William Tucker Work Alludes to Degas, But It Won’t Dance

Few professionals in the art world, whether they’re artists, critics, historians or museum curators, can be said to command as comprehensive an understanding of the art of sculpture as William Tucker, the British-born artist who’s been working in this country since 1978 and is now an American citizen. Not only is Mr. Tucker a highly accomplished sculptor, but he has also organized some major exhibitions of sculpture-among them, The Condition of Sculpture at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1975-and in The Language of Sculpture (1974), he gave us the best book we have on the subject. An exhibition of Mr. Tucker’s own sculpture is therefore bound to be something of an event for anyone who is acquainted with the scope of his accomplishments.

Newcomers to Mr. Tucker’s oeuvre may need to be cautioned, however, about what to expect and what not to expect from William Tucker: Recent Sculpture at the David McKee Gallery. There’s no point in denying that his latest work is so allusive that it may prove somewhat baffling. Ambiguity and cryptic references to earlier master sculptors abound in the five large sculptures that dominate the exhibition; the smaller “studies” that accompany them are equally allusive.

Given the vigorous modeling of the sculptures’ massive surfaces, moreover, they might at first seem to represent a variety of expressionist abstraction, yet figural references are also apparent, even if we can’t readily identify their correlative motifs. My first impression of the somewhat ungainly sculpture called Dancer (2002-4), which stands some seven feet tall and is almost as wide, was that its subject might be a dancing bear. Imagine my astonishment, then, when I discovered that this overweight figure is based on an elegant Degas sculpture of a ballerina holding her right foot. After that, I knew it would be a hopeless task to attempt to identify the subjects of the other large sculptures, and I was confirmed in this judgment when I learned from the gallery’s press material that the work called Night, an enormous black hulk, derives from Michelangelo’s Night in the Medici Chapel.

There is, of course, a long and brilliant tradition in modern literature of poets and novelists who allude in their most ambitious writings to the work of earlier masters. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses are the best-known examples. Modern composers, too-among them, Stravinsky and Schoenberg-have lavishly availed themselves of forms and motifs taken from earlier musical masters. And Picasso is only the best known of the modern painters who have made a habit of similar appropriations. In principle, then, there’s no reason why modern sculpture shouldn’t take the same liberties with the classics of the medium.

In practice, however, it hasn’t worked very well for Mr. Tucker. It may be that his penchant for outsize masses is resistant to the aesthetic niceties that account for so much that we admire in sculptors as different as Degas and Michelangelo. In any case, the metaphorical conceit that Mr. Tucker has adopted for his oversize sculptures, which are said to represent “large versions of a loosely closed hand,” is not exactly an aid to a prompt comprehension of his sculptural project. A “loosely closed hand” that stands some seven feet high sounds to me like something we might expect to see in the sculpture of Claes Oldenburg, but Mr. Tucker clearly doesn’t mean his sculpture to be witty in the Oldenburg manner.

What he does expect us to understand is that his sculptures “rely on the spectator’s relation to the object. The sculpture-whatever the subject-addresses itself primarily to the body of the onlooker, in its physical mass, its movement, and its relation to gravity.” I wonder if I’m alone in finding this claim somewhat obscure, if not indeed somewhat pretentious. My own practice in looking at sculpture is to use my eyes and my mind in assessing its qualities. My body as a “physical mass” has nothing to do with it, and its relation to gravity is something I take for granted.

Never mind. In one of the sculptures in this exhibition-the powerful Greek Horse (2003)-Mr. Tucker has created a work of exceptional quality, and all the more so for the ease and intelligence with which it invokes its relation to the sculptural masterworks of Greek antiquity. For this work alone, William Tucker: Recent Sculpture is an exhibition not to be missed. It remains on view at the McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, at 57th Street, through June 3.