9/09/15/Keith Sonnier (c) copyright Liza Béar and Keith Sonnier 2015
THE BALANCE OF LINE AND CURVE
A Dialogue with Liza Béar
Bridgehampton, Long Island, August 26 2015.
Liza Béar: Being out here I’m struck by how much you’ve streamlined your living and work space in one locale, physically and esthetically. You’re pulling yourself in, as it were. Yet your latest series of light works, which I saw first as photos then in the pristine new studio across the yard, consists of portals or openings, as if symbolically you’re offering a means of escape—of going outwards, elsewhere, to those places where art can take you.
Keith Sonnier: That was exactly my intent. The portal--whether it’s post and lintel, Romanesque, or Gothic—is traditionally an entrance into other spaces or other worlds. It’s been the heartbeat of architecture since we left the cave. As a viewer, you’re able to “enter” this series because the work is not just attached to the wall but pulls down to the floor as well. The viewer’s participation is a crucial concern of mine. In many of my early works, Flock Series, Ba-O-Ba Series, and Mirror Act Series, all begun in the late sixties, you could “enter” the work by seeing a reflection of yourself within it.
LB: The use of glass was a reference to the mirror portal in Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orpheus, right, through which the characters pass from the world of the living to the underworld. At what stage of your life did you see the film, and how did it affect you?
KS: My aunt Evangeline had a movie house in my home-town of Mamou and that’s where I first saw it in the 1950’s.
LB: At the time, were you still a practicing Catholic?
KS: I was. So the breaking of the mirror in that rite of passage, and those scenes of the underworld in the film, must have had a major impact on me. It was a far cry from religious depictions of the afterlife. It sure was not heaven.
LB: Or what you had to do to get there,
KS: In the Portal Series, you’re standing not in front of a mirror but in front of a doorway. It’s like you’re being invited into the physical housing. Of course, an art work is already an act of invitation, so the portal reinforces that concept.
LB: It’s kind of a witty nod to architecture. We’re not literally walking under the arch or between steel plates like in a Serra sculpture.
For the past eighteen months, you’ve been knee-deep in construction, so to speak, with this two-step extension to your house, and a studio that parallels it architecturally. Both buildings radiate natural light from skylights and glass doors. You must have been caught up in the minutia of planning with the architect. Did that also have an effect on the choice of theme for this series? Indirectly, perhaps?
KS: Yes, indirectly, certainly. The challenge of the new construction was to create a continuous flow of movement as you exit the old house and enter the new space. Conceptually, this was very important to me. The Portal pieces just developed naturally from thinking about this.
L’OISEAU CHANTE AVEC SES DOIGTS
Orphée, Jean Cocteau, 1950
[INSERT STUDIO PHOTOS]
LB: I know that for you drawing is the life-blood of the work. It’s thinking visually on paper. It’s still drawing old style, at the tip of a marker, a pencil or pastels--
LB: How did the series start?
KS: The series really grew out of pieces I did two years ago, the Wall Extensions, where there is a perpendicular situation and the work struts out across the floor at a right angle from the wall.
LB: But that’s not really a portal.
KS: It is a portal, in a way. It’s a line into space. It refers to neo-classicism. Rather than flattening the picture frame against the wall, you pull out that linear Poussin lay-out and thrust it forward. I also had in mind the design principles that Thomas Jefferson used in the construction of his Monticello house--a perpendicular plane intersected by another perpendicular plane.
LB: The bulk of the series was made this year, in 2015. How did it evolve?
KS: The Wall Extensions were very simple. Red. yellow. blue, or blue gas and red gas for neon. But they had these suggestive protrusions, which I saw as mini-portals. Because they came up to your waist, the protrusions suggested the physicality of penetration. I was making a phallic allusion. But, in terms of associations, they go way beyond that.
LB: I see! Deceptively simple. The pieces have both lines and curves. But they’re abstract, which paradoxically makes them more suggestive than a representational image. So--you went from mini=portals to arches. Which was the first arch portal that you made?
KS: The double arch, the Gothic Portal. I was also thinking of the arch as a gesture, as a movement in space. That notion was present in my early work too, like Florentine Series, 1986. A Romanesque gesture is a rounded gesture. It’s like a wave, or a greeting. [INSERT LB PHOTO]
GETTING THE WORK ON THE HOOF
LB: How closely do the finished pieces match the drawings?
KS: The work is made in three stages. There’s the croquis, the sketch or basic design.
LB: Which is done d’un trait.
KS: Yes, usually in a single draft. Then, in the studio on large sheets of brown paper I blow up that small drawing to human scale and decide on the exact size. This takes into account the logistics of fabrication, expense, how they can make a certain tube, the available color. The enlarged diagram/drawing becomes the pattern for the fabrication.
LB: Like in dressmaking.
KS: It’s so close! I call it my Schiaparelli principle. It’s my gesture, not the fabricator’s. He’s used to bending the neon like spaghetti. The earliest neon works, made by Fontana, were giant arcs of neon attached to the ceiling almost like a chandelier. In the thirties Fontana designed several restaurant spaces in neon. Tubes come in 10mmm, 12mm, 15mm sizes. I never used the very fine spaghetti-like tubing because it’s too fragile. My aim is to create a viable structure rather than be decorative. So I relied more on 15mm and I went up as high as 25mm, which is almost the diameter of a fluorescent fixture.
LB: The pieces in Portal Series?
KS: They’re mainly 15mm, easy to transport and easy to bend, and to deflect from one side to the other and out into space. They’re harder. The large patterns that I make are converted into lengths of neon tubes. When they come to the studio, I have to assemble them and support them in the different spatial orientations I want them to take. I don’t want the piece to be just a flat drawing.
LB: Right. More a 3-D articulation. So for instance the piece that’s behind you, Helmut, [photo] which has one continuous arc of pale blue—is this neon or argon?
LB: And then there’s what I call the giant trombone paperclip shape, the yellow protrusion which is wider tubing—
KS: Actually, it’s not wider. It looks that way because it has pigment in it. The arch looks thinner because the blue gas is fairly clear. Both parts are the same mil size.
KS: I know, but it’s an optical effect.
LB: Was this one of your discoveries, that neon and argon are at base different colors? And that adding fluorescent powder would extend the palette?
KS: As well as tinted glass. Neon is an orangey-red gas. Argon is a very pale blue. Mercury pellets are used to make it brighter. They have to be dispersed evenly in the tube.
LB: Did you find a new fabricator out here?
KS: Yes, one closer to my Long Island studio. It turns out it’s someone I worked with in the city thirty-five years ago who moved out here.
LB: Like you. Let’s go back to the process. He makes the tubes, ships them to studio and you put the different tube elements together yourself? [INSERT PHOTO]
KS: Yes. As well as sometimes metal supports because if it goes out too far it might break from its own weight. Although the tubes themselves are very light.
LB: Those little black L-shaped connectors, they don’t carry electricity, right?
KS: Those are the caps covering the electrodes which do carry electricity and will shock you if you touch one.
LB: Aha. The danger element.
KS: Always. If you break a tube and pick up both ends, you create the electrical connection and you get shocked.
LB: We’ve known each other a really long time—I saw your first pieces shown in New York, the flocked wall piece, Mustee, and the half-moon neon shape with cloth) 9 at Castelli on West 108th Street in 1968, then your 1970 Projects show at the old, pre-redesign MoMA, and your 1970 Castelli shows at 4 E 77 and at the warehouse, for starters. How, if at all, has your modus operandi changed over the decades?
KS: I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve continued to work. Many artists have periods when they can’t work or they can’t get back into work. I think of my career maybe as what actors experience, that when you’re not shooting a film, you have a lot of downtime. And I do have downtime when work is from fabrication to shipment to installation-- LB: To exhibition.
KS: To exhibition, which is something else entirely. I’ve learnt to use this time to do research for the next series. Let’s say I become interested in a particular thing, I begin to read about it. I don’t necessarily look at someone’s work and say I’m going to make that. I’m more interested in source material that I feel I have to investigate. For instance, when I started making sculpture, I knew nothing about architecture. Because it was now the architecture that supported the piece—we had abolished the base--I began to study architecture. In my early era, architects didn’t want sculpture. It was put in the corner as an afterthought. Not like in primitive societies.
KS: Ornamental, and more like an obstruction than an intervention into space.
LB: In 1989 you had eleven solo shows, both in Europe and the US. Even now, in the past few years, you still manage to do four shows a year in different sized galleries. Have you become more productive?
KS: Well, in a funny way I can use my time better. And I can produce better. I know the shortcuts, and how to work with people. This is a collaborative medium and quite frankly I can’t work alone. I can do one aspect of the work alone.
LB: The originating aspect.
KS: To get the work on the hoof, as I call it, takes a lot of people. In a gallery installation, you’re not just hanging a painting on a wall. And then there’s shipping.
LB: In June you had a major Light Works exhibition, in France, at the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain in Nice. The catalogue was a mind-opener because of the range of your work in this medium. I saw surprisingly daring pieces, like Prairie, (Gran Twister Series), 2012 and Opelousas, (Cat Doucet Series), 1996, pieces of such formal complexity and intensity and verve. Were they made in the 90s?
KS: Yes. The Nice show pulled together many different aspects of the light work, exploring the development of form language and intimate object manipulation. It also includes references to my architectural work in light. In fact, the city of Nice commissioned a site specific installation Passage Azur in honor of the Nice 2015 Promenade des Anglais celebration.
LB: How difficult is it to ship and install the work for an exhibition like Nice, and how much do you have to get the elements shipped and put it together in situ?
KS: This is a very important part of contemporary sculpture. There’s massive work like Richard Serra’s where large steel plates have to be shipped in a container by boat, or a fragile Richard Tuttle where they’re shipping two little ficelles: a lot of it has to do with packing and organization. In my case, the works are laid down flat in a cardboard crate then in a wooden box crate. They’re in layers. So you take section after section and install. Amazingly, the material is strong enough if handled correctly. It can go by air cargo because there’s nothing pressing against it and it’s in a container that weighs way much more than the pieces.
LB: Were a lot of the pieces in the Nice show from private collectors already in Europe?
KS: We didn’t have the time to borrow work from collections, so the show was basically work from the galleries that represent me and from my own personal collection.
LB: I like the way that the term “light” has been substituted for neon, because the work is both light in the sense of illumination, but also in general your work has a lightness of touch to it. This may be whimsical on my part, but certain art critics love to use the word “heft”. That couldn’t be applied to your work, because heft means density of presence—
KS: And mine is just the opposite.
LB: Exactly the opposite. I think of your view both of life and of art, that it should be light and fun, and its presence more like magic: the glow, the brilliance, the wild variety of color, and unusual sources of material--
KS: And images.
LB: Let’s talk about color.
KS: But you mentioned magic. That’s what I want the pieces to have. That’s what I strive for. I want them to have some mystery and awe, so that you don’t quite know what they are. The impact of the work comes from a response to the combination of elements that create this atmosphere and mood, this imaginary world, which hopefully is transcendent for the viewer.
LB: By the way, we’re sitting in Keith’s--
KS: This is the greenhouse. The
LB: The space has two skylights, six rectangular glass panes close to the ceiling, sliding doors to a pool, and a narrow glass door to a huge ancient tulip tree in the front yard, which is why you bought this place.
KS: Exactly. [INSERT PHOTO]
LB: Looking at the Circle Portal on the wall--this is an irregular circle. And to me the beauty of it is those irregularities, which could have been off. But they’re not, due to the skill of the draftsmanship. There are several versions of this piece, and one is closer to a perfect circle. [INSERTPHOTO]
KS: Well, the circle piece does have a story. It’s the piece I stayed with the most and it harks back to my early neon pieces. I still do see artists’ shows, and I happened to see an excellent Basquiat exhibition at Gagosian. I’m a fan of his work. There was a circle piece in the show. What struck me was how the circle absorbed the space, in the gallery and on the wall. It already has this cosmic eidetic? I felt it belonged in my new series, that it might be very interesting to drill a hole into space. Of course, this has been done by other artists. That’s what Gordon Matta-Clark did with his cuts in buildings.
LB: Literally--to let in light.
KS: Not to mention his using spaces between buildings. How radical can you get! Anyway, that’s how the circle pieces began. Of course, as I drew sketches, they ended up looking like my work. They have intimations of a facial gesture or expression: the head.
LB: But, as you said earlier, the pieces can never be reduced to a pictorial image, only suggest it.
KS: No, they can’t. That’s not in fact what the piece is. I’m giving the viewer clues to the road map.
LB: There’s a blue and red piece in the Portal Series called Wall Portal B. [INSERT DRAWING] On the caption to the photograph I have it says that the blue should be left and the red right. Is this a sly political innuendo?
KS: In a funny way, perhaps. When I work, I work from one side to the other. If I place the colors one way, then I’ll want to reverse them and see them the other way. Though as my daughter says, the political parties are so similar now it doesn’t matter.
LB: One of my favorites in the series is Roman Portal. [INSERT PHOTO]
KS: This is one of my favorites too.
LB: It has a great sense of humor.
KS: With that little leg. It is very gestural. There’s something about this piece—it invites you in but with this kind of écarté it forces you away.
LB: It’s quite choreographic.
KS: Very much so, and with very simple means. The focus is on the form.
LB: The balance of line and curve. There’s no question that you’ve kept what in Avalanche we used to call formal concerns. The formal concerns here are uniquely yours. Not only the choice of materials and the sensibility.
KS: It’s my language.
© Copyright 2015 Liza Béar and Keith Sonnier. All rights reserved.