Artist Talk: Tony Cragg CBE, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

It was a hot evening on June 1st when we filed into the restaurant/lecture theatre at Yorkshire Sculpture Park to take our too-snuggly placed seats.  The grand-fromages of YSP and art in Yorkshire occupied the front rows, Viv and I were a row behind, pen and notebook at the ready.  Peter Murray CBE introduced Tony Cragg, saying how he’d ‘transformed the way we look at sculpture’, raised awareness of sculpture through his work, writing and lecturing, and how he ‘continues to extend our understanding.’ (Peter Murray is Director of YSP and features in the exhibition trailer below)

Tony Cragg and Peter Murray
Tony Cragg takes a stroll with Peter Murray before his YSP talk

Tony Cragg seemed nervous, not helped by having a transparent perspex lectern, which he remarked on.  His view on the world and sculpture was immediately apparent – he is a materialist through and though. Watch the video for a potted view of his thoughts on material and sculpture.  If 4 minutes is too long,  watch the first 15 seconds:

He feels the sculptor has a dialogue with the material, learns from the material as they make changes to the material, and the material changes them.

Indeed, I found his ideas about sculpture and what sculptors do very interesting. I’ve struggled with the idea of making abstract sculptural forms – why make things that have no use? Seems a tad self-indulgent. Not so, according to Mr Cragg. ‘There are more things that don’t exist than do exist.  The artist’s function is to bring these things into existence’, he says. He thinks that we have substituted information for experience.  Science can tell us about material, Art lets us experience material and gives meaning.  He sees sculpture as a ‘transfer of intelligence’, letting us ‘see the world through the eyes of another individual.’ ‘Science is valueless without art’, he says.  The sculptor should look at the interstices – the spaces between the things that already exist, ‘making the form that fits between’.  I really love the idea of making forms that fit in the grikes of existence.

Tony Cragg’s main studio is in Wuppertal, Germany, where he also has a sculpture park. He is aided by over 20 assistants. His working practice is fascinating. Drawing is very important to him.  He begins each day with an hour of free drawing (‘all rubbish’) and working with a modelling material, with no end product in mind.  So, play is important to his process.  Drawing is also the starting point for his forms. To make his current work, he draws the form, then builds it using layers of wood, which he alters and responds to until he is happy with the form.  The layers are then secured, rounded off and lacquered or painted.

Layering or stacking has been part of Cragg’s process from the early years, when he was influenced by the Duchamp’s notion of the readymade, so his continued use of layering came as no surprise to me. The figure and the vessel were also salient to his early work, so why was I so surprised to find his work of the last 25 years has been heavily influenced by the figure and the vessel?

His current fluid columns begin as drawings of human profiles:

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More details of his drawing process are shown in this short video:


The folds and layers of his sculptural columns coalesce into faces, then dissolve into abstract forms as you move round the sculpture:

Human Profiles in ‘Mean Average’

I particularly like his colourful, painted metal forms of the 1990s, which are based on vessels:

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Examples of sculptures based on vessels:

I like the relationship between inside and outside (he believes we ‘want to know what is beyond the vision of the surface’), the colour, the interconnecting forms.

Both examples constitute a Masterclass in developing ideas, and translating ideas into forms. It’s a shame I don’t have 50 years to become this good. Mind you, Louise Bourgeois and Josefina de Vasconcellos were both working at 100, so I might manage 30+ years.

I should mention Cragg uses CAD to scale up his works, and test for stresses.  Traditional statue maker, Mark Richards, also uses the same tool for the same job.  Seems it is common practice.

He uses a wide range of materials: wood, bronze, steel, stainless steel, cast iron, glass. And apart from pencil drawings he makes etchings, lithographs, and prints.

His talk has now been published on the YSP Youtube channel:

That’s me, 2 rows forward on the right, stripy grey top, head down taking notes.

Viv bought me my Christmas present for this year: the hot-off-the-press book of the exhibition, which Tony Cragg signed for me.  Fab photos of the exhibition and essays by Peter Murray, Helen Pheby (exhibition curator), and Jon Wood (Henry Moore Institute, who gave a talk at UCLan recently, and was a couple of rows in front of us at Tony Cragg’s talk). Many thanks, Viv, I love it.  Merry Christmas!


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