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    las vegas rococo
by Peter Schjeldahl
A Place in my Heart
A Place in my Heart
Early Form
Thin Skin
Installation view
Five Bottles in a Shelf
Tony Cragg, "New Work," Mar. 20-Apr. 25, 1998, at Marian Goodman, 24 W. 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.

The convoluted, vaguely biological shapes of Tony Cragg's gorgeous, large, two-unit sculpture, A Place in My Heart (1998), are entirely covered with many thousands of gleaming white dice. Meeting Cragg at the Goodman Gallery, where his new show also includes dazzlingly various pieces in bronze and miracle plastics, I asked him what that dice thing is about. He said Einstein's reaction to Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle. Well, naturally. Einstein had grumped, "God doesn't play with dice." I knew that.

Excuse me?

I am used to feeling intellectually overmatched by the wizardly output of the Englishman Cragg, who seems to me one of the two best straight-up abstract sculptors now at work in the world. (The other is Richard Deacon -- likewise English and Cragg's exact contemporary, also born in 1949.) It's not that I don't fuzzily recall my Heisenberg: something about reality being impossible to measure thoroughly and to predict exactly. But what this has to do with a place in anybody's heart or with an art look that begs to be termed Las Vegas Rococo, hey, I dunno.

Cragg regularly seems almost too smart to be an artist. In this, he reminds me of another major sculptor named Tony, the late Smith (subject of an upcoming retrospective at MOMA), whose insouciant alchemy with geometric complexity also has a way of leaving ordinary minds panting in its wake. Like the rich, the ultraintelligent tend not to grasp how grueling a struggle life is for other people. In the brains department, Cragg is strictly house-on-the-hill. But there is no gainsaying the enthusiasm of his noblesse oblige.

No one in contemporary art toils harder to do more sorts of things more spectacularly with a greater range of materials and processes than this longtime resident of Wuppertal, Germany. (His wife is German, and he likes the town's industrial resources and its remoteness from art-world distraction.) I'll bet other sculptors have lurid nightmares in which they enter galleries to find their latest, hard-won ideas already realized by the infernal Brit in, say, sapphires, spaghetti and frozen smoke.

Cragg attained international stardom in the early 1980s with mosaic arrangements on walls or floors of innumerable bits of plastic trash. The overall motifs were usually figurative, in line with the time's Neo-Expressionist fashion, but putting them over were the riveting specificity of their ragamuffin components and the sheer loveliness of their color and visual rhythm. Cragg has said ruefully that, in response to ravenous public demand back then, he made more mosaic works than he probably should have. But if his development was impeded, it was only momentarily.

For some reason, I am vividly remembering a particular, very simple Cragg piece of 1982, Five Bottles on a Shelf, that should by all rights have aborted in advance the commodity-fetishist movement called Neo-Geo that peaked five years later. The bottles were brightly hued, overdesigned plastic items in the laundry detergent-size range. Fished from a dump, they had lost their labels and acquired patinas of weather and soil, but, neatly arrayed, they still chirped "buy me!" to the eye. Unless burned, their substance would outlast stone mountains. Their soul was a commercial esthetic imperative as unkillable as Dracula.

Where is that canny masterpiece today?

There is nothing left in Cragg's current art of such stuff's sociological poetry. His passion has always been less worldly than metaphysical, plainly. His art since 1986 or so has floated free of style and even history, stubbornly refusing to endorse any perceived resemblance to anything by anybody else, ever. I had occasion to recognize this truth while viewing his present show with the artist.

In the front room at Goodman are big, pedestaled bronze envelopes of twisting, bulging, furiously energetic form. I instantly thought of classic Futurist sculpture, such as the Large Horse of Raymond Duchamp-Villon. I said as much to Cragg. He went blank. I looked at the work again, and the stylistic connection evanesced. It was just an effect of my urge to be a crackerjack art critic.

Simply, Cragg never lets you forget who is at the controls of your experience of his art. He is. There is no hint of arrogance about this. Cragg convinces me that his creative will is, besides generous, fundamentally innocent. Among many wonderfully lively drawings in the show are several working diagrams for the big bronzes, with measurements for their eccentric contours apparently derived by calculus. The guy can't help it. He's a master.

Cragg's way of being a sculptor suggests a hierarchical order of the world in which conspicuous mastery is a professional given and a self-evident social virtue. He makes me realize, by contrast, how much contemporary art these days goes out of its way to be viewer-friendly -- salving our wounded self-love in a society where at every turn we must defer to somebody's expertise. Cragg suggests that such puppyish behavior -- after all, a field of expertise in itself -- reeks of bad faith. He's the sculptor, and we're not. Why have a problem with that?

Consider Flotsam (1998), a teetery-looking but in fact solidly balanced 10-foot totem of asymmetrically rounded shapes -- some yielding profiles of the artist's face -- in a pale blue-green plastic that seems as delicately vulnerable as inside-the-elbow flesh but is quite tough. Gaze and gaze at the thing, circling it for kaleidoscopically shifting aspects, until tuckered out. You cannot begin to accumulate an overall sense of its design. Endlessly pleasurable, Flotsam is drastically humbling.

Cragg's imagination runs to Dionysian chaos and caprice, but he is Apollonian at heart. He does not encourage fantasy. Rather, he invites us to savor a reasonableness that, like the unflappable common sense of Alice in Wonderland, can cope with pretty much anything. The effect is unsettling. Wildly subjective form takes on a coolly objective character. If we look for meaning in it, we are asking for frustration. Cragg's work is sheerly phenomenal, shrugging off signification.

He is a "public artist" in an unusually complete sense. Even his drawings and small pieces -- and his self-portrayals and the odd mention of his heart -- feel unshadowed by any actually personal concern. It is all about getting art into a world that is presumed to want art. Each Cragg work confidently awaits a home in some particular room or outdoor space, to which it will impart civilized value with the spiritual equivalent of perpetual motion.

PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.