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Perfunctory eulogising: Tony Cragg

A book on the artist, who shows at the Lisson until 3 August

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When Julian Schnabel said that he wanted his broken plate paintings to have the “texture of poverty”, it was unclear whether he was paying democratic homage to the intrinsic worth of ordinary materials, or just pandering to the well-heeled bohemian’s dream of decadence. The “texture of poverty” is also a central issue in the work Tony Cragg, the Anglo-German sculptor (he has lived in Wuppertal since 1977) who first made his name with bold figurative mosaics composed from waste materials. He has since moved up-market into bronze and stone, but he remains extremely versatile, and it is this that helps to make him the most successful European sculptor to have emerged in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the structure of Tony Cragg: Sculpture 1975-1990 (the catalogue of a recent exhibition that toured North America) militates against broaching many broader issues, despite lavishly illustrating the whole range of Cragg’s oeuvre.

There are four essays, but each is too short, and is too chronologically confined. This makes for some very perfunctory eulogising. In his introduction Paul Schimmel compares Cragg, with his “single vision and multiplicity of interests”, to “that great Renaissance artist-scientist Leonardo da Vinci”.

The first essay, “The Interaction of Matter of Thought” by Lucinda Barnes and Marilu Knode, discusses his early scientific training, and subsequent experience at art school. A break-through came in 1975 when he started to gather refuse and arranged it into stacks “resembling configurations of geological strata”. This confounding of organic and inorganic structures and materials became central to his work.

In “Full Circle: Tony Cragg’s Work 1977-81", Richard Francis places his work neatly in the British context. In 1977, Cragg pulverized different coloured pieces of brick and concrete, arranging them into coloured fragments: “It was at once beautiful and violent, intensely colourful yet inert, industrial rather than natural. One might take it to be the ultimate reduction to absurdity of the “direct carving” principles of Henry Moore, or the antithesis of the welded and painted steel constructions of Anthony Caro... It might also be seen as an urban version of a floor work by Richard Long”.

Peter Schjeldahl, in “Cragg’s Big Bang”, says that Cragg’s work of the early Eighties seemed “incidental to the pictorial preoccupations of the day”. This is a serious mis-reading, because Cragg’s figurative wall-pieces have a similar level of shallow, but uneven, relief as the “paintings” of Schnabel and Kiefer. It is only around 1985, when sculpture returned to critical favour, that his work began to shed its pictorial qualities and became “sculpture in the round”.

It is surely for this later work that Cragg will be remembered. One admires the ingenuity of the early pieces, but the relationship between form and content is too slick.

The later works are more intractable—less one-liner—because their objecthood is more indeterminate. They bulge like mutant Morandis and Moores. But even so, as Charles Harrison has written, the frisson of our encounter with Cragg’s work is often short-lived, “soon eased by the unremitting and not unfamiliar prettiness”. Our Arcimboldo of the Outcast tends to be rough only at the edges.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Perfunctory eulogising'

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