Tom Butter

by Mark Magill

Tom Butter, Big Wheel, 1997, fiberglass, steel, 74 x 74 x 24 inches. Large pink fiberglass wheel rotates.

By his own admission, Tom Butter has spent a lot of time reading Donald Judd. What Butter shares with Judd is the belief that the physical world is due a tremendous amount of respect.

Tom’s father was a chemical engineer. Tom tells the story of when his “old man” was called to give a deposition in a case concerning pollution in a plant where he once worked. At one point, one of the lawyers questioned him about a certain chemical, ethylene. The lawyer asked him what was in it, as if it were the recipe for a coffee cake. The old man replied with some vigor that it is a chemical. A hyrdro-carbon. It’s made up of atoms of carbon and hydrogen. It is what it is. There’s nothing “in” it.

This engineer’s view of things as they are is embodied with great poetry in Butter’s work. It is significant that the skin of his work is translucent, that the structure is openly apparent, and that the work, in the case of his most recent pieces, functions. And what do they do? They do exactly what they are. Which, you might say, is entirely the point.

Judd was known to hold forth a particular mystical West Texas expression that could sum up the artist’s relationship to his work: “Root, hog, or die.” The phrase can be better understood after one has observed the nature of that particular source of bacon—if “hog” is taken to be a form of direct address, and “root” an active verb and not the business end of a vegetable. It could be taken, then, as an injunction to action, to get one’s nose directly into the nature of things.

In Tom Butter’s case, it’s the effort to have things be themselves and at the same time be exactly what they seem.

Tom Butter, Navigator, 1996, fiberglass, wire 82 x 45 x 16 inches. Wire cage on top rotates when pushed.

Tom Butter, Would, 1997, hardware, 15 x 24 x 17 inches.

Tom Butter, Night Train, 1997, fiberglass, steel, 90 x 53 x 15 inches. Steel wheel rotates.

Kinetic (style)
Fall 1998
The cover of BOMB 65