RADICAL MATERIALIST Sir Anthony Cragg is a British sculptor. The 2004 Turner-prize award winner has lived in Wuppertal, West Germany, since 1977. His current exhibition is at Houghton Hall, a beautiful Palladian house in Norfolk.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Tony Cragg, please tell us about this exhibition of your work?
It is in magnificent Houghton Hall, a house that was built by the first British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. The expansive grounds have large vistas and the landscape is quite flat. Some fine past sculpture exhibitions there include those of Henry Moore, Richard Long, Anish Kapoor and James Turrell. The owner of Houghton is Lord Cholmondeley, whose intention of showing contemporary art works well in that structured, rigid situation. I have 11 sculptures outdoors, and 20 smaller pieces in the state rooms of the house.
What do you mean when you describe yourself as a radical materialist?
I’m a sculptor. We study material. We study the form of materials; what the meanings of materials are; what ideas we develop out of them. I am reliant on material practically and there is a material base for everything.
You put various materials to special use and build twisting forms and extraordinary shapes. How did you become this kind of sculptor?
Initially making sculpture wasn’t my intention. My intention was to see what happens, what material could do to me; how a form, a colour, a texture can change my ideas or my emotions. I found that working with materials was immediate, spontaneous, and something that changed in a very dynamic manner. I always found looking in nature very exciting and inspiring, but this idea of European sculpture to copy the figure, which I had to do in art school as an exercise, never seemed to me to be relevant or important. Sculpture has expanded. It realised that we had emotions about everything around us. That’s why you think about what you put on in the morning, what you eat for breakfast, how your apartment is, who you consort with, and where you go in the daytime. There’s a rational basis to all these decisions, but there’s also an aesthetic component to them that drives your existential decisions. It is bound in the material. Sculpture has become a study of the material world, not in the way scientists study it, but it tells us what it means and how we feel about it, and these are very important aspects of our existence.
Your sculpture is not figurative, like that of Rodin or Maillol or Giacometti?
The work I make always has an internal structure, with the belief that what we see on the surface of things is only the consequence of what’s underneath. If I was making a figure of what I look like, I would want to know why I look like that, and that’s the basis of my work. I do have figurative elements in my work, because the material may be there without us, but our brains give it form and give it colour. That’s the fascinating thing.
Tony Cragg, you and your brother were raised on your grandfather’s farm and from an early age you were very keen on geology and wanted to be a scientist. How did you come to realise that you were an artist?
My grandfather was a farmer in the south of England, in Sussex, but my father didn’t want to take over the farm. In the ‘50s and ‘60s there was a belief that technology would solve all the problems of the future, and he became an electrical engineer. My father worked on different projects in the aeronautical industry and was always moving around, so I went to lots of different schools. In school what was easier for me to follow was science. Then at 18 or 19 I was fortunate to work in a laboratory, but I realised it was not what I wanted to do. I started to draw in that period of time in the laboratory, and became more interested in the drawings than in the experiments. So I went to art school and met a brand new world, full of exciting prospects.
Are you an autodidact in drawing, and do you still draw?
The drawing continues, even today. I enjoy drawing for myself, so perhaps I am an autodidact. In school I don’t remember ever having art classes. In art school obviously people tell you the conventions of drawing and how one can draw better, but I get very bored using one material, whether it’s graphite or clay, to copy something that already exists. That’s a very uninteresting activity for me. I draw for pleasure. The minute you put the pencil on the page and start to do something, you have immediately the curves, the quality of the line. You immediately have an emotion, and then slowly ideas evolve out of it.
What do you draw?
All sorts of things. There is stuff around me that I want to draw. If I want to make a note of something, I draw it. It’s the beginning of most of the work. I draw for the people working with me, helping me make my work, to understand exactly where we could go with the work. Drawing is a fantastic activity, a wonderful medium, a facility that everybody should have.
Why did you come to Germany where you became colleagues with artists like Gerhard Richter and Joseph Beuys?
I studied in the Royal College of Art in London, which was a luxury because we were given very substantial studios. One day my professor said, “Tony Cragg, we’re sending you to France.” This was my first major exploit abroad, and I was sent off for a year to live work in an art school in Metz. My girlfriend at the time was German and was always saying, “You should come to Germany,” but we were a little reticent in the ‘60s to go to Germany. In the end I went, and had exactly the same experience I had to going to France, that this was a beautiful and dynamic culture with exciting and different ways of doing things. When I finished my studies in London, I decided I would come to Germany for one year. I was offered a job working in the famous art academy in Düsseldorf with fantastic artists like Richter and Beuys, but I wasn’t in their circle of friends. I was a younger artist and I admired them, but we didn’t exchange ideas. My work was of a new generation.
You are British and very well recognized in Britain. Why do you still live in Germany?
I want to live with my wife and children! (laughs).
Your German wife could live in England?
Wuppertal is a city that I really like living in, and when I came here it was relatively easy to find a studio. The art academy in Düsseldorf was an amazing experience for me and I worked there for 38 years. In Germany people have been very generous to me. A group have helped me with my work for over 30 years, so we’re very close. Part of the time I also live on the West Coast of Sweden, because the nature is wild and inspiring, but I am British and I feel British. My sense of humour and my way of looking at the world is reliant on my upbringing and my early years. The relationship with Britain is very important to me, but I’ve never seen an opportunity to come back.
Are you sad about Brexit?
When I was a child the French were “the Frogs”, the Germans were “the Krauts”, and everybody in Europe was some strange, unknown quantity. Over the last 60 years, we got to know each other and share our cultures with one another. It has improved the quality and the meaning of our lives, and I’m very sad that a part of that has gone away from us. The European Union isn’t ideal – we know that it’s too cumbersome – but it would have been more important to stay and try and get it right, rather than turn your backs on it. But it’s done now.
Tony Cragg, your work is found across the world, in front of Central Station in New York and in St. Agnes Church in Cologne. Do you like the idea that your work stands in public places?
Sculpture is important. It’s not just decoration. It helps us to think about the world. We live in a society where we’re destroying nature, so we’re responsible for a reduction of form on the planet. Reduction of form means a reduction of ideas, of emotions, of language. Everything we have in our minds, every word, has come out of the material, but we are responsible for impoverishing the material quality of the world. Sculpture has a function, but if you look in the world, there’s very little sculpture. Most of the material world is boring, repetitive, geometrical, lowest common denominator forms; and with that we destroy the material world and the environments around us and our possibilities to think and to exist. Sculpture is a rare group of objects. There are very few sculptures.
In June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, they installed a six metres tall bronze sculpture of yours in front of the Bundestag, the government building in Berlin?
I’m very happy that I had the opportunity to place a sculpture in a city like Berlin. The use of material generally is utilitarian, but sculpture is a non-utilitarian use of material. It doesn’t mean to say it’s not useful, because when I see the world I have the feeling I’m only looking at the top of the iceberg. I’m not really seeing the whole thing. We have no idea what absolute reality looks like.
Sculptures in cities are mostly of a king on a horse or politicians or famous artists or philosophers, but the obelisks of ancient Egypt did not necessarily represent the human figure. Is contemporary work going back to an older time?
Historically sculpture was a power statement because it’s quite difficult to make and is usually made in a time where people are not working on the fields or fighting a war. You have to have material, tools, time and energy and space to do it. In the time of the Greeks there weren’t many mirrors and it was fantastic that human beings could recognize themselves. There was a lot of work to be done through the initial classical recognition of the human being as an individual. Even in terms of the human figure there was an enormous amount of work, and it took several thousand years to do that. The sculpture of the time always expresses where you are. There is something immediately involved in the form which has a meaning in the wider cultural history and the context. We’re all in a flow of the development of the material, and you end up being involved in the things that are relevant to your time and the needs of your culture.
Tony Cragg, what is your future direction?
When I’m making my work, it’s obsessive. Sculpture takes a long time, and while you’re making something your mind is going on and saying, oh, if I do just a little bit this or that it would be going in a different direction, it would have a different meaning. When the work is finished I very often think, oh, if I had done that, it would have been a different expression of a different idea, and so maybe I go back and try again to see what I get out of going in that direction. What happens is that you end up with so many things you still have to do (laughs). Now aged 72 I’m in my studio every day. I still have relatively good health, and I’m still chasing my work. That’s the great thing about it. You don’t know what tomorrow will look like.
Is there an archive of all your drawings?
I have someone that runs the archive, so we know exactly what I’ve done and where it all is.
You no longer teach students in the art academy in Düsseldorf. Have many of them gone on to be sculptors and artists?
Many of my students continue their work. Even if they don’t do that, art school education teaches people to look at things, to analyze things, to think about things deeply and respond meaningfully to the world around them. In Britain generally the government hasn’t been supportive of art schools, but art school education is a fantastic education and art students always make something out of it.
Is there anything you would like to achieve that you didn’t?
Yes, of course. It’s a little bit ironic, but this Covid time has been quite good to artists. We’ve been in our studios and we’ve concentrated on our concerns and we’ve managed to develop the work. A number of things that I have got into have been very encouraging. There’s an enormous amount to do, but I am an artist not a designer, so I don’t know exactly what this work will look like when I finish it.
Did you make your sculptures at Houghton Hall specifically for the exhibition?
Yes, some of them. I made three outdoor sculptures that had never been exhibited before. Most of them have been made in the last 8 or 10 years. Of the indoor work, a lot of new glasswork has not been exhibited before, and in the Stone Hall there are three quite large sculptures which are completely new. I borrowed a couple of works for the exhibition, and we have a foundation where the work has to go back into it. I have several exhibitions coming up in the next three years.
In Vienna, in Denmark, in Venice in the library where Galileo showed the world that the earth was a sphere. We have a sculpture park here, which we’re very happy to install new work into for our visitors.
Turin is my city and every day I pass by your sculpture, so I am very familiar with your work and proud to interview you. Thank you very much.