Richard Deacon: ‘This Is Where Ideas Come From’

One does not expect to find tables covered with models from the studio of one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary sculptors in the Combination Room of a Cambridge college. More likely would be academics reading newspapers or chatting over coffee after lunch. Yet Wolfson has never been a traditional Cambridge college. Founded in 1965 as a graduate college, Wolfson embraced its modernity from its earliest days, eschewing customs such as ‘high table’ and separate combination rooms for fellows and students. Instead, it sought to create traditions more in keeping with its egalitarian ethos. The focus from the start has been on fostering intellectual achievement, regardless of gender, race or rank. It is entirely appropriate, then, that Wolfson celebrates the 50th anniversary of its foundation with an exhibition that foregrounds the process of bringing ideas into being. Richard Deacon: ‘This Is Where Ideas Come From’ presents maquettes by the Turner-prize winning sculptor, revealing the complex processes with which he conceptualises and produces abstract sculpture.

The Old Combination Room at Wolfson is home, until 30 September 2015, to a selection of sixteen of Deacon’s models for large-scale sculptures, ranging from early commissions such as Let’s Not Be Stupid (1991) to recent works such as Footfall (2013). As discussed in the accompanying catalogue, they range in function from early explorations of form and engineering exercises to presentation models. The materials from which they are made are as varied as those Deacon employs for his finished sculptures—an abbreviated list includes softwood and MDF, ceramic, plywood, steel sheets and tubes, polyurethane foam, bamboo sticks, styrene, card and the bulldog clips that Deacon added during the installation at Wolfson. 

The OCR is transformed by the presence of these materials, which have been bent, folded, moulded, welded, fired, and painted. The sculptor’s hand is in evidence throughout. Numbers, letters and notations written on the surfaces of many of the models alongside the bolts, tape and plastic ties that hold various elements in place, reveal their functional role in the process of fabrication. This is the first time that any of these models has ever been exhibited and their arrival at Wolfson from the semi-industrial space of the sculptor’s studio, where I first saw many of them, has been revelatory not only in terms of understanding Deacon’s work but also in witnessing first-hand certain qualities that are key to his artistic process, foremost among them his embracing of collaboration and contingency and his powerful ability to manipulate space.

The exhibition was conceived during a conversation between the sculptor, the curator of the exhibition, Phillip Lindley, and me, the college curator, in summer 2014. I first met Richard in February of that year at the private view of his retrospective at Tate Britain. Phillip, an art-historian specialising in medieval and early modern sculpture, had worked with Richard on their co-curated show Image and Idol: Medieval Sculpture in 2001-2, a collaboration intended to forge a new paradigm for exhibition display by combining historical materials with contemporary installation. Phillip is still regularly asked to speak about the show and had been in contact with Richard when writing a retrospective account of its background (for a book co-edited by Wolfgang Brueckle, Mittelalterliche Kunst in Ausstellungen, which will appear later this year). We visited Richard’s studio in the early summer of 2014 to discuss Wolfson’s fiftieth anniversary and the possibility that he might loan some of his graphic works to the college for a small show. Richard was very interested in the other exhibition I am organizing for Wolfson, together with Sebastiano Barassi of the Henry Moore Foundation, Henry Moore and Photography, which explores Moore’s use of photography in conjunction with maquettes for the production of his large-scale sculptures. After coffee and a discussion of the show for Wolfson, Richard paused and said ‘what about models?’ Phillip and I had seen the models for Another Mountain (2007) and Congregate (2011) on the floor in front of the shelves displaying Richard’s many miniature collections, photos of which sometimes feature in the back of exhibition catalogues. Around the corner from Richard’s desk and hidden from view, were shelving units filled with models for some of his best-known earlier works such as Struck Dumb(1989) and Nobody Here But Us (1991). The models had never been exhibited before. This was not an offer to be turned down. 

I had first been introduced to Deacon’s work when preparing for a graduate seminar with Simon Schama at Columbia University, where I received my PhD, and have ever since been interested in questions associated with the siting of large-scale sculpture, particularly in relationship to the natural environment. Both this exhibition and Henry Moore and Photography have allowed me to return to this subject and Richard Deacon: ‘This Is Where Ideas Come From’ is revelatory in this regard. Given that Deacon’s work is most often associated with urban settings, industrial materials and ‘man-made’ forms, it is remarkable that one of the maquettes displayed at Wolfson shows how carefully he planned to integrate his sculpture into the landscape. The presentation model for IMMA – an unexecuted commission in 1995 for a wooded setting at the Irish Museum of Modern Art – shows every tree and bush on the selected site. Deacon spent three days mapping the space, photographing and recording each tree and the work, comprised of three ovoid components joined together by a ring, carefully accommodates them all in the model. IMMA is just one of a number of examples of Deacon’s careful consideration of the spaces in which his large-scale works are positioned and the Old Combination Room, in which this exhibition appears, is no exception.

For me, as the college curator, the primary challenge was the absence of a dedicated gallery space. Given our status as a graduate college, students are in residence throughout the year and the majority of our spaces are, therefore, heavily used, and for a variety of purposes. We first proposed as a venue the (new) Combination Room, a large well-lit first-floor room facing the front of the College in which our first and third exhibitions of the anniversary year, The Royal Academy at Wolfson (31 January-19 December 2015), curated by Anthony Green RA, now hangs and where Henry Moore and Photography (9 October 2015-28 February 2016) will be exhibited. The room, purpose built in the mid-1970s, is entirely appropriate for the display of graphic works and it can also comfortably house some small sculptures in two exhibition cases. An exhibition of larger three-dimensional works on bases or stands, however, would not be safe in a space that frequently hosts seminars, lectures and dinners.

The Old Combination Room, the former dining room in Bredon House, which was built in 1914 and taken on by the College in 1965, was proposed as an alternative. It poses a range of severe challenges for the display of contemporary art. The room is lit on one side by lead-paned windows and the walls are covered in dark oak paneling. A fireplace is at one end of the room; photographs of former fellows and donors line the walls; and ‘gothicising’ light fixtures from the 1960s hang from the ceiling. It couldn’t be further from the white cube gallery spaces in which contemporary art is most often exhibited and could easily be seen as a space that is antagonistic to the display of works of art. To our initial surprise, Richard embraced the challenges posed by this room, but having worked with him at Tate Britain, Phillip had complete confidence that Deacon would master this rather eccentric space. Richard’s entirely positive and collaborative approach, an important grant towards exhibition costs from the Henry Moore Foundation, and matching-funding from the College via the Bursar Christopher Lawrence, as well as some creative problem-solving on the part of other colleagues, such as the Secretary of the Fine Arts Committee, Margaret Greeves, and the Clerk of Works, Neil Newman, meant that the room was ready to receive the exhibition on 23 June, with display tables made ‘in house’ and a new security system installed. The enthusiastic support of Wolfson’s president, Sir Richard Evans, and his wife, Dr Christine Corton, has also been essential to the staging of this world-class exhibition in such a surprising location. 

Richard Deacon had not seen the Old Combination Room until he arrived at Wolfson for the installation of the models. We had given him several photos of the space, a video taken on Phillip’s mobile, and ground plans provided by the clerk of works. After various discussions, sixteen models were selected, spanning much of Deacon’s long and distinguished career and illustrating many different parts of the process of fabrication. (The models are arranged formally as opposed to chronologically in the show and are identified by numbers on the tables that correspond to the analyses in the catalogue). Once he had settled on the space, Richard drew a scale model and devised a strategy for the installation. Like It’s a Small World (2007), the models would be shown together on exhibition tables, built to Richard’s requirements. He specified three large tables, each having a dimension on top of 140 × 260 cm, with two of them butted to give an overall top dimension of 140 × 520 cm, and one small table, 75 × 75 cm, to house the ceramic model for Mountain(2005). All were to be 90 cm in height. One is placed horizontally in front of the fireplace; the two joined tables run the length of the room; and the small table sits at the end of the room to one side at the foot of the T shape. Richard had mapped out the placement of each work in advance in the studio. He brought the ‘footprint’ plan with him, placed it at the end of one of the tables and had each model uncrated and put directly in place according to the plan. 

A testament to Richard’s creative adaptability was his response when he arrived in the Old Combination Room. Apart from thinking it was slightly narrower than he had expected — which was remedied as soon as we removed the row of chairs against the wall — it was exactly as he anticipated it. My main concern throughout the process was to do justice to the works and when I had asked Richard if he would like any changes made to the room — perhaps the removal of the photographic portraits — he had responded that he wouldn’t in any way want to alter the space and that, as a general rule, spaces should be changed as little as possible. This was an important point for me to consider moving forward and contemplating future exhibitions at Wolfson — to let the space and the works find a way to relate to one another as opposed to forcing one, unnaturally, to accommodate the other. 

The installation process was fascinating, particularly watching Richard react to the light in the room and the inevitable shifts in the space as each model was uncrated and placed. In silence and with quick meditative movements — not unlike those of a conductor — Richard adjusted the positioning of the models during the course of the day and the space began to organize itself around the sculptures. The arrangement of works on the first table changed very little. IMMA, with its large contoured base reflecting the landscape and individually numbered trees, occupies, as seen in Richard’s scale plan, a third of the table close to the window. The rest of this table is dedicated to three works indicated to scale by their footprints: the long thin studio model in MDF and card for Let’s Not Be Stupid; the wood and MDF model supplied to the fabricators of Not Out of the Woods Yet (2003) built in aluminum; and one of the steel models for the multi-coloured ceramic Assembly series of 2008. The model for Let’s Not Be Stupid was placed, as planned, on the left-hand side of IMMA. Assembly, 8, and Not Out of the Woods Yet changed places. Other subtle changes were made: Richard rotated the scale figure in front of Not Out Of The Woods Yet from a side view to facing the work and he added bull dog clips to secure parts of the fragile card and MDF model for Let’s Not Be Stupid

The arrangement of the models on the two tables running the length of the room changed more dramatically during the course of the installation. A number of key works stayed where they were initially placed — the models for Island (1989) and Mountain(2008) remained on the end of the table opposite one another; Moor (1990) stayed on the side of the table closest to the window; and Nobody Here But Us (1990) remained in the centre of the table, on the far side from the windows. Others, such as Footfall (2013), Ebbsfleet (2008), and Struck Dumb (1988) moved around as their formal relationships to one another shifted.

The most significant change was to the height ofMoor. It was first raised on three plinths, reflecting the final work’s placement atop viaduct piers, but due to the single light source from the windows, it dominated the display and so Richard brought it down to table level. The small table for the ceramic model forMountain(2005) was moved, with the heavy model on it, diagonally across the room, where it now pulls the viewer round the main table. At the end, what I feared was a space antagonistic to contemporary art had, in Richard’s hands, become an astonishing synergy of old and new.

Organizing this exhibition has been a revelation in visual, conceptual and intellectual terms. It is hard to remain neutral about these objects, which through the complex numbering systems, notations and accidental paint smears, powerfully evidence the sculptor’s hand. These marks often constitute a dialogue between Deacon and the fabricators of his sculptures. Some are clear directions — ‘small A to large A’ written on the pieces of tape appended to Not Out of the Woods Yet — while others, such as the pieces of tape bearing large question marks on the ceramic model for Mountain, indicate a dialogue in progress. Abstract sculpture is most often considered in conceptual and intellectual terms — this show foregrounds facture. The maquettes encourage the viewer to contemplate the processes involved in making sculpture. 

While Richard Deacon: This Is Where Ideas Come From may at first seem an eccentric exhibition, the Combination Room of a modern Cambridge college is the perfect setting for works whose primary function is the exploration, contemplation and resolution of various formal, conceptual and intellectual questions. Indeed, the development of Wolfson College parallels that of Deacon as an artist. In 1965, the year the College was founded, the 16 year-old Deacon was spending his evenings and Sunday afternoons in the art room at school, working with whatever materials were to hand including pottery and lithography (though on copper plates as no one yet knew how to use the new litho press). It is perhaps fitting that our lunch on the day of the installation, eaten alongside students and fellows on long tables in the College’s dining hall, reminded him of school and of his artistic origins: for the exhibition itself is about beginnings.

Main image: Richard Deacon installing the maquette for Congregate, OCR, Wolfson College, Cambridge (photo: courtesy of Meredith Hale)

Richard Deacon: ‘This Is Where Ideas Come From’, the Old Combination Room, Wolfson College, Cambridge CB3 9BB. 
7 July – 30 September 2015, Tuesday – Sunday inclusive, 12:00 to 16:00.

Exhibition catalogue available from Dr Hale:

Aurora Corio