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Contemporary art

Western art

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Listening to reason



Richard Deacon

Wales, England

15 Aug 1949 -


Like many of his generation, Richard Deacon adopted Marcel Duchamp’s proposition that titles were an extra colour on the artist’s palette. In using language in this way the younger artists of the 1970s put distance between themselves and the abstract artists who came before them (who often labelled everything ‘Untitled’). ‘Listening to reason’ is a case in point.1 The shape of the work describes five double loosely ear-shaped curves, connected by twisting pieces of laminated wood to make one continuous line. The title encourages us to think of a circle of people listening to an argument, each connected to the other but all slightly differently. It is far from being a symmetrical form; each section is joined by twisting connections that appear to be arranged at random. The line is made up of multiple layers of laminated ply, which have been glued together in sections and clamped onto forms that give them their twisting motion. Deacon has left the hardened glue that squeezed out of the laminations as a trace of the process, thereby adhering to a principle of truth to materials and processes. The plain, glowing yellow surface of the ply against the beige colour of the glue in the side grain of the wood helps to reveal the twisting body of the loops. The sections were then bolted together through offset joints, once again making a virtue out of the visible process to articulate the form.

The resulting curves and loops defy imagination. The piece is like a five-fold moebius strip but some-how it all comes together into a convincing whole. When asked how he had visualised this complex form in order to be able to make up the necessary jigs and formwork, he acknowledged that he never visualised it as a whole. It seems that he had the twisting straight sections lying around waiting to become a star-shaped work. On the other side of the studio were the five ear shapes destined for another work. Living with these forms, he eventually realised that they would fit together with a few minor modifications and the resulting sculpture is what we see here.2 There is an interesting parallel between this accidental juxtaposition and the working methodology of assemblage artists such as Haim Steinbach or Janet Laurence. Sculptors of this kind accumulate objects and materials in the studio and one day bring them together to make something new. This aspect of chance encounters belies the purely formal aesthetic that most American art aspired to at this time and leans towards a history of European surrealism, in particular to Duchamp’s theory of chance.3

1. This work was first reserved by the AGNSW in 1986 but only acquired when it was brought out for the 1988 Biennale of Sydney
2. Conversation noted by the author after a studio visit with Deacon in 1987
3. Duchamp believed in allowing chance to play a part in the creation of his works, for example the accumulation of dust that he used to colour the sieves in his ‘The large glass’ 1915–23

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006





Media category


Materials used

laminated wood


226.0 x 609.0 x 579.0 cm


Mervyn Horton Bequest Fund 1988


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Richard Deacon

Works in the collection


Shown in 4 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 13 publications


Majorie Allthorpe-Guyton, Richard Deacon, 'Listening to reason', pg.41-46, London, 1988, 45, 46 (illus.), 77 (illus.). This work is not in the exhibition but is referred to and illustrated in the catalogue.

Anthony Bond and Victoria Lynn, AGNSW Collections, 'Contemporary Practice - Here, There, Everywhere ...', pg. 229-285, Sydney, 1994, 247 (colour illus.).

Anthony Bond, Look, 'Rehang of Level 2 June 2012', pg.28-30, Sydney, May 2012, 29, 30 (colour illus.).

Anthony Bond, Look, 'Marriage rites', pg.28-31, Sydney, Jul 2008, 30-31 (colour illus.).

Anthony Bond, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Objects and associations', pg.332-381, Sydney, 2006, 346, 347 (colour illus.).

Mary Jane Jacob, A quiet revolution, British sculpture since 1965, 'Richard Deacon: the skin of sculpture', pg.72-91, London, 1987, 74, 78, 91 (illus.). 17, plate 41

Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Western Collection: Paintings and Sculpture', pg. 17-77, Sydney, 1999, 76 (colour illus.).

Paula Latos-Valier, Biennale of Sydney 2000, 'Looking back: the biennale of Sydney 1973-1998', pg.160-190, Sydney, 2000, 179 (colour illus.). This work is not in this exhibition but is illustrated in the catalogue.

Marian Goodman Gallery and Lisson Gallery, Richard Deacon, New York, 1988, (illus.). figure 5, this work is not in the exhibition but is referred to and illustrated in the catalogue.

Jon Thompson, Pier Luigi Tazzi and Peter Schjeldahl, Richard Deacon, London, 1995, 40-41 (colour illus.).

Nick Waterlow (Director), The 1988 Australian Biennale: from the Southern Cross: a view of world art c.1940-88, Sydney, 1988, 109 (illus.). no catalogue numbers

Peter Weiermair and Martina Detterer, Prospect 86, Frankfurt am Main, 1986.

Donald Williams and Barbara Vance Wilson, From caves to canvas: an introduction to western art (Second edition), 'Art of the '80s: Graffiti, New Expressionism, Post -'70s Architecture', pg.337-363, Sydney, 1998, 358 (colour illus.).