Do you flaunt decorative abstraction yet have content at heart?
Yes, and that's a good way of putting it. I'm too much of a conceptual artist, or more accurately a philosophical artist, to start with the abstract elements when I make a work. The found objects give me the content right from the start. They represent my feeling that looking at the Universe begins with really seeing the everyday things right in front of one's nose. As I develop the pieces, I then give myself permission to have some fun with decoration and abstraction.
In the works with the hooks and locks, how did you come to using them and was the use of the hardware decided on early or late in the construction?
The hardware, along with the pieces of wood, was actually the premise for those pieces. Again, it is the content of the works. Since my work generally references food, clothing and/or shelter, that hardware and wood relates to "shelter".
How about your soft spot for pieces of plain or common wood - used but not terribly so? It must be difficult for you to walk around NYC without picking up things? Do you cut them down to size or use them in the size in which they are found?
You know, I think it comes from how much I loved the set of blocks I had as a child. That set, at its peak, was mainly made up of pieces of scrap wood. The wood in my sculptures is mainly acquired by my picking up pieces on the city streets, and I think that slight patina of age gives them personality. Much of it is actually the same size as I found it, although I do a lot of cutting, too. I think one of the reasons I like to use pieces in the size I find them is that it relates to the Surrealists' or John Cage's use of chance. Like the I Ching, it is an intriguing way to begin something.
Are your works constructed quickly - in terms of minutes? Are some works labored on for months gathering minute changes which make all the difference?
It is always exciting if something can come together in a matter of minutes, but that rarely happens for me. I usually spend days, weeks, months or even years working on pieces. The really simple-looking ones can take the longest because there have been so many breaks between the changes. Sometimes it takes a long time to come back to something with fresh eyes.
Are you free or hesitant about changes in pieces? What leads you to creating long term variations and series?
I like the idea of making changes, even though it is sometimes difficult to realize that it is time to do so. It can be subtle, a matter of making something that is already pretty good into something better. One of my favorite things is when a piece has failed so badly that it is a choice of throwing it away or being free to try something radical. That can lead to the most interesting discoveries. Perhaps the variations and series relate to that urge most of us have to collect things. When I get one thing, then another and then another, then the group gets more interesting than just the one thing by itself.
What do you think about recycling?
I really believe in it. It saddens me that there is so much waste in our culture. I guess I'm very aware of everything I use and try to "tread lightly" on the earth. (I wish I could take my egg carton to the store and have them refill it with eggs.) I think my philosophy of living extends to the way I make art, the found objects certainly are a way of recycling. Doug Heubler made a statement about not wanting to add any more objects to the world, and I can relate to that. While I do make objects - in a way it would be more accurate to say that I rearrange objects that already exist.
Did you set out to make aesthetically confrontational and aggressive paintings?
No I didn’t; but if that is what happened then I accept it. I actually enjoy hearing you describe them in that way. One of the things I like about making art is when the art takes on a life of its own and does things that I may not have planned on originally. What I did set out to do was to provide a framework in which to present the buttons. The buttons come from my longstanding interest in ordinary objects from everyday life. The compositions are composed from circles (based on the shape of the buttons) and horizontal and vertical lines (based on the weave and rectangular shape of the canvas). The canvas is cloth, and the buttons are sewn to the cloth, as is their nature. I was thinking about fabric design: in particular, the crosspatch pattern by Ray Eames from the 1940s. However, I didn’t want to have just a repeating pattern. I applied the push-pull ideas about composition that were developed by Hans Hoffman and were very much part of what I was taught when I was at UC Berkeley. Perhaps it is this combination of things that resulted in something confrontational and aggressive. I don’t know.
Why raw, unstretched canvas? It’s so problematic.
It had to be that way. I did it for two reasons. The first reason is that the buttons need to be on loose cloth; something related to clothing, where buttons are usually found. I don’t want to ignore or cover up what buttons are. The second reason is that I want the material, what the canvas is, to be clearly part of the work. I think of the canvas in sculptural terms, not just as a support for what is on top of it. I don’t want to cover up the weave with layers of gesso or hide wooden stretcher bars in back. An example from design would be the Womb Chair by Eero Saarinen as opposed to the plastic chairs by Charles and Ray Eames. The Womb Chair has a rigid plastic shell inside that is completely covered up by the padding and fabric. In the Eames chair, the plastic shell is the chair, plus you see every screw that holds on the legs. I am definitely not saying one approach is better than the other, I am just saying that the way the Eames chair is designed is the way I want to make my art.
How do humor and playfulness figure into your making art?
Well, in the case of this body of work, I said earlier what the basic set of rules was that I had given myself to follow. Beyond that framework, however, my next instructions to myself were to have fun and just see where things led me. A lot of times when I make art it reminds me of how I played as a child. I think that is why I really enjoy making art: it makes me think of my child hood set of blocks. What was so much fun about them was that when I started out playing I never knew what I would end up with.
Are the buttons out of a democratization of the recent discussions on the art/fashion blur?
Well, not really because I remember using buttons in a piece about ten years ago, and it was from the same impulse as the more recent pieces involving buttons. It’s really about an interest in an ordinary object from daily life, especially one related to food, clothing, or shelter. But, you know, lately I have been thinking about fashion, so it is interesting that you brought this up. I am not really thinking so much about how art relates to fashion, but in my case, about how the buttons relate to fashion. I like the idea that buttons are found on the most ordinary inexpensive piece of clothing as well as in expensive high fashion. Both types of clothing are ultimately just something to protect our bodies from the elements. Perhaps that is why I related to your use of the word "democratization." The sculptures that will be in my exhibition Buttons, Part 2, are more directly related to fashion.
Is letting things speak for themselves difficult to accept or rely upon?
No, not for me. But sometimes I think it is for my viewers. I guess that is my challenge in making the work that I do.
Conflating several mediums within the same piece of art seems to be one of your longstanding interests. Was it your intention to make sculpture which also includes photography?
Yes, it was, and it’s true, I have done this kind of thing a lot over the years. I am so interested in the materiality of things that this combining of different mediums seems almost inevitable for me. For example, the button pieces which are on canvas, I refer to as paintings, as do most people, but they are really more accurately sculpture. They are not just about what is on top of the canvas, they are about the canvas as well. In the past I have taken photographs which were intended to be presented in picture frames, but I am always aware of the frame. I find that it is very hard for me to just treat the picture frame as a neutral object. So I guess by including photographs in sculpture I am just presenting them in a different and more aggressive kind of frame.
In these pieces, the Collections, I like the relationship of the actual buttons to the fashion photographs. A lot of my work refers to the human body because I use found objects that we handle on a daily basis, mostly related to food, clothing and shelter. In this case, because the photographs are of people, the body is more literally presented than usual. But because the photos are on 35mm slide film they are quite related in size to the buttons, and you really have to get up quite close to realize they are photos of people. The buttons, mass produced objects, are found on the clothing, mass produced also but much more unique, and the clothing is found on a person, completely unique. Even though these are found images, every singe photo is unique, there are no duplications anywhere in this series of works.
You mentioned sculpture and photography and then I referred to painting. All of this made me think of drawing. Lately, I have been using a lot of wire, string and shoelaces in my sculptures. At one point I realized how much the linear nature of all this stuff made me think of drawing.
Do you collect first and then later find a use, or first identify the need for something and then go find it?
Hmm. Good Question. I really have to think for a minute, it reminds me of the chicken and the egg question. I think the answer is that I almost always collect first. The second scenario happens more in the middle of the making of an artwork. Basically I like to have something to have to react to. When I have to go find something it is because a situation has presented itself to me that I need to find a solution for. That usually occurs in the middle of making a work. But I have a real love for these everyday found objects so the collecting really comes first.
What got you to take the mounts off the slides?
I really like slides and I have used them in works in the past in which the mounts were part of the work. My Slide Cubes from 1979 were really mostly about the cardboard mounts. But in this case the slides really needed to be this way. I wanted to emphasize the image and its transparency. Probably the most important reason is that I wanted them to be able to move like tree leaves. I ended up thinking a lot of the buttons as acorns and the slides as leaves.
Are you interested in architecture as a subject matter?
Yes, very much. When I was little I was always drawing houses and people assumed I was going to be an architect. I like that architecture is both useful and aesthetic. I also really like how buildings are constructed. When it comes to making my sculpture, I am definitely a constructor, and not a carver or molder.
Any thoughts on a relationship between obviousness and muteness?
Well, I guess when something is obvious, there is usually no need to say anything more. That can sometimes be a really nice thing. That’s when silence is appropriate. What I like about the idea of a work of art being mute is that it leaves the viewer’s mind open to bring his or her own thoughts into the work.
Did the scribble begin with being something about obliteration?
Yes, in a way, but it was more about heightening the background and turning it into something else, giving it life. It was important to me that I not entirely obliterate the images under the scribbling so that the foreground image was, in a way, silhouetted on a color field--but not really. It was like trying to have something both ways.
What is it about the most basic things that intrigues you, and propels you to try to have us value them?
Basic things, the kinds of things I use in my art, were invented by humans and I find that fascinating. The act of seeing the extraordinary in an ordinary object makes me feel connected to the universe in general, and life in particular. I like the idea of pointing out just how simple it can be to "see" this.
At the onset of this body of work, did you consider the high failure rate for drawing or painting on photographs?
You know, I really didn’t. I just got an idea of something I wanted to try.
Why black-and-white photographs and not, say, color snapshots?
I was playing with the idea of the old-fashioned hand-tinted photograph, that marriage of hand labor and mechanical reproduction.
Were the sculptures pictured in the non-photo blue photographs intentionally temporary sculptures?
Yes they were. It was kind of like recording arrangements of a set of children’s toy blocks for posterity.
Did you think of the arrangements of the bowl and glass as sculpture?
Why clear glass?
The clear glass seemed to represent the purest idea of a glass and bowl, and I like how you could see things through them.
Were all the arrangements made in your apartment?
I think they were all made in my apartment, the roof of my building, my studio, or a close friend’s garden. I saw no reason to go further.
In setting out to do that, did you discover some views you hadn’t previously appreciated?
Yes I did, and that was one of the main reasons I undertook this project.
Is sly humor one of your intentions?
I never start out trying to make a humorous piece. It just happens sometimes. I guess it’s because I can’t imagine a life without humor.