the artist says it means that his art is bound up in his exploration of material and the meaning of material. “Material is infinitely complicated and sublime, and, in fact, we don’t know anything else,” he told FrontRow in a interview. “And any speculation about anything else that has nothing to do with it is purely just speculation.” We spoke to Cragg about his art, his formal and material concerns, and his home in Wuppertal, Germany.

FrontRow: You’re from England, but you moved to Wuppertal, Germany in 1979. It is an industrial area, and your work engages with industrial materials and industrial process in many ways. Is it reading too much into it to say that being in that setting is important to the work?

Tony Cragg: Wuppertal is an old textile city, and it is not part of the Rhein-Ruhr, which is very heavy industry. But even then, the area we live in — and the Rhein-Ruhr has developed into – it’s a very beautiful landscape. Right next to the studio is a very big nature reserve. It is very hilly, a lot of forests.  You’ll often see deer or whatever running through the garden. So, I think it kind of juxtaposes that with what has slowly become the relics, if you like, of an industrial era. But it is not really very clearly industrial in that sense. All in all, I think it is 24 million people in that area.  So it is not really small at all. In a sense it is one of the major European metropolises, but not just in one city. Cologne, Dusseldorf, Aachen, Essen, Dortmund: all of these places, they accrue to an enormous, very interesting kind of area. I don’t know any place in the world like it. It has an enormous dynamic about it.  Where we live, you can get in a car and drive 45 minutes and go to fifteen museums showing contemporary art.  And you can’t do that everywhere. There are still eighteen opera houses within that area. So, there’s an interesting nature. Nature’s there; they have by necessity an industry. And those two things live in a very tight and interesting relationship to one another. I think you’re right, that is definitely part of the work.

FR: I’ve heard you say in a prior interview, what I thought was an interesting analogy you made between writing and making sculpture. You talked about writing as taking graphite and what have you and putting it on a flattened tree and materially moving it around until you create some kind of meaning. It relates to the way you think of your sculptures as being a material or a visual language. Can you talk about what exactly you mean by visual language, and what is communicated by that language and what you’re looking to communicate through it?

TC: Everything. When you’re born, you’re born with a fantastic organ in your head.  There’s not much in it. And you open your eyes and you start to hear and you feel temperature and smell things and hear things and want to touch things — through your senses. Your senses, you have to see as being your inside body communicating with the outside. So it is collecting all this data about the world. Where you’ve got data you’ve got a syntax. So this, if you like, is some kind of language. Your finding out what surfaces are, what softness is, what hardness is, what noises – everything. So through your senses, you filled up these fantastic senses of perceptions of the world, and you use them very shortly after that to survive. You know what tastes good; you know what noises you don’t like; you know what forms are interesting for you, and whatever. And this is a language. You can’t write it down, but that material is already talking to us. Material gives us a message, and we go out and we read into the material something. And we use what we’ve read into it in our survival mechanism. So really, there is no mystery in that. That is absolutely what it is.  And it’s not just for humans; it’s the same for plants and animals and everything else.  We’ve learned to speak this language not necessarily just as indviduals, but we’ve also evolutionary learned to use that language.  A seed goes out of a tree and immediately a sprout goes down into the ground. You could say that’s a language. There is a language in a sense of one object communicating with its surroundings, if that’s a language.

FR: You mentioned the tree, and your works all seem to have an organic element to them. There’s an organic element to their materials, and sometimes there isn’t. There’s that tension between natural and unnatural. Is that part of what you’re working out?

TC: I’m not trying to do very much. If you look, there is a geometric basis to all these works, a very simple one. I mean, the work behind you [ed. note.we are sitting in the Nasher’s gallery] is totally elliptical. Any section through it will give you an ellipse. So that’s a geometrical figure. So there’s not very much organic about that.  But see the way it’s being constructed, then the profiles and the silhouettes it follows, they don’t seem to be.  In the end, you see the object is very much both geometric and organic, and by the way, so am I. I do look quite organic, as you do, but we are, in all sorts of levels, very geometric. Where we tend to be symmetric, physically, then when you get to the fine details, to the shapes of the vessels to the tensions of the membranes around the organs and you get into then the molecular structures and then you get into the atomic structures. That’s all geometry.

So words like geometry and organic are really aesthetic descriptions of the world around us. And they are not exclusive. So it’s an attempt to understand, looking at that dichotomy, to understand the world that I’m around. Maybe, to an extent, to understand how much I’m still nature. I think, as human beings, we regard ourselves as not so much part of nature anymore. We’ve taken this prime vision of controlling and making everything and deciding the biggest changes of the environment. So in this sort of hierarchy of materials, we are the dominate material at the moment, if we don’t mess it up. And that domination, I feel, gives us certain responsibilities. We don’t accept those responsibilities. We still think that Mother Nature or God or someone else will come and clean the mess up we’re making, but that’s not true. We’ll either perish because we didn’t take responsibility in every dimension of our dealings.

It will certainly help to survive for a long time if we are more responsible and make more complicated decisions. So it starts even with our production. We have an awful tendency to simplify everything because it’s economic. We’re driven by certain economic systems. These economic systems make industrial systems that cut straight lines, make flat surfaces, cut out squares in circles, and make everything really simple to use because a machine does that.  Something really complicated, like the inside of stick, we would have a great problem with making that because it is much too extensive for us to do — or building an animal, or something. So through our production systems, we reduce the form language around us already. So if you cut down a bit of forest, which is grown naturally and is full of millions of forms and materials, if we make a forest, and you fly over Indonesia you see thousands of square acres of pineapple trees in rows, it is appalling. And all the insects have been blown away, there are no other plants, no animals, of course. We impoverish everything we touch. And I think art and sculpture is way of reminding ourselves of what other possibilities there are, and what other forms there are, and what that would eventually mean to us.

FR: Part of that abstraction and our sense of abstraction from the material world is geometry because there is a rational way we can understand and predict geometric forms. You’re working with geometric forms and kind of confounding them in some ways, teasing them out. Is that a deliberate way you are thinking about geometry?

TC:  They have a generic type of, I mean some of these works of rational beings. Rational alluding to the geometric or, if you like, mathematically basis of most things. And alluding to that fact that they then also have something like a presence. That is what interests me.

FR: The presence is fascinating because it is an ineffable quality. You don’t like having things fabricated for you. Is working through each step and each process hands on, is that part of finding its presence?

TC: Yes, absolutely. And some of the formal principles in the work are not so very complicated. And it’s amazing. What I enjoy is going through those combinations, those slight variations of the intrinsic formal construction. Doing that changes, ultimately, the appearance of everything, and that’s the way it is in the bigger reality as well. You just have to change something very small in the molecules and you’ll have one totally different thing. The difference between cellulose, which all plants are made of, and the difference in a molecule like chitin, which is the coating of insects and other things, is very, very small. It is a very, very small structural difference. But what does it mean? One is a plant and the other ones are insects. Those internal structures that then in the end result in totally different beings, if you like: I think that’s so exciting.

FR: Do the materials you use bear the same relationship? Because sometimes you are using fiberglass or wood, sometimes you’re using natural materials or unnatural materials. What goes into the choice of what material you’re going to use for a given work?

A: It is something I’m discovering myself. When I was younger, and it was partly the time of Arte Povera and Pop Art and Duchamp’s influence being very strong in our culture then — and also not having any money — I relied on finding materials and making work with that, and that was very exciting. It gave the art world, in general, and myself an enormous new range of materials to make art with. That was what the explosion of art in the 20th century was based, one of the fundamentals. We got away from just a very few “art” materials in the 19th century, and art becomes a fundamental study of the physical world. But, in the moment you start to not want to just make assemblages and just find all this, and really want to decide and determine forms yourself, then there’s no point making work in bubble wrap and bits of found paper on the ground. You don’t have to do that because it’s been established that those materials are available. In the seventies, I was still a student as a young artist, keen on finding materials to make art with. I don’t’ even think of that nowadays. I just assume I can use anything as it need be. What is much more interesting, then, is how to make a form. There are many materials you can use. Just like, why would I make a sculpture out of Coca-Cola bottle tops; it would just be an encumbrance to what I am trying to do, to be honest.

FR: But you did use dice.

A: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I’ll go for any solution I feel I have to do. I’m sure I’ll find new materials to work with, as I always have done. But I wouldn’t say that’s the prime motivation in making art generally, to discover new material.

FR: At this point in your process, are you starting with drawings, do computers come into it, how do you begin working with it? Is the form coming out of you working with the material, or is there planning on the front end?

A: There’s absolutely no planning. I mean this is handmade a work. There’s a figure inside; it’s called “Lost in Thought.” It’s all made of layers of plywood, and I just kept building and rebuilding and building it more or less from the inside to the outside. There’s a series of new works that are a little bit about that we don’t show ourselves. We wouldn’t be stupid enough to show ourselves. Nobody reveals themselves. We get dressed, first of all, and we behave in certain ways. We’re not groveling on the floor. We behave in certain mannerisms, cultural conventions. We make great attempts so you can’t really see what I am thinking. The idea of being lost in thought and these protection mechanisms which we use to deflect the direct gaze of other people are part of that work.

And it is an entirely subjective process. The work there, they were built initially with work we made with found materials stacking things up, round objects. And they were initially straight because they weren’t glued or fixed. And they were straight and then they diminished, because that’s the way you stack things up if you want things to be stable. And then people would walk up and shake them a bit fall on their head, and I was obliged to fix it. And once we did that, I thought it doesn’t have to be straight, it doesn’t have to go vertical, and I started to play with those things. There’s a certain point in those works where it was easier to use CorelDRAW program after I’ve done the drawings to size and forms of the ellipses, the template, drawing it out on paper and then cutting it into the wood. So after I made the parts, then putting it together was an entirely sculptural activity.

I’m not averse to using any tool. Why wouldn’t I use the best tool; that’s what every culture does. But the problem is, with the computer, it has no psychology. If you say to it, make a spoon, it will make a spoon. Given the right data, it will make a spoon. It will make 10 spoons. A million spoons. Fill the whole universe with spoons. And it wouldn’t mean a thing to the computer. It wouldn’t mean a thing. And I think the great thing about art is, we do very fine subtle things with very small amounts of material, but it means something to us. It has a physiological equivalent to it, and I don’t’ want to lose that. But there are working processes.

The yellow work, Outspan, initially was a small work we made in polyester and jesmonite, an acrylic. And it was so complicated to make, it took ages and ages, that when I decided to make a bigger version of it, somebody came and they scanned it in and double its size. And that’s come about because if we make big works for outside, engineers need to make engineering certificates to assure people that it won’t fall down. So any way they make it into a computer model and stress it – 300 kilometer winds and earthquakes and whatever. Once I saw that, I thought, “Wow, okay, we could actually use that.” For enlargement and for, very rarely, for making some internal forms possible. But keep it to a minimum and no decision-making, just as a tool.

FR: You mentioned works in public, and obviously there are engineering concerns that come into hand when you are dealing with works that are in public space, but do you think formally differently when you know that a piece is not going to be shown in this kind of setting, rather than being out somewhere where it is going to be incontact with a mass amount of public on a daily basis?

TC: Fundamentally, I think, I have done that in the first few things I did. Because you feel, this is coming and you have to do something. Very quickly I learned don’t make an effort, just do something you’re doing anyway. Then I can in my own terms justify doing the work, because what I’m doing is what I’ve made anyway in a studio, it would be nice in a bigger version. But I’ve seen people falling into that trap. Art’s become very territorial. Somehow we think we have to make the biggest thing possible and make loads and loads of it – fill up a room, installations. I’m not at all interested in all those things.

I’m much more interested in discovering the range of emotions and ideas I have about limited set of discreet forms, rather than trying to effect the environment. I know it’s popular, but it’s just not what I want to do.

FR: The thought of putting stuff in public comes back to that idea of visual language, and there are various levels of literacy, if you can make the analogy. Do you think there are gradations of literacy about how to see objects?

TC: There definitely is. The way I know that is through a different thing, not so much public work, that’s where it manifests itself, perhaps. But if you work in art school, you see the difference in somebody who’s studied in an art school a year or two. They see the world differently; they look at the world differently. They read it differently. They’re more visually aware. And it’s fantastic. I know that sounds crazy, but I say give everybody a year in art school, it would probably do a lot of good for the world. It’s a fantastic education because it makes you look at the world as an individual and very consciously and come up with your own individual analysis of those things. It is an ability, and it’s an ability you can improve. A capability that one can improve at, definitely.

The situation of putting things outside in public situations is always going to be…I have two ways of thinking about it. One is, it is quite nice because there are billions of pounds of stuff being made in Houston today. How many pounds of sculpture being made? Probably not very many, so we know how insignificant sculpture is. But, on the other hand, when you put one out on the street, the reaction is amazing. The reaction is quite aggressive, violent, adorable — whatever it is, it can go either way. But you realize this makes people very insecure because everything else they know. There’s 10,000 trucks here, there are cars everywhere, signs, advertising, buildings, everything.  Nobody cares about all of that. We don’t even have to think; we know what it’s for. But suddenly this strange product of the human mind manifesting itself, it’s very disturbing for a lot of people. So it is nice to know it does mean something.

FR: When you are working, where does your inclination to be making work come from? Is it a restlessness, a curiosity, an inquisitiveness? What is your attitude? Are you the type of artist who needs to be working all the time? What is the initial push?

TC: I work. It’s really not for me to say, but people say I’m obsessive. I haven’t got anything better to do, actually, since my dog died. I get so excited by it. When you get material in your hands and you change it, you change the volume, or the shape, or the surface, silhouette, all the time you’re experiencing changes of your mind. Your emotions are changing and your ideas are changing all the time. And it’s a one-to-one thing. It’s just like us looking at each other. If I [sticks his tongue out and makes a strange face], there’s no hesitation. If I stick my tongue out, you immediately react to it.  All I did was a tiny little change of form, change my form a little bit and you change your ideas about me. “Oh, he’s an idiot.” But it goes very quickly, see, and it’s just like when you’re making something. It goes very fast. It’s like a film. It’s very fast.

Sculpture is not about making nice with the things that fit in the world. It’s become a fundamental study of the material world, not in the same way science does it, where it tries to discover the fundamentals of that. But it does give the world value and gives it meaning, and I think that’s a very important part of sculpture…for art, generally.

FR: A lot of these works come from your private collection. Are there works where, going through that process, you have that personal attachment to, where you have to hold on to it? Do you get close to them?

TC: I’m not capable of holding on to very many. I started to keep the work back very late. A lot of the work went out before I even thought about keeping work for myself. When I do a bronze sculpture, I tend to keep them. I mean that’s what this exhibition is, in this room. The wooden ones are the originals that I make with my hand. And then I cast from the wood, and you can see that very well with the two ever-afters. I’ve kept back in this case some of the original handmade sculptures and a version of the bronze for myself so we can make exhibitions.

FR: We’ve been talking a lot about form, but there is a variety of color in your work, sometimes muted, sometimes very bright. How do you think of color and surface?

TC: There is no divorce between looking at color and surface, that’s all the same thing. I think when we look at things, any surface you look at reflects light into your eye. That’s obvious. I think there is a kind of sense of wanting to know what’s under that surface. You’d never be happy to just look at the surface, there is no “just a surface.”  It’s the surface of something. There’s a mental pressure to know what’s underneath that. I mean if you walk across this floor, you already know that this floor will support your weight. And when you look at my face and I look at your face, I’m also trying to finding out what’s beyond that. You’re interested in what’s under that surface. So the surface is only ever the consequence of energies inside the body of the material itself. Surface is always a portal into an an indication of what kind of energies — and that’s the basis of sculpture.

In the past, in the 19th century or whatever, you see these marble sculpture – Rodin next door. It is not really an attempt to just copy a bit of nature. What that does, the surface represents, not flesh, but energy. Even if they show veins, hair, whatever else, all it’s doing is showing energy – vital force. In the term of the surface, and then more so in the dynamic of the figure. If our bodies are not supported by this vital surface, then we lay down. And if we lay down for long enough, we’ll disappear into the ground because gravity will take us into the grave. The energy just disappears back out of us.

When you look at a surface, it’s not just art. It’s not like that at all. The surface is already the aroma of the whole thing. Color I don’t mean to separate out because everything has a color. There are certain problems with bronzes because you have to make a decision. Bronze is always the same metal, the same dull, yellowish material. The reason I think bronze is a great material isn’t because it’s beautiful, because it certainly isn’t. But when you melt it at a relatively low temperature, it’s more liquid than water, so it flows into forms very fine. You can make fantastically accurate forms and it is more malleable. The problem is then when you put it all together, all the parts you cast, you have the welding lines and all the other things, so you have to do something. I’ve made a lot of work in which I just leave everything, and that’s fine. But in a general sense you want to preserve the surface of the work, the form of the work, so people don’t get too hung up on the welding lines.

FR: You’ve described the act of sculpture as trying to find a sense of beliefs in sculpture and working out meaning. Can you expand on that?

TC: It’s not really meant as a provocation, though it is an unpopular term. If you’re a sculptor, you need material. I’m material; you’re material. Everything around us is material.  Every now and then I’m drawn to saying I’m a “materialist.” This is a very unpopular term. Historically, it’s an unpopular term because it was part of this epic battle between the “theologists” and “philosophists,” where the church would say if you’re interested in anything scientific or gathering knowledge of the material world, then you’re being basically non-spiritual. And the negative, derogative sense of materialism remains today because if I said you were a materialist, you wouldn’t take it as a compliment, probably, because it would mean you don’t have spiritual values.

But material is infinitely complicated and sublime, and, in fact, we don’t know anything else. And any speculation about anything else that has nothing to do with it is purely just speculation. Material is so complicated and sublime that just if we understood more about that, we’d be a long way down the road to understanding our exisitences.

The problem with it is that we all know certain things, certain knowledge. And most things we do not know. So there’s kind of an umbrella of knowledge we live within, and to live beyond that horizon, we have to start to believe. So there are belief systems, and everybody needs that. We see more and more in the world there is no sense in people arguing about their belief systems. This is ridiculous. This really is a waste of time and energy. It makes more sense to confine beliefs to beliefs. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to regard them as they always were, grand philosophical speculations. They shouldn’t’ govern.  We shouldn’t mix them up so they start to govern the real world we live in. And again, it is a question to which degree do we take responsibility for these things. I think there’s a great deal of work to be done as an artist, and I think it’s one of the prime functions of art, to make people aware of that.


  • JasonM


    Two interesting quotes:

    “there are billions of pounds of stuff being made in Houston today.” … He knows that we’re in Dallas, right, as opposed to Houston? Understandably they might blur together for someone from Wuppertal.

    “Just like, why would I make a sculpture out of Coca-Cola bottle tops; it would just be an encumbrance to what I am trying to do, to be honest.” … Is that a dig at El Anatsui, currently on retrospective at Austin’s Blanton Museum??