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Interview: William Tucker RA

Published 16 October 2014

As a new exhibition of his work opens in London, the US-based Academician reflects on an artistic discovery that moulded his approach to sculpture.

  • Having worked with with constructed, geometric and architectural forms from the late 1950s onwards, William Tucker had already begun to turn towards figuration when a visit to Italy in 1981 had a revelatory impact on his work.

    The trip was to see the Riace bronzes, a pair of remarkably naturalistic Greek warrior sculptures dating from the 5th century BC. The bronzes had been found on the sea bed off the coast of Italy, and after almost ten years of painstaking restoration, they went on public display. Huge crowds flocked to see them and they became a media sensation.

    ‘“They were each in a pool of light, it was a very dramatic presentation, and they were amazing – they were just so present,” Tucker says.

    “No pictures were allowed to be taken, so my wife and I were busy drawing to try to capture that moment. We had to resist the flow of the crowd just to be able to stay there. It was a pretty amazing experience.

    “It made it seem possible that you could really make figurative sculpture, that it was still alive today.”

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    William Tucker talks about his approach to the medium of bronze and the role that figuration plays in his work.

  • His reaction to seeing the bronzes chimed with the direction he was already moving in: “It was an encouragement to keep going with modelling, that it was safe to leave construction behind, because that had really become so established as a way of making sculpture. I’d been working in steel and wood from the late ‘50s up until a couple of years before we saw [the bronzes] and I was just starting to model directly in plaster.”

    These early modellings still had an architectural quality - “they were really more like doorways, they weren’t in any way figurative in terms of having arms or legs, but they did stand in a certain way, opposite you, and they confronted you in the way that a standing figure does, like the Riace bronzes. They had that sense of frontality”.

    Not only were the new works more figurative, they were also modelled by hand, as the idea of the ‘hand of the artist’ was becoming increasingly important to him.

    “That’s very important. It’s one of the reasons why I stopped constructing. Although the materials I was using – wood beams and so on – had lively surfaces and textures, they weren’t actually made by me and I wanted to restore that sense of being made by hand.”

    Sculpted in slow-setting plaster and cast in bronze, the works currently on show at Pangolin London reflect this approach. They are accompanied by works on paper including a series of monotypes based on an image of the hand – “I really wanted to not only make work with my hands, but to make a statement about it,” Tucker says.

    William Tucker RA: Unearthing the Figure is at Pangolin London until 29 November 2014.