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Tony Cragg, 'Crackerboxes'

Tony Cragg - ‘Crackerboxes’

I recently posted a picture of artist Tony Cragg’s sculpture ‘Crackerboxes’* on my Twitter account: I don’t know why recollection of this work has come to me at this time, but I have recently visited Tony Cragg’s current exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in London, and this may have sparked my train of thought.

The illustration I used is from an Arts Council of Great Britain (as was) exhibition catalogue for the Tony Cragg exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery, London, 5th March - 7th June 1987.

The recollections to which I allude in this post are likely imperfect: I am finding them somewhat hard to retrieve; but the episode is of interest to me. I hope I don’t do anyone a disservice.

As I recall, I had seen ‘Crackerboxes’ in an exhibition at the Lisson Gallery some time before the Hayward show. The piece had intrigued me, for its, I suppose, ‘nothingness’. At a glance, it is a load of old sticks in some old boxes. Junk. Only with a generous amount of holding one’s breath, and squinting, could you look past the junk and see an evocation of, well, exploding fireworks! But you could. And then it looked like junk again. Then fireworks. Wow! But so daring - especially to be seen in a commercial gallery. There was zero ‘material worth’ in this piece; about 5 minutes’ making time . . . What else? Well, OK, probably years, many years, conceiving time: the slow build-up of aesthetic, conceptual and material interests that accompany the artist 24/7 - always unseen by the cynical or slightly interested viewer. And the careful identification of materials - the ones that ‘say it’ as opposed to ‘get in the way’.

In those days, I was finding my feet as an artist: I was coming to the end of my art education, having completed a year’s postgraduate study in Fine Art at the Städelschule Art Academy in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. I was not narrow in my views of art; but on seeing ‘Crackerboxes’ at first, my apprehension was the surface response: broken bits of wood, in old wooden crates. So what? But a little bit more engagement with it planted the seed of more inspired apprehension and a degree of admiration.

This was, in my view, something of a golden period for Tony Cragg. The works he produced at the time really spoke to me - the plastic waste sorted into like-colours, the equivalents of one (unlikely) thing with another, the leaps-of-faith, the range of materials.

His works didn’t yet have the gloss and finish and material expense of his later oeuvre; this afforded them a kind of arte povera accessibility.

I went to the Hayward in great anticipation. As I walked round, my expectations were met, or surpassed, one after another. But where was ‘Crackerboxes’? It was given in the catalogue, but, I could not see it anywhere. The star of the show was missing!

I scouted more and more intently, re-treading rooms, skirting round sculptures, until I spied a small card on the wall announcing, to the effect: “ ‘Crackerboxes’: Tony Cragg has decided that this work is too literal, and has removed it from the exhibition.”


A moment of wavering perhaps. The worry of all abstract artists: my work is meaningless; invalid; too difficult; too slapdash; too much like just-old-wooden-lengths-in-old-wooden-crates; too ‘easy’ looking for a general audience; too nothing . . .

Perhaps he had wavered following the commentary in the catalogue, which said ‘Only seldom as in Crackerboxes do his works risk becoming too circumscribed by their literalism, and too limited by his fascination with matter per se.’ (Page 55)**

For me, it is a pivotal work: from my first thinking ‘what on earth? . . .’ to its transformative nature slowly descending on me; it reveals itself as an exemplar of an artistic vision which pays no heed to contextualising sensibilities. In that sense it is a committed reach for the truth.

It stays with me still as I plough my own transformative furrow.


* ‘Crackerboxes’ 1986, wood, 1.5 x 1.7 x 1.6 metres

** Catalogue commentary ‘Tony Cragg: Thinking Models’ by Lynne Cooke, Jan 1987

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