If you didn't already know better, you could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that the 15-year survey of sculpture by Tony Cragg opening today at the Newport Harbor Art Museum is, in fact, a group show. Cragg is nothing if not diverse in his approach to sculptural materials and artistic forms.
There are figurative images on the wall made from bits of discarded plastic, constructions of carved and polished stone or plaster, cast-iron and bronze forms, joined pieces made of sawed or lathed or painted wood and, finally, assemblages brought together wholly from found objects. If the survey is not truly comprehensive as a catalogue of the artist's materials and motifs--this is not, after all, a career retrospective--it nonetheless admirably suggests the breadth in a fairly tight number of works (34 in all).
Still, something important and "of a piece" clearly emerges from the diversity in the exhibition. In an odd way, that unifying feature is less a coherent and clearly defined subject than it is a larger sense of ambition--not merely ambition of a personal sort, but a powerful drive to open up a formidable tradition that had become clogged and restrictive. Cragg has lived in the rather obscure German town of Wuppertal since 1977, but he is nonetheless British for it (he was born in Liverpool). And what lurks throughout the work assembled in Newport is a visceral desire to take on--and reform--the venerable British tradition of the pastoral landscape.
"Tony Cragg: Sculpture 1975-1990" is the first substantive survey of the 41-year-old artist's work to be seen in the United States and one of the rare opportunities we've yet had to see Cragg's sculpture in Southern California. Organized by Paul Schimmel, former senior curator at Newport Harbor and now the holder of that post at the Museum of Contempoary Art, the show concentrates on sculptures made in the last five years (more than two-thirds of the exhibition), with but a single work from the late 1970s.
The focus is apt. Cragg first came to wide attention with his so-called "mosaic" sculptures, made from fragments of plastic refuse scavenged from the alley and the gutter, and the present exhibition includes four of those works made before 1987. And it was in 1987 that the Newport Harbor Art Museum hosted "A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture Since 1965," a traveling six-artist survey (including Cragg) that provided a useful background for American audiences and on which this more incisive examination builds.
The show is not installed chronologically, thematically or by medium in the museum's galleries and outdoor patios, but rather by a feel for visual contiguity and fit. Call this method of display itself a mosaic and a key to Cragg's often impressive endeavor.
His earliest plastic mosaic sculpture, located in a rear gallery, is a rectangular floor piece, 8 feet wide and 12 deep, entitled "New Stones--Newton's Tones" (1978). It is composed from what look like archeological potsherds of industrial civilization. Piles of plastic flotsam--a blue bottle cap, the yellow handle of a toy shovel, a red fork, the green cab of a kid's truck, etc., as well as lots of indecipherable little remnants, have been sorted out by color and arranged on the floor to form the bars of a spectrum.
The "new stones" of the title are a not-so-subtle reference to the sculpture of British artist Richard Long, who, in 1967, made a work called "A Line Made by Walking England," in which he walked a straight line back and forth across a grassy field until the line was clearly visible in the trodden path; this he photographed. Subsequently, Long's walks through the English countryside developed into a procedure whereby he gathered sticks and stones along the way and brought them back to the gallery for arrangement in a (usually geometric) sculptural form that would contain a kind of "physical memory" of the landscape as experienced.
Cragg's "new stones" consist of industrial refuse collected on voyages through the urban landscape. Man-made materials are provocatively set up as direct equivalents for Long's natural, romantically inflected ones. The plastic mosaic's titular reference to Sir Isaac Newton, English mathematician and natural philosopher, underlines the assertion.
What's odd about "New Stones--Newton's Tones," and what may have called forth the figurative motifs for subsequent mosaics, is the way your eye reads the material stuff from which it is made. A sequential refinement occurs: Rectangle subdivides into spectrum, which divides into individual colors; these break down into a tonal array of diverse reds, yellows, blues, etc., which divide again into actual objects such as bottle caps and "abstract" bits of plastic; last but not least, the sculpture splits between solid and void, figure and ground. Having thus found yourself drawn into refined connoisseurship of individually material being, any arrangement of these plastic bits into a recognizable picture simply adds yet another layer of pleasurable complication to the interdependence of the figure and its ground.
Cragg first went to art school in 1968, not long after Richard Long had documented his pastoral walk, and Cragg made his pivotal mosaic sculpture the year after he took his master's degree from London's Royal College of Art. Given Long's engagement of the pastoral tradition through sculptural means, and given Cragg's confident elaboration of Long's achievement, "walking England" leads straight to the front door of Henry Moore, whose pierced sculptures literally allowed the landscape to merge with the sensual body.
It's important to remember just how imposing a figure Moore was at the time. His artistic reputation having consolidated in the 1950s, Moore was by then the most famous living artist in Great Britain and the premier modernist sculptor in the world. For a generation born in England after World War II, Moore's example and his legacy must have been daunting.
The most imposing and beautiful work in the Newport show is a large, untitled 1988 bronze that stands in relation to Moore's sensuously reclining, pierced sculptural forms as Cragg's plastic mosaics do to Long's gathered stones. One side of a 7-foot-tall vessel, reminiscent of a laboratory beaker, is stretched and pulled into space as if the bronze was really taffy. The extruded form swells and twists in a buoyantly organic and airy way, the beaker's mouth elongated into a graceful, liquid curve. The upright beaker shape and the voluptuous open form move in and out of view as you walk around the sculpture, interpenetrating one another with an unmistakably sexual charge.
A fundamental difference between this sculpture and anything Moore ever did will be found in the nature of its emphatic materiality. Moore worked in bronze, but typically for the sake of its durability; bronze was used to cast forms originally conceived as carved masses. Cragg's extruded beaker is, by contrast, a literally fluid vessel, whose image, shape and material echoes the very process involved in casting molten metal. The industrial, process orientation of post-Minimal sculpture has marvelously materialized in what would have seemed to be a stubbornly resistant medium.
"Tony Cragg: Sculpture 1975-1990" continues through Dec. 30 at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: $2 to $3. Tonight at 8 p.m., Cragg will lecture at UC Irvine's Student Center. Tickets: $5, $7 and $8. Information: (714) 759-1122.