Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
Visible on a clear day from nearly anywhere in the Los Angeles Basin, Mount Baldy has tended during the last decade to bring to many a mind the singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, who in the ‘90s famously spent five secluded years at its remote Zen Center. But for me that mental association has been erased by the artist Charles Long and the unforgettable conversation he offered me at his Mount Baldy home and studio on a recent January afternoon. The mountain’s one road seemed more threatening than usual when I drove up to see him, and not because its narrow lanes were being fanned by the Santa Anas, those moody winds that harry Southern Californians into states of recklessness or torpor. It was my state of mind.
I’d first met Charles years earlier, when his pop abstractions were winning him acclaim as a sculptor and I was still trying to gain traction in New York as a painter. Though I made a relatively quick exit from the art world in order to embark on a life in letters, my path continued to cross with Charles Long’s, often at crucial junctures for both of us, and—I’ve never told him this—the mere sight of him had the haunting capacity to recall for me my truncated art career. It wasn’t Charles’s fault that he was my doppelgänger. Well, he isn’t anymore—another erasure of our conversation high on the mountain.
I can’t help thinking, in retrospect, of another tonic conversation or, rather, the many conversations that weigh upon the pages of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain as if the sanity and health of the whole mortal flatland world below has been wagered on the outcome of what is said about culture, art, politics, and our human fallibility by a few guys in the rarified air of a mountain sanatorium. I’d like to imagine that Charles’s and my sometimes humanist, sometimes ecstatic, Emersonian foraging through the alkali badlands of modernity and its innutritious scrub of contemporary irony could have fed a few nuts to Mann’s voracious and vocal digestion of his epoch’s bourgeois deficiencies. But perhaps Thomas Mann is the wrong choice here. If his ravishing new work is any indication, Charles Long’s effort to rid himself of his own purposefulness is making him into something more subtle: a secret seer of his time.
Charles Long I’ve really tried to get away from attachment to something other than the process. And being on the mountain has something to do with it. Having come from a studio on the Los Angeles River, which presented this tumultuous problem of humans in the natural world and capitalism and manufacturing waste—the work I did reflected all that. That open-ended investigation led me finally to the bird shit pieces, which were really at the bottom. I couldn’t go any further. So leaving that filthy, low space, really the lowest space in LA, and coming to a mountain that’s over 10,000 feet high, was a whole other shift. And what I found here was that the beauty of it, though always inspiring, got messed up when I thought about it as any sort of content for new work. When I did try a few things, like, say, the project I did for the Hammer Museum, with the leaves that had text on them, it ruined my walking in the woods because I would think about the art world instead of just being here. This happened many, many times. And it led me to think that the most important experiences had to be primary and could not be used for something else.
Andrew Winer But how do you have primary experiences in your life? And how do you avoid becoming a scavenger from life when you are speaking to this artificial realm of the art world?
CL The easiest way is to accept it as a natural process. You are permeated and you permeate. You’re mixed up in this thing and it’s flowing through you. And experience is unlimited and never complete. It’s very random, things just drift into your consciousness. Henry James described it as a giant spider web inside the mind suspended in the chamber of consciousness and little motes get stuck here and there in it.
AW Let’s talk about James for a second, because he also says that it is “art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance.” And I wonder what that means here?
CL The quote is, “I live intensely and am fed by life. My value, whatever it might be, is my own kind of expression of that. Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance.”
AW And he goes on to say, “I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”
CL I think he is saying we really are just in the soup. Kippenberger talked about “eating your way through the pudding.”
CL And he is such a great example of an artist who didn’t calculate ever—if I may guess—he knew that art strategies were often hollow. And unnecessary. You could just live. And he did it in his own particular way.
AW Do you think the Kippenberger model is one of leaving a trail of your living? An after effect of these primary experiences that you value so much?
CL You know, I make so few hardened assumptions about what it is I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I ask these really stupid fundamental art school questions all the time. One of them is: “Is there even something called art?” And I usually answer it through a series of thoughts. No, there is no such thing as art and the things I make are extremely contrived ritual acts—and I don’t mean in some sort of spiritual sense of traditional ritual. I mean that we do it. But we make these things. And that’s not to diminish the process. There is a view of art as making objects as commentary on something or, by contrast, as an empty, cynical, capitalist gesture, when in fact I look at it as all the more reason for me to do my best, to make an occasion for experience. In contrast to the rest of life’s experiences, it’s actually a very insignificant occasion. But there is this setup: You are already coming to see this thing; we are talking about it; a bunch of hoopla is being made around it, and therefore I make an investment in my work that puts my values right there. My approach to this current project for Tanya Bonakdar Gallery is to make it from the initial germ, as in seed—the way Henry James often talked about how a novel started—and from that germ onward to it finally being on the floor of a gallery in Chelsea. And if I have done my job, then it’s due to my leaving out as much as possible, really keeping out the stuff that’s so easy to have fall in, all kinds of sentiments such as “I’m rigorous, I worked really hard on this,” “This is a critique of consumer culture,” and “This is a comment on having no comment.” All that crap.
AW When I hear you say, “There may not be art,” what I like about that is it values something we might call meaning. I guess what I want to ask you is: What do you care about most? Can that, as you say, translate into this work from its initial conception to its sitting in a gallery in Chelsea or to a novel? What do you care about most—does that question mean anything to you?
CL As ephemeral as it is, what is most important to me, and always has been, is the ineffable experience, the pondering of the complexity of experience and why this experience. Since I was a child—sorry to sound like a cliché of an artist—I was tormented by that question. I was tormented by subjectivity—couldn’t understand why I had it. That’s really been key for me in a positive and negative sense, and I can tell you about how it functions formally in all my work. But here is what is most important to me—throwing myself into the present, the unanswerable, the unknown, the unquantifiable. If I could do that with a viewer I would do it through creating something that takes advantage of the attention they are going to give it and that does something to bring that ponderance to happen.
AW Goethe used the word charm, but not in the sense that we understand the word today—charm for him was a huge aesthetic position. He felt that a great work of art had to charm the recipient. If somebody gives their attention to your artwork, you almost want to co-ponder experience and being and subjectivity with them. Do you feel a need to charm that viewer?
CL I agree with Goethe’s charm, but the word as we use it repulses me because I want to charm. But what I need to do, whether it’s in bending a shape, flattening out a line, or if it’s in a larger gesture of emaciating a form, I need to have bent or made awkward that charm. And I don’t even think I’m any good at fighting that kind of charm.
AW I think it’s a sign of great maturity that you have been on this path of fighting beauty, charm, enchantment even. Although a different kind of enchantment occurs when you’re mixing in the anti-aesthetic.
CL Right, enchantment is actually—
AW It’s a better word—
CL Yes. For instance, the LA River pieces were coming out of a very long, dark night of the soul. I was interested in reading books like Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which begins with his life in the concentration camps, as well as Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, which is about his experiences in Auschwitz. And I mention this also because of your most recent novel, The Marriage Artist, which in part takes place in Nazi-era Austria. We both share that tendency to search for what is special in a hard place. That period for me was all about “if I am going to find value in my work, I have to go to rock bottom.” So I was down in the basin of the LA River, I was making work out of garbage and nature, and I was pretty much alone—
AW I don’t mean to interrupt, but it was dark, yet it wasn’t pessimistic.
CL That was the amazing thing. In Frankl’s book there are so many horrible things he talks about, but there’s a part when he’s in a train being transferred from one camp to the next and he looks through a crack in the door and looks in the direction of his home, and he’s thinking about his wife and how he doesn’t know whether she’s alive or not and how it is hopelessly beside the point. But what he understood was that his capacity for having loved her was enough right then and there because that was all he had. So, I made one piece called Direction of My Home, and it’s an achingly beautiful piece—if I may say so—and totally enchanting, and it was made from little things I found on the sidewalk in New York integrated with the odd things I found in the LA River. It was really about home and longing and the beauty of longing. Longing itself is incredibly enchanting.
AW I’m curious though, it sounds like you weren’t so aware, at that point in your path, of the art world and what the dialogue was there, how this would fit in. Or am I wrong about that?
CL No, that’s exactly why I did what I did. It was a confusing time and I withdrew from the art world. I guess I found I was making work that was consumed for its charm. There were specific reasons I made that work, and they were, in my mind, central. They were my investigations of the body, formlessness, and languagelessness, but I guess I was so adept at integrating that investigation into form and experience that those issues really were overshadowed by how the work was functioning in the world—it was functioning really well with the museums’ desire for amusing a growing audience.
AW That’s so interesting.
CL So I called it quits. And it was difficult and yet so perfect because I started teaching as an alternative and that’s where I found, among other ideas, real enchantment. You know, one of my students did a project on Joseph Cornell, whom I had never taken that seriously because I thought he was someone that the minimalists thought was cool but his ideas were simply given lip service. But when I really understood what he was doing—and this coincided with the amazing drawings my son was doing at age seven—that’s when I was opened up to something that was not necessarily made for an audience.
AW Do you think you’re still pursuing that vein in your work?
CL The crazy thing is that right now I’m working on two big projects simultaneously and one of them is completely charming the public; it’s, like, indefensibly charming. I absolutely love it. And it is appropriate because it is not limited to an art audience; in fact, that will account for a very small part of this audience.
AW (laughter) A shameless piece. A bit of the old Charles Long in there.
CL It’s all that, but excessively so. And still it is focusing on the sculptural possibilities of the uncanny, as the earlier work did. It’s scheduled to open in May in Madison Square Park. It’s a very large piece where all of these handrails make paths that lead to this center area on the lawn and as you run your hand along the handrails, the rails morph into these blobs, and, as your hands go over the surface of these undulating bodies, it triggers different samples taken from the Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds album. So there will be six of these biomorphic entities and all of these different sounds coming out of them. Super fun, but it’s as serious as Brian Wilson is serious. I think of him as the ultimate artist, a person who went to his room or studio and poured his heart out.
AW He did that and yet he still had this connection to a huge pop audience.
CL Yeah, that’s the beautiful thing. I don’t know if the art world can do that. Concurrent with the Pet Sounds project is the gallery exhibition I’m working on, which opens in New York at the end of February and is the exact opposite. And that’s where I’m finding it very difficult to make works that aren’t so good-looking.
AW There’s almost a self-consciousness with respect to beauty and this charm that you are fighting against.
CL Well, here’s the thing—by my precept, I’m not even permitted to fight it, see? It’s just a constant act of pulling the rug out from under myself, and then still trying to do something coherent. So I’m trying to not take things from nature, even though I’m completely surrounded by it here in the mountains. I’m trying not to let my sense of design, which I have a pretty good sense of, have that big of a say, and concurrent with that, well—let me skip to saying what I can do. What I can do is be open and walk the line. That’s how I see it. To cut to the chase, it’s being open and not settling where things feel comfortable.
AW That’s my ambition every single day—I learned this from James—you rotate the diamond to get a different facet, and when you know that’s not enough, you keep turning it and turning it until you come at it from all these different angles and you get rid of cliché and you get rid of easy solutions and it’s a search for—and I hate to say it because it’s a banned word these days—but it’s a search for truth itself, right? We’ve spoken on other occasions about Emerson, and I wonder if there is something about your reading of Emerson that inspired you to think about this work in this way?
CL After doing the bird shit pieces—which were one man’s railing against the world—I’d be up on the roof here at sunset finishing a bottle of wine and yelling down to the wasteland of the Inland Empire. Perhaps it was the madness of cabin fever. But I couldn’t go any further with my dissatisfaction with the political situation, and, strangely, out of the blue popped this idea that I basically had to be today’s Emerson. I had to, as he says, take myself for better or worse as my portion: “The power which resides in him is new in nature.”
So I knew that my nature couldn’t be a nature that is possible to degrade, whereas the previous work is definitely involved in that, in a very ancient way too. I mean, I know that I really should give a shit that we’re destroying the planet, we’ve always been destroying the planet, that’s what we do. (laughter) But the Emerson thing led me to that idea of primary experience. I didn’t want to pollute my experience of the world, I didn’t want to look out at the world and see my work, my thoughts, and I didn’t want to look at my work and see the world, and I don’t want to do that for viewers. I don’t want to take a picture of Justin Bieber and add on some blobs of clay, paint it fluorescent orange, whatever. I wanted to—well, it’s an impossible task—
AW It seems like you have one shot in this life, and one shot to make good art, art that actually matters and means something. It seems to me that that’s worth going after.
CL Yeah, and at this point in my life that’s what I feel. The work of the young man in the ’90s whose enthusiasm upstaged his own investigation, followed by the LA River man stripping away all that in order to arrive at some core values. Now that that’s done I’ve got some time here and now to ask, What can I do with all of this extravagance of thought, facility, and experience? We live in an incredible time where there is so much available. Using the Internet, I was able to discover a non-toxic epoxy that enabled me to get back to the bodily forms that I loved before. And through this genius material I can now have a “nature” that was still alien enough for me so it didn’t refer to the clichéd idea of nature—yet it’s made of soybeans and peanuts! That fact for me was helpful because it was a material that was of no specific importance or meaning. It’s just goo that takes a 3-D form when you use it as a process rather than a means to an image. That’s really in keeping with where I was at in terms of the forms. I would do drawings and be reading and writing at the same time, switching back and forth—it’s all questions. And I would try to bend metal into the shapes I had drawn, form the epoxy around it, fail at it, and then feel horrible about the mess that’s accruing, and then somehow turn a corner and say, Well, this is actually sort of interesting, and then turn another corner and say, Well, that’s too interesting. So right now I’m making art that is about being present in a process and facilitating its continuing process for others to experience, without too much content.
AW In a way you are availing yourself of the best that abstraction seems to offer.
CL Abstraction is an inconvenient word because it suggests something taken from something. The idea of presence (presents) is a beautiful word in its double meanings—
AW But let’s get down and dirty. You’re walking out to your lovely barn studio on any given day from this beautiful house—do you feel like you ever empty yourself out?
CL I can’t do it in the studio, but everyday when I’m walking with the dogs, that’s all I do. It’s such an incredible experience and I’ve gotten really good at it. I go on the walks, my head is filled with crap—getting mad about things at the university and thinking this and that has to get done—and then looking around me at the cathedral of leaves, a bazillion leaves and pine needles, and the blueness of the sky . . . to walk out onto a vista and see for miles these massive topologies and then zoom down to the micro—I’m always picking up a rock—and there’s something happening for me. Now that I’ve said this to you, it’s going to be very hard tomorrow when I go for a walk—because I’ll be thinking about this conversation and how I exploited it in an art context.
AW But we’re partly not talking about art here. We’re talking about a daily practice. We’re talking about life, I hope.
CL Well, there you go. The win/win is that art, in a sense, is the imaginary little obstacle course that we set up.
AW It’s the lie, Picasso said. But don’t you feel like you are trying to figure out your life with your art?
CL I used to think that but it became problematic. I can’t figure out my life.
AW Ok, not your life but aren’t you trying to figure out something—it’s an impossible task, we’re not philosophers, we’re artists—but aren’t you trying to express something about being, about existence, about the thingness of just being here? Aren’t you trying to do that with your art?
CL Well, if we’re going to start cutting words out then we have to cut the word try, and I also think the word express is kind of redundant. That’s what I’ve noticed in this process—my alarm goes off when something feels redundant. If what I’m doing is called abstraction, it causes a redundancy alarm.
AW How is the word abstraction redundant?
CL Well, you have one thing and a move toward another. When I say I’m trying to do something, it sets up an “other”—a point I’ve got to get to and that’s no good. Why should trying be worth trying? This work I’m making now isn’t figuring anything out, it’s actually falling apart on the way. That’s all it is—it’s constantly falling apart from what I think I am doing. One day, when I was sketching, I thought about the word rigor and how, for many people, that’s a really important word, right?
AW Oh, yes.
CL It’s redundant. It dares anybody to question the validity of doing what they are referring to, and I really don’t want any part of that.
AW Listening to you I think of the Chinese poets, like Wang Wei, many of whom had these bureaucratic positions just like you do—you’re the chair of a department—and they would leave the city, their functions and the bureaucracy, and go back to their home on the hill. I’m also thinking of Seneca. After a life of running an entire political system, he finally retreats—at probably our age—he contemplates, and he dies. But then there’s Emerson, the soul on fire. Emerson cuts right to the core and gets redundancy out of it.
CL It’s so incredibly daring—I’m not afraid to use that word—
AW No, we shouldn’t be afraid of anything. We should establish that now.
CL And let’s be rigorous about it. (laughter)
As much as I love people like Rumi or Lao Tzu, going to Emerson feels just around the corner for me. In one of his journals, he’s like, Oh well, the bankers just screwed up the real estate thing and now my house is worth absolutely nothing, it needs all this work done to it, I’m overcommitted at the university, and I have this collection of essays due next week. I’m like, Holy shit! I have to become Emerson—to join the huge process of consciousness, get away from the little bit of yourself, and know that every experience you have is part of that big consciousness. So what’s the most important thing? This right here.
AW He seems to be a solitary figure in America, an equal to any of the greats in the rest of the world, this liberating way that he had spiritually, intellectually, metaphysically. This past year I also had what I called “my inner-Emerson”—he liberated me from ideology. You get so upset about what’s going on in the world and then you read some Emerson and it’s like a cleansing.
CL When I make something, I’m hoping that I come close to providing an open space for people who are carrying around the weight of the world, busy with all of their busy thoughts. Oh, they may think, this artist is supposed to be important, or, Oh, there’s that critic or collector, I have to schmooze. Hopefully there will be a moment in looking at the work and they’ll just say, “Hmm. What’s that? Why that?” Obviously there’s a language of formalism and a history of sculpture and so many contrivances in the work, but I’m taking that as part of an incredible privilege to say that aesthetics are essential to life. That’s what Viktor Frankl was all about—do I find meaning in this pit of hell? And we’re charged with finding meaning in a world of complete entertainment, distraction, and accessibility to our desires—
AW Which is another form of hell. When you’re talking about your current work—it’s almost as if it’s an escape from history. Do you see it as historical or ahistorical? Do those words mean anything to you?
CL Well, oddly enough, what I’ve been working on has a utopian aspect that’s totally historical. There’s even a classicism to the utopian gesture of creating the new thing, the new society. It’s really American too. What I’m working on are minimal surfaces that are used a lot now in computer modeling, but also throughout history—the first one was discovered mathematically in 1776. A minimal surface is one that is bound by a frame, and, however twisted the borders, it has to end up using the least amount of surface area. Nature is really good at this because nature runs a tight economy; it doesn’t get into debt problems. So when I’m stretching fiberglass cloth over these wonky frames and putting resin on them I’m creating forms that are restricted by that frame.
Lee Bontecou or Antoine Pevsner, for example, were using minimal surfaces, and then there’s Eero Saarinen’s incredible TWA terminal at JFK that Jet Blue has restored. His forms had a huge influence on me as a kid, they’re very Jetsons-y, and though I love the hyperstyle it’s their transitional morphology that interests me and led me to the wall tables I did based on his tulip table. My work asks about this transition from the general to the specific. This goes back to the problem of subjectivity versus the universal; it’s also a problem for me to solve sculpturally.
So take, for instance, the Abraham Lincoln-hair piece—that’s a minimal surface. It’s a sphere pulled to a point, and when it comes to that final point, that’s where Abraham Lincoln’s hair comes out of it. For me, the minimal surface is this ultrageneralized form, exhibiting a minimum of surface difference, but at this point of extension, it takes on a radical subjectivity as you understand this line is also a person, in this case Lincoln, a DNA structure, and all the history around him.
AW The Abraham Lincoln piece seems very Emersonian—the celebration of the self as the universe, the elimination of the usual separation between the two.
CL Yes! Around that time I was working with popcorn kernels—the move from the unexploded to the exploded and asking why does something take this shape and not that shape? As I walk around nature here, I am still compelled by this question. One elemental form or force bumps up against another and what was general takes on specificity, it develops character such as a twisted tree trunk. I see this sculptural process as analogous to how one’s character develops.
Our experience of sculptural objects can transcend “it’s just that and that’s all it is” because you can walk around it, and, for me, that’s where the profoundness of presence comes in, in contrast to the profoundness of images. Images get reproduced on the Internet and, granted, they offer a million different ways to be looked at or interpreted. But sculpture can’t be captured that way. It’s what you’re looking at and how open you are at this cutting-edge moment of now, this instant—that is sculpture’s unique value. It’s this simple experience and it’s diminished by piling all this meaning onto it. It’s something like Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence—it’s like a game he set up for us to freak out a little and that freaking out is exciting. How to feel alive when you’re doing the seemingly most negligible thing: experience.
AW I read his idea of eternal return in a similar way, as a test: are you living the life you want to live this time around?
CL I used to take it so much to heart that it was really—
CL Yeah. I didn’t like being ruled by my mood shifts and unconscious longings, which I wished I had more control over but don’t—I’m part chemical set, part screenplay. Things got easier when I noticed how my consciousness is changing throughout the day and how it changes throughout my life.
There’s a gallery at the bottom of the mountain here—First Street Gallery—an art workshop and gallery for about 60 artists who all have mental disabilities. I’ll be doing a project with them later this year, and I was intrigued to do it because I cannot accept that my consciousness is some version of a standardized reality. It’s an absurd notion. If I am at my peak consciousness it is only by virtue of my surroundings supporting me to have this illusion. Being able to work with these artists disarms me in the way that seeing my son’s drawings did and looking at Agnes Martin’s or Charles Burchfield’s work does. The work has the minimal amount of contrivance, it is an entirely different paradigm from art that has a preponderance of consideration for what others think. We all want to care so much. It’s easy to, but I think there’s a limit to how well it serves us. Agnes Martin said, “The painter need not die of responsibility.”
AW Your work with the mentally challenged is not altruism per se.
CL I admit that an underlying reason I sought this opportunity is because I’m afraid to, and I don’t like being afraid of people who I feel are different. The amazing directors at this gallery know how to help people with my particular disability, that is, of not knowing how to relate to these artists. I am the one with the challenges, and I am so looking forward to the project.
AW I did a very similar thing, a writing workshop with people in recovery and people transitioning out of being homeless. I had these very open, risky interactions with them. Any script I had going in there I just threw out. It was a gift, but it was unsettling as well—it wasn’t tidy, it’s never tidy.
CL I have a certain faith that there’s a buoyancy, and, if anything, as Kafka said, the problem is in forgetting how to swim. I think I have it right here. (flips through book) Yeah, he says, “I can swim like the others, only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, my ability to swim is of no avail and I cannot swim after all.” (laughter)
At the peak of my LA River madness, I was casting a grouping of concrete heads into the trashy silt of the riverbed as part of a piece called Agnes Martin Kippenberger. I needed to join in my mind these two artistic parents that I couldn’t quite resolve. I just imagined being born of two completely different approaches to making work. I didn’t know if I should get completely wasted to get inspired or just calm down and take a look around me, within me.
I mean we’re given this incredible thing. Look at the body and the brain, it’s a stunning creation. We’re so privileged with body and mind and consciousness. I can’t see our “selves” as anything but clowns by comparison, but I think through embracing that clown nature it is possible to turn this phenomenally mysterious experience into something quite elegant, incredibly kind, and endlessly transforming.
Andrew Winer is the author of The Marriage Artist (Henry Holt), which was released in paperback this fall by Picador. His first novel, The Color Midnight Made, was a national bestseller. He is Chair of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and a recipient of an NEA Fellowship in fiction. He also writes essays on art, literature, and music, and is completing a novel about American religion and politics.