Alain Kirili by Saul Ostrow

BOMB 32 Summer 1990
032 Summer 1990
Alain Kirili. Photo © 1990 Peter Bellamy.

Alain Kirili. Photo © 1990 Peter Bellamy.

Kirili has merged late modernist practice and a Freudian world of sexuality to give us a newer discourse. He has worked his way out of the mechanical world of process and concept art back to traditional sculptural categories. He has done this in order that he may release the sexuality in creativity. For him, the act of modeling and forging is like pressing into the flesh of an other.

 Clinamen l, ll, ll, 1989, painted plaster, 63 ½ x 21 x 16 inches. Photos by Zindman/Fremont ©1989. All images courtesy of Holly Solomon Gallery.

Clinamen l, ll, ll, 1989, painted plaster, 63 ½ x 21 x 16 inches. Photos by Zindman/Fremont ©1989. All images courtesy of Holly Solomon Gallery.

Saul Ostrow Looking at Clinamen, the three painted plasters, one could say you learned something from de Kooning … you started off as an avant-garde artist saying, Here is the outer limit of making sculptures, here are sculptures that make themselves, or that are minimal, that demonstrate process—and then suddenly, you discover that something is repressed.

Alain Kirili That’s right. And I was a foreigner, I could not associate and I did not belong to that avant-garde shaped in the ’60s and ’70s. I did not belong to it, ethically or spiritually. I had to choose then, to be an outsider and to accept the idea that creation can be timeless. That you don’t need to belong to an actuality, a strategy. In many ways, I was much more in contact with the American artists of the ’50s, who I never met, but in reading what they had to say? Oh my God. De Kooning said that oil paint was invented because of the flesh…

SO Having come to that realization, you embraced a series of traditions. The work diversified.

AK Picasso changed his sculpture in relationship to the woman he was with. And I work exactly the same way. (laughter) If she speaks Spanish, if she speaks English, that could change my sculpture much more than any theoretical conversation.

SO The diversity in your work makes it look rather theoretical.

AK There is a diversity of comments, of analytical styles, which is a postmodern attitude. There is also the diversity of the unconscious and autobiographical diversity. I am not a pioneer of abstraction. That time’s gone. We are the generation, especially in sculpture, who no longer have to defend something. Now, I just enjoy creation and, in abstraction, expressing the pleasure of life. That creates diversity because life is diverse.

SO To use a term that’s frowned upon, it’s an existential project, it affirms one’s existence in the sensual world.

AK Yes, it is extremely subjective.

Generations, 1989, forged and painted iron, forged aluminum, 83 ½ x 55 x 37 inches.

Generations, 1989, forged and painted iron, forged aluminum, 83 ½ x 55 x 37 inches.

SO It’s expansive, rather than reducing it down to this one singular thing which sums you all up—which was always the artist’s ambition in the past, to make the masterpiece, to make the definitive, the all inclusive.

AK I’d just like to add that abstraction doesn’t need to be boring to be good. Abstraction is so boring. It can kill you right on the spot. So it’s really a joy to say no. Abstraction can be like Matisse, like Picasso: rich, diverse, incarnated with flesh, with sperm, with blood, with joy, with tears, with feeling, with love. The same level of attitude, of ethos. And this should happen at the end of the 20th century because today, abstract artists are not pioneers anymore: abstraction belongs to one Western tradition. I’m not going to add one square more, to prove what? (laughter) It’s a footnote today. Rather than wasting time on footnotes and details (one square more, one line more) now we need to see if abstraction is capable of being autobiographical. Because otherwise, the 20th century will end leaving two great artists: Matisse and Picasso, two figurative artists. I dream of seeing abstract artists who could have such a prolific and generous body of work.

SO Let me see if this makes sense to you. The reason we like art is that basically it’s disquieting. It makes us realize that there is no locus, no direction, that anything we look at makes us aware that we’re not going any place. There is no central theme—there are themes, there are experiences, there is a rich variety—and it’s not reducible. The role of art is not to make us comfortable, but uncomfortable.

AK I would love sometime to do a work of art that makes people happy and pleased. The biggest translation would be to share pleasure. People are afraid to share pleasure. What I really hope is that people will say it is cheerful. I don’t know if I am mature enough at this point to be able to do serene work. It’s for later perhaps. Right now, I would like to challenge the difficulties of life, while remembering that we can have a great time. The Clinamenare works I’m surprised at being capable of doing today. I am surprised that at my age I could reach a goal. They are absolutely freestanding, so phallic. It’s very deep in my sense. It’s a question of my own survival. Freestanding, in the ground sculpture is a very important sign of civilization. You don’t put it on the floor or against the wall. It’s a deep statement.

SO Do you think it becomes a metaphor for one’s own autonomy?

AK It becomes a metaphor of dignity. Of dignity, of a heroic quality in a human being in our civilization. Hoping that we can all stand on our own feet. And, on another level, I may have succeeded in those sculptures, more than ever before to express my love for femininity. They’re not just phallic sculptures, because that would terrify me. It would be barbaric. Civilization reaches its greatest level when we liberate our femininity. Not to do it is archaic, it’s narrow and repressed. Femininity is the most rejected by modernity, the most endangered. Poets, writers, theoreticians, it is taboo to them. I’ll take the risk. Because my intuition says that it will survive if only because I love it, me personally.

SO Do you think that one of the reasons the feminine is so feared is that we live in a society—Western society—in which we identify ourselves by establishing the difference between us and some other. As Lacan said, there’s no such thing as woman: if there is no such thing as woman, then man disappears also. Because they only exist as a differentiation of one from the other. In the Clinamen, you bring together and merge the two.

AK It’s not easy to have the maturity to do it. Neither of us are psychoanalysts. But I suppose that as men, we are afraid of liberating our femininity. It’s a stage of freedom to let that go.

SO If we take the work to be metaphorical, at a certain point, one stops defining the self by its difference. So that you become the work and they’re not defined by their difference from one another, but their commonality.

AK Yes.

SO In the same way that your work is influenced by various sources: Rodin, Giacometti, Barnett Newman, or David Smith, rather than viewing them in terms of the difference between them, you view them …

AK In terms of their commonality. In that sense, my work is not eclectic. The fact that you mentioned those names is interesting. De Kooning is concerned with women, David Smith, too. David Smith said that the big difference between him and Gonzalez, is that Gonzalez came from an age where the relationship between men and women was graced. Smith found that the relationships between men and women in his own world were violent. He was nostalgic for what he felt in the work of Gonzalez. I think the mistake is that it was not a question of age, it was a question of tradition. David Smith came from a Protestant tradition where the couple is seen as a violent relationship. And Gonzalez came from a Roman Catholic tradition where the couple is a miracle, a graceful relationship. Maternity is viewed, in the Roman Catholic tradition, as the ultimate grace. The cult of the Virgin is part of their education and the seduction of the relationship. But it’s very important to appreciate both of them because both have shaped our Western civilization.

SO The reason I raised that grouping is that they represent an abstract tradition based on the figure. There is one Barnett Newman sculpture that I can stand in front of and feel my backbone.

AK It’s very complicated. Barnett Newman didn’t see his sculpture, Here One, as either anthropomorphic or architectural. So what was it? Some sort of presence. It didn’t have the real world beside the word presence. Freestanding verticality may have been a backbone to you, but in another way, it’s also something different. It started to touch the question of the presence of God. Why did I make those very tall sculptures with just a hollow at the top? They can be associated with Cycladic sculpture, with Easter Island sculpture. Why not? It’s true. But I hope it also has the notion of non-verbalized presence.

SO When I talk about it being my backbone, I’m talking about my presence being separate from the presence of the sculpture. One stands in front of the forged pieces and the sensuous part is almost beyond reach. Or that all of a sudden the piece corresponds to my body and that the top, at this possibly violent moment, corresponds to my head.

AK But you know what happens? When it is your head, it means that you levitate.

Ariane, Messenger of the Gods, 1989, cement, 26 x 11 x 18 inches.

Ariane, Messenger of the Gods, 1989, cement, 26 x 11 x 18 inches.

SO There’s a reference in your work—there’s always a reference to my body. I’ll immediately try to find where my thumb fits. It’s like wanting to claim it. What about the audience’s response? You talk about your intentions: is there an intended response?

AK I cannot say. It would be very pretentious of me. I assume people are not very attentive. I have very low expectations. When the work is not didactic, you are lost, so few people can meet you on that level. When it’s didactic, it’s reactionary. When it’s sociological, it’s great but you open up Baudrillard. Suddenly, 500,000 people are going to share the rules of the game with you. But when there are no rules of any sociological, psychological game, then the viewer is left on his own.

SO Let us go back to what you were saying about this society, as a Protestant society, not knowing joy. It doesn’t know that pleasure.

AK “Jouissance” is untranslatable in English, which is extraordinary. I remember when the Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes was translated here, they couldn’t translate “jouissance.”

SO Now it’s beginning to enter the English language.

AK As a French neologism. It’s a crucial word when it comes to the question of creation.

SO It goes back to what you were saying about the ironicism of the postmodern, there is a denial that is included in our ideals. Protestantism took up the mind-body split. After the Greek notion of the healthy mind, the healthy body, we decided the healthy mind was the point, forget the body. The Christian rejection of the body.

AK You cannot say Christian because Catholics express the suffering of Christ as a jouissance. Christianity is when the Word became Flesh, the Word became Incarnatory. So the body is very present in Catholicism, it was the Protestants who decided to have a non-representational God. There are no charming women saints with climaxes. All those jouissances of St. Teresa having climaxes. That’s where the sculpture of St. Teresa comes from: the ecstasy. She said in one letter, God came to visit me in my bedroom …That’s something that Catholicism has been able to carry. And Judaism did not deny the sense of sex, of jouissance. It’s not a puritanical religion.

The concern with sexuality in creation has been right there since Dionysus but it’s the interpretation over the years, that’s why each generation is responsible for their own puritanical regression. Which Marxism produced as well, this puritanical side. Georges Bataille was the first to try to get out of the simple concept of the class struggle as the productive pulse in creation.

SO Since the late ’70s, in your work—I raise this in reference to Bataille—an act of violation takes place, especially in the terra cottas: the cut, the slash, the wire penetrates and pierces them … the very way one describes them.

AK I like to insist that in all my work, there is this act of violation, of mutilation. Those bars of aluminum are an act of violation: a mutilation of that ready-made industry.

Oratio, 1988, forged aluminum, eleven elements, each 27 ½ inches high.

Oratio, 1988, forged aluminum, eleven elements, each 27 ½ inches high.

SO The standard, the industrial standard.

AK So to mutilate the industrial standard is a great pleasure for me. I enjoy that.

SO Bataille talks about not knowing how good something is until you have mutilated it, until you’ve gone too far. It’s only in the loss.

AK The culmination of all the work is a sudden vision of excess, based on the mutilation, on the violent energy that helps you to transgress. The mutilation has to be done deeply and quickly hence the speed of execution. It would be very hard to do it in a studied manner. I remember a French friend came to see me work at LaGuardia Place where I had my studio. He said, “You arrive here like a bourgeois, you work like a criminal, nobody could guess anything. You go down into your studio, you take off your jacket and do the keeckck, kckceckck. Then you go back in the street and you walk away like the perfect bourgeois.”

SO I remember this wonderful series of photographs of you attacking a mass of clay.

AK The point is to arrive there dressed up and leave as if nothing happened, just a little calmer, a little more at ease, tired. The vibration has gone out. So I will never say my studio is a sanctuary, the studio is not a sanctuary. One more sentence, de Kooning says that the flesh was the reason oil painting was invented. I think the flesh was equally what made us want to forge clay and metal.

—Saul Ostrow is a sculptor, curator, and art critic.

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Chavisa Woods’s 100 Times: A Memoir of Sexism by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
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Originally published in

BOMB 32, Summer 1990

Featuring interviews with Barbet Schroeder, Blue Man Group, Jeanne Silverthorne, Angélica Gorodischer, Richard Nelson, Ed Lachman, Alain Kirili, Griselda Gambaro, and Deb Margolin.

Read the issue
032 Summer 1990