Richard Deacon, ‘It’s Orpheus When There’s Singing #7’ 1978–9
Richard Deacon
It’s Orpheus When There’s Singing #7 1978–9
Tate
© Richard Deacon

Penelope Curtis
I’d like you to talk about the Orpheus drawings. You accompanied Jacqui Poncelet on her fellowship to New York in 1978 and were sharing a studio in a foreign place without your usual resources. Does this concentrated period of drawing mark a real change?

Richard Deacon
The last few sculptures I made immediately prior to the departure for the United States were basically done by making a decision about material, and assembling the material into some kind of form – a square, a disc, etc. – and then, using that as a constraint, making the sculpture by bending, folding, cutting, manipulating the given quantity of material. I’d evolved a kind of procedure for making sculpture, but I wanted to use the opportunity of not having the studio to change vocabulary.

I’d used drawing in a kind of diagrammatic way at St Martin’s, and the drawings I did from life at the Royal College – as well as of chairs and of trees – were all slightly conceptual propositions, both sculptural and perceptual, about the relationship of drawing to sculptural activity. In retrospect, they do make available a greatly increased vocabulary of sculptural practices. However, I’ve never been very good at making drawings for sculpture – I’ve never understood drawing as having that kind of relationship.

My idea was that instead of making drawings for sculpture, or drawings for drawings, that I’d treat the sculptures I’d been making in the past three years as sculptures for drawings, so that I would try and draw in a way that had some connection to the procedure for making sculpture.

The first decision was obviously to do with the size of the paper, so I started by buying a roll of paper and cutting it to a particular size. I didn’t think of them in terms of a series; I was just thinking in terms of making drawings, one after the other.

The size is in a ratio of three to four, a golden-section size, except for the last two, when the rectangle changes. In these, the ratio is one to two: much grander, much more assertively horizontal.

The second decision was that I wanted the mark to be somewhat mechanical. So they were ruled lines, for the first form, but thereafter it was always arcs of circles, so the pencil was always constrained by a piece of string pinned to a point in the paper. So the initial drawing was a question of starting from point A and going round the figure, linking the other points in some way or other, coming back, and then progressively changing the shape of that developing spiral. The drawing then becomes a process of trying to excavate a form from a developing set of lines, which are constrained by a particular rule.

Penelope Curtis
And the pencil was never free? It was always constrained?

Richard Deacon
It was never free – except sometimes, in the end, the final line is, is reinforced freehand. I used various different things. So #7 uses oil pastel as a reinforcement #4, it’s graphite; #5, if I remember correctly, these are metallic crayons. There’s even one that’s ink. It’s a way of finishing. Rubbing out was a way of finishing, as in #1 and #2 but reinforcing the line was also a way of finishing. In a way, it’s a bit like the difference between carving and modelling: carving is rubbing out; having the drawing kind of appear out of this mesh of other lines is like a kind of modelling process.

Penelope Curtis
Did you already know they were going to lead into three-dimensional works?

Richard Deacon
The things I most associated them with [at] first were ceramics. I was extremely lucky at school to have somewhere I could use ceramics. The first thing I made was a rather large coil pot. I think it’s accurate to say I was interested in building the wall, and in what you could do with that. There’s obviously all sorts of other bits I made, but the last two or three ceramic works I made at school were all coiled, but quite sculptural in intent: there are a couple of figures, and one pot which has multiple interconnections to it.

When I stopped drawing – we were still in the States – I started making pots. The drawings are actually very closely associated with the pots that got made. I was interested in the inside and outside thing that the drawings have, and then the ceramics sort of rehearsed that again, and the thing that interested me was the relationship between the way that the wall was built and the way the drawing line developed and enclosed the volume. And also there’s always an aperture or some sort of opening: If you look at #2, then I think that relates quite closely to Struck Dumb for example the way in which that cut works in Struck Dumb. You can read that as an opening, but you can also read it as a cut.

Richard Deacon, ‘Struck Dumb’ 1988
Richard Deacon
Struck Dumb 1988
Tate
© Richard Deacon

Penelope Curtis
There are quite often two objects, or shapes, on the page, and not one.

Richard Deacon
The first two are single objects – I’m not quite sure how it happened in #3 that there were two parts. It could be that they started with having two shapes as the originating thing. #4 has two parts, but they’re kind of linked together. #5 has two parts [that] nearly touch, and #6 has three parts. The problem with two parts is you have a kind of dualism involved, and they talk to each other. In the end (with #8 and #9), I wanted to try and bring them back into being one, being together, rather than being apart.

These drawings were shown as a group twice, with the exception of #8, which has never been shown. The first time, they were shown in the gallery in Acre Lane, in connection to Untitled, 1980, the wooden one, so there is a very explicit connection between that sculpture and the group of drawings. And you can see that #4 is very clearly related to the untitled galvanised sculpture that came afterwards although that’s more a post-hoc identification than one that I referred to at the time. So I did use the drawings as a way of boosting my confidence, and in a way which I’d never done with the sculptures. I was aware that they would be a resource for time to come.

Penelope Curtis
Was the fact that you made them in America significant at all?

Richard Deacon
The significance was I wouldn’t have been able to do them here, because the studio I had in Acre Lane was damp and didn’t have a wall. So there’s a kind of practical thing. The fact of being absent is a more complicated issue. And the thing about being in America is you can reinvent yourself.

Penelope Curtis
Did you feel a little bit lost? Or isolated?

Richard Deacon
No, I had a family with me. We were having a great time. I had contact with Bill Tucker in New York, and I showed him the work that I’d done. I’d made an exhibition in Brixton just before I left, which was intended as a statement about ‘This is where I am’: the sculptures in that exhibition were the things that I thought worth keeping, or worth going on from. So doing the drawings was partly in relationship to what had felt like a drawn full stop.

These drawings have often been discussed as being a kind of breakthrough, but if I look at the showing history, and the fact that I kept work from prior to making the drawings, I think there are connections across. It’s not a complete rupture. I’d reached a moment of opportunity, I think I’d say, rather than a moment of crisis.

Penelope Curtis
I think that the title gave people a way of talking about the work.

Richard Deacon
I think that’s true as well. It also gave me a way to think about the work. I added a name to the work in a way that I hadn’t done before. This was the first time when the title became a name. I didn’t have any hesitation about what I would call them.

The title happened because I’d been reading a lot of Rilke. I’d been reading Sonnets to Orpheus on the plane to America – I’d started reading them before, but I was reading them fairly continuously whilst I was doing these drawings, [and] thinking about the way in which imagery worked in Rilke, and it seemed to bridge between a long-term interest that I had in the relationship between looking and listening – what you see and how you talk about it.

At St Martin’s, the thesis that I submitted for my diploma was to do with the relationship between language and perception, and the ways in which how you describe something changes the thing that you see. So it had been a preoccupation for some time.

I’d also thought that writing poetry was a good metaphor for making sculpture – that poetry didn’t have a poetic language but was assembled from something everyday, and it was just the way of putting it together that created meaning. Meaning was a problem for me in the mid-Seventies and may still be a problem. The process, the question of where the meaning was, was an issue, so some of the kind of theoretical or intellectual work I’d been doing in that period was to try and understand the relationship between discourse and meaning in art-making.

The Rilke had interested me because – particularly in the Sonnets to Orpheus but also in some of the [Duino] Elegies – the experience of ordinary things is transposed and becomes both symbolic and actual at the same time. And that seemed to be a kind of a way out of the conundrum that meaning could be tied to the concrete as well as to the symbolic. And the Sonnets to Orpheus provided a kind of a description, both of the way that language functioned in relationship to the world, and of the way language functioned in relationship to ideas about meaning. So you could imbue a thing with meaning, and it would retain its concreteness, its minimal literalness, but at the same time take on a kind of a discourse about meaning. It was the ambiguity that I thought was interesting, and that I thought the hollow place allowed you to have. It allowed you to have the potential without actually having to say ‘This is this’ or ‘That is that’.

Orpheus is always an in-between character – he’s the one that can go into death and come out again. He’s torn apart at the end, so this is also the head of Orpheus, floating away, but still singing.

Penelope Curtis
So you always felt that the drawings were connected to those sonnets. It wasn’t a nice title to add at the end?

Richard Deacon
No, I’ve been fascinated in the idea of resonance since I was in school. But resonance and Orphic imagery in Rilke’s poetry, and the relationship with the material, all kind of mixed together.

Penelope Curtis
‘It’s Orpheus when there’s singing’ is a strange line. What do you think that means?

Richard Deacon
It has a bit to do with immanence. It’s a way of talking about the relationship between speech and objects. So what Orpheus does is he causes things to happen – brings things into being – by singing. His song brings the animals there, causes the rocks and stones to move. And it’s a way in which our humanness becomes evident. We cause things to come into being – we call them up. There is a resonance between us and the world that speech mediates. I think resonance is important, to do with the way that the inanimate becomes animate. And the drawings are a bit about being alert to the world, calling up the world. So in relationship to the drawings, it doesn’t tell you very much at all, except it enables you to identify a relationship between the two kinds of aperture – the mouth and the ear – and it gives you one way into reading the object.

Penelope Curtis
Does Orpheus represent the artist?

Richard Deacon
No, I think it can be anybody. I don’t think it’s privileged. It is about creation, but it’s not about privileged creation – because we can all talk, all sing.

Penelope Curtis
So did you feel with #9 that you had finished? It wasn’t just that you were leaving New York?

Richard Deacon
I ran out of time. Well, the roll was finished as well. I did feel they’d finished, and #9 in fact was maybe slightly unfinished. But it was a very clear, concentrated period, making the drawings; I didn’t have a sense that I wanted to continue in a different location. In fact, the better thing to say is that they seemed very specifically tied to both the situation and the location – the sharing of a studio and the light in that – and the period in New York, when it was wintertime, it was kind of cold outside. And actually not really knowing anybody. You knew a few people, but in a way you were being able to kind of self-invent. Anyway, I wanted to start making things.

Penelope Curtis
When you got back to Britain, you showed eight. Did you think you wanted to keep them together, ideally?

Richard Deacon
Well, I gave one of them away. I knew they were good and I knew they were kind of important, but I obviously used them in relationship to kinds of friendship. So the one I gave away was to John Lifton, who’d been a tutor at the college and become a close friend, and I gave #4 to Jacqui. #5, I sold to Peter Venn, who was a fellow student at the Royal College. So I thought they were separate objects, although there was a series of them.

Penelope Curtis
And they were shown in relatively modest places: your studio in Acre Lane, and Winchester.

Richard Deacon
And then in the Kunstmuseum Luzern, in Englische Plastik Heute. And that was almost the last time. There was one in my first show at Lisson and Nigel Greenwood showed a couple in the Drawing show in the Hayward Annual. Otherwise they were sort of things that people discussed without seeing them. It’s funny that the drawings are in public in a way that the sculptures weren’t.