During the 1970s Stephen Cox gained a reputation for making minimalist plaster reliefs. Yet the direction of his work changed after he read Adrian Stokes's (1902-1972) books on fourteenth century Italian art, The Quattro Cento 1932 and Stones of Rimini 1934. Stokes's work convinced Cox that 'the Mediterranean is the womb of my civilisation' (quoted in Cork, p.10) and, as a result, in 1979 he moved to Italy to further explore the sculpture and iconography of the Renaissance. The move had a dramatic effect on Cox; he stopped making abstract plaster reliefs and started carving directly in stone. Figurative imagery began to appear. At first Cox concentrated on the tondo or circular form and, guided by the writings of the chronicler and artist Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), he began to research varieties of marble quarried in Italy. This lead to a series of works that were directly influenced by such fourteenth century sculptors as Agostino di Duccio (1418-1481), an artist whose low relief panels in the Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini, Stokes had written about. An early example of Cox's new work is the round Tondo: We Must Always Turn South 1981 (Tate T03356). The stone is warm Verona marble and the sculpture depicts what appears to be a radiant sun.
Tondo: Nuvole was also inspired by Agostino's carvings in Rimini. It is a large shattered disc made up of nine fragments. The bottom half is dominated by an oval form and the upper section is carved with a tracery of delicate lines that evoke clouds or 'nuvole' in Italian. The effect is enhanced by the veining in the stone which is typical of Calacatta marble. The Calacatta marble Cox used came from quarries in the Carrara basin. According to Cox Tondo: Nuvole pays homage to Agostino's depiction of the heavens, the oval form acting 'as the terrestrial dish with the celestial canopy above.' (Quoted in Martin p.45.) Discussing the work with curator Andrea Schlieker he said: 'In Agostino one finds a very strong demonstration of some kind of heaven, done with incredible economy, and I used just the cloud form from one of his reliefs - hence NUVOLE (clouds), and I inscribed it in a certain way to suggest this extremely deep, distant space. It's the space as understood by the ancients in terms of the universe.' (Quoted in Martin, p.45.) Like much of Cox's other work, Tondo: Nuvole's iconography has a marked spiritual dimension that reflects his belief that art is capable of 'transporting one into a domain of experience which [is] not that of everyday.' (Quoted in Martin, p.45.)
However, despite the work's spiritual aspirations, Tondo: Nuvole is shattered and suggests an incomplete but evocative fragment of classical civilisation. This reflects Cox's understanding that the past with which he is in dialogue may only be recuperated in part. As one commentator has written: 'This tantalising lack of wholeness … reflects a belief … that the civilisations nourishing his work will always remain partially beyond recall, mysterious and unattainable … However vigorously Cox enters into his own meditations on the past, he knows that it is in the last analysis irrecoverable.' (Cork, p.12.)
Richard Cork, Stephen Cox, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London 1997, reproduced p.5
Rupert Martin, Stephen Cox: "We Must Always Turn South" Sculpture 1977-1985, exhibition catalogue, Arnolfini, Bristol 1985, reproduced p.19
Stephen Bann, The Sculpture of Stephen Cox, London 1995, reproduced plate 201