Tony Cragg is the first sculptor to have his works exhibited in Cour Marly and Cour Puget at the Musée de Louvre, where his zigzagging contemporary sculptures contrast with the 17th century marble figures. His variously coloured works in bronze, marble, wood and fibreglass exude energy and vivacity, as if they are leaping, striding, twisting or exploding.
The exhibition is organized to coincide with that of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) in a separate gallery, where heads by the German sculptor are displayed.
The story of how these two exhibitions came to the Louvre dates back to 2008, when Cragg was invited by the Belvedere in Vienna to show his work in conjunction with that of an artist in their collection. The British artist picked Messerschmidt, and Cragg’s series of sculptures, which took faces as their starting point, were presented in a dialogue with Messerschmidt’s heads.
At the Louvre, the exhibitions are not in direct juxtaposition so Cragg is showing nine different works, including “Versus” underneath I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid, making him the first artist to show a work in this location.
In this exclusive interview, Tony Cragg – who won the Turner Prize in 1988, the same year that he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale – discusses his ardent love of sculpture. This extends to him having opened a sculpture park in Wuppertal, the German city where he has lived since 1977.

The exhibition at the Musée du Louvre follows the juxtaposition of your work with that of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt at the Belvedere in Vienna. What gave you the idea?

It was actually Norman Foster, who was sitting in my studio and had seen Messerschmidt’s work. And he said there was some relationship because of the way the faces are moving or grimacing and getting away from normal representation. Messerschmidt’s work is very admirable and it’s remarkable to think that, out of having made sculptures of notaries and the monarchy, he started to expand the vocabulary of making sculpture in terms of making people look unhappy. You realise that the shape of the face depends, as we all know, on the psychology behind the face and perhaps health and long-term issues. It’s an example of a sculpture breaking ground before psychology was a real term. Most sculptors would like to think that they do something that expresses some aspect of the world in a new way.

How do you feel about your work intermingling with the ancient sculptures in the Marly and Puget courts at the Louvre?

In Cour Marly, there’s a very remarkable collection of sculptures or, as the Louvre is continually reminding me, masterpieces. So, it’s a bit of an intimidating task to select work to put it in such an enormous volume. When I saw the big sculptures in there I thought, ‘Oh, well, there’ll be no problem to get work into here because they’ve done it.’ I didn’t know that those sculptures were brought in before there was a roof. So we had to come through the catacombs.

How did you choose which pieces to show?

I wanted to have four basic states about what the concerns of sculpture could be. Sculpture is concerned to some extent with static and being a symbol of energy; “Elbow” and “Double-Zigzag” are a bit like a person standing on their tiptoes and making different gestures or statements. The marble figures in Cour Marly are reaching out their arms or holding things, so I wanted to put a sculpture in there – “Manipulations” – that is based on two hands where the fingers are just becoming tools. It’s formed in such a way that the inside surface is moulded inside the material and it has a sharp and dynamic feeling. Traditionally in sculpture, the surface is like a blind where the vision stops. And with the works, “Ferryman” and “Sharing” in Cour Puget, I’ve tried to make a sculpture that shows what the reasons for these lumps and bumps and forms are. Similarly, with “Versus”, it’s a series of formal constructions based on several figures so that the surface has almost the effect that it’s boiling with explosions going on inside.

Was “Versus” made especially for I. M. Pei’s pyramid?

You could say that but it’s not my specialty to make things for certain places. Maybe I did that when I was younger but I found that was not necessarily the best thing for me to do. I like to continue what themes and forms I’m pursuing at the time in my studio. As the possibility came to put a work in the pyramid, I thought I’d do a complete, larger work around my current concerns.

Are you often working across different types of sculptures simultaneously?

Yes. Some take years, some take a few weeks. The themes of my work have remained amazingly constant but I’ve found lots of different ways of expressing them. Sometimes I discover that I can’t get any further and the pieces stand around for a long time. And sometimes I’m lucky and know what I have to do.

What tends to be the starting-point for a new work?

The biggest input is the last work. When you’re making a sculpture, you’re making a chain of decisions and at certain moments you have to go one way or the other. Afterwards when you look at the end result, you wonder what the consequence would have been if you’d gone down that other path. So, if it’s interesting enough, you go back and do that again. I’m not a conceptual artist – this idea of sitting down somewhere on a sofa and trying to work out what the art world needs, like a big, pink sculpture made in plastic – doesn’t suit me at all. I like to think it’s a really complicated process where I’m going to learn something and end up somewhere I haven’t considered.

Your sculptures often have this sense of a rippling figure and multiple faces. Are these profile features ever based on yourself?

A couple of them have my profile in them. But they’re not portraits, they’re just using people’s profiles. For “Sharing”, I modelled the heads of three assistants of mine in clay and cast them in bronze and made a new constellation out of them.

When you’re experimenting with materials, how do you decide which one to use?

I’m always interested when there’s a new material I can use. It’s got to be a stable material that you can control and that doesn’t change much over time and when it’s put outside. When I was a student in the ‘60s and ‘70s, artists were rushing around trying to find new materials to make art with and continuing the Duchamp process of finding non-art things to bring to the art world. But once you’ve done the pissoir, the perfume bottle, the rabbit, the neon tube, the BMW and everything else, what’s the point? But as soon as you get hold of some material and start to move it around, it becomes very complicated and there aren’t that many materials that can take the stress. What I’m trying to do is internal in a sense and I try not to react to too many things that aren’t central to the work.

So are you creating fundamentally to satisfy your sense of investigation?

Yes. Absolutely. If there’s any great value in art, one is that you don’t know what it will look like tomorrow and the second one is that it gives you an individual’s point of view. When you sit down to do a drawing, you can do anything you want and nobody is going to stop you as long as you don’t take a vote on it. I feel the only way to be an artist is to be quite radical with oneself and say: ‘I don’t care what’s happened before’ and be prepared to stick with it.

How did working as a lab technician and your interest in natural sciences influence you?

I was a very young, very lowly laboratory assistant and just a schoolboy that was interested in science. I don’t know if that taught me any method but I know it’s often said. I don’t feel it had any influence on me except that in science you do have observations, you’re gathering information and have to think things out.

Why did you want to open your own sculpture part in Wuppertal three years ago?

It’s just a way of getting more people to see more sculpture. We’ve had 40,000 people each year and a really great programme of exhibitions that started with Mario Merz and then Eduardo Chillida, Jean Dubuffet, Richard Long, John Chamberlain and Jean Tinguely. It’s mostly my own work, although I’d like to go around stealing more art, but I do have works by Thomas Schütter, Richard Deacon, Wilhelm Mundt and Jan Fabre.

What direction do you want to pursue with your work?

I can’t tell you that as I don’t know until it’s finished. It’s just sculpture language – bang, bang, hammer, hammer. Sculpture plays a major role in finding new terms and expressions. It just gives the everyday, physical world meaning and values.

What’s your definition of luxury?
Feeling fit, and I really just enjoy making my work. A good day in the studio is probably the best day for me.

A moment
I like spending time with my wife – that would probably be one of the nicest things.

A person
Definitely any member of my family

An object
A Brancusi sculpture

A place
The studio

“Tony Cragg – Figure out/ Figure in” is at the Musée du Louvre until 15 April 2011.

“Tony Cragg – Second Nature” is published by Dumont Buchverlag.