The British sculptor Richard Deacon’s retrospective at Tate Britain begins with a suite of drawings. Rubbed out and re-drawn graphite marks form precise, complex arcs, spirals and circles that feel organic and free flowing and yet definitively prescribed. The modelled forms do not look solid, but so decisive are the lines and so formally elegant are the shapes that they feel rooted in the natural world, and underpinned by a fundamental logic. The drawings - made in the late 1970s while the artist was accompanying his wife on a residency in New York - hold the key to this pared down, sweeping exhibition. Without this beginning, it would be difficult to be convinced of the philosophy and poetry that has informed his work over the course of his career.
The drawings were prompted by Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’, which alerted Deacon to the idea that ‘To sing or to praise not only describes the world but brings it into being - as if to say the right name by some resonance shapes the stuff of the world into this or that thing - or at least allows the particular thing to be distinguished.’ Language has been a constant inspiration for his sculptural work, and the show emphasises above all how Deacon’s work over the past four decades has been articulated in a myriad of materials, from laminated wood, burnished steel and glazed clay to cloth, plastic and leather. Form is his grammar, and material is his vocabulary, which he balances and builds into enigmatic forms so that they assume an inherent lyricism. Twisting, curving, stretching, interlocking, coiling; at their best, Deacon’s sculptures feel like three-dimensional drawings that lead the eye on complete journeys, through openings and orifices and along pathways, looping back in infinite cycles.
It is the very integrity of the work that obscures the fact that there might be greater metaphorical depths to the sculptures, something that, other than the drawings, only the titles of the work alert us to. For here, form is structure, structure is surface, and the surface is sculpture. This is why scale is significant to reading the work, something that was illustrated clearly by a middle room full of smaller works that comprise the series ‘Art for Other People’. Begun in 1982 and intended for domestic spaces, this strange collection of shapes and materials were envisioned as objects to be lived with, sculptures that would promote meaningful, personal relationships. Without familiarity or time, however, these works failed to resonate. The works that have most presence are those that continually manage to balance earthly properties of material and scale with a delicacy of realisation, such as ‘After’ (1998). A snaking tube of even wooden grids spliced by a steel linear lattice, this work plays line against curve, volume against emptiness and dynamism against stillness. It is when delighting in such contradictory visual tensions that Deacon’s work is most exciting. For this is democratic sculpture, everyday material is transformed into light and lyrical phrases.