The End of my Modernism
This article originally appeared in IMAGE (issue 40)
Like a pinball hitting a bumper, a person’s life can sometimes change direction through a single encounter. In my freshmen year in college, I was unsure about whether to study art or English, and had signed up for an introductory studio course as well as the year-long English course required of all entering students. The English course covered the classics and stressed written analysis and research. I think we started with the Greeks and got to Milton by the end of the year, but my memory is hazy.
I do remember my section leader, fresh out of graduate school, trying desperately to adjust to the reality of substantial student disinterest. His authoritarian tendencies were coupled with peculiar ideas about acceptable writing. In the middle of the second semester he and I came to verbal blows near the card catalog in the library over his idea that the first sentence of a paragraph should not introduce a topic or idea negatively. Thus, Homer was blind, but never, Homer could not see.
Surely, I thought, that wasn’t right. Because I was young, rash, and not given to submission, I lost my composure and started yelling. I shouldn’t have been surprised a little later that semester by the English department chair’s reaction to my inquiry about becoming a major. He told me I was unsuited for the parsing of texts and should look elsewhere for my life’s work.
If this was a difficult bump, it was offset by the experience I was having in my art class, taught by a gifted and charismatic young sculptor, Herman Snyder. He could be every bit as authoritarian as my English teacher, but he had a different approach to teaching. He encouraged open-ended exploration of media, design fundamentals, and art ideas. His critiques had conceptual and aesthetic rigor, but he wasn’t looking for predetermined answers to problems, nor did he distinguish between student art and “real” art. We were all judged by one standard. He believed that art was serious, and worth devoting your life to.
I find that when you say the word art most people think of paintings. I liked painting, but was drawn to sculpture both by Snyder’s teaching and by its physical nature. Part of my attraction may have been based on the notion— popular in the 1960s—that sculpture was inherently more real than painting because it didn’t traffic in illusory images. Supposedly, sculpture’s spatial presence laid greater claim to reality. That idea now seems transparently materialistic and shallow, but it does relate to what continues to make sculpture vital to me. Sculpture, as it developed in the twentieth century, opened up a vast cornucopia of stuff—of good things to be used aesthetically. The variety of materials available, their sensuous ability to delight, provoke, or awe, and their sheer potential for expression are the distinct glory of modern and contemporary sculpture.
The assumptions and commitments of the people educating me were entirely—even aggressively—modernist. Progress meant more to them than tradition, and the general sense was that new knowledge and new circumstances had disconnected us from the past, or rendered it irrelevant. That didn’t bother me; I accepted it as normal. It also relieved me of the obligation to take the art of the past seriously. I was modern, so I could sleep through art history. But even as an undergraduate I had doubts about the celebration of the self that lay at the core of so much postwar American art. And relatedly, it wasn’t at all self evident to me that art’s only job was to be art, or that any notions of social use sullied its purity.
Perhaps my doubts came from my background. I was raised in New England, just outside Boston. My family has deep Yankee roots, and while they had shed the Puritanism of their ancestors, they still retained much of the old Puritan ethos. Thrift, reticence, decorum, a preference for the simple, the useful, and the enduring as opposed to the extravagant, the frivolous, and the fleeting, as well as a sense of moral obligation, remained in them like the ancient boulders in the New England landscape.
I had real experiences of God as a child. I remember praying and being moved by a tremulous sense of presence and purpose. Sometimes the whole earth and firmament seemed to pulsate with a hidden life. The denomination I was organized into, Congregationalism, had no language and no form for such things, and tended to create more doubt in me than faith. I participated in confirmation class as an adolescent, but came away thinking there was scant intellectual basis for belief. I was unwilling to leap blindly across my doubts, so like Mr. Thoreau, on whose beloved Walden Pond my father and I spent many early mornings and late evenings fishing, I tended to invest nature with divinity.
My religious instincts got wrapped up in art too. It’s not that I actually thought art was religion, but I heeded Snyder’s call to a devoted life, and in the absence of other contenders, found life’s deepest meaning revealed in art. Many writers have pointed out that in the modern period art became a kind of religion, and a few have recognized what a poor substitute it makes. In my experience, devotion to art encouraged baser human instincts like pride, envy, and covetousness.
If you’re an adolescent, thinking of yourself as an artist gives you high-minded excuses for immature and destructive behavior. I used to joke about artistic license, that dubious legacy of the Romantic idea that artists were set apart, not subject to conventional restraints. After all, wasn’t it artistic to drink the cup of life down to the dregs? My problem was, I liked to drain the cup, but could never shake the feeling that being an artist didn’t excuse me from moral reckoning. I remember sitting around smoking hashish with a group of friends in graduate school while I argued what we were doing was wrong. It was all very amusing…but I was serious.
A lot of the art I made in graduate school was about art. To engage it fully, you needed to know something about the critical dialogues of the moment. It drew on the modern penchant for breaking down boundaries and questioning received ideas about art’s nature and limits. When Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by William de Kooning, he was simultaneously eradicating and extending. Who’d ever created something made out of art’s removal before? Yet Rauschenberg’s erasure of de Kooning was soon received as art, and has now achieved old master status.
This kind of thinking about art can be seductive, and I spent some time playing the game, but toward the end of my graduate studies I became disenchanted and made two pieces for my thesis exhibition that I thought critiqued the game, even if they participated. One was a thin, flat, eight-foot bar of tool steel honed to a razor edge and mounted horizontally at eye level: a dangerous minimal line. The other was a lead brick plated in 24-karat gold that exactly conformed to the dimensions of the gold bullion in Fort Knox. It was stamped with inventory numbers, and one end was sawed off (before it was plated), as if someone had tested its authenticity. Before I could have it plated, I had to get permission from the U.S. Treasury, lest I sell it as the real thing. Getting their okay took months of bureaucratic hassles, and I still have the twenty-five page form that authorizes me to imitate a Treasury Department gold brick in the name of art. My brick rested on a piece of green felt in a locked oak and glass vitrine that I made to imitate an old museum display case. The brick looked convincing, but of course any real value depended on its status as art.
I wouldn’t have said so at the time, but I was looking for a way to change artistically, intellectually, and personally. My relationship with Cathy, my wife, was teetering on the brink of dissolution, and though the 1960s were supposed to usher in joy and freedom, I felt them getting progressively darker. It was hard to play the art game against the backdrop of Vietnam or the crisis erupting throughout urban America.
During graduate school I had carried on a long, rambling correspondence with Bill Gordon, a friend from college. We had both been kicked out of college during our senior year, and for a time lived together on New York’s lower east side. We were very different, and Bill’s inability to make peace with Moloch, a.k.a. Amerika, drove him first to Spain, then to the island of Ibiza, and on to Morocco and North Africa. He finally ended up working on a kibbutz in Israel, saving money to go to Nepal, which was pretty much the end of the road for those who sought transcendence chemically.
In our correspondence we kept returning to the question of how to live in a world so obviously and disastrously broken. I, the bourgeois, argued that the system wasn’t totally corrupt, and that art could ameliorate the harshness of reality. Bill, the radical, argued that nothing short of total transformation was needed, and that it was better to risk everything than conform quietly.
I wasn’t surprised when Bill wrote that he’d gone to study at a religious commune in Switzerland. I had once predicted to Cathy that Bill would find religion, join some radical political group, or die. Whatever smugness I felt had dissipated by the time Cathy and I went to the same community, the L’Abri fellowship, some two years later in the fall of 1970. We too had become Christians, partially because of the transformation we saw in Bill.
For some reason, even though the scriptures are abundantly clear on the matter, I expected conversion to regrade the road of life to facilitate faster, smoother travel. Instead, it got more difficult, and most of my time at L’Abri was spent confronting aspects of myself I’d hoped would quietly evaporate. Artistically I was stymied.
The L’Abri fellowship offered a strong critique of modern culture, including modern art. The Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker, who visited L’Abri regularly, had just published Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. His critique was thought-provoking and touched on some of my misgivings about art. So, in the pursuit of a more real and human art, I started painting. I was ill-prepared to paint like a seventeenth-century Dutchman. Once, after seeing my paintings, Rookmaaker advised me to work with what I knew. Good advice, but I saw no way to apply it.
Instead, after much prayer and some fasting, I gave up art. I expected this to be horrible, and sometimes fancied myself an obedient disciple ready to enter heaven by plucking out my eye or cutting off my hand. The reality was different. I felt a great weight lift, and began to see my situation more clearly. After nine months in Switzerland, we returned to a small farming community in southern Wisconsin where Cathy had grown up. I took a job at a local florist shop, where I was usually introduced as “Cathy’s husband, Ted.”
What I learned there was how insignificant the arts are in some ways, and how it is more important to live fully in this world than it is to build another, illusory world through art. During my time as a florist and potted-plant grower, I was amazed to see the deep aesthetic pleasure people found in floral arrangements and plants. These were people who would likely never visit a contemporary gallery, and they certainly didn’t feel the least bit left out because they weren’t up on what was happening in art.
One of the temptations of a life in art, abetted by the linear teaching of art history as evolutionary and progressive, is to see one’s work, because it is art, as endowed with deep cultural significance. When an aspiring artist listens to an art-historical recitation of the “begats” (Cezanne begat Picasso who begat a lot of other artists, and so on) it’s natural to wonder, “What sort of moves do I need to make to break into the lineage and find importance and immortality?” This is different from falling under the spell of an artist’s work and drawing deeply on it. The latter is love; the former is career planning. I began to see that the professional practice of art, though a necessary thing, was extraneous to art itself. In that light, my reading ArtForum was not unlike a dairy farmer’s reading Milk Producers Weekly. Both offered information we might need. But the farmers I knew seemed to have fewer pretensions about the significance of their work than I did.
After three years in Wisconsin, I was offered a teaching position quite out of the blue. Cathy and I saw it as an answer to prayer, and moved to Rochester, New York, and Roberts Wesleyan College. After about a year, it became clear that teaching art without being an artist didn’t make sense. Thus I began to think about my own vocabulary again, and to stammer my way back toward artistic production.
I was no longer stymied by the question of what to do—I felt both called and compelled to tackle the Christian faith as subject. But I was uncertain about how to do it. The artistic language I was most fluent in was modern, but you didn’t have to look hard to see that Christianity as subject was mostly noticeable by its absence from canonical accounts of modern art.
During our time in Switzerland, we’d had to leave the country for a period in order to renew our visitors’ permits. The three weeks we spent in Italy opened my eyes to art that I’d previously found speechless and moribund. I was sometimes moved to tears—Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua produced that effect—by the conviction, depth of expression, and sheer artistic prowess of so much Christian art before me. What had happened to enervate that union of artistic and religious conviction?
I determined that I’d work two ways simultaneously. One way was figurative, though I had no experience with the figure. In graduate school I’d been impressed by the directness of George Segal’s work, with its poetic combination of environmental assemblage and figural imagery rooted in our present tense. His life castings had a spirit of fact that I appreciated. I set out to adapt his methods to Biblical subject matter. In Switzerland, Rookmaaker had taken me to the museum in Geneva to see Conrad Witz’s Miraculous Draft of Fishes, in which the biblical story is set on the shores of Lake Geneva. I was impressed by the idea that one could depict a gospel narrative as occurring in one’s own environment, rather than trying to recreate the original historical circumstances.
After casting a diptych that was a personal thank you to God, I began an Annunciation. It included a three-dimensional neon angel and a standing figure of Mary. The model for Mary was a nursing student I knew, a lovely young woman who’d spent most of her life in the jungles of New Guinea with missionary parents. She possessed a serenity and tenderness that touched me and reminded me of some of the Annunciation paintings I’d been studying. I wanted to stay close to the historic iconography and compositional schema of the subject, but I did add something: I had Mary standing at an enamel-topped kitchen table, making bread. The two loaves were carved from a marvelously doughy looking basswood and placed in real bread pans. Cathy also painted a watercolor of a lily, the symbol of Mary, which I hung on the wall between Mary and the angel.
At the same time, I began working in a different sculptural idiom, which for the sake of brevity I’ll call abstract. I wanted to work with light imagery in a contemporary medium. Stained glass, radiant and beautiful as it is, had too much history and baggage. It seemed to suggest that we should go back to an old faith, rather than forward. (I recognize now what a modern notion that was—but this was before postmodernists started rummaging around in history’s stylebooks.)
Neon is relatively inexpensive, offers a range of colors, and is linear, which meant I could use it to draw in space. I was fortunate to find and work with a wonderful neon bender, Gene Roth. He’d graduated from art school during the depression and learned the bending trade to support his family. He had a soft spot for artists. Of course neon has its own baggage, as commerce. A little neon art revival took place in the late sixties and seventies, probably inspired by pop art’s love affair with commercial imagery. I found most neon art tacky, and worked hard to avoid those associations by developing a more ethereal, spiritual sense of light.
The other material I used in the early abstract pieces was coal. From a mine west of Pittsburgh I scavenged a station-wagon load of raw chunks from a huge tailings pile. Coal is a miserable material to try to shape, but fortunately I wanted it in its natural, out-of-the bowels-of-the-earth, irradiant carbon form.
In my non-narrative work, my process is intuitive; I have a feeling, but not a clear idea, and I spend a lot of time looking at stuff laid out, moving things around until it feels right. While everything—size, placement, shape, context—is important, I particularly want the materials to act directly, rather than to create an image that is pictorially referential. In these pieces I was looking for a visceral interaction between the fragile gas and glass of neon and the bulk and mass of the coal, which was apparently supported by the light.
The response to my Annunciation was enthusiastic among my immediate circle of friends, who were mostly Christian academics. By contrast, the neon and coal pieces were met with polite interest, but I don’t think my friends were much engaged. Conversely, the coal and neon pieces were greeted with evident appreciation by artists and art audiences, who often didn’t have much to say about the Annunciation. It seemed to create awkward silences.
In 1980, soon after taking a position at Messiah College, I began work on another biblical narrative, a Descent from the Cross, even as I continued to produce abstract mixed-media work. The Descent from the Cross was an ambitious piece, involving figures elevated in space [see Plate 1]. I prevailed on friends from Messiah to pose as characters in what I imagined as a contemporary execution. The life-casting process was arduous, involving several visits to my studio for each person. The cross was designed as a portable, one-size-fits-all killing machine—something we might use today if we still had public executions by crucifixion.
The piece first appeared in the gallery of an old and respected liberal arts school nearby. I had been recommended to the gallery director by two artist friends in New York, who were unaware of what I was making. If I remember correctly, the director didn’t ask questions about what I might exhibit when he contacted me. I thought the Descent looked stunning after it was installed. The gallery was long and narrow, with a section framed by classical marble columns at one end. The installation stood behind the columns, so when you entered the gallery you looked down its full length to the group of figures at the end. It felt as if you were in a nave facing a chapel.
Though the faculty was hospitable, and responsive to the piece’s formal and technical aspects, I got the impression it was problematic for them. After the installation came down, one of them told me that when a board of trustees function was held in the gallery, the school screened off Descent with a portable wall, out of concern that it might offend some Jewish board members. I didn’t know how to respond.
The last two or three decades have witnessed an intense critical and artistic exploration of the relationship between artwork, context, and audience. When I was in school, no real consideration of those relationships took place. It was assumed that the art should end up in a collection or museum, and that the artist was too devoted to the act of creation to consider who might look at it, and how.We had however inherited a critical vocabulary that included words like illustrative, kitsch, and sentimental, which suggested that one could have the wrong kind of audience.
Because I was making two kinds of work, and the work was received so differently by different audiences, the dynamic between audience and art was hard to miss. But I think one needs to be careful about interpreting silences. People may not talk to you about your work because they don’t think it’s very good, or simply because they don’t know what to say. But overt Christian subject matter was an artistic anomaly in the late seventies and early eighties. And more than a little evidence suggests that the modernist enterprise has borne an animus toward art with Christian subject matter. Thus, I think some of the silences my work met with resulted from its unambiguous treatment of Christian subjects.
As I look at them now, both the Descent and Annunciation have a devotional quality. In fact, at Jersey City State College, where I exhibited the Annunciation, the gallery space lent itself to placing the sculpture in a niche, with padded gallery benches in a couple of rows facing the installation. The effect suggested a chapel, suffused with a ruby glow from the neon angel. At the opening, a school secretary, a parody of New Jersey, with deeply dyed hair, layers of make-up, and a superabundance of jewelry, laid her false finger-nailed hand on my arm and said in an accent I thought was Jewish, “Honey, we love this. We on the staff come in here in the mornings to pray.” I was bowled over. Her comment meant as much to me as any professional compliment. Perhaps it’s devotion, not religion, that is outside of the pale of art?
I stopped making large figurative work after the Descent. I felt like I was moving into Segal’s shadow, and saw no way toward a figurative language of my own. It seemed that neither narrative nor the figure were at the core of my interests or my strengths. But the varied responses had started me thinking: Why not make something for a particular audience?
Some people had responded to an early coal piece, Icon, by pointing out its similarity to a cross. While this wasn’t consciously intended, I couldn’t deny it. The cross is probably the most debased symbol in the world—not through sacrilege, but through countless, thoughtless applications and appropriations. What Walker Percy observed of religious words like sin and grace has also become true of the cross; overuse has left them “worn smooth as poker chips and signifying as little.” The cross as it exists in our culture functions more as a label (this is a sanctuary, this is a Christian organzation, I am an irreverent pop star) than a symbol, which by definition partakes of what it points to. So why not make some crosses that could really be symbols, perhaps for the church?
So far, so good, but I took the idea two steps too far. First I asked, why not be useful and serve the church? And then I asked, what was the average church was likely to accept? My limited experience at the time was with low-church Protestantism, and the first series of crosses I made showed that my answer to the second question was, not much. I used wonderful materials and the designs were beautiful, but the crosses were constrained by my idea that they should belong at the front of a sanctuary—one filled with people like my Puritan ancestors, looking for usefulness, thrift, and decorum.
Through my friend Ed Knippers I had met David Tannous, an art critic in Washington, D.C., who had looked at my work on a couple of occasions and been appreciative. When I showed him slides of the crosses, he examined them carefully, and finally said, “These are not art.” I flirted with the idea of indulging in the challenge-the-definition game, but reluctantly concluded that he was right. The irony of the whole experience was that none of those crosses ended up in churches. I had not considered how they might get from an exhibition into a sanctuary, and being a poor salesman, never made much effort to promote them.
But I had learned an important lesson. I expected to exhaust the possibilities of such a limited form—the intersection of two elements. One of the foundational values of modernity is freedom, and usually we assume the more freedom, the better. The talk about creativity in art education often sounds as if people believe it flourishes in direct proportion to a lack of restraints. But I found the opposite to be true. I saw that one could profitably spend a lifetime working within a very limited format. Evidently, the discipline of limits promotes creativity.
Because the cross is so culturally present, it is both obvious and transparent. We all think we know it, and because we do, it’s like the roads we drive every day; we don’t pay attention to the routine, and often have no idea of what’s there. So I rethought my terms for cross-making and dispensed with the idea of imagining an audience or a use. I determined to make crosses that could be both religious symbols and art.
One source for my thinking about cross imagery was theological. The word cross itself is theologically Protestant. A cross, unlike a crucifix, lacks a body, and many of my early crosses were inspired by concepts like law and grace, central to classic Protestant thought. But right from the beginning I also made crucifixes, and over time sometimes blurred the boundaries between the two forms.
The materials themselves are another source of imagery. They have included stone, wire, various metals, found objects like a rat trap and a digital clock, tar, neon, plastic laminates, and various woods. A lot of materials I use are polyvalent in their associations. For instance, tar is often used as a preservative, but in our culture it also has a history of ignominy, violence, and shame.
I was also interested in the processes of using some materials. Process is one of those art buzzwords, but is part of the story of modern art, and stretches back to the nineteenth century. Process sometimes means not hiding the way art is made; thus Cezanne shows us the making of an image, not a finished, illusory skin. In contemporary sculpture the means of making can be critical to the content of the piece. In 1992 Janine Antoni sculpted two minimalist 600-pound cubes, one of lard, the other of chocolate, by biting mouthfuls off and spitting them out. It wouldn’t have been the same if she’d used a chisel.
I burned some of the crosses, particularly those whose forms suggested a body, and both tarred and burned others. I am sometimes moved by contemporary crucifixes that recall the great German woodcarvings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but generally I find contemporary liturgical art sweet or emotionally vapid. An intriguing and puzzling aspect of contemporary church aesthetics, broadly speaking, is how fainthearted and pleasant it all is. All of the grit, angst, tears, suffering, sorrow, pain, loss, and death that give the gospel its context and basis for hope and redemption seem have vanished in a sort of great evaporation, leaving only cleanliness and sincere smiles as the aesthetic embodiment of good news.
Harrowed Cross employs a combination of material associations and processes. I imagined it as a processional cross, resting on the wall between uses. The wooden vertical shaft—the body—is wrapped with tarred and burned roofing fabric. The crosspiece—the arms—are made of a wild grapevine branch, which suggests movement, both a rising and a reaction to stimulus. A small neon arc serves as a visual frame. I was surprised how the neon element could be seen as either a halo or an electric shock initiating the jumpy response of the figure. I liked the co-mingling of perceptions, which implied that this sacredness was contingent on suffering, and this triumphal rising came out of death.
A later cross, All My Sins, continued to push the concept of process. I made four molds and had a glass blower use them to make four organic forms, which were left open at one end. Inside, I placed shreds of the heaviest, most durable linen paper I could find, three hundred-pound cold-press watercolor paper. The forms were then slumped shut and annealed for over a day. The paper was reduced to a fine gray ash, and it carburized or blackened roughly half of the inside of each glass form. The resulting pieces resembled medieval reliquaries, containers holding the desiccated remains of someone or something holy. Here however, the residue was a “handwriting of ordinances”—as Paul describes our sins to the Colossians.
Before shredding the three hundred-pound watercolor paper, I had written a list of my sins on it with a thick indelible marker. I had originally wanted to list some famous Christian’s sins, like All Bishop Desmond Tutu’s Sins, but I didn’t know any famous Christians. The one quasi-famous Christian academic I knew politely declined. After making my own list, I understood why. I thought about it for a month, trying to recollect everything I could. Then over a week I made the list, which included categories (sins of omission, sins of commission, blasphemies), specific acts, and fantasies. It was a creepy and depressing list, and as soon as I could, under the cover of darkness, I went to the graphics lab at the college and used the industrial paper shear to chop it into illegible bits. Of course, the all of the title is presumptuous, but they were all I could come up with, which was more than enough.
In art, the word process suggests both technique and an activity that culminates in a desired result. The natural world, on the other hand, is a seamless web of apparently unguided activities whose ultimate end can only be seen through the lens of some kind of faith. What technique is at the heart of growth or decomposition? What end are they moving toward? The mysterious processes of the natural world can be breathtaking in their beauty. For Salt Lick Cross I arranged small salt blocks—the kind used for domestic animals and wild game—in a cross form. I then borrowed the dairy herd of the farmer-sculptor John Hertzler, who laughed when he saw the cross I’d made. “I thought you’d use the forty-pound blocks,” he said. “That’s like a necklace. The cows will clean it up no time at all!” He was right. He had to watch the cows and move the cross around, so that they consumed it more or less evenly and didn’t devour the blocks nearest to them before moving onto others.
Salt Lick is a popular cross. I think people respond to the directness of the imagery, with its sources in universal desire and biological necessity. It also draws on scriptural metaphors of our creatureliness, and of spiritual sustenance being like food. While this image plays on salt’s beneficence, I was also interested in salt’s corrosive effects, and in later versions I mounted the salt onto a steel base before giving it to the cows, so that their saliva rusted and patined the areas adjacent to the blocks.
Christianity had reoriented my Emersonian tendency to see the natural world as an emanation of divinity. I loved the idea of living in a creation, and was intrigued to learn of the Reformers’ concept of nature as a second book of revelation, which influenced seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting. I was also taken with nineteenth-century American painters, many of whom worked in New England and approached the American landscape with Christian or Transcendentalist perceptions. Then in 1993, while living in Italy and working with members of Christians in the Visual Arts on the Florence Portfolio, I saw the enormous influence of Saint Francis on the Italian Renaissance, when artists began to use images from the natural world as a symbolic complement to Christian narrative. My deepening awareness of a Christian tradition of nature imagery encouraged my attraction to a nature-oriented art. Of course, scripture itself is full of provocative and sensuous natural imagery, and taste, touch, smell, sight, sound and substance are all ripe with spiritual portent.
I started making table pieces in the mid-1990s. While I love work in nature as varied as the testosterone-fueled constructions of Michael Heizer or David Nash’s poetic interventions, my table pieces are domestic, and have as much affinity with the intimate, formal collections of rocks arranged by Chinese scholars as they do with grand Romantic attitudes about nature. That is, I am not trying to muffle the artifice of the work by appealing directly to nature.
Taste and See is a saddle-shaped piece of Colorado Yule marble with an oval concavity in the top, inside which is a circular, glass-lined hole. It sits on a delicate wooden trestle. The glass-lined hole is filled with Tupelo honey, the one variety of honey that never crystallizes. I found it while researching a milk and honey piece, which I abandoned after talking to a dairy scientist who convinced me that there was no way to keep milk in a liquid state, even if it was full of antibiotics and sealed in a sterile container. I intended the title Taste and See to be poetic, but people often interpret it literally, and the top of the marble gets quite messy, because they use it to wipe their fingers after tasting the honey.
One of delightful aspects of being in a landscape is the way our senses reveal its character—we feel the dry air, the heat radiating from rocks, or the soft compression of pine needles underfoot. I spent a lot of time as a child and adolescent on, in, and along the streams and rivers of New England. I was especially drawn to the freshets descending the slopes of the mountains of New Hampshire, which in the spring are full of stones that tumble down the watercourses propelled by the snow melts, roaring like freight trains. For me, the incredible quantity of rocks in the streams—millions upon millions of them, ranging in scale from ones as big as houses to beauties the size of small change— as well as the apparently random process of shaping by abrasion, water erosion, and endless freeze-thaw cycles, was the subject of dreams and contemplation. When I visited those landscapes and streams after an absence of twenty years, I felt I’d returned to a true home and a deep source.
The Good, the True, and the Beautiful is a table piece using three stones picked from the Wild Ammonoosuc River west of Kinsman Notch in New Hampshire. I’m interested in the idea that forms evoke or embody abstract concepts, which has a long and persistent tradition in western art, even as it has been disputed by philosophers and critics. I had been discussing the idea of natural law with friends, and was attracted to its adaptation of the Greek triad of goodness, truth, and beauty. Particularly intriguing is the argument that the three belong together, and are diminished in isolation—especially in light of the efforts of many modernists to culture beauty antiseptically, without the infectious presence of truth or goodness.
I chose one stone I thought best represented each concept from several pick¬up loads I’d brought to Pennsylvania. After breaking the truth stone, I arranged them on a curved steel table. Still, I thought they needed something more to set them apart from their kin who never experience such critical judgment. An electrical engineer who was consulting with me on plans for a public arts competition showed me an article on an aerospace technology called “sputtering target.” A foundry in Arizona had begun using it to coat materials that couldn’t be electroplated, like stone.
I decided to coat the stones with silver using this space-age technology, which turned out to be an ordeal. An initial test with bronze worked, but putting silver over stone was far trickier. The foundry technician responsible for the project finally quit in disgust, so the foundry turned to two metallurgists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the stones were finally surreptitiously, but successfully, coated.
I am struck now by how related in concept The Good, the True, and the Beautiful is to the “gold” brick I made in graduate school. The brick appeared to be more than it was, but it might have been genuine—real gold bricks do exist. But no form or material can possibly be truth, beauty, or goodness. The three rocks are less than their referents, not in a deceptive way, but simply by being local and personal instances of great abstractions.
As I re-read this, I see something misleading about the way I’ve been describing my work. I am hard-wired to look for meaning in things. And it is much easier to write about ideas in visual art than the art of art. Thus the descriptions of my own thought and process sound too rational. Missing are all of the false starts, dead-end digressions, and pieces simply made to see a feeling take form. I value clarity, but this is too clear.
And there is another problem with emphasizing meaning. It stresses the communicative potential of art, suggesting that art’s value is found in its instrumentality, in what it may say and do. The story of modern art reveals a schizophrenia on this issue. Many of the movements in twentieth-century art aspired to change social conditions, and saw art as an instrument of change. In this light, aesthetics were sometimes dismissed as bourgeois, and art that had no lofty ambition was deemed inconsequential, or perhaps merely decorative. However, other movements within modernism embraced the idea that art existed for its own sake and had no social role other than the pleasure of the thing itself.
My Puritan ancestors, large portions of the contemporary church, and much of the art world certainly would side with the instrumentalists, choosing content and meaning over simple, or perhaps simple-minded, pleasures. But does that really explain what we find engaging in a video installation by Bill Viola or a sculpture by Martin Puryear? Does not the thing itself matter too? Is not the existential presence of art in some way instrumental in vivifying and refreshing our lives? Is art’s primary value found in what it signifies, or in the critical dialogue it precipitates?
In asking these questions I may seem to perpetuate the dichotomy between form and content that characterized a great deal of thinking about modern art. However more recent critical thinking does not seem to address that fissure as much as ignore it while attacking the sins of modernist “formalism.” I understand the attacks on formalism, since they were so often motivated by puritan sentiments. My problem with them is that I continue to view the formal achievements of modernism as substantial. It is a tradition worth extending, and the contemporary artists I admire, whatever their label, have deep affinities with the formal sensibilities of modernism.
My intuition is that the gap between art’s formal vocabularies and its possible meanings cannot really be sutured. That split may be one instance of the great original tear that runs the length of creation. But the desire for a form and content that are united is part of what propels me towards substances that are so charged with associations and history. It is a limited artistic vocabulary, and difficult to coax into full union, but when achieved, there is such harmony and completeness—for me at least—that it suggests good things to come.
In 2002 I finished a fountain for a public plaza in New Harmony, Indiana. It was commissioned by Jane Blaffer Owen, an extraordinary person and one of the few patrons of religiously oriented contemporary art. However, Crucible was commissioned to commemorate New Harmony’s foundational role in developing the discipline of geology. One of her husband’s ancestors, David Dale Owen, revolutionized the practice of geological surveys and collected samples that became the foundation of the Smithsonian Museum’s geological collection.
I wanted the fountain to evoke the sense of refreshment that was central to my memory of drinking from New England streams. The smaller gray-green stones inside the fountain came from New Hampshire streams, while the two central glacial boulders were found in northern Wisconsin. The larger boulder has a slight triangular depression at its top, and water bubbles out of a slit in that depression, over onto the sides of the rock. The granite surrounding the basin has four geological samples collected by David Dale Owen inlaid at the quadrants of the compass. The fountain is adjacent to a restaurant, and the grove of trees where the theologian Paul Tillich’s ashes were scattered.
The modernist in me wants to emphasize the fountain’s proximity to the Paul Tillich grove, as though his stature as a theologian might lend my work more import. In the same way, my first instinct is to pass over its relationship to the restaurant. After all, Mark Rothko withdrew a commissioned work from the Four Seasons Restaurant, because he couldn’t reconcile his lofty aspirations with the knowledge that the paintings would serve as decorative backdrops for hordes of masticating “rich bastards.”
If one reads the accompanying plaque, they will know that Crucible was commissioned to honor the local geologists who played such an important role in the formation of the nascent discipline. And if someone is reflective about imagery, they may connect the fountain to the rock Moses struck in the wilderness, which refreshed the wandering Israelites. But my guess is that most people who sit in the shade listening to its quiet murmur will not attend to either reading. They can simply enjoy it as an amenity, a thing that may accompany and focus the pleasures of food, drink, rest, and conversation. It’s an old use of art, and not insignificant, even if it does not fulfill modern and contemporary ideas of what’s important.
So an old ambition, nourished by modernism’s hierarchy of significance, dies a slow death in me, even as modernist forms continue to challenge and inspire me. I entered art with the idea that it might give life, in the sense that purpose and order would emerge from its practice. They didn’t. Instead I found that the end of that idea was the beginning of life for me, both in and around art.