Issue Number: 95
Point of view
Tony Cragg RA talks to Richard Cork about his love-hate relationship with the Academy and the young German artists he has selected for the sculpture gallery this year
Tony Cragg RA, who has been a militant voice at the Academy ever since his election in 1994, holds outspoken views about the way in which sculpture is displayed at the Summer Exhibition.
‘It’s disrespectful to have a mumbo-jumbo of paintings around sculpture,’ he declares. ‘It is generally not well looked after. The first time I selected an exhibition of sculptors there, I said: “Why on earth can’t we have a special room?”’
This year, Cragg is the curator of `a sculpture gallery, for which he has organised a display of contemporary German art. Though he is not happy about the restriction of sculpture to ‘a corner room’, he feels enthusiastic about the artists whose work is on show.
‘There are so many talented German sculptors at the moment,’ says Cragg, who is based in Germany, ‘but it’s not perceived like that in Britain. You could write a list of twenty; I’ve chosen the ones who have worked very hard. Katharina Fritsch, for example, showed in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995. Over the past ten years, Germany has mainly exhibited sculpture there.’
Cragg himself represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1988, having played a leading role in the transformation of sculpture over the previous decade. His work impressed me so much that, when I was a member of the jury for the Turner Prize in the same year, I voted for him. He won, and he has continued to develop as a major international sculptor.
Since 1977, Cragg has lived in Wuppertal, teaching at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf where he received a professorship in 1988. Consequently, his knowledge of German sculpture is particularly strong.
‘I live with this,’ he explains. ‘My daily dialogue is with the art I see around me, and that’s German work. You don’t have to show people you like, but artists you think are interesting. My show at the Summer Exhibition includes Stephan Balkenhol, Katharina Fritsch and Martin Honert. There are at least as many German sculptors working now as there are British sculptors.’
The pieces that Cragg has selected vary in character. Balkenhol’s men have a crisp, formal air: they are dressed in white shirts and dark trousers, standing to attention on an immense wooden base. Yet Honert’s children look mischievous, eyeing each other and the bike that is clutched so possessively by one boy.
Katharina Fritsch, Garden Sculpture and Photo (Rose Garden), 2006.
This lighthearted gathering contrasts, in turn, with Fritsch’s sculpture (above), where two skeletal legs and feet rest in front of a seemingly idyllic garden photograph, as though a memento mori.
So, how would Cragg define the overall character of the works he has selected? ‘German sculpture has a conceptual basis,’ he explains, ‘but it’s emotionally loaded as well. We have gone past Expressionism, but some of these sculptors are becoming more emotional.’
Cragg would like their pieces to be displayed in an uncluttered way, inviting the viewer to engage more readily with the sculpture: ‘Things shouldn’t be too packed, as they usually are at the Summer Exhibition.’ His decision to focus on German art is informed by a belief that the RA should exhibit more work by foreign artists: ‘I remember one Academician came up to me and said “all change is bad”. But there have been good changes, and we need to double the present number of members to have more of a mix.’
Cragg was elected an RA in 1994, and in the decade that followed a significant number of leading British sculptors have also joined the Academy. ‘We’ve got Richard Long, Anish Kapoor, Alison Wilding, Richard Deacon and Bill Woodrow,’ Cragg says with satisfaction.
‘The main problem is the average age of members is 58 or 59. And it’s ridiculous that we don’t have Gilbert and George in there; the only way they will join the RA is if it becomes more inclusive.’
Tony Cragg’s selection of contemporary German sculpture is on display at the Summer Exhibition 2007, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, 11 June–19 Aug; Tony Cragg 1995–2006, Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI), Peru (+51 1 423 6332), until 17 June
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