Cragg was born in Liverpool, England in 1949. He has lived and worked in Wuppertal, Germany since 1977. He is one of the world's most distinguished contemporary sculptors, drawing on both the natural world and industrial systems to create new forms of sculptural language. Cragg's abiding interest in providing an alternative to the utilitarian sphere is in every exhibition, as he presents a visually compelling, vital and diverse new category of forms beyond the mediated nature populating our current reality.
Cragg's evolution as an artist has been influenced by a variety of factors, notably a short stint as a laboratory technician shortly after leaving school. The laborious nature of the work gave time for contemplation, and it was here without any formal training or experience Cragg began to draw. The process of filtering the world around him through this artistic endeavour made sense to Cragg and soon after he enrolled at the Gloucestershire College of Art, Cheltenham where the traditional teachings evaded his focus, and rather the young art student found himself enthralled by materials in the janitors cupboard: “strangely enough after a few hours I just became totally absorbed with what i was doing; just watching the material move, watching the silhouettes, the lines, the volumes, surface quality and I realised it was very similar to the drawing. It was immediate, as soon as I did something I had an idea or i had an emotion about it and if there was a fundamental thing that happened to me in my life, it was probably those few weeks, in that period of time”.
In the summer before embarking on his painting studies, Cragg worked the nightshift in an industrial foundry making metal motor cases. Within the black production hall there were glowing red metal casts and black cones of casting sand –early material references that clearly made an imprint. Though having enrolled at Wimbledon School of Art on a painting course, it was quickly apparent that this the industrial production of the foundry with its solid materiality was far more exhilarating. At Wimbledon, Cragg used simple materials to create immediate material moments; a knotted line of string could be moved and changed whilst all the time studying the accurate reading of form and how everything —from people’s faces and sinews to the unitarian objects we surround ourselves with—affects us on a material level. Cragg describes himself as: ”acting as an agent for moving materials”.
Britain in the late 1960s early 1970s was a time of dynamic and cataclysmic cultural change in and the art schools reflected this. Marcel Duchamp and the ‘readymade’, the rejection of traditional representational sculpture expressed in the radical emotion of movement in Rodin’s works, and the bold transition of Brancusi from a classical to abstract sculptor paved the way for a new way of thinking in form.
Sculpture practice had already moved beyond realism and craftmanship with the likes of Henry Moore pioneering a new vision for modern sculpture. Artists like Antony Caro and then Philip King rebuked figurative, expressionistic sculpture of the 1950s, instead working with colour, form and materials —often welded metal. The air was cleared and the space for possibility was vast, with the Pop Art movement still reverberating and Arte de Povera, Fluxus, Minimalism and Land Art inspiring new form, activity and thus dialogue and debate. Freud’s teachings had already established that not all form is derived from geometric or physical stimuli but also from psychological response or the subconscious – a theory that can explain Tony Cragg’s description of materials as having emotional qualities. This period shaped, or at least created room for, Cragg’s work and led him towards a practice that is concerned with all forms of materials and their meaning. “Sculpture is, in its most general sense, how material and material form affects us”.
Tony Cragg’s time at the Royal College of Art was defining, surrounded by brilliant minds and time and space to to create sculptural works without constraint; Land Art and the exploration of natural materials as a new sculptural language, Fluxus, Minimalism and Zero movements and the prevalence of conceptual art paved the way for a new freedom for artists where all materials were available, anything was possible.
Cragg’s early works explored the artist’s continued fascination with materials; assembling found objects – bricks or scraps of wood gathered and placed, then later and carefully layered, and re-ordered to create new forms— works that were classified by their stratification recalling natural geological forms, and later became collectively known as ‘stacks’. Moving into the 1980s, plastic items with their mass-produced geometries and basic colour palette were scavenged and then reimagined as recognisable new forms, commenting on the prevalence of manmade material, in utilitarian objects since the plastic production boom of the 1950s. Gathering plastic scraps as one would gather traces from the geological age devoid of purpose and freed of any commitment of being anything else - of any functional form, bringing new possibilities, new ideas, and new emotions to the materials.
“I started just with anything that was around. I would collect big piles of bricks and lots of wood, and gather them together and make assemblages of the materials I found, using gravity as the glue —an important thing then and now— and I'd start stacking these things up as far as they could be stacked up before they fell. And one way of stopping them falling over is to lean them up against the wall, so I made piles of bricks leaning against the wall.”
From the student work Cragg made at Wimbledon and the Royal College of Art, his early Stacks (1975-82) and early photographs in the late 1970s, through to his plastic fragment works and Minsters of the mid-1980s, to glass and ceramic stacks of the and Wirbelsäule later works (also known as Articulated Columns) and Rational Beings of the 2000s, 'stacking' stands as a central modus operandi in his practice, active at once as an idea, a form, an habitual activity, a sculptural process, a long held attitude to language and a gradually consolidated artistic strategy. The seated dynamically and generatively at the heart of his artistic world vision and imaginative world-making as an artist.
Cragg exhibited extensively in the 70’s and early 80’s almost in a performative sense until realising he had exhausted the limits if what he could do within installation.
These found assemblage works were incredibly important - providing a subject of themes and an arsenal of knowledge of materials that is still important in the works he is still making today. Bringing non-art objects inside the gallery space had its limitations for Cragg and his peers who wanted to create something new. The Early Forms works explore the possibilities of sculpturally reforming familiar objects such as containers into new and unfamiliar forms producing new emotional responses, relationships and meanings. Rational Beings that emerged in the 1990s examine the relationship between two apparently different aesthetic descriptions of the world; the rational, mathematically based formal constructions that go to build up the most complicated of organic forms that we respond to emotionally.
“Sculpture is an enormously dynamic and dramatically developing discipline and it’s one of the only uses of material that isn’t utilitarian. It’s literally just about new forms. New ideas and new emotional experiences. When you see how ugly everything is built: Simple geometries, flat straight edge boring right angle, a repetitive and inferior world we build in a sense. Sculpture is the one of the only things that builds something crazy and interesting.”
For Cragg it not important to copy nature but to progress and discover that which does not yet exist, pushing the possibilities of materials and thus the possibilities of human thought “our reference points are limited and the utilitarian forms we surround ourselves with are only the beginning of what is possible in terms of form.”
Any object has its physical presence but also meaning and metaphysical existence. how we process materials and forms from the earliest stages of life, gathering information - physical and cerebral creating a mental database of physical connections and as such a greater existential understanding of our place in the cosmos. Sculpture explores and exploits the primary nature of materials and existence, the inextricable connection between material and mind.
Cragg describes the material basis behind everything humans experience as material reality as being grounded in the material world around us “an intense relationship between material and our thoughts and emotions plays an important and evolutionary basis for art making” Everything around us is informing and changing our thoughts. Human neurons are a highly developed material that allow humans to create the ‘new’ but also cause huge devastation on the planet.
Among many major solo shows he has exhibited at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria (2022); La Venaria Reale, Venaria, Italy (2022); HEART Museum, Herning, Denmark (2022); Museo del Vetro, Venice, Italy (2021); Houghton Hall, Norfolk, UK (2021); Museum Belvédere, Heerenveen, Netherlands (2021); Museu Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil (2020); Split Kula Cultural Institution, Croatia (2019); City of Arts and Sciences, Spain (2018); Isfahan Museum of Contemporary Art, Iran (2018); Istanbul Modern, Turkey (2017); Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK (2017); the National Museum of Havana, Cuba (2017); MUDAM Luxembourg, Luxembourg (2017); Ludwig Museum, Koblenz, Germany (2017); Wroclaw Contemporary Art Museum, Wroclaw, Poland (2017); The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia (2016; Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal, Germany (2016); Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece (2015); Gothenburg International Sculpture Exhibition, Gothenburg, Sweden (2015); Heydar Aliyev Centre, Baku, Azerbaijan (2014); Musée d’art modern de Saint-Étienne, Saint-Étienne, France (2014); National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, Taiwan (2013); CAFA Museum in Beijing, China (2012); Musée du Louvre, Paris, France (2011); the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, UK (2011); Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX, USA (2011); Skulpturenpark Waldfrieden, Wuppertal, Germany (2010); Tate Gallery, Liverpool, UK (2000); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte, Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain (1995), Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands (1991) and Tate Gallery, London, UK (1988). He represented Britain at the 43rd Venice Biennale in 1988 and in the same year was awarded the Turner Prize at the Tate Gallery, London, UK. He has been a Professor at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, Paris, France (1999-2009) and Professor at Kunstakademie, Dusseldorf, Germany (2009–present). He was elected a Royal Academician in 1994; received the Praemium Imperiale for Sculpture, Tokyo, Japan (2007); was Awarded the 1st Class Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (2012) and was made a Knight's Bachelor in 2016.