Notes on Deacon
Sculpture in the Twenty-First Century
The word “sculpture” has acquired a somewhat singular meaning at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It not only suggests physically demanding, manual activity, it even sounds hard, with both syllables recalling noises associated with force, movement and materials. “Sculpture” sounds like working with materials, coping with a physical task – not to mention the almost drastic imagery of its German equivalent “Bildhauerei”. On the other hand, at least in the developed world, the increasingly “virtual” reality of life seems to be departing from a culture in which physical labour is the norm. This also applies to art, which several decades ago discovered new spheres for its realization, ranging from language to photography, from film to the Internet. If objects do play a role in art today, it is increasingly as found objects or prefabricated materials taken from other contexts and arranged as spatial structures. And the production of art objects is delegated to more or less industrial processes – even to 3D printers. Manual work with materials seems to be an almost historical relic, if not a purely sentimental pursuit. However, as long as artists know what they are doing, they need not worry. In their hands a sculpture can acquire significance, because it deliberately circumvents culturally dominant or cutting-edge technologies – as if it wanted to maintain a critical distance, while approaching reality from a different perspective and with a contemporary sensibility. In other words: sculpture as a means of artistic expression has not disappeared; on the contrary, in the same way that drawing by hand has retained its importance in the age of computer-aided design (CAD), sculpture keeps reappearing – as an autonomous tool for appropriating the world, in relation to a particular culture, but not as illustration.
A Historical Moment
In the twentieth century, Modernist sculpture underwent a complicated evolution, which was anything but linear. To be more specific: around the time of the First World War, sculpture seemed to explode in all possible directions. Figurative sculpture has survived to this day by transitioning from Realism through Expressionist deformation to the assimilation of abstract principles. However, beginning with various manifestations of Constructivism, sculpture also liberated itself from its representational function and became abstract, thereby gaining autonomy as it did so. Soon any everyday item could be presented as a sculpture, from Duchamp’s readymades through the absurdist assemblages of the Surrealists to Pop Art and the object art of the 1960s. And those are only the most important or best known manifestations and phases of sculpture that emerged before the last third of the twentieth century, when the radical reductionism of Minimalism, Conceptual Art (which went a step farther into seeming immateriality) and the ever more ephemeral products of Fluxus and performance art took sculpture to a point where its very existence seemed to be challenged. This was precisely the moment when Richard Deacon started to study art, continuing in the 1970s at different art schools. His relatively long studies could be an indication of the complexity and the difficulties of the situation after the avantgarde and the neo-avantgarde. The forms and contents of Deacon’s work from that period convey a sense of the intensity of his quest to find his own, viable path. Two things are particularly noticeable. On the one hand, there is the intellectual examination of various questions concerning the phenomenology, history and sociology of art, which is expressed in his extensive writings. Here the research and analysis of the existing or the possible takes place by means of language. It is no coincidence that Deacon has sometimes exhibited such texts as part of his drawings – that is to say, as works of art – and in some of them there is a strikingly fluid transition from text to drawing. Written companion pieces and parallel contemplations in the form of texts of various kinds, have always been part of his oeuvre, as documented by the anthology of his writings, published a few years ago*. It is symptomatic that it was a literary text, Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke, that led Deacon in the late 1970s to important, personal conclusions, which contributed to his sculptural breakthrough. Another factor that had special significance during his studies was his interest in performance. Deacon’s performances were not regular events for specially invited audiences, but rather actions organized according to extremely precise rules. In his performances Deacon systematically explored certain issues regarding the interplay of materials and actions. Sometimes he presented these performances together with other people, so that they also involved a social element.
Rules vs. Freedom
It’s Orpheus When There Is Singing is the title of the large-scale drawings that marked Deacon’s transition to his own autonomous art. Starting from a simple basic geometrical form, different arcs are drawn, discarded, adapted and altered with a pen, cord and nail until they are organised in a more or less continuous form. The intention to respond to the insights gained from Rilke’s poems is realized by means of relatively free-flowing, manual experimentation. The purpose of this indirect method is, not least, to avoid descriptive illustration and to glean the results that emerge from an open process. The possibilities and limitations of a chosen technique were important catalysts for ideas and form-finding, a method that Deacon still uses today in sculptures and other works. For example, the series Infinity, Alphabet, and Range point to the importance of pre-defined questions regarding the form and geometry of the work, which are simultaneously linked to wider themes that are specific not only to art. The systematic exploration of combinations and permutations produces an almost infinite variety of forms, in which the principles of the original premise open up and almost disappear, leading to surprising, ambiguous outcomes. And, broadly speaking, this in turn kindles the dialectics of rule and freedom, fixity and fluidity, material physicality and visual ambiguity that are typical of Deacon’s work.
Drawing is an activity that accompanies Deacon’s work with varying intensity, but continuously. Or, rather more precisely, it is the “core” of his mental and artistic “constitution”. Deacon once noted with admiration that his colleague, the artist Mrdjan Bajić, has the remarkable ability “to express what he thinks by drawing”. This close connection between thinking and drawing is also crucial for Deacon. Drawing is not only an artistic process closely interconnecting the physical and the mental; in the moment when it is happening, drawing is art. When Deacon is drawing he lays down the essential features or, more precisely, the essence of what is on his mind. This does not mean that he is already aware of all the details of a sculpture to be produced. This could not be achieved in a drawing. And it does not even mean that when he is drawing, he has a certain sculpture or even the idea of a sculpture in mind. In most drawings by Deacon the all too common notion of a direct connection between a drawing and its realisation no longer applies. His drawings/prints and his sculptures occupy different, autonomous realms. Drawing for Deacon is research into things and ideas that interest him, as he seeks out modes of graphic representation that give his thoughts and feelings a form that is both specific and open. Drawing is an experiment for him in the sense that, while there might be a certain starting point, the subsequent path is as yet unclear. Not knowing exactly where one will end up is an important driving force – not only for the act of drawing.
Deacon’s performative search for a possible form of sculpture after the neo-avantgardes did not lead to undermine his concept of sculpture. He did not go in the direction of the environment and installation, nor did he develop the participatory aspect of what was later described as “relational aesthetics”. He still works with tangible materials and relies on comprehensible manufacturing processes. At the same time, he is less a hands-on artist than a “fabricator”, as he calls himself. This means that he develops collaborative work methods with others and that the forms of his sculptures, although based on specific ideas, are ultimately determined by the actual process of fabrication. Deacon became famous in the 1980s, among other things, for his open, linear sculptures made from steamed, laminated strips of wood. Later he came back to this technique and applied it to solid wooden beams and timbers, as seen in UW84DC and Out Of Order or Shiver My Timbers. It is not a question of defining the sculpture exclusively by its material or of following the doctrine of what is right for the material. Although Deacon always comes back to certain materials, one cannot say that he a priori prefers them, that they are “his” materials. On one hand, he chooses a material for purely technical reasons, depending on the nature of the idea or task. On the other hand, he is always ready to engage with new, interesting materials and procedures and to see what can be achieved with them. At the same time, he also has the ability to liberate himself from his materials. This is seen in works such as Troubled Water, Seal and Float, which have a certain bricolage-like appearance and combine very different materials. In the early years his sculptures were essentially forms composed of individual pieces, whose mutual connections sometimes became excessively specific. This is seen in Skirt and Mammoth, and later also in UW84DC. The way they were made, that is, the labour that went into creating those sculptures, is part of their effect and meaning. The ethos of handcrafted, classical, industrial culture still resonates in these works at a time when it is steadily disappearing from everyday life. It is, however, not presented as a nostalgic wish, but rather as an emphatic reprise that intensifies the dynamics of the sculptural form. Since around 1990, Deacon’s multi-component, often open sculptures have been joined by others that are not only made from a single material but also have a sealed surface, such as Purse and many of the later ceramic pieces. The relationship between the viewer and the work changed. While the open sculptures were designed to allow the viewer to have a dialogical position outside and inside the work, the closed ones deny access to the eye and become a place of speculation.
Deacon’s sculptures relate either to parallel reflections in the form of drawing or to more or less developed sketches in the form of simple models. The crucial processing of the material, however, is done in collaboration with specialist craftsmen and technicians in their workshops. Over the decades different teams have evolved, be it for works made from wood, metal or ceramics. Deacon always has the overall responsibility for the result; in other words, he is the artist. However, his collaborations with other people are more than just a necessity. The social aspect of finding and shaping the artistic form is also of particular importance to him. This has been a recurring theme in his reflections ever since the first major sculptures he created for public spaces. In the same vein as his thoughts on the role of language, he sees the centre of gravity of his work as a sculptor in mediating the relations between the inner and outer worlds, between the personal and the collective.
Deacon’s continued interest in different aspects of his environment is reflected not only in his commentaries on social, historical, political, scientific, technical and cultural topics. In his texts, too, he comes up with surprising connections between his art and non-artistic fields. An unusual interface, which also touches on the relationship between the personal and the collective, is seen in the work In My Father’s House. This consists of a set of daily newspapers collected by his father over decades, whose cover pages mostly contain news of some historical significance. They are presented as object images without any comment, as if they were an exhibit in a history museum. Although they were not collected by the artist himself, they could be part of his extensive collections of found items, which comprises an important, quiet reservoir of forms and ideas in his studio. The newspapers, interspersed between the sculptures and the drawings as found objects with a biographical background, represent his recent interest in presenting not only “finished” works in his exhibitions, but also the continuity of events, thoughts, and moments from which they have emerged. These include texts and interviews, but also ceramic models and the drawings that were the subject of a recent major exhibition. And although a recent film about Deacon’s oeuvre shows him struggling at length with a cardboard model for a ceramic sculpture, this is less a romantic look over the shoulder of the artist than a discreet hint that, even during such preparatory work, the mind and the hands are inseparable. In a peculiar parallel, In My Father’s House juxtaposes the continuity as well as the diversity, the ambiguity and the incompatibility of daily news over a long period of time with the development of a series of drawings (Alphabet) and the organically flowing, albeit convulsively mechanical forms of a sculpture (Out Of Order). In Deacon’s work, forms and themes, the personal and the collective are never forced into a static, unambiguous relationship. On the contrary, the ambiguity is where the work actually takes place. This also means that each individual sculpture, each of his works, is only a momentary manifestation of this ambiguity, which in itself necessitates further exploration of the ever-shifting relations between the one and the other. This is the real dynamism of the work. Some More For The Road shows this in a playful and whimsical way: as it stands it is a series of just fourteen small, prismatic forms, but it could go on forever.
The human body, however it might be represented, plays no part in Deacon’s sculptures. And yet his works are undoubtedly eminently physical. Their corporeality first manifests itself in their materials. The various treatments of wood and metal not only create tactile impulses, they also convey the physical force and movements employed in the making of the object in question. The varied, irregular arches and dynamic curves of Deacon’s open sculptures call to mind tense muscles and tendons and the body movements they enable. The oozing of excess glue in laminated wood objects evokes associations with the solid and liquid components of the human body. At the same time, the closed surfaces of other works are reminiscent of human skin as a protective, exposed membrane between the body and the environment. In the case of the closed, often organic ceramic forms, whose most prominent feature seems to be solidity, the (sometime lavish) glazes form a skin that might be associated less with the vulnerability of the human body than with its seductive glow. And lastly, the connections between individual elements or materials are characterized by a certain robustness or unexpectedness, which is reminiscent of basically fragile or even precarious encounters between different bodies. Deacon has himself described the way in which the body comes into play in his sculptures as “an encumbrance or obstruction”, and has used the word “flesh” to emphasize the distinction with the body as a sign of transcendence or idealization. Regardless of the materials used in the sculptures, their overall shapes sometimes contain almost pictorial allusions to the human body, in particular the sensory organs, ears and mouth, which are connected with language, i.e., with mental activity. There are also subliminal, but undeniable sexual metaphors. Altogether, the corporeal context of Deacon’s works seems to exist in a curious border zone, which is not definitively assigned to anything other than the constant flowing of one thing into another. Material immediacy in the sense of a physical sensation is transformed into an image; the specific designation of physical points of view passes into the openness of metaphors. A tangible form does not exclude ambiguity.
Deacon’s sculptures and their forms have a unique energy. Imagined forces seem to pass through their structures at different speeds. These forces are slowed down by curving, continuous paths, whereas sharp and angled elements both halt and accelerate them. This acceleration is most apparent in the case of linear sculptures whose energy has a tendency to shoot out beyond the actual form – if it were not for the material, which seems to almost forcibly restrain it. Like tendons, the material controls the potential of its internal forces. The energy in the closed forms is different. It appears to be hidden, but it is still tangible. This internal energy either seems to be solely preoccupied with itself or it builds up and makes its presence felt in subtle vibrations on the surface. The skin indicates the existence of a hidden force, whose direction and intensity remain a matter of speculation. But here, too, the surface is not the definitive limit of a sculpture. Some sculptures seem to breathe, imperceptibly expanding and contracting: we feel their slow energy. Meanwhile in others the glaze on ceramic surfaces gleams, transforming the forces generated in the heavy material into intangible light, a purely optical sensation that passes from within the body out into space and into our eyes.
Deacon has often described language as an analogy to his work as a sculptor when he comments on the relations between sculpture and the viewer, between the individual and society. He takes supreme, almost tender care with the titles of his works. He sometimes chooses to call his works “Untitled”, albeit not as an indication that this is an “abstract” sculpture and neither “illustrative” nor “metaphorical”, but as an exception, as a makeshift title or possibly an invitation to viewers to come up with their own name for the object. More frequently and conspicuously he goes the other way, providing his works with powerfully associative titles. And then there are the numerous idioms or quotations, which are generally used in their customary form, but may sometimes be slightly modified. The powerful, metaphorical impact of these titles, their self-evident origins in the linguistic tradition of a specific community and distinct rhythms make them very memorable. Sometimes they function like (poetic) slogans, which sharpen and intensify the visual impression. Sometimes they are reduced to single words or short phrases. The latter also evoke associations that may be obvious, but may also be somewhat cryptic, too. They suffice for the rapid identification of a visual phenomenon or a linguistic sign, often with a not unimportant dash of subliminal humour (especially in the longer titles). Some titles are reminiscent of nicknames. However, what may seem to be an ad hoc title with a simple message often turns out on closer inspection to be deliberately ambiguous. Words can have several different meanings and some can be taken as either nouns or verbs. Skirt can be a skirt, a smock, a rim or a woman; Seal can be a marine mammal, an embossed emblem or a rubber washer. And Free Assembly is what one sees in the sculpture, namely a free arrangement of components, but it is also a group of people gathered together or a political assembly or the place where such a gathering occurs. These verbal accompaniments to Deacon’s works underline that they can be read metaphorically, that the metaphor, which stands as an image for something else, is not an art-historical anachronism, but still an enrichment for art today.
In the 1980s the work of a number of sculptors of Deacon’s generation was collectively dubbed “New British Sculpture” by the critics and promoted by institutions such as the British Council. However, the sculptures by artists such as Edward Allington, Stephen Cox, Tony Cragg, Anthony Gormley, Shirazeh Houshiary, Anish Kapoor, Richard Wentworth, Alison Wilding, Bill Woodrow and by somewhat younger artists such as Grenville Davey, Julian Opie and Rachel Whiteread were and are very diverse. Their most likely common denominators may be their rejection of Minimalist and Conceptual strategies in favour of a wealth of materials and working methods, their concentration on individual sculptures, their lack of resistance to figurative and narrative elements, to metaphors, and their interest in daily life. Their work also has what might be described as a poetic pragmatism, derived from real experiences. This is seen both in the way materials are handled and in a certain social dissent in the age of accelerated neo-liberalism (the Thatcher era).
For Deacon, however, the wider European context of his art was also important to him from early on. In continental Europe he found colleagues who worked in an equally diverse manner and with whom he shared certain ideas. First and foremost, they, too, were attempting to rehabilitate sculpture as an autonomous medium without resorting to traditionalism. Mention should also be made of the importance of the relationship between sculpture and language that is typical not only of Deacon’s art but is also intrinsic to the work of artists such as Franz West and Harald Klingelhöller. And then there is the tension between sculpture and surrounding space, as seen, for example, in figurative sculptures by Juan Muñoz; the interest in the role of metaphors in certain works by Thomas Schütte and Katharina Fritsch; and last but not least, the striving for precise, meticulous handwork that Deacon shares with otherwise very differently oriented artists such as Reinhard Mucha. All these artists see themselves, and others, as kindred experimenters who, nevertheless have no interest in a new movement and certainly none in a common doctrine. Instead there is the strong sense of being part of a community of independent individuals, which is vividly reflected in Deacon’s numerous joint exhibitions and projects with sculptors from different traditions, such as Mrdjan Bajić, Thomas Schütte, Henk Visch and Bill Woodrow. It is this postmodern sense of the potential compatability of one’s own artistic independence and other artistic positions that ultimately determines Deacon’s position in the art of his time – and not a common concept or style.
On a formal level, Deacon’s work addresses numerous sculptural issues that preoccupied artists and, perhaps even more, critics and art historians in the twentieth century. These issues include, amongst many others, the relationship between material and volume, between mass and surface; constructed sculpture and modelled sculpture; autonomous closed-form sculpture and its encounter with space; sculpture as a body, as a place or as a structuring spatial element; figuration and abstraction; the relationship between sculpture and the plinth. All these reference the formal parameters of sculptural work and they are issues that Deacon returns to time and again. In his work, however, these are not artistic goals in themselves but are embedded in, and related to other overarching questions and interests. And ultimately they converge in the manifold relationships between the individual and the collective, between personal and social forms of perception and existence. Deacon’s artistic thinking and sculptural practice are characterized by the fact that he seeks both sensual and metaphorical expression for life in his time – and avoids documentation and illustration. The decisive role here is played by what could be called the continuum of mind and body, their unceasing interlocking and the resulting provocation that arises from one’s encounter with the sculpture.
While Deacon’s work could be seen as a compendium of twentieth-century sculpture, this does not mean that he compiles his art from some quotes. He taps into the “explosion” of modernism not in a recognizable form, but by transforming it, as it were incorporating it into his own sculptural language. He does not need to signal or stress historical references, nor is he interested in devising surprising constellations or confrontations of diverse approaches or styles. The postmodern rhetoric of modules or collage is alien to him. On the contrary, large swathes of twentieth-century sculpture serve as the foundations of his own work, not as an entity to be preserved or advanced, but as an opportunity to freely engage with its potential and with the fundamental questions it raises. Deacon’s sculptural work uses the speech modes of today, but the surprises it produces in its unideological experiments already anticipate the language of tomorrow.
* Richard Deacon: So, And, If, But. Writings 1970 – 2012. Ed. Dieter Schwarz, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, richter – fey, Düsseldorf 2014
Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott
Published in: Richard Deacon - Free Assembly, edited by Prague City Gallery and Julian Heynen, Prague 2017, pp. 11-26