William Tucker at David McKee Gallery

Installation of William Tucker’s sculptures at David McKee Gallery

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One of the casualties of culture, brought about by the ascendance of the Dadaist esthetic, is the devaluation of artistic tradition. For many contemporary artists, tradition is not a vital fund of inspiration and a continuum with which to be engaged. It is, instead, a grab bag of stylistic markers to be exploited at will. This phenomenon-the tradition, as it were, of no tradition-has resulted in a scene notable for its dearth of historical consciousness.

After having spent an afternoon with a group of artists and dealers, a critic told me of his astonishment in learning that history in the art world doesn’t extend much beyond Andy Warhol. Given this signpost, Jasper Johns achieves old-master status, and Marcel Duchamp is transformed into, if not God, then the sole pseudo-deity to whom postmodernists will readily bow down.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t artists for whom tradition is still a profound resource to be reckoned with-and sustained. Such an artist is the sculptor William Tucker, whose work is at the McKee Gallery. Mr. Tucker’s work consists of nubbly and craggy monoliths. At first glance, the pieces look vague and lethargic-proverbial lumps of clay or, in this case, plaster. As one spends time with the sculptures, however, an underlying vitality-a muscular logic-divulges itself and they begin to stir, flex and declare themselves.

The figurative connotations of Mr. Tucker’s rocklike entities are unambiguous: We recognize the torso in the towering behemoth that is Pomona (1999) and the tragicomic portrait heads of the smaller bronzes. Even the lumpiest of the artist’s works, the pensive Homage to Rodin (Bibi) (1999), is charged with body language that is particular and emphatic. Yet these figures are never explicitly defined. There’s an intriguing-and quietly dramatic-détente in Mr. Tucker’s art between specificity and amorphousness, representation and material fact, contingency and independence.

The metamorphic character of these hulks make them appear as if they had achieved their fruition independent of the artist’s hand. Of course, the artist’s hand is evident everywhere on these pieces-one critic described Mr. Tucker’s working method as “two-fisted”-and it is an indication of his sculptural faculty that they achieve a primordial autonomy. By subsuming the history of his chosen medium-from Minimalism on back to Rodin and further back to ancient Greece-Mr. Tucker posits what sculpture might have looked like on Day 1.

On paper, this endeavor sounds preposterous. Yet Mr. Tucker imagines–and, more importantly, gives shape to-possibilities deeply rooted within tradition. In our age of diminished expectations, such heroic ambition is uncharacteristic or self-aggrandizing. Mr. Tucker consummates such ambition with mastery and modesty. His sculpture is a bracing reminder of how encompassing the life of art can be.

© 1999 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 12, 1999 edition of The New York Observer.

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