A Notebook of Art Thoughts

It's been some forty years since I made my first welded steel sculptures, but the sheer pleasure of working with torch, arc and grinder has never left me over the decades. As a teacher of the classical languages at Middlebury College, I had time summers to work on new sculptural ideas, and the good fortune not to be dependent on making sculpture for a living, these days a hard row indeed . Sculpture has always been for me a business of turning thoughts and ideas into metal-based forms, and I never felt pressed to rush into construction, which is one of the sculptor's worst dangers. Ideas have to be mellowed in privacy by time, and I intentionally avoided the distractions of galleries, sales, shows and commissions in favor of just doing my own work. But there was a lot of work done, shown and sold to private persons for their homes, much of which you can see in my semi-historical retrospective review on another page.

In the early '60's I had heard about the work of David Smith over in Bolton's Landing which is an hour's drive from Middlebury, so one day I went over to see what he was doing. I spoke with him briefly since he was busy working, spent an afternoon musing in the meadow where his great pieces stood stark and shiny, and then decided to go ahead with my own ideas of form and finish and avoid the dangers of following Smith or anyone else in the current fashion of the time. Art has to come from in-looking, not from surveying the field of what has been done. Just seeing Smith's use of large welded forms and his tentative use of color was an encouraging experience, and I profited much from that short visit.

While working recently on new pieces of sculpture, assembling tools and jigs for putting them together, and thinking as I work about the nature of what I am doing, I found an assortment of what I could best call "Notions" or considerations settling somewhere in the back of my mind. I tend to jot down a few works on a scrap of paper while working, and during these unbearably hot days in August 2002 I settled down in a cool room with the computer to see if they hung together and were actually going in a useful direction. I suppose in writing them out these 'notes' got an academic flavor, since that is a contagious affliction which one is liable to pick up after a few years of teaching. The issues are personal and the notions are my own, my own clarifications for myself, but perhaps may be interesting to others too.

Any course on Art will probably say pretty firmly at the very start that Painting is first of all 'planar' or flat, an art which operates in two dimensions, the 'x' and 'y' of Cartesian coordinate sand engineers' drawings. And Sculpture is by its nature 'cubic' or three-dimensional, and in a sense nearer to the material which we encounter in the natural world and in everyday life. We as human animals are 'cubic', we live in a world which has front, sides and back, and are familiar with cubic perceptions. Or so we think...?

Soon our elective course 'Fine Arts 101' will mention the reductions which are necessary to express three dimensional worlds in a planar display, and matters like 'perspective' will come to the fore. Looking at artwork from the Renaissance to our own time, we find Perspective everywhere, we might even think it is a natural property of the human mind. But Perspective was only laid out and codified in the Renaissance, with some difficulty and a lot of planning, and probably on the model of the pin-hole camera oscura or 'room camera' which projected a three dimensional scene onto the far wall of a darkened room. This was a great discovery and a true 'camera' in our sense of the word,. Our Western society was quick to establish this perception (along with the established religions) as the right way to see the world.

But this was only our own perspective on "Perspective". If you look at the highly developed wall painting art of the ancient Egyptians, some three to four thousands years before our time, you see the problems laid out very clearly. The Egyptians painted thousands of figures in what they considered the walks of life, and they regularly painted them from the side. There were problems the saw, the matter of the lateral view of the shoulders and the eye, which had to be pulled back on the face like the eye of a rabbit to be included in a profile view. But once this was standardized and accepted, it was no problem... to them!

The early experimenters in perception in the 20th century faced the matter of side and front view differently, and many tried to put both views into a single picture --- simultaneously. In l910 this seemed a bold artistic and psychological experiment, a 'cutting edge' statement of the compatibility of front and profile view. But we became so used to this that I find on my Mac computer, as the OS face-logo appears, a side and frontal cartoon of a smiling face, perhaps Steve Jobs. And we read this easily without comment, thinking it perhaps clever, as we wait impatiently for the program to open. We might think we have solved the Egyptian dilemma.

But not so. Look at any well drawn cartoon or 'comic' page and you will see the problem with the nose as seen frontally. It doesn't show up at all, there is nothing there to mark it other than two dots for nostrils and maybe a light shading or curl at each lower sides. For a traditional painter it is worse, he has to take great pains with shading and color to actually create an impression of a nose. What is seen sideways as a clearly drawn line, is now a visual problem.

I mention this because I want to looks at the curious devices by which we shape our planar painted art. We are dealing with an elaborate set of conventions, from 'Perspective' which is quite local with only five centuries of background, to 'Color as Space' with advancing and receding colors somehow codified to give an ancillary help to our sense of Perspective Space. There is more computation in this than most of us would surmise, walking through the Met and looking randomly at collections of centuries of paintings.

But then in this last century, a new view began to surface, stating that the soul of a painting lies in its planarity, its essential flatness, and a new kind of art arose which rejoiced in the two-dimensionality of an art which was by its natural basically 'flat'. If this was once doctrine for the avant-garde, it later became part of the world of magazine design, of advertising and even something to be passed over in a TV commercial as not worth noting. It is not the times that change, so much as our perceptions, which are in a continuous process of alteration and evolution. Why not so, in an evolving world?

Now with that said, let's come back to Sculpture.

Looking at a sculpture would seem much simpler. We would be using our normal perceptual devices which we employ in walking around town, looking at other persons, navigating as a cubic object (which we certainly are) in a cubic populated world. And we do navigate easily in this fashion, so easily that we are hardly aware of the perceptual problems and contrivances which enable us to get around.

Simple viewing and recognition is by no means as simple as we think. The same problems about frontal and lateral viewing we see in painting, also occur in three dimensional situations. I am looking at you from the side and have a clear retained image in memory, but this is going to be quite different from my frontal information. A second eye has popped up, the nose has largely vanished, that ear which was so prominent and reminiscent of a chimps' ear, is now just a little edge of fleshy cartilage, one on each side of the head. That policeman's shoulder patch has switched to a plated badge on front, and that frown of disapproval which I assumed from voice is now written all over his forehead an frontal aspect. If I start at the side and walk around to view him from the front, I am assembling a myriad of 'views' which my brain is very deftly computing into a single impression.

What I want to stress is the enormous amount of background computation which is involved in this simple examining of a Policeman, or of a Venus de Milo, or a Brancusi marble sculpture with almost no features but still a complex set of 'sides'. If viewing something familiar and frequently seen in our daily world is really quite complex, imagine the rise in level of complexities when we face something we have never seen before, something about which we have no perceptual awareness. This will be a whole new ball game...

A friend who was working on putting in the shale driveway for the house I was building some years ago, stopped in front of this red sculpture and stared at if for a while before asking politely: "What is it...?" I suggested looking from the other side, of course in vain. I tried to explain that the bunched cramped masses at lower left and rising center created an upward motion, somehow balanced by the two soaring rings with lots of shape but almost no mass. No go, naturally! Later I thought that I should have asked about his John Deere crawler, what is really was, and he would have told me what work it can do. But I would say I wanted to know what it IS not what id DOES, and we would have been at the base of the matter of sculptural perception. (Many would say if it don't do nothing, it ain't no good.... and they would be right in one sense. But I say if it does something for your spirit, makes you smile because it is so unforeseen, so strange and unexpected, then it does something and it is OK.) A joke is just that, the development of something completely familiar into something quite surprising and interesting. Volumes have been written on "Origins and Nature of Humor", but nothing finite has been determined, any more than why Brancusi's l924 sculpture of Bird in Flight made some people furious and others full of thoughtful smiles.

"A work of art is something that does something to someone's mind." Being social snobs, we state confidently that a poster of Marilyn on a garage wall with the calendar is less valid as Art, although a dozen mechanics cast an eye over there coming in and going out. But when a cagey artist puts a hundred of these pictures in reduction in a display on a four foot painting, something we have never seen or imagined before, we call it ART. Some would call it ridiculous, a visual trick for surprise value, but that was part of the intention too.

So again, I have to admit that there is a great deal about the world of art which I cannot conveniently document or explain, other than saying that Art does get attention and reactions. Daily we get used to everything around us, a dulling of the sense in the course of the decades. Art in its many manifestations, is an antidote to complacent dullness, a denial of the "Been there, saw that..." mentality.

Spiritual value or psychological medicine, however you take it and whatever it really is, there is something surprising and reassuring about knowing that everywhere in this world and everywhere in the past fifty thousand years little things have been fashioned which we can still look at with interest and wonder. It may be a painting of a bison in a French cave from 40,000 years ago, or a little white bone polar bear which an Intuit man carved out in the dark winter nights last year. But these things and thousands of others which have almost no relation or resemblance to each other, are good to look at, interesting to examine from each side and back again, especially nice to touch and feel the surface if you can.

Brancusi did a number of smooth and polished marble pieces which he called "Sculpture for the Blind", and in his later years he spent hours feeling his pieces and caressing them with the polish of his hand. A number of years ago I saw one of these pieces in a New York museum and display, in a clear plastic case, with a little card on the front saying PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH. I cite this not to point out the blunt stupidity of some curator, but the trouble we all have one may or another getting things straight when we deal with the unfamiliar. It's not that we are ignorant and need the course notes to help us 'understand' a Rodin bronze or a Rembrandt portrait of himself in old age. It is rather that we are not any more prepared to deal with an unseen or unfamiliar painting or sculpture, than we are prepared to deal with the unknown, unfamiliar and foreign stranger we may meet in the street. Passing the stranger by, or dismissing the sculpture as uninteresting are both ways of Not-Seeing, which is probably the worst trait of human beings, who are wonderfully constructed both visually and mentally to be the world's finest broad-band perceptual viewer.

But in fact we generally only touch sculpture when it is small and for sale in a store, most of the time we have to content ourselves with looking at it. I spoke before about 'taking possession of" a sculpture by assembling multiple glances at various sides and angles and 'morphing" them mentally into a perceptual composite, which we call "The Piece". But this viewing is only of the surface, and only of the light refracted from and absorbed by that surface. So we have really only taken possession of the skin, the epidermis as it were, of the sculpture. If there is no light in the gallery, there is in perceptual terms, no sculpture. The old line about the tree in remote forest falling without noise always bothered me because Man was not there to hear, a bad example but somewhat parallel.

Heraclitos said that if all were dark, we would proceed by smell, but since all is light we as humans have learned to use light/sight access to the world as our primary pathway. Now sculpture in our collections and museums traditionally has a very narrow spectrum of light. Classical sculpture is largely thought of as white marble, although the Ionic maidens and all temples were highly painted as normal part of the art. The color of patinated bronze whether from weather or sea-change from wrecks is often thought of as the right color for bronze, and everything from the Charioteer from Delphi to Civil War Generals astride their horses in public parks will have this hue.

Only after mid 20th century do we find experiments with then novel idea of painting bright colors on sculptural objects. After all, we had been painting bridges, which are good examples of architectural artwork, for two centuries to avoid rust, until a stable rusting CorTen steel began to be substituted as a cost saver. Still our cities are tamely cloaked with concrete, marble, a little granite facing, stainless edges here and there, and a lot of glass. This produces a monochrome city, and nobody minds benches this is what we have been accustomed to accept. When a few experimenters joined in angular array several large and impressive sections of I-Beam, and painted them yellow and red, they gave the art world something very new although not very imaginative in all. David Smith was originally a painted, only slowly moved in sculptural forms, then after l950 with the resumption of post-war metal production, he went in two directions with the bright reflective finish of Stainless Steel welded up pieces, and bright paint on some others. Of course this was shocking to people who "knew Art" and Smith sold nothing until he was dead and quickly become famous as a pioneer in Art. It often seems to have to happen in that order!

I think Rust as a finish was an interesting discovery in l950, but tiresome and a bore in l990 both in its uniformity of hue and in its undisciplined overuse. Bronze too in that time-frame became standardized for "statuary" in the parks, and although patinated bronze has a fine feel about it, it is very expensive to mold, cast and finish, and has to be used with consideration, alongside of the industrial use of cast bronze which uses the material for strength and resistance to certain corrosions. But here our palette of colors ends........ unless we make some changes in our thinking and go for real colors which can be painted or ceramic enameled on metal or ceramic forms to give a new sense of light and brightness to the ancient art of Sculptural Forms.

This long discussion is not meant as an academic approach to art, the lecture of the Art Historian who is trying to outline a "Grammar of Art" for his introductory course. I want to say in perfectly clear and practical terms, that the new pieces which I am working on are developed in traditional sense of form and shape on the one hand. But on the other hand, I am acutely interested in the way light works with them, whether it is the bright reflections of the slightly wind-moved spires of the Cascade group, or the strong blue and red of the other two pieces which are as much a part of the work as the shape and contours. I try not to be rigid or pig-headed, but if someone asks if I could paint the blue piece another color, I would have to reply that it could also me made in another size, or another configuration. The color is not something added on, like a repaint job on your car. For me the color of these two colored pieces was there before the shapes evolved, and in the case of the Cascades, the reflective hues dominated making the pieces from start to finish.

But here as always there is a danger, that too much use of stainless steel will become a thoughtless fashion. This is happening already because Stainless is so attractive and 'modern', a part of our new inoxydizable society where nothing gets marked with the touch of time. Paint is more subtle, it gets tamed be some years of sunlight, loses a little of its brashness and becomes gentler over the years. Repainting a sculpture is more of a shock than repainting your house, since it then carries a new external appearance which doesn't match its history in a society's development. When an antique car fancier restores and paints a l920's classic car to look exactly like new, we should have a problem with this time warp. Making it "new" again violates its age and history, just as fixing up a dinosaur's skeleton with a reconstructed body somehow makes it appear to be a modern animal, thereby losing its antiquity.

There are always problems with Thought and Perception, these are just the tip of an intellectual iceberg, which can after all be avoided by going around and not paying it much attention. In the end, the words "I like it!" or "It does something interesting for me..." are the best criteria for personal judgment. And without personal judgment, there is just an Object over there, and You over here with no involvement or connection. It is that involvement and resulting connection which are peculiar traits of the art which we humans have always been making one way or another. They work on the side of the artist making the thing, and quite separately on the side of the viewer looking at it a year or a century later. They are the connecting medium which makes the understanding of art objects possible initially, and in the end enriching.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College