Tony Cragg, Resonating Bodies, 1996
When we think of Cragg we think of two signature styles. There is an earlier scatter mode, with hundreds of colored objects arrayed on a wall or the floor into recognizable forms – a human figure, a map of Britain – and a more recent style of twisting, voluptuous abstract forms created with the help of a computer. (The place to see the latter is in Wuppertal, where in 2008 the artist opened a sculpture park.) But this work doesn’t fall into either of those modes. Resonating Bodies comprises a pair of bronzes in a kind of bland, unthreatening public art-ese: instantly recognizable figuration with a hint of play, at large but not daunting scale. One of the two bronzes is in the form of a mandolin or a lute, a classic trope in art history (think Caravaggio, or Frans Hals in the Louvre); the other resembles the bell of a tuba, but it only twists once and has no valves, so perhaps it’s more like a bugle. Their ridges and grooves – sound waves, perhaps; Cragg began his career as a scientist – invite you to run your hands over them, a privilege of public sculpture, though as this is New York you will probably want to use some Purell afterward.
Although he has lived in Germany for most of his career, Cragg still carries the weight of the British art world upon him. And a British sculptor, especially one working at his scale, has a serious forebear to worry about. “I knew that I had to make a sculpture in bronze but it took almost a year to pluck up the courage,” he once explained. “The Henry Moore legacy loomed over us and I just kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to do that.’” I’m not so sure that Resonating Bodies evades the Moore trap, however; in that paradoxical way that public art has, their bigness and permanence make them disappear. Moore deserves more respect than he gets, and Cragg does too – but the difference between them is that while for Moore public space was his art’s bailiwick and best showcase, Cragg here seems to have concluded that public space merits only a particular, second-tier species of art, not the really good stuff.
Resonating Bodies is in Robert F. Wagner Park, at the Battery.