Illustrated Exhibition Catalogs:

Contemporary Artists Series

Mindless Mechanisms: The Sculpture of Norman Tuck

Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art - Winston-Salem, North Carolina

October 26, 1991 – March 8, 1992

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The creations of Norman Tuck come as a pleasant shock to viewers, especially if the objects are referred to as “sculpture” or “art.” They are seemingly better defined as machines, fascinating machines that work in interesting ways. Indeed, it is the pure delight derived from finding out how things work, and the process of going about making things work, that lies behind Tuck’s aesthetic. To best understand Tuck’s machines, it may be useful to follow a convenient chronological sequence of his object-making, though Tuck rightfully disclaims a straightforward developmental analysis of his work, and places great emphasis on the element of surprise (to himself as well as the viewer) as a major factor in his work.

Tuck loves the simple joys of watching simple mechanisms in action. A book which acted as a sort of “bible” for his early creative inspiration was a turn-of-the-century edition of “The Boy Mechanic,” which was chock-full of delightful “how-to” instructions and illustrations of basic mechanics. One can surmise that the artist is therefore very far removed in spirit from the ultra-sophisticated art-and-technology attitude that was pat of the 1960s art scene. Computerized extravaganzas in brushed aluminum and chrome held no attraction to him. Instead, the excitement of dreaming up some contraption, figuring out its basic mechanical needs by oneself, building it from scratch, and breathlessly pugging it in and seeing that the thin actually (gasp) works! – this is the veritable Tinker-Toy purism that Tuck started out with.

Consider this creation of 1971. It consists of a vertical metal-strut framework, with an extended metal arm that levers up and down by means of an electric motor. From the end of the arm dangles a bunch of bare light bulbs, all aglow beneath a tangle of exposed electric cords. Protecting the mass of bulbs at the cord’s connection point to the arm is the crown of a tattered black cloth umbrella. As the extension rises and falls, the lights become ramshackle parody of the sun’s movement in the sky. The piece is entitled “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose.” A solar cycle with a sense of humor, this work happily admits that is a poor second to nature, in fact, like much of Tuck’s work, one of its ingratiating qualities is its humility.

His concern not to overdo his mechanisms into something too complex or showy caused Tuck dissatisfaction with some objects made of pipe and pipe fitting. One of these performed like a multipartite windmill, with separately rotating segments whirling past each other in perfect synchronization, while the segments revolved as a unit about a central axis. It was painted bright red, and in action, it made a spectacularly complex display. It was a real crowd-pleaser; everyone loved it – except Tuck. He deemed it too flashy and complicated, and permanently dismantled it.

He set about making more works involving revolving motions, but with their speeds set slower, producing a more obvious, readable motion. In Hanging Piece of 1973 (simplicity shows in Tuck’s titles, as well), open planes of wooden slats, rather like the waterwheel paddles of a riverboat (see illustration) revolve past each other at a stately pace. To time the rotors – with six, three, and nine arms, respectively – to let the pass by each other without touching was a tricky task. Yet Tuck used not electronic calculators, slide rules, or even algebra. He drew the parts of the rotors in proper proportion and placed the drawings on graph paper. Then he physically rotated the drawings. Figuring out the required placement and speed by simple mathematics.

Both this work and Screw Piece of 1974 are fabricated primarily of nicely finished wood; the “look” of the work, “the aesthetics,” as Tuck put it, were becoming more important. He eventually redid the screw section of the later piece, replacing the original fiberglass screw with a wooden one, making it visually integrate with the overall construction. But the basic simplicity of construction and clarity of function remained paramount. The means of suspension of the Hanging Piece rotors is also their means of motion, or the geared ends of the rotors nestle only into hanging, unadorned bicycle chains. And the Screw Piece keeps an amiable awkwardness in its operation too. Given the possibility for error in the choice of pairing seven and eight-armed rotors, making these rotating elements, which flank the central screw, mesh just right into the screw-groove is a considerable feat. But Tuck characteristically allows the piece to lampoon his own ingenuity. The rotors are mounted on wheels so that, after a certain amount of time, combined effects of small irregularities of the meshing will move a rotor slightly away from the screw, necessitating a slight push to put the rotor back into place. As well, the piece emits a reassuring clinking sound, to tell us that its mechanism is still at work. 

Tuck recently traveled for nine months in Asia, particularly in India, and his attraction to a culture where there is a great deal of traditional, simple machinery still functioning is understandable. His 1977 show in New York City contained three works which al expressed real contemplation of an uncluttered, humanized technology. Tuck was trying to “get away from institutionalized power source;” the motive force for these works was human muscle. Electric motors were replaced by manual cranks. Whoever operated the objects now controlled their visual qualities. More rapidly executed cranking would cause a windmill to blow bits of suspended cloth into increasingly higher stats of agitation, or make rotors of rope and bamboo pull taut through centrifugal force, or in Finger Piece cause log slats of wood to whip ever higher into the air. By letting the forces which act on the pieces alter them, tuck continued his efforts toward composing interesting statements of the obvious, to “avoid mystification.”

In a 1978 reconstruction of “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose,” Tuck approaches a summary of his methods and philosophies at this point in his career. The gawky umbrella, cords, and visible bulbs are gone, and the support and lever structure are simpler in form. Electricity is introduced again to illuminate bulbs, yet its artificiality as a power source is subverted in the following manner. The lights are contained within a large shade-like device of Mylar plastic. The heat created by the incandescent lights causes a continuous flow of air upward through an opening in the shade’s apex. This heat-draft turns a small propeller which, as a thermal-powered windmill, directs the mechanical energy generated through a clever system of simple ropes, gears and counter weights, driving the lever arm up and down slowly, again making the ”sun” rise and set. Thus, electricity provides a mere initial push to an otherwise self-sufficient system of “natural” forces: light, heat, wind, gravity. Moreover, Tuck has arranged the gears to translate the energy into movement so slowly that the motion of his bulb-sun is as imperceptible to the viewer as the motion of Old Sol. The final, marvelous touch is that Tuck’s machine mimics the solar cycle even in time; one full up-and-down movement is completed in twenty-four hours. Technology and the forces of nature, mechanisms and materials both simple and advanced are all complements to each other here, visible, easily comprehensible and enjoyable to human intelligence and perception. 

The Contemporary Artists Series is organized by Jeffrey Wechsler. The bibliography and exhibition listings were compiled by Lorraine Warga and Jeffrey Wechsler.

Artworks:

1. Hanging Piece
Wood, metal, motor, 11 X 17 X 11 feet
Loaned by the Artist

2. Blueprint for Hanging Piece, 1973
Reverse ozalid print, 16 x 22”
Loaned by the Artist

3. Screw Piece, 1974
Wood, metal, motor, 10 X 16 X 5 feet
Loaned by the Artist

4. Finger Piece, 1975
Wood, metal, 11 (at greatest extension) X 20 X 4 ½ feet
Loaned by the Artist

5. Flipper, 1978
Aluminum, plastic, (Edition of 15). 15 X 17 X 17”
Loaned by the Artist

6. “I’ll Tell You How The Sun Rose.”
1978 reconstruction of 1971 original.
Metal, wood, Mylar, other media, 23 X 15 X 6 feet
Loaned by the Artist

Bibliography

“The Art Market, for Love or Money,” work shown and discussed on BBC-TV Omnibus series telecast.
Gruen, John. Review, The Soho Weekly News, September 26, 1974.
Cohen, Joshua. Review, Art-Rite, issue no. 2, 1973.

Exhibitions

Wake Forest Univiersity, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1978.
O. K. Harris Gallery, New York City, 1977.
O. K. Harris Gallery, New York City, 1974.
“New York Artists On Tour,” a traveling exhibition in the New York City area, 1974.
“Art in Evolution,” Xerox Exhibition Center, Rochester, New York, 1973.