My partner used to collect old-fashioned tools — cucumber straighteners, washing dollies, eel traps, and darning mushrooms. Richard Deacon’s sculptures often remind me of implements like those, which seem familiar yet can’t quite be identified, so I am curious to know if he has a similar accumulation of obscure objects.
What a pleasure to discover in his South London studio an eclectic assortment of items: a bait trap from Japan, a berry basket from Africa, tangled cords of cloth, wool, raffia, baobab fiber, and electrical wire. There are also cacti of all shapes and sizes and shelves of fossils, rock specimens, pinecones, nests, and plastic dinosaurs. "I’ve collected these things since I was a boy," says the Welsh-born 62-year-old artist. "They echo the work and feed into it. I’ve often used weaving to make structures, for instance."
Deacon frequently refers to his sculptures as objects rather than artworks and calls himself a "fabricator." The materials he employs and the forms he invents owe as much to the realm of the utilitarian as to the history of art. He first made an impact in the early 1980s with a series of sculptures titled "Art for Other People," reflecting his belief that artmaking is primarily an act of communication requiring an audience. Composed over many years and from an extraordinarily diverse range of substances — leather, concrete, canvas, marble, linoleum, steel, laminated wood, ceramics — pieces from the series vary in shape from open structures reminiscent of baskets or bentwood chairs, whose fluid lines are like drawings in space, to hollow shells recalling vessels whose interiors are inaccessible to hand or eye. They also vary in scale from intimate pieces that can be displayed on windowsills to dominant, room-sized presences.
Common to all, though, is an emphasis on the artist’s hand. This is in part the result of Deacon’s self-styled lack of skillfulness. In "Fish Out of Water," 1987, for instance, glue oozes from between layers of wood laminate, while in "Art for Other People no. 23," 1988, hundreds of screws assert their role in fixing one metal sheet to another. "I was anxious to make sure the materials held together," he says. "The screws were proof of that, but they also have a decorative function. I used regular spacing that creates a pattern, so they became like punctuation or a surface notation."
This fascination with process began in his student days at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in the early ’70s. Deacon concentrated on performance art, recording his activities in photographs and detailed notes. While working toward a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art from 1974 through ’77, he began creating objects because "I fell out of love with the documentary procedure and wanted to make things that stood for themselves."
At the Royal College he met Tony Cragg, who introduced him to Nicholas Logsdail, director of the Lisson Gallery. Deacon and Cragg, along with Bill Woodrow and Anish Kapoor, became known as the Lisson sculptors, and for much of the 1980s the group dominated the London art scene, soon gaining recognition abroad.
In my previous chance meetings with him, Deacon always seemed somewhat reserved and rather academic, so I am a bit nervous about interviewing him. But he welcomes me warmly to his studio, which occupies two floors of an industrial unit built just before the 1990 recession and which he bought at below cost.
The upper floor is full of clutter. "I mostly do drawings and office work up here," Deacon explains. On its side on a shelf is a conical green pottery piece. During a year spent in New York, in 1978, he experimented with hand-thrown pots. "I was interested in their hollowness and the way the wall evolves between your fingers, which are on the inside and the outside," he says. "But I got irritated by the bases. I wanted them to have no foot so they couldn’t stand up."
Deacon produced all his pieces himself until 1984, when Charles Saatchi bought them in bulk and the artist was short-listed for the Turner Prize, an honor he went on to win in 1987. The ensuing international demand has obliged him to seek assistance. He doesn’t run a factory like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, however. "I prefer to go to other people’s workshops," he says. "Having people around makes me uncomfortable; it doesn’t suit my brain. I need somewhere that’s private. The studio is an emotional as well as a work space." We go downstairs, where many of the large pieces were made. It looks more like a storage room than a studio at the moment; most production is taking place elsewhere. Leaning against the wall are lengths of wood — ash, holly, oak, yew, even a giant Tudor beam. Like the stuff upstairs, these seem more sources of inspiration than raw material waiting to be used.
Deacon’s restless imagination has led him to shift his forms and substances constantly over the years. For a while he was making "a lot of laminated things," he says. "The drippy glue became a bit of a signature. It popped into my head that instead of using glue, we could steam and bend the wood. At first we used a kettle and a drainpipe; even the big ones were made like that." This approach enabled him to create complex structures like "What Could Make Me Feel this Way," 1993. The piece, which resembles the skeleton of a snake coiling back on itself in writhing loops, now resides in the collection of the Sprengel Museum Hannover, in Germany, where Deacon’s retrospective closed in May; it first appeared at the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Strasbourg, in 2010.
Then came the idea of forming four-by-four oak beams into spirals. One such work, "Red Sea Crossing," first shown at Marian Goodman, in New York, in 2004, is composed of ribbons of bent wood resembling shavings combined with lengths of oak twisted like carpenter’s bits. In September 2012, Deacon will show new pieces at Marian Goodman. Filling the north gallery will be a polygonal structure in stainless steel made by a factory in Milton Keynes, in southeast England, with which Deacon has worked for 25 years. "I learned how to do technical drawing for public commissions like "Between the Eyes," 1990, for Yonge-Dundas Square, in Toronto, but computing has changed all that," Deacon tells me. "Now you can make a model, scan it, and produce the sculpture in a factory." Dozens of model polygons made of clay or sausage-shaped metal bars line the studio shelves. "We’ve gone from a clay model to a paper one, then steel, and from there to the full-sized sculpture," he explains. "But Gary, the fabricator, says we’ve lost something, so we’ll have to go back a step — to the model. The precision you get from using a computer eliminates the snags that ground the work in reality."
The New York exhibition will also contain ceramics. These pieces assume an astonishing variety of forms, from ring clusters resembling octopus suckers to fleshy undulations reminiscent of obese bodies and assemblages of polygonal rods, like "Free Assembly," displayed in New York’s Madison Square Park in 2008. Representing Wales at the 2007 Venice Biennale, he attached ceramics shaped like curvy cookie cutters to the walls of an old brewery. "I wanted it to be like a Shaker house, with all the furniture hung on the wall."
"Everything else I’ve made contains the notion that it can be taken to pieces," he says. "But with ceramics the process is irreversible, one directional." His diverse production methods include squeezing a blob of clay in his hand, scrunching up thin sheets and draping them over balloons, and making cardboard or steel maquettes that are then enlarged on a computer. The pieces are characterized by vivid hues. "Color is part of the process, but you can’t tell what the glaze will look like once it’s fired. So you have to guess," he says. Challenges like these help to keep the work fresh and alive. "When you start to know what you are doing, you get tighter and tighter. I avoid it by working in different materials."
It is hard to sum up Deacon’s impressive output, because it takes so many different forms, from open-ended structures that seem scarcely anchored to the ground to apparently immovable hulks. Yet seeing the work gathered for his retrospective, Deacon says he was astonished by how consistent he’s been. Does he have enough ideas to keep him interested for the long haul? "I’ve been surprised at how rich the past 10 years have been," he says. "I think artists should be able to retire. But I won’t stop messing around, because it gives me such pleasure. I’ll just keep the studio quieter, so that I’m not under so much pressure to perform."
"Richard Deacon" originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's June 2011 Table of Contents.