In a nervy move, the British-born, naturalized-American sculptor William Tucker is currently presenting an exhibition of two bodies of work separated by nearly forty years, a contrast which could very well have left the new work looking overblown and the old work feeling timorous.
There’s a little bit of truth in each assessment, though at 77, Tucker remains a sculptor to reckon with. The show, which is at McKee Gallery, surrounds a monumental plaster horse’s head (100 x 109 x 61 inches), completed this year, with several large-scale minimalist constructions, mostly out of planks of wood, which the artist made in the 1970s.
It is a shock to be reacquainted with Tucker’s clean, geometric and ascetic early sculpture. In recent decades, his work in plaster and bronze has explored the most primordial of forms — balls and slabs of muck labeled with pan-mythic titles such as “Demeter,” “Eve” and “Vishnu.” But every once in a while he has made something more recognizable, like a torso (“Dancer,” 2002-2004), a foot (“Messenger,” 2001) or a hand (“The Sculptor,” 2012).
Unabashedly Rodinesque, these figurative fragments become problematic, even retrograde, if you regard Tucker’s abstractions as arising from the ur-Rodin (or ur-de Kooning) impulse to dig one’s hands into the muck and draw fresh life out of it. The abstractions, as if eructed from lava pools, become reifications of the creation sagas at the core of the world’s religions.
The more representational works, however, compromise this foundational messiness, coming off as a sideline that calls the achievement of the abstractions into question. Not because they are figurative per se, but because their broad, neo-Romantic gestures can be read as essentially heroic, while the mud clumps, boulders, turds and phalluses evoked by Tucker’s abstractions straddle a blurry line between confusion and absurdity.
Such a change in tone contradicts the most mesmerizing aspect of the abstractions, which is their simultaneous repudiation and embrace of sculptural tradition. By hewing so closely to that tradition’s raw materials, these unlovely objects court the status of anti-art while reaffirming their material’s inherent power.
The gigantic horse’s head, which is titled “Day,” would seem to iron over these contradictions. Its presence alternates between that of a collapsing tower of plaster and a startled beast. The gallery’s press release states that the sculpture’s title “obliquely refers to the mythical horses which pulled the chariot of the Greek sun god Helios and his Hindu counterpart, Surya, to the dawn of a new day.”
“Day,” however — in a departure from the wide center of gravity afforded many of Tucker’s plaster and bronze abstractions — is precariously cantilevered. The weightiness of its head in relation to its neck is an odd negation of the proportions of 5th-century Greek statuary, with which it is plainly aligned. In the Parthenon friezes, to pick the most obvious example, the horse’s power is expressed through the massiveness of its neck, like a rocket booster beneath a nose cone.
In an odd way, the unprepossessing, almost cartoonish backward tilt of the horse’s skull and forward thrust of its nose relates to the floor-bound triangles of the 1970s wood sculptures — one of which is planed and painted while the other two are raw and rough. The wood constructions look almost as if they could be armatures for the plaster horse.
But the horse, despite its aura of grandeur, fizzles in the heroic department. With its imploding ruts and gouges, it looks like a deflating Thanksgiving parade balloon, and its nose-heavy, almost camel-like profile shares the geometric sculptures’ caustically downbeat ‘70s vibe, as if they are all in on the same grim joke.
And the horse’s tiny bronze cousins perched across the room on wall-mounted shelves — three horse studies and the aforementioned, portentously titled hand (“The Sculptor”) — whose angsty-wriggly groove falls more into the territory of straight-up expressionism, seem to be the punch line.
Expressionism – particularly the heroic undercurrent of the American brand – is precisely what most of the prominent artists of the 1930s generation rejected. (Tucker, Frank Stella, Eva Hesse, Mark di Suvero, Robert Mangold, Dan Flavin and Richard Serra were all born within a few years of each other.)
Tucker’s chunky post-minimalist sculptures revive AbEx’s two-fisted machismo, but they are so ungainly that they undercut any middlebrow appeal to man against fate. The mythic references seem to be more about redefining belief systems as cyclical, earthbound rituals than reiterating well-worn motifs for the sake of their artistic lineage.
Is there still room for the heroic in contemporary art? Or perhaps the question should be, is the heroic still defined by outsized scale, bold forms and an implicit narrative pitting one against all? Which is not unlike asking whether there is still room for an empire on the world stage.
Clearly, there is not. And the shift, both political and artistic, has moved the heroic toward a smaller and quieter domain marked by personal integrity and moral vision, as exemplified by the work of an artist like Regina José Galindo.
William Tucker’s “Day” seems to aspire to the heroic while recognizing the futility of the ambition. It recreates the trappings of imperial art while hollowing out its determination to commemorate and inspire. Rather than pulling a chariot to the dawn of a new day, it is more likely a horse of the Trojan variety, slipped under the gates to bring the fortress down.
William Tucker: Present and Past continues at McKee Gallery (745 Fifth Ave, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 13.