Richard Deacon
It’s Orpheus When There’s Singing #7 1978–9

Artwork details

Artist
Richard Deacon born 1949
Title
It’s Orpheus When There’s Singing #7
Date 1978–9
Medium Pastel and graphite on paper
Dimensions Support: 1117 x 1470 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by the Weltkunst Foundation 1986
Reference
T04859
Not on display

Catalogue entry

T04859 It's Orpheus when there's singing #7 1978–9

Graphite (pencil) and oil pastel on cream, machine-made, wove paper 1062 × 1418 (41 7/8 × 55 7/8) mounted on calico 1117 × 1470 (44 × 57 7/8)
Not inscribed
Presented by the Weltkunst Foundation 1986
Prov: Lisson Gallery 1984, by whom sold to Weltkunst Foundation Oct. 1986
Exh: The Spring Programme, The Gallery, Brixton 1980 (no catalogue, no number); An Exhibition of Works by Anthony Davies, Richard Deacon, Ian Kirkwood, Winchester School of Art, Nov. 1980 (38); Hayward Annual 1982: British Drawing, Hayward Gallery, July–Aug. 1982 (no number, repr. p.104); Richard Deacon - Sculpture, Lisson Gallery, Feb. 1983 (7); Richard Deacon: Sculpture 1980–1984, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Oct.–Nov.1984, Le Nouveau Musée, Villeurbanne, Dec. 1984–Jan. 1985 (no number, repr. p.37)
Lit: ‘Richard Deacon Talking with Caryn Faure Walker’, Aspects, no.17, Winter 1981/82 [p.6]; Michael Newman, ‘Richard Deacon: Metaphor and Things: “It's Orpheus when there's singing”’ in British Sculpture Now, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum, Luzern 1982, [pp.50–1]; Lynne Cooke, ‘Essay’ in Richard Deacon Sculpture, exh. cat., Orchard Gallery, Londonderry 1983, [pp.5, 8]; Lynne Cooke, ‘Taking Shape’ in Transformations: New Sculpture From Britain, exh. cat., XVII Bienal de São Paulo, 1983, p.28; Michael Newman, ‘The Face of Things’ in Richard Deacon Sculpture 1980–1984, exh. cat., Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 1984, p.37; Richard Francis, Richard Deacon, exh. broadsheet, Tate Gallery 1985, [p.1]; Gijs van Hensbergen, ‘Richard Deacon: Organische constructies’, Metropolis M, no.3, July–Aug. 1985, pp.17–18; Richard Francis, ‘The “Poetic” Object’ in The Poetic Object: Richard Deacon, Shirazeh Houshiary, Anish Kapoor, exh. cat., Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin 1985, p.14; Michael Newman, ‘Tingenes ansigt: Tilegnet mindet om min fader’, Louisiana Revy, vol.26, March 1986, pp.14–15; Charles Harrison, ‘Empathy and Irony: Richard Deacon's Sculpture’ in Richard Deacon: Recent Sculpture 1985–87, exh. cat., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht 1987, p.54; Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Richard Deacon’ in Richard Deacon: Sculptures and Drawings 1985–88, exh. cat., Fundación Caja de Pensiones, Madrid 1988, pp.28–9; Lynne Cooke, ‘Richard Deacon: Object Lessons’ in Richard Deacon, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1988, pp.15–16; Mary Jane Jacob, ‘Richard Deacon: The Skin of Sculpture’ in A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture Since 1965, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1987, p.74, repr. pl.26 (upside down), pls.27–8 (installation photographs, 1980 Brixton exhibition); Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984–6, 1988, pp.133–5. Also repr. Richard Deacon, exh. cat., Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh 1988, fig.3; Art Press, 134, March 1989, p.22; Catherine Kinley, Sculptor's Drawings Presented by the Weltkunst Foundation, broadsheet, Tate Gallery 1994 [p.3, repr.]

This drawing consists of a series of overlapping geometric shapes formed by straight and curved lines drawn in graphite (pencil). Deacon highlighted some lines in black, white and green oil pastels: the dominant, vertically placed oval and two oval shapes contained within it are picked out in black; white oil pastel emphasizes the curved line to the far right and a number of curved lines within the centre of the composition; the large oval, positioned diagonally on the sheet, and several curved lines within this shape, are highlighted in green and white. The image was drawn on paper which the artist purchased from Pearl Paints, Canal Street, New York. This was later drymounted onto calico by PDD Mounting, Littlehampton. Deacon noted in a letter to the compiler dated 1 October 1994, ‘I couldn't afford framing and decided originally to mount the drawings on stretchers. The dry mounters at Littlehampton (U.K.) had a big dry mounting press which would accommodate the drawings’.

In 1978 Deacon accompanied his wife, the ceramicist Jacqueline Poncelet, to New York where they lived for a year. Poncelet had received a fellowship to work in the United States. In New York, lacking the facilities to make sculptures, Deacon made clay pots and a series of nine drawings titled ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing’. In a letter to the compiler dated 11 July 1993 the artist wrote, ‘All of the drawings were made in a studio on West 26 Street, New York between the beginning of November 1978 and mid February 1979. Logically therefore they should all be dated 1978/79’. In an entry in his notebook dated 20 December 1978 Deacon wrote about the series of drawings:

These drawings commence from a geometric figure. A spiral links points on the figure. A series of arcs and curves partially tied to the spiral, is sprung off various points inside and outside the figure. The development of these curves builds up a network or ground against which specific shapes are allowed to emerge. The drawings are intentionally extremely representational. I have difficulty in deciding of what they are representations. This concerns their reference. I have difficulty corroborating their reference with something. Except I have considered Sonnets to Orpheus as their subject.

(quoted in Newman 1984, p.37)

In his letter to the compiler Deacon described how he made the drawings:

There are no preparatory drawings as such, the drawings shown at the Lisson [‘Preparatory drawings for “It's Orpheus when there's singing”’, 1978, pencil on paper, 420 × 595, 16 1/2 × 23 1/2, and ‘Preparatory drawing for “It's Orpheus when there's singing”’, 1978, pencil on paper, 460 × 645, 18 1/8 × 25 3/8, listed in Richard Deacon: Prints and Drawings, exh. cat., Lisson Gallery 1988, nos.19, 21, one (unspecified) repr. in Madrid exh. cat., 1988, pl.10] are, as it were, technical tryouts. All the drawings in the series were made in the same way, although this does become much more elaborated as the series progresses. The procedure was to construct on the sheet a regular geometric figure(s). For example a series of three overlapping lozenges is apparent at the centre of T 04859. This figure (or figures) was as much ‘the material’ as the paper and the pencil. The use of a geometric figure paralleled procedures that I had previously employed in making sculpture in that I would construct a square, cube or cylinder etc. as a preliminary in order to be able to work simultaneously with material and shape. In the drawings, from the figure I began constructing sets of curves and spirals linking one part to another. In the complex net of lines that was thus beginning to be created it was possible to discern possibilities of linkage between differing parts of the curves. In constructing these links an enclosed shape was slowly evolved. This was in turn subdivided and further manipulated or adapted as an image or an idea about an image appeared. The ‘final’ form of this enclosed shape was picked out in a stronger line. T04859 has more evidence of revision of this final shape than others in the series. It is the quality of the enclosed shape - an enclosed shape with an aperture - that led me to identify the shapes with objects - pots, pans, shoes, hats etc, - and with the head of Orpheus. The pertinent connection being ideas about sounding, resonance and speech. This is the singing or listening head referred to. Each drawing took between a week and ten days to complete. I had no idea of making a series when I began, I was just drawing. Though it is also important to say I was not making sculpture.

The eight other drawings in the series are: ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #1’, 1978–9 (artist's collection, pencil on paper 1067 × 1422, 42 × 56, no repr.); ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #2’, 1978–9 (artist's collection, pencil on paper 1067 × 1422, 42 × 56, no repr.); ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #3’ 1978–9 (artist's collection, pencil and crayon on paper, 1067 × 1422, 42 × 56, repr. Luzern exh. cat., 1982, [p.53]); ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #4’, 1978–9 (private collection, pencil and crayon on paper, 1067 × 1422, 42 × 56, repr. Maastrich exh. cat., 1987, p.60, detail repr. Londonderry exh. cat., 1983, [p.9]); ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #5’, 1978–9 (private collection, pencil and crayon on paper, 1067 × 1422, 42 × 56, repr. Edinburgh International: Reason and Emotion in Contemporary Art, exh.cat., Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh 1987, pl.8); ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #6’, 1978–9 (private collection, pencil and ink on paper, 1067 × 1422, 42 × 56, repr. ibid., pl.9); ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #8’, 1978–9 (private collection, pencil and crayon on paper, 1067 × 2133, 42 × 84, no repr.); ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #9’, 1978–9 (artist's collection, pencil and crayon on paper, 1067 × 2133, 42 × 84, no repr.).

In his letter to the compiler the artist recalled how the two different sizes of paper were important for the proportions of the drawings:

The paper size, 42" × 56" in the first seven and 42" × 84" in the last two, was chosen deliberately. 42" was the width of the roll of paper. The first drawings are in the proportion 3:4, the others 1:2. The original reason for choosing the 3:4 ratio was that the diagonal was also rational 3:4:5. Having worked with a 3:4 ratio it seemed natural to change to 1:2 in the last drawings when I wanted to increase the size, given that the width of the roll was a limit. In all the drawings the lines are either ruled or constructed as radii using a pin and a bit of string (i.e. there are no ‘freehand’ curves). T04859 is somewhat exceptional in that the shape was revised at a late stage, hence the scumbled oil pastel.

Deacon added:

The drawings were made consecutively not simultaneously. They tend to become more complex through the series and, to some extent more ‘finished’ (this is particularly true of #6). The degree of revision apparent in #7 (the last one at that size) is markedly more than in the first drawings. The overlay of shapes in this drawing led to the change of format in #s 8 & 9 which both started in two separated forms on the paper.

The imagery in the drawings becomes progressively more elaborate. Each drawing contains one or more central motifs consisting of an enclosed curved shape which is picked out in a stronger line. ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #1’ has one dominant pot-like shape with an opening at the top. ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #2’ has one ovoid shape with an opening to the left. ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #3’ has two dominant shapes, to the left a pot-like shape similar to #1 and to the right a form derived from the ovoid shapes in #2. ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #4’ represents a more complex central image consisting of a circle from which two apertures extend at right angles, horizontally to the left and vertically downwards. ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #5’ is an intricate shape of two double ovoids which join at a central point. ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #6’ depicts three central motifs, two ovals at top left, each with an opening and joined at right angles, while a third oval with an opening is placed at bottom left. T04859 differs from the other drawings in that there is more evidence of revision of the central motif, which is an oval with two smaller openings at the top. ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #8’ and ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #9’ have not been seen by the compiler of this entry. The development of the network of lines and grids shows evidence of earlier motifs being repeated, for example, in ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing #5’ there is a pot-like outlined similar to the shape picked out in ‘Its Orpheus when there's singing #1’.

In his essay in the 1984 Fruitmarket Gallery exhibition catalogue (p.38) Michael Newman described the relationship between the pots and the drawings: ‘the shapes produced in the drawings most often resemble the outline of pots, of which the fundamental characteristic is a surface or skin separating inside and outside, the contained space from the continuum beyond.’ Deacon himself discussed the connection between the pots and the drawings in his notebook entry of 22 June 1979 (quoted in Luzern exh. cat., 1982, [p.50]):

I have been thinking for a long time about representation. The drawings in New York had reference to objects and to the ways in which objects stand in the light: to inside and outside; to shadow, openings, closures and more metaphorically, to echo, equivalence, song, head, mouth and ear. I read continuously Sonnets to Orpheus and the group of drawings are entitled ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing’ (Ist's Orpheus, wenn es singt). There are certain features of pots which seem to me to be tied in with these thoughts... a pot is a very specific yet non-specific object.

The ways in which interiority and exteriority are linked in the Orpheus drawings are complex. Newman has described the relationship between these two notions in Deacon's sculpture ‘Let's Not Be Stupid’, 1991 (Let's Not Be Stupid, exh. cat. University of Warwick 1991, p.25, repr.): ‘since the interior, while demarcated, remains transparent, interior and exterior are not equated with secret and apparent, latent and manifest, as in the Romantic legacy of the “depth” model of subjectivity.’

The time Deacon spent in America was important for his subsequent development, as Lynne Cooke has noted in her introductory essay to the 1983 Londonderry catalogue ([p.8]): ‘This interval in his sculptural output constituted a period of gestation rather than a hiatus’. Deacon confirmed this view in his letter to the compiler:

I think Lynne Cooke's judgement is correct. I never felt that I stopped making sculpture, but that I continued ‘by other means’. The way in which I used this series of drawings in exhibitions during the early '80s indicates this. What the ‘other means’ enabled me to do was both to change my formal vocabulary significantly and to accept that associations, relations of resemblance, were not necessarily obstructive.

This ‘acceptance of associations’ accompanied a move from the geometry of Deacon's works of the 1970s to the more organic curves of the 1980s sculptures. This transition is apparent in the way the drawings were made.

The subject of the series of drawings and how they related to Deacon's subsequent sculpture was discussed on 26 April 1985 when the artist was interviewed about his work. The interview was taped and part of the transcript (TAV 402A) was published in the catalogue entry on ‘For Those Who Have Ears No.2’, 1983 (T03958) in Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984–6, 1988. The following text is an extract from that entry (ibid., pp.133–4):

There also was a series of fairly complex drawings done in 1978–79 which do anticipate ... some of the later sculpture in the ways the drawings are done ... in terms of the edge. The kinds of information that's contained in those drawings is either to do with an edge or else to do with a flat sheet, folded. In neither case are they drawings that seem to indicate solid volumes, solid shapes. But I've never been able ... to make sketches for things that I propose to make.

The subject matter of the drawings was based on the Sonnets to Orpheus and they are all called ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing’ ... What interests me in the story of Orpheus has to do with what Orpheus's song does to the world and what the nature of the song might be. The proposal or notion that I tend to work with ... as a myth or as a story ... concerns the origins and functions of language, and that language is primary tool for operating on the material of the world and that as expressed in the story of Orpheus the trees and the rocks move and wild animals lie down and that he ultimately has the power to bring the dead back to life ... What I think that song is is the power of speech basically and I think of speech ... as being inbetween our private selves and the world, and the material of the world. The power of speech is a social condition of being human, to be an individual. The power of speech is meaningless, language only achieves its meaning in discourse or in the social world. But it is one of the primary means which enable us to operate on the world and to give it shape ... The shape of the drawings that tended to be arrived at was a hollow enclosure with an opening ... and that seemed to be able to stand for either the head of Orpheus ... singing or listening ... the aperture could be either a mouth or an ear, or his musical instrument which is a means of production of sound ... Orpheus has both a singing voice and an instrumental voice ... For various, other much more domestic objects, particularly pots and pans, but also shoes, hats, there's a whole variety of objects which have a volumetric shape with an opening. And all those objects seem to be in one way or another, in one or other of the drawings, brought in ... The drawings seem to point in a lot of directions ... I think of making things, structuring, as being an activity not unlike the power of speech, in that it is a means of giving shape ... it's obviously not in the same order as language, but it's a means whereby the world, a chaotic universe, is actually made understandable.

According to Deacon, the series of drawings relates to ‘the whole first part’ of Sonnets to Orpheus written by the Austro-German poet Rainer Maria Rilke in 1922. The very first sonnet describes the effect Orpheus's singing has on animals and trees referred to by Deacon above. The series title, however, is taken from the fifth sonnet:

Erect no monument. But let the roses
blossom every year for his memory's sake.
For it is Orpheus. His metamorphosis
into this one and that. We need not take

trouble for other names. Once and for all,
it's Orpheus when there's song. He comes and goes.
Is it not much if sometimes a few days
he outlives the roses in the bowl?

He has to vanish, so you'll understand:
Even though himself he fears this evanescence.
For while his word surpasses this existence,

he's gone alone already in the distance.
The lyre's grating does not curb his hands.
He is obedient, even when he transgresses.

(Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. C.F. MacIntyre, Berkeley,
Los Angeles and London 1960, p.11)

The title of T04859, ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing’, is an alternative translation to the phrasing of the translation given above. The artist has indicated that the title should be written without full capitalisation (letter to the compiler dated 1 October 1994). This can be seen as reflecting the title's literary source. Many of Deacon's titles have an almost conversational quality.

According to Michael Newman (1991, p.21), Deacon's titles ‘are mostly colloquial phrases’ and ‘often contain a buried metaphor which is reactivated by the work’.

Deacon first began to read the work of Rainer Maria Rilke while at the Royal College of Art. Deacon explained how he became interested in Rilke (letter to the compiler dated 1 October 1994):

The simple answer is by reading, particularly in relation to Rodin and his letters on Cézanne. I first read the ‘Rodin Book’ in 1973/4 and began to look for other material by Rilke. A fellow student at the Royal College, Peter Venn, was extremely interested in the Duino Elegies. William Tucker also had some intriguing comments on Rilke's ideas about ‘Things’.

It was during his stay in America that he became particularly interested in the ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’. The relationship between the structure of the sonnets and Deacon's abstract forms has been discussed by Mary Jane Jacob (1987, p.74):

Deacon saw a relationship between the structure of these poems and his abstract penetrable forms made of simple materials and, through Rilke's example, discovered a means of adding other levels of meaning to his art. Eloquently, the poet used ordinary words to construct writings of profound metaphorical import; objects retained their identity while becoming symbolic vehicles. Rilke also used extensively images evoking the senses: the head, Orpheus's head, the ear, heart, lyre, flowers, fruit, and so on ... While adopting references to the sense of hearing so prominent in The Sonnets (sound - the sound of words - being primary to Rilke as a poet), Deacon also developed metaphorical images related to sight which for him, as an artist, were essential.

Richard Francis (Tate Gallery exh. broadsheet, 1985 [p.3]) comments on Deacon's use of literary sources: ‘the exposure of ideas to culture creates a metaphoric relationship between the work and the world.’ The complexity of the relationship between the meanings of the drawings ‘It's Orpheus when there's singing’ and Deacon's use of Rilke's text is discussed by Michael Newman (1984, p.34):

These drawings are not representations of something already in the world, like a still life, nor are they expressive in the sense of externalizing something, a feeling or an image, from ‘within’ the artist. It is important that they refer to something which is already a work of art for their subject, and, moreover, a work of literature. They do so not in any sense to illustrate that work: it would be absolutely wrong to see the drawings and some subsequent sculptures as dependent upon Rilke's poems in the way that an illustration depends upon its text, indeed these works can be adequately understood without any prior acquaintance with the poetry. Rather, Rilke enabled Deacon to see how a certain conception of the relation between language, world and being could inform the practice of art, above all through the use of metaphor both within the work and as the basis for its ontology...

His reading of the poetry of Rilke allowed Deacon to replace the subject-object dichotomy with a conception of both encompassed by Being or Dasein. Thus we can understand the title of the drawings, It's Orpheus When There's Singing, in terms of a phrase from the third sonnet, Gesang ist Dasein, ‘song is being’ ... In its resonance, in the way that it is both inside and outside, crossing the distance between subject and things, music is a metaphor for Being; lyric poetry, of which Orpheus is the patron, is language as music: Rilke's Sonnets are concerned with the way in which ordinary things, from the indifference of which the subject might feel alienated, become meaningful in language. This meaning, or truth, is not a correlation of the percept or idea with things outside: it is founded in the language which constitutes both.

In Greek mythology Orpheus was a musician whose songs could attract wild beasts and move trees and rocks to follow the sound of his music. According to some versions of the legend, Orpheus was torn to pieces by the Maenads. His severed head and lyre floated down the river Hebros and, as they drifted, they made a mournful sound. Deacon later referred to another Greek myth in ‘Falling on deaf ears, No.1’, 1984 (repr. Tate Gallery exh. broadsheet, 1985, pl.4), which alluded to the story of the hero Odysseus who, on his voyage home, filled the ears of his companions with wax and had himself strapped to the mast of the ship in order to resist the temptations of the Sirens.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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