Richard Deacon

Struck Dumb

1988

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Steel
Dimensions
Object: 1580 x 3900 x 2500 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1989
Reference
T05558

Summary

Struck Dumb is a large, bulbous steel structure which rests directly on the floor. Described by one critic as a 'giant black pumpkin of welded steel' (Sarah Kent, Time Out, 4-11 January 1989, p.35), its squat form appears from most angles to be entirely enclosed. Only on one side does an opening reveal itself. This aperture is plugged by a sheet of rust-red steel cut into a shape vaguely resembling a bow-tie. The sheet does not seal the opening completely, and a small gap remains at floor level. The viewer must crouch low to peer inside the work, which is then revealed to be a hollow structure, simply a thin membrane of sheet metal. Struck Dumb is constructed from four sections of welded steel bolted together to form a single entity. It was made by a team of metalworkers at the Govan shipyards under the supervision of the artist, working from a solid wooden maquette. The main body of the sculpture has been chemically patinated to a silvery black colour.

Struck Dumb typifies one of two sculptural directions that Deacon established early in his career - forms which are obviously not solid but are built as a hollow shell with minimal internal support, such as If The Shoe Fits 1981 (Tate T07321). The other direction is characterised by open forms whose shapes are defined by linear elements, such as For Those Who Have Ears #2 1983 (Tate T03958). Both trajectories satisfy his desire to make the structure of a work of art self-evident. Deacon refers to himself as a 'fabricator' and he favours materials that come in sheet form, such as steel, wood or linoleum, with which he can draw attention to his role as builder. The prodigious use of screws and rivets is far in excess of structural necessity and further emphasises the work's 'fabricated' status. This emphasis on 'manufacture' derives from Deacon's longstanding interest in language. During his 1978-9 visit to America, he was greatly influenced by the work of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus helped Deacon to crystallise a personal aesthetic theory, influenced by language, which had been evolving since his days at the Royal College of Art. Deacon was interested in the way in which Rilke used ordinary language to create profoundly metaphorical poetry. Words which are in themselves quite banal are transformed by the poet's syntax into something new and lyrical. The poet uses commonplace words as building blocks to create completely new meanings and metaphors. By emphasising the 'fabricated' aspect of his sculptures, Deacon points to their own syntactical quality and their consequent kinship with language. The title, Struck Dumb, is consistent with his repeated use of clichés and well-worn phrases to name his works. These prosaic idioms are linguistic equivalents of Deacon's common, workaday materials. Moreover, his titles frequently allude to the senses and in doing so they recall the imagery of Rilke's Sonnets, which are dominated by references to the sense of hearing and the sound of words.

Further reading:
A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture Since 1965, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1987.
Jon Thompson, Pier Luigi Tazzi and Peter Schjeldahl, Richard Deacon, London 1995, p.67, reproduced in colour, p.70.
Richard Deacon, exhibition leaflet, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1988, [p.7].

Helen Delaney
November 2001

Display caption

One of the recurrent themes of Deacon's work is the object as container and in this case the container is closed and impenetrable. The titles of Deacon's sculptures frequently refer to the senses: of sound, vision and touch. In this piece the title may refer to the hidden or silent interior. All of Deacon's works are abstract although they characteristically refer to natural and organic forms.

Gallery label, August 2004

Technique and condition

Deacon made a card model from which the full size sculpture was constructed by a firm of metalworkers under his supervision. The sculpture is constructed from four sections of welded mild steel sheet approximately 5 mm thick reinforced internally with spot welded steel ‘fins’. The four sections make up two parts which are bolted to each other to form a single unit. The main body of the sculpture is chemically patinated silvery black and the interior and two front panels are painted red.

The artist requested that the metallic, dark lustre on the main body be maintained by applying ‘iron paste’ made by Liberon waxes. The paste consists of graphite, pigment and wax mixture; one commonly used for maintaining cast iron stoves and fireplaces. A very thin layer of paste is wiped on with a soft cloth and buffed off immediately.

When the sculpture was assembled for display in January 1990, the front red panel was severely marked. The artist supplied Rustin’s red oxide metal primer and advised that the panel be repainted if it becomes disfigured in the future.

Bryony Bery
April 2004