Empty Hand is a wooden sculpture of a hand made up of interlocking rows of hollow segments resembling fragments of honeycomb connected with thin metal wires. The hand is encased in a specially designed box frame. This work forms a companion piece with Full Hand, 1970-1 (Tate T07753), which is similarly constructed with solid pieces of carved wood. The overtly cellular structure of Empty Hand is alluded to in the raised carved squares comprising Full Hand. Both works are made with deliberately simple materials. The wood is coarse and although intricately structured the carvings have an informal, hand-crafted quality. Like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle, each work may be taken apart and re-assembled in abstract configurations, although the framing device of its box suggests the original hand shape is its ideal form.
Neagu was born in Bucharest. In 1970 he moved from Romania to London where he remained for the rest of his life. His sculptural works of the early 1970s are characterised by cellular construction and are often comprised of interconnecting pieces which, like Empty Hand and Full Hand, may be disassembled. In some cases the indented portions of his sculptures were lined with materials with contrasting textures; these works were designed to be touched (see for instance Tactile Object (Hand), 1970, Tate T07756 and Palpable Object, 1970-2, Tate T07755).
The hand is traditionally seen as a creative tool, the part of the body used to make and mould things. It is also an organ associated with the sensation of touch. Neagu sought to overthrow what he saw as the tyranny of the visual in the fine arts by inviting the public to touch his sculptures. In performances he also invited audience members to smell and taste sculptural figures made of waffles and honey. His choice of the hand as subject matter can be seen as a related attempt to focus attention away from the visual to the tactile, and to stimulate the audience’s own creative potential.
The grid-like structure of Neagu’s work provides a visual analogy for the unconscious process of compartmentalising sensory or intellectual information. The cells also function as a metaphor for interrelated parts of the human body and by extension parts of society and the natural world which remain separate yet linked. Neagu’s philosophy stressed the simultaneous distinctness and interconnectedness of everything, from the molecular level to the universal. He described his aim as ‘To constitute on an Art-level, multiple connections of apparently disparate facets potentially high charged in order to underline ... meaningful relationship’ (quoted in Generative Art Group, p.56).
Neagu’s intellectually rigorous and object-based approach was influential on a younger generation of British artists who came to prominence in the 1980s. Sculptors who were taught by Neagu at art school include Tony Cragg (born 1949; see Axehead, 1982, Tate T03791), Richard Deacon (born 1949; see For Those Who Have Ears #2, 1983, Tate T03958), Antony Gormley (born 1950; see Untitled (for Francis), 1985, Tate T05004) and Anish Kapoor (born 1954; see As if to Celebrate, I Discovered a Mountain Blooming with Red Flowers, 1981, Tate T03675).
Generative Art Group, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1975.
Sarah Kent, Paul Neagu: Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1979.
Christian Simionescu, A Derridean Tornado: Paul Neagu 1965-2000, London, 2000, reproduced p.42 in colour.