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William Tucker: A Drawing Retrospective

William Tucker Study for Gymnast IV 1985. oil stick on paper, 57 x 44 3/4 inches

The Meaning in Mass: William Tucker’s Drawings after Sculpture

By David Cohen

“We see the depth, the smoothness, the softness, the hardness of objects.  Cézanne even claimed that we see their odor.” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty. [1]

“Aesthetic appreciation appears to be an exercise in the perception of an outside structure that elicits strongly and pleasurably a perception of an inner structure.” – Adrian Stokes. [2]

William Tucker does not draw from life.  He draws from sculpture–-his own.  He sculpts, in turn, from an apprehension of life that is not limited to observation.  “Apprehension” is to be preferred to “perception” or “vision” in Tucker’s case because its root is in the Latin verb “to lay hold of,” in contrast to so much of our vocabulary of understanding that privileges the “noblest of the senses,” in Descartes’ phrase, the eye.  See (sic) how often one talks of “speculation,” “focus,” “scope,” “illumination,” or so forth, without necessarily needing to imply optical meanings.  Tucker’s art, in whatever medium, makes a compelling case for taking in the world with the totality of one’s senses.  Indeed, it goes further, demanding of appreciant and maker alike a fusion of thinking and feeling that snubs the classic Cartesian separation of body and mind.

And yet, a Tucker demands to be seen.  It is true that a blind person would get more from one of his sculptures than from most other objects in a gallery, but a Tucker drawing–framed and sealed behind its sheet of glass–also has tactile values, ones that are exclusively for the sighted.  We look at it, but the message our sighting sends to the brain is haptic, to do with touch.  The eye is forever searching for internal objects to validate what it sees.  In the case of sensual, abstract art like Tucker’s, which is not in the obvious first instance depictive, the appeal is to muscle memory more than it is to the memory bank of images.  The corresponding internal object appropriate to a William Tucker, in other words, is itself visceral rather than flat, 3D rather than filmic.

What an adventure the eye has had at the hands of the twentieth-century avant-garde?  The doors of perception were unlocked one moment with a magic key, and then kicked off their hinges the next.  As painting freed itself from mimesis in the first decades of the last century, explosions occurred in the possibilities for color, tonal relationship, the actuality of paint, the physicality of surfaces.  But at the same time, this “liberation” unleashed iconophobic and anti-aesthetic forces that militated against this newly accentuated visuality.  One art scene produced Matisse and Duchamp.

Modern French thought, it has been propose, spawned a “denigration of vision.” [3]   That force, eventually going global, has animated various deconstructive tendencies in art that culminated, it could be argued, in the “dematerialization” that characterized the 1960s, with minimalism and conceptual art.  These in turn marked the demise of modernism and opened the Pandora’s box of postmodernism.  High modernism, seen this way, was the last triumphant splurge of the eye.  Clement Greenberg, its chief theorist, preached a gospel of pure opticality.  Interestingly, in his aesthetic scheme, the physical, three-dimensional medium of sculpture actually threatened to supercede the eyes-only medium of painting as the torchbearer of modernism: “The human body is no longer postulated as the agent of space in either pictorial or sculptural art; now it is eyesight alone, and eyesight has more freedom of movement and invention within three dimensions than within two.” [4]

The sculpture William Tucker has produced since the mid-1980s, when his art underwent a radical transformation, might almost be read as a conscious simultaneous rebuttal of two extremes: the ultra-opticalism represented by Greenberg and the anti-material, anti-fetish stance of conceptual art (which is antagonistic towards all sensuality, perceptual or otherwise).  The characteristics of Tucker’s art became weightedness, bodiliness, surface texture, gravity, hapticity, encrustation, ambiguity.  Gravity, in particular, rebutts formalist sculpture, with it fondness for drawing lines in space and its insistence on planar values.

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