Richard Deacon

Penelope Curtis
Let me ask you about works on walls, because they go back a long way, and there are also works on windows. Can you say something about why you first wanted to make these flat vertical works?

Richard Deacon
One answer would be to say that reliefs are a significant part of the history of sculpture. I don’t know if I think that was a particularly strong reason, but it was certainly a part of it. It was immediately after the installation in the Serpentine, when I’d tried to push through the gallery wall to kind of make a connection between the two parts. I remember reading something from Lynne Cooke around the time, about homelessness, and that the natural place for sculpture was in the museum, and I thought that was putting the cart before the horse – that sculpture, as a category, was not wholly contained within the museum. I thought that was a very myopic view of the place of contemporary sculpture. The skin of the building seemed to be a kind of extension of the idea of the skin of the sculpture, and [there was] the notion that there could be another surface that the work was sitting on – walls, windows or, in the very rare cases, the ceiling.

And all of that was informed by the Wall of Light film with John Tchalenko, in relationship to Pierre Chareau’s building at 23 rue du Dragon, the Maison de Verre, where the glass wall functions in a very interesting way between the inside and outside spaces, and is also like a projection screen that allowed the structure [to be used] as a vehicle for imagination. John Tchalenko introduced me to that building, and making that film was very formative in several ways. It was the first time that I made a large piece of sculpture outside [Blind, Deaf and Dumb B 1985], and introduced me to Gary Chapman, who was then an apprentice at Kemco Fabrications – I’d talked with them before, [but] this was the first project we did together. So that was important.

The contact with Richard Rogers was very interesting, and in a way it was via Richard Rogers that I learnt a bit about the vocabulary of drawings that I wanted to use in the construction. When the film was completed I wasn’t very convinced, but looking at it twenty years later I thought it held up very well and it had a lot of ideas in it. I was certainly extremely interested in the way the Maison de Verre was built, by Chareau’s blacksmith offering up suggestions, so there wasn’t just a bit of planning, there was a bit of improvisation, but within a very strict aesthetic.

The first wall reliefs were more like maps, but they rested against the wall. The Back of My Hand series were the first ones, and the very first one was initially installed across a window, on the wall outside Maureen Paley’s gallery in Beck Road.

Penelope Curtis
The Back of My HandI always thought was a great title, because if you look at the back of the hand, you don’t see the front of the hand. And it really is just like a handprint, or the opposite of a handprint, against a wall.

Richard Deacon
Yes, it was from the phrase ‘I know it like the back of my hand’ that I came up with the title. The external shapes that I used were the kind of shapes that I used in doodling when I was talking on the telephone, so they were the things that I knew like the back of my hand. And there was also that anecdote [I’ve told before]: as a child, and being somewhat alienated, or just with the kind of normal anxieties of childhood, I anticipated imminent disaster, and kept an escape kit under the bed, either so I could run away, or in the case of a major accident I would have something to take with me. So I had a little box, with a bit of string and some money inside it. There was also a map inside it, because I realised that if you were on the run, you needed a map, but the map was always an island – kind of like Treasure Island. And, subsequently, I began to reflect on the difference between a map with a shoreline, or an outline, and a streetmap like the A–Z that, if it bleeds to the edge, is contiguous with the space [where] you are. But the whole idea of running away is that you’d be somewhere else – you have to cross a boundary – and ‘somewhere else’ is represented by an outline. That was a strong initial motivation for the way in which I constructed the contents within the shape – the shape was known, but crossing the boundary into the inside was entering and mapping an unknown territory.

Penelope Curtis
The Alphabet series is also like doodles – it’s very much like what you might do while you’re waiting. Joining up points.

Richard Deacon
Yes, they are, though Alphabet drawings started from a set of clay works that I was making in Cologne – a series of sort of irregular solids, by cutting or by banging pieces of clay on a table. And at some point during the process, I’d thought that I could also draw them, or draw a kind of flattened version, as if they were a kind of wire diagram that was flattened. Then I got interested in the ways in which you divide up an exterior shape with delineations on the inside. Each drawing is a net of lines. In Alphabet F, there are points of semi-perspectival illusion, where there seems to be a corner jutting out. And then there are others which are very definitely a kind of net, flattened out, and others where the lines don’t come together in one vertex, one junction. All of those differing vocabularies are used in the group.

The Alphabet series, once it got underway, became a series of drawings in pencil on paper, a bit bigger than A4, about the ways in which you could divide up a single solid, and the different vocabularies you could use; I was probably looking for a certain level of uncertainty in what you were looking at – whether you were looking at a plan drawing, or an isometric or whatever. So the drawing itself wanted to potentially suggest some kind of construction.

The drawings were made in small groups, over a period of months, and mostly they seem to come out of being slightly idle – doodling, then trying to work out how you divide [them]. There’s a point when you know what the terms of the vocabulary are, and they’re fairly active in your head, and you can work within them. And then there comes a point where you sort of lose it and you kind of forget why it is you’re doing them, and then you stop.

After I’d made the series of drawings – when the well of inspiration had run dry, as it were – I thought about making them into reliefs. I wasn’t thinking about them as sculptures – I was just thinking about what happens if you flatten these objects. There were twenty-six, so then Alphabet seemed a logical title for them, [though] the lettering has nothing to do with the sequence of the drawings.

They’re made in Bletchley, at Twin Engineering, which Gary Chapman now runs, in a variety of different ways, [with] different folds and ways of working with a channel. They’re made up as individual shapes, which are then fitted together against a full-size template on the floor. It’s like making a frame – frames that are bolted together on the inside of the channels. So they could be potentially be demounted, although in most cases it’s better not to.

You have an enormous number of parameters you can use, and different materials you can use to make them. There’s a number which are made with the channel outwards and the colour on the inside, [and in] some stainless-steel ones, the channel is folded the other way. There are variations on the depth of the channel. There are some which are made in aluminium, which are beaten into the profile. There was an idea when I began that I’d use somehow twenty-six different ways of folding steel in order to make them, but actually I’m not that inventive!

Normally the decision about colour is made at some point in the process, before they’re finished. It started with grey, because that was a kind of non-choice, and there’s two or three which use the same or similar greys. Then it became, ‘I wonder what it would be like if it was a different colour.’ So the next one is a dark green. In the first instance I’ve tended to choose colours which change according to the condition of light.

Penelope Curtis
To go back to when we talked about the sculpture on the outside of the building, that’s almost as if the sculpture has come through the wall, or is trying to get into the inside. Other ones you almost feel [are] pressed up against the wall, trying to get outside. Do you have a sense of this sculpture sitting on a threshold with its ‘other side’ visible to the external viewer?

Richard Deacon
Certainly there is something of that in the reason why this has its channel out. In the first one I made, the folded steel [had] the flat face out, so what you saw was just a folded steel surface. And when it was being made, and it was stood up in the workshop, I noticed the back and I thought that the next one should be the other way round. So something is hidden and something is revealed by having them against the wall, which, if they were standing in space, wouldn’t be. I’ve only ever made one which is freestanding in space, which is now in a sculpture park in Switzerland: you can see both sides, and see the landscape through it. Ones which hang on the walls are like pictures.

Penelope Curtis
You mentioned the Maison de Verre earlier, but I also wondered if it’s with bringing in the work that you did in the Haus [Lange] in Krefeld.

Richard Deacon
It was important both for this and for the photographic pieces. The work in Haus Lange followed fairly directly from the use of the windows in the Serpentine Gallery and The Back of My Hand #1 at Maureen Paley’s gallery. I wanted to use the window as a location between the inside and the outside. Those huge windows bring the garden into the house as real kind of pictures, and I wanted to put sculpture between those two spaces. I thought initially about just sticking stuff on the windows, but what I ended up doing was using corrugated polycarbonate framed in aluminium, which disrupts the coherence of what you can see. The window entablature is enclosed on one side by the real window and on the other side by my second window, [and that] suddenly work[s] as a location for the sculpture, particularly when you look from the outside.

It was very strategic to do that [at Haus Lange] in Krefeld. There was one piece of sculpture in front of the front door, so you had to go round it, and then, when you went in, the majority of sculptures were pushed to the edges – there was one transparent sculpture in the middle of the room and then I used the balconies as well to house sculptures. And there were two sculptures, mirror images of each other, one in Haus Esters, the other in Haus Lange, which were floor-based and called Border, and which have that plastic covering on the outside.

Haus Lange and Haus Esters are quite exceptional in that they’re houses converted to museums, and actually, when you’re working there, you also get to stay at Haus Esters. When I make a show in a museum I don’t sleep in the museum, whereas in Krefeld, you get to sleep and dream in the space you’re subsequently going to work in.

As I said, windows in Krefeld followed on from the work in the Serpentine. They were followed, shortly afterwards, by the beginnings of the photo-collages where a cut-out hole in a photograph reveals a drawing. So it kind of diverts a little bit into the relationship between photography and drawing, rather than sculpture and space, which then went on to the screenprints Show & Tell, and then various other works. It struck me that the windows at Krefeld were like photographs of the landscape, more than they were like paintings.

Penelope Curtis
Where is your head now, in terms of thinking about materials, shapes, problems…?

Richard Deacon
I’ve just finished a whole lot of things. I had a very busy six months between October and April, May [2013], and the consequence [is] that I’ve finished a lot of things off, rather than started a whole lot of things going. So where I am now is more to do with puzzling about what to do next, rather than knowing what to do next.

I’m doing some things in stainless steel, and I’m interested in continuing a bit with the ceramic processes. But where my head is now is that I’m in a stage of reflecting [on] the direction I want to proceed in.

Penelope Curtis
It sounds like quite a good moment for an exhibition.

Richard Deacon
It’s a very good moment for an exhibition.

Penelope Curtis
I wonder if that’s by chance, or if you made it happen that way?

Richard Deacon
I think it’s a combination of the two.