© The Artist

MEMPHIS 1965-66

William Tucker (1935 – )


76.2 X 142.3 X 165.1
Accession number


Fibreglass is one of characteristic materials of the 'New Generation' sculptors, whose group title stuck from a series of exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the early 1960s. Among them are Philip King, David Annesley, Michael Bolus, Tim Scott and Isaac Witkin, together with William Tucker, all of whom were taught by Anthony Caro at St Martins School of Art, London.

Playing on the modernist tenet, 'truth to materials', Tucker is exploring the possibilities offered by new industrial materials. The technique of heating glass and extracting it into into fine fibres is an ancient one, but 'fibreglass' was first properly exploited as a commercial product — an insulation material — in 1938 for the American glassworks company, Owens-Corning. After the Second World War the product boomed; Owens-Coming began dying its insulation pink in 1956, and due to its domination of the market, fiberglass insulation became closely associated with that colour. It is the same colour pink that the third, uppermost part of Tucker's Memphisis painted.

Glass fibres have a high ratio of surface area to weight, and fibreglass was also found to be useful for reinforcing plastic as a high-strength material — it is widely used in car parts, boat hulls, surfboards, pipes, roof panels and so on. It enabled Tucker to do surprising things in sculpture: large, distinctly shaped surfaces can not only be supported but bear weight. Tucker's trio of kidney-shaped items have been moulded, cut and bolted together, and each component covered in a layer of bright paint. They are presented in a seemingly casual sit-in on the floor — laid back, unstuffy, scorning the traditional plinth. Tucker is not so much kicking against the previous generation, dominated by Henry Moore's privileging of the organic, as bouncing away from it. He is looking towards America (where his tutor Caro had spent a formative period, and where Tucker was to move in 1977). Yet unlike his great contemporary, the American Minimalist Donald Judd, who made coloured Plexiglass his own, Tucker's way into abstraction retained a figurative imprint, a cheeky hint at narrative, even. Its geometric form and pristine surface are played off with jelly baby curves and colours. In addition, the title, Memphis, is a gesture towards a bigger sense of generational shift, beyond sculptural concerns. The city of Memphis, Tennesse, home to the blues, was the birthplace of rock n roll. From there the sounds of the cotton fields were filtering through to mainstream pop culture, via Memphis stars, such as B.B. King and Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. At the same time, during the 1960s, Memphis was at the crux of the developing civil rights movement; it was to be the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.

The New Generation: 1965 (exh. cat., intro. B. Robertson; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1965)
R. Morphet: ‘William Tucker', The Alistair McAlpine Gift (exh. cat., intro. A. McAlpine; London, Tate, 1971)
William Tucker: Sculpture, 1970–73 (exh. cat., intro. A. Forge; London, Serpentine Gallery, 1973)
William Tucker: Gods: Five Recent Sculptures (exh. cat., intro. D. Ashton; London, Tate, 1987)