The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
The seed for this exchange was planted twenty-two years ago when Kurt Vonnegut, myself, and Bryan Hunt (whom I’d just met) found ourselves discussing over party canapés our time at “the Cape.” It turned out that Kurt was talking about Cape Cod, while I meant Cape Canaveral where my father worked on moon-rocket boosters during the “race for space,” and where Bryan started out as an audacious young artist. As boys, both of us had aspired to become space travelers in some way, but he is the one who has succeeded—by sheer imagination and talent. The following conversation took place in three sessions in the winter of 2016, one in each of Bryan’s three studios.
Jack Stephens We are at your home studio, a converted barn in Wainscott, Long Island. Let’s begin with your “rocketeer’s perspective.” When you got started as an artist, we were just beginning to go into orbit and to the moon, and turning around to look back at Earth, from where we’d come, for the first time. We were starting to look deeper into the universe with space probes and better telescopes, expanding our view on a cosmic scale. Let’s talk about the evolution of your work in this context.
Bryan Hunt Well, during the Renaissance, perspective was a jump into space. I mean, actually putting the viewer in the position of understanding deep space—except deep space meant looking across the piazza. Of course, there were always moments in history that pushed the concept of viewpoint a step further, whether through technology as simple as a ruler or mathematics or physical exploration of the kind done by Ferdinand Magellan. In the history of cartography you can see how our point of view has consistently expanded. Now it seems that we are in a renaissance of celestial exploration.
JS And your interest in the expanded view started when?
BH My father was kind of a Walter Mitty character, a daydreamer who read a lot of philosophy and psychology. He tried writing; he made chess figures. He was a lowly accountant, but he had this passion to be something else. He was a bookworm whose idea of being an artist was of being within yourself and empowered by some kind of magic. I could trust in that. I felt confident when I was drawing, and that got me through tough or conflicted times. So in part through my father, I identified with being an artist because I thought that an artist was a highly evolved being. And when I would see a book on sculpture, or the history of painting, or Picasso, it supported the idea of the artist as an explorer. In addition to that fantasy of freedom, I liked building things and figuring out how things fit together. I figured out a way to hang all of my model airplanes and rockets over my bed with monofilament line. (laughter)
JS And now you’re imagining how to build planets and other celestial objects.
BH Yeah, interpreting them.
JS Which takes us to “the race for space.”
BH I lived in Tampa, Florida, from age nine to twenty-three with Cape Canaveral only about a hundred miles away. Its closeness was personal: in elementary school we would sit on the grass facing the site and await the launch. Those early rocket names were always a reference. What were they? Vanguard—
BH And the Redstone! What was John Glenn riding in? An Atlas, I think. So, fast-forward, I’m in college in Tampa and somehow I get it into my head that I could go to Cape Canaveral and get a job working for NASA at Kennedy Space Center. The first place I walked into was Grumman Aircraft and, amazingly, they hired me to create and operate a mailroom for a group of engineers and draftsmen who had just moved from Bethpage, New York, to assemble the Lunar Module. From the mailroom, I was promoted to engineer’s aide, then to draftsman, and I was given access to some pretty amazing sites, like Launch Pad 39A, the Vertical Assembly Building, the Launch Control Center, the white rooms and altitude chambers. All of these structures and objects were designed for functionality, but their beauty was undeniable. I got to be in the bleachers for a few Apollo launches. Once you feel your body vibrating from the percussion of a Saturn V liftoff and hear the sky cracking open to let the bird out, you’ve been changed. Best job I ever had.
JS So how do you go from rockets to art?
BH During this time I was living in a bungalow in Cocoa Beach, painting in the kitchen and surfing after work. But my desire to be an artist and continue my education outweighed staying at NASA. I moved to Los Angeles and went to the Otis Art Institute where an instructor named Miles Forst turned me on to Avalanche Magazine, Avante Garde, and Artforum. They defined the zeitgeist of the late ’60s and early ’70s. I felt like I was learning a completely new language. Artists were breaking boundaries, expanding perceptions. Miles was a New Yorker and convinced me to apply to the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. So in 1972 I came to New York for the first time and fell in love with the city and the art scene. The Whitney program opened many doors for me—to museums, galleries, and artists’ hangout bars like Spring Street, Fanelli’s, and Max’s Kansas City.
JS So let’s talk about the trajectory of your art, beginning with your earliest explorations into what was, for you, new territory.
BH After the Whitney Program I returned to Los Angeles and built a studio in Venice. I was supporting myself with odd jobs as a draftsman. Venice Beach was so cool in the ’70s. That’s where all the artists were, behind funky doors in incredible spaces: Larry Bell, Chris Burden, Allan McCollum, Vija Celmins, Ed Ruscha, Alexis Smith, Chuck Arnoldi, just to name a few. Fertile grounds!
I was looking at conceptual art and earthworks. I thought, Why not work with scale and interpretation and build monuments like the Empire State Building or Hoover Dam? Why not think of the Hoover Dam as an earthwork and put it in a studio space so the scale is shifted and a bit dada? It was edgy because it was going back to object-making via conceptual art and, dare I say, the anarchy of tradition—like working in bronze and modeling clay. I guess you could say it was post-minimal.
JS So you were appropriating and removing architectural icons from their contexts, but you also added interpretive elements. You lifted the Empire State Building out of the New York skyline, the Great Wall out of the Chinese landscape, and the Hoover Dam out of the Colorado River canyon, and made them into sculptures we can walk around. And each of these seminal works came with an epiphany.
BH Epiphany? I guess. This was 1974. Nixon had just visited China; the LA Timespublished a photo on its front page of an American kid from one of our delegation’s families riding a skateboard on the Great Wall of China. That was such a radical juxtaposition. It spoke to me like a Neil Jenney painting: Now and Then, Here and There, or something like that. I immediately got to work on an eight-foot clay version of what was Nankou Pass outside of Beijing and cast it into bronze. It hangs vertically, snaking from end to end on the wall. By the way, you can see the Great Wall of China from orbital space.
JS So how did you leap from massively heavy subjects to things that are lighter than air?
BH In researching the Empire State Building, I discovered that the tower at the top had been designed to moor the great dirigibles crossing the Atlantic. Passengers were to disembark and go through customs on the observation deck. How cool is that? But the designers did not calculate the wind shear or that the dirigible, when attached to the building, would have been lifted vertically on end. It was never attempted but the concept of an 800-foot-long airship docking to a 1,250-foot-high building in Midtown Manhattan was quite a vision. That was the genesis of my long involvement with my airship sculptures.
JS And the Great Wall of China? And the Hoover Dam?
BH They were readymades. I wanted to extract them from their context and location, rescale them, and put them in my studio so they could become something else.
The Hoover Dam seemed to me the ultimate earthwork, an arch-gravity dam that spanned a canyon and connected its two sides while creating a lake and rerouting the river. It’s almost 700 feet thick at the bottom, sloping up to something like fifty feet thick at the top, like a wedge, or a colossal torso holding back billions of gallons of water.
JS But there was more to it than that.
BH I had to get my head around the idea of somehow sculpting the canyon walls in reverse. I had the shape of the dam itself finished to the edges where the dam meets the canyon. Before I poured the cement, I was working with old photos of the canyon, and I realized that whatever I made was going to be an interpretation of nature; it was no longer something based on engineering drawings or architecture. I just thought, I’m going to go somewhere with this “cut loose” moment.
JS And this led to a series of works regarding water and how it conforms to the earth.
BH Yes, the idea of liquid water as a solid mass was really interesting to me. In Colorado’s Lake Mead, the largest US reservoir, there is this fantastical landscape at the bottom of a gorge, and now it’s hidden away underwater. I thought about lakes and the mysterious unknown shape underneath a lake’s flat surface and the idea of pulling a lake out of its earthly mold.
JS And that series of cast-bronze lakes and quarries led to another exploration in conforming water?
BH Yeah, the quarry sculptures I made in the late ’70s took the shapes of various lakes made by water filling quarries—a riff on cubism. The walls of the quarries were geometric shapes made by the machines removing the rock that makes up the sides of the lake bed. There’s a beautiful Cézanne painting, Bibemus Quarry, with hard-edged geometric shapes in a hillside landscape, a good surrogate for cubist painting. My quarry sculptures have a watery surface at the top and a cubistic bottom.
JS And the falls and cascades?
BH For me, there was a natural progression from making waterlike forms extracted from their locations to doing the same with waterfalls. I would remove the waterfall from the landscape; it would contort and follow gravity, kind of like a living thing. I imagined it as the figure in the landscape. I made the falls by pouring plaster over an armature, then hacked into the shape to energize the act of falling water; the marks would catch light in the direction of the flow. Then I cast them in bronze.
JS So that’s the succession of works that evolved out of Hoover Dam (1974). That’s the horizontal realm, more or less. Let’s talk about the vertical divergence that happens with Empire State Building (1974) and the airships, how you moved from gravity-bound things to aerial freedom. Instead of pulling massive works from the landscapes they’ve conformed to, you go as light as possible and deal with space.
BH Yeah, when I built the sculptures based on the Hindenburg for Empire State Building, I realized that these airship shapes, simplified and hung way above eye level, were compelling and addressed many sculptural issues like mass, weightlessness, space, and gravity. How the hell does an airship stay up there? I went through many iterations in shape, proportion, color, and orientation, and eventually placed the sculptures vertically like spaceships. They were and still are my muses. They are meant to take you places.
JS We are now in the repurposed potato barn that is your new studio in Wainscott. We are surrounded by your work—the Great Wall sculpture, large contorted airships, and planetlike ceramic sculptures along with similarly themed painted/drawn/collaged paintings from your 2016 show Fly-By at the Drawing Room in East Hampton.
What would you say about the large-scale two-dimensional works on the walls?
BH They’re about drawing and mapping, the kind of freedom you’d have if you wandered around recording a fictional topography. It’s a made-up journey; then I go back and paint that topography. There are also collaged photographs of my clay moon pieces that I take with direct sunlight. The photo images mimic NASA mosaics of satellite telemetry.
JS These drawings are like NASA flyby photos of celestial bodies, with collaged-on photovignettes of your sculptures that bring different levels of representation into play. These are also planetoid.
BH Yes. Planets, moons, asteroids. You know, we have named the objects in our solar system very nicely, and at this point in time, we’ve got just about everything photographed and mapped. We know our neighborhood in our galaxy.
JS And yet, your celestial bodies are fictions.
BH They are fictional places made up of features like plateaus, canyons, volcanoes, impact craters, ice fields and so on. As paintings they get pretty abstract, and that’s what I’m after—some things seem random and chaotic but there’s a logic that connects them over time. They are pretty loose; every mark I make is an event in that place and that place is an extraterrestrial orb. I’d like viewers to feel that this is as close to an astronomical object as they have ever been. At the same time, the works are paintings: there are drips, splashes, and pours intertwined with circles, shadows, and lines—all that fun stuff!
JS And a new sense of remove. Like in that Last Whole Earth Catalog moment, when we had gone to the moon just a few months earlier—
BH On the cover of the magazine was the photograph of Earth taken by Apollo 11 astronauts.
JS Right! And our grasp was beginning to match our reach. So, transport, exploration, transcendence… Talk about your intentions; what do you want to transmit to your viewer?
BH Ultimately, a sense of awe or wonder, something that connects the immensity of the universe with the intimacy of our experience, like walking in “deep field” nature. The waterfall sculptures were meant to achieve a similar feeling, but the connection was to earthbound nature.
JS So there’s this back and forth between your two-dimensional and three-dimensional works, with different kinds of imaging experiences that remind me of how architects use both drawings and 3-D models to help us visually explore their ideas. Your two-dimensional works are different from the sculptures, but they use similar information: planetoid, heavenly body, near and deep space, and so on. And there’s your rocketeer’s perspective.
BH I just want twenty-first-century locators. I’m thinking, Look what we have here. We have just landed a robot on a comet. (laughter) Seriously! It landed on a comet, and we flew by Pluto on the way to interstellar space, sending back information and knowledge of unfathomable richness! Very cool, right? It’s no longer sci-fi. I’m totally into Elon Musk’s projects (SpaceX, SolarCity, Tesla)—to see a reusable rocket return to Earth and land on a platform out at sea is a sight to behold.
JS Awe and wonder. So now you’re the master of this interpretive solar system in a galaxy you’ve invented. But there is so much physicality that went into it! When I view your waterfalls and craters, especially the new smaller clay pieces such as the Kuiper Belt object you’ve imagined and called Cubewanos (2017), I see the hand of the maker in action. I see clever thumb smearing and wet fingers flicking spray to mimic the effects of an asteroid shower.
BH There’s some abstract expressionism in the planetary works: I like to let the clay fly and make smushy impact craters, to push and pull the topography, to add layers of time. I make a mess and then tidy up, which is exactly the same thing time does in cosmology.
When I saw de Kooning’s bronze Clamdigger for the first time in 1972, I was floored by how much freedom an artist could summon to create a sculpture. The bronzes were cast from his clay originals; the clay work was amazing, really raw and expressionistic with globby masses and extruding shapes. I’d never seen anything like them. One of my favorite stories about de Kooning was that he wore those big fat gloves that you shuck oysters with, maybe even two pairs of gloves, to give him bigger fingers to make bigger gestures in the clay. And speaking of clam diggers, here we are out on the East End of Long Island where de Kooning worked. There are still clam diggers here, and if you see them in the right light, or the right reflective quality of the water, you’re actually looking at the reflection of de Kooning’s clam digger sculpture. That’s trippy, eh?
JS Why do you put feet on your ceramic planets and moons?
BH The feet are disarming, I like the low-tech feel; they’re more like characters you would bring back with you from a cosmic journey. The feet give them humanity; they are standing there as if looking back.
JS Back to your linear, velocity-loaded, projectile-like airships. You couldn’t just leave them alone; you had to start exploring again.
BH You are talking about Black Venus (2010). I’ve been working on aeroshapes for a long time and Venus does new things. It’s exploring the form of the airship as it turns on itself, like a seashell doing a spiral then morphing into something else, like a seed or a figurative idol. The negative space in the center of the spiral looks like a model of a black hole. Very meta, just by turning a form on itself.
JS Now that you say “figurative,” it also has hips, like the Venus of Willendorf.
BH Well, that’s why I call it Venus. Venus of Willendorf is considered one of the oldest figurines made by early humans; it’s something like 25,000 years old. For me, the title Venus worked for a few reasons—there’s the little figurine, the goddess, and the planet, and they all connect, and yes, I think it’s pretty sexy. It changes dramatically as you walk around it.
JS It’s balletic, too. It’s standing on one leg high-kicking, very athletic.
BH In a way, you want sculpture to perform, to release a certain kind of energy, to assert a balance, to inhabit a three dimensional space.
It’s a physical relationship; it wants to draw you in and seduce you to walk around it.
JS When I look at one of your airships mounted horizontally on a wall, I’m always fascinated. Whether it’s one of the classic straight ones, or the quarkier quantum-physics inspired “colors” and “flavors” you later explored, there’s a “push-me-pull-you” effect. What I mean is that I can’t help feeling I’m seeing the airship come through the wall, like a cosmic particle piercing through from another dimension. Or it’s about to penetrate the plane and go into that other dimension. That feeling is enhanced by the surreal shadows that the airships throw. Care to comment?
BH Well, shadow is something I can control artificially in the studio, but in natural light the shadow is always moving. Ideally, I’d mount those airship pieces under or near a skylight so that they have a life of their own, always changing, in movement with the arc of the sun.
JS Like the gnomon of a sundial?
BH Yeah, the gnomon, the “pre-clock” on the sides of old buildings. But the question of whether the airship is coming toward you or going into the wall—that was interesting to me because it sets up this ambiguity of whether the wall is space and the viewer is watching it go into space.
JS The wall is space. Now that you say it, I see it.
BH I wanted the airships to appear free and untethered such that they’re either going into the space of the white wall or coming out of it.
JS It’s the same with your orthographic sections, those iceberg-tip-like slices of moons or planets that seem to be just penetrating the wall or almost finished passing through it as they leave the room.
BH Well, the wall is two things. It’s space, if the piece is perceived to be going in; and if it’s perceived to be coming out, the wall is place. I mean, the wall is that place where the sculpture is coming from or going to.
JS Like a cosmic neighborhood with an address on a star chart. And what about gravity?
BH Talk to Einstein—ha! You know Einstein loved Calder’s mobiles not only because of their beauty and movements that involved time but because they were playful!
JS We are now in your TriBeCa studio on White Street in New York City. I sense in your recent work that you’re transmitting from faraway places, and that you want us to embrace our place in the universe and what is beyond ourselves. Is it the knowledge of the ever-receding horizon or vanishing point that you manifest in a work?
BH I think of it as shrinking the observer. (laughter) Or expanding the context. It’s a displacement of scale. The viewer approaches an object and processes its three-dimensionality, or objectness; but, at the same time, the viewer must contend with a shift of scale, an altered state. It’s like you’re in Kauai and you walk around the corner and see an absolutely stunning waterfall dropping a thousand feet, and something opens up in you, like a surrender to nature.
JS You are dwarfed and transported by it, internalizing the magnitude of it all, like those tiny poets hiking in Chinese and Japanese landscape scroll paintings.
BH Also the scholars’ rocks. They become a mountain, an island, or an anthropomorphic creature. It’s all up to the imagination.
JS Your process is an iterative one. Like an engineer or a scientist, you try something, it works or it doesn’t, you back up, you try again. How conscious of that are you?
BH I think it’s interesting that in particle physics, which I know nothing about, the deeper scientists go into the subatomic, the more poetic and metaphorical they are in describing what they’ve discovered, using words like charm, strange, flavor, or recently, the elusive god particle. Where are they going with this? Guess that’s why I love science.
JS Scientists and artists—
BH —are somewhat similar. You have your laboratory—your studio. You have theories, history, and heroes. You allow for failure and you make discoveries, invent recipes. See what I mean? The difference is that art has no rules. Ha! Just look around.
JS You say “heroes.” Like influences?
BH Bruce Nauman, for example, is an inspiration, in that Duchampian sense that he could take an idea and manifest it, produce something unexpected and rearranged. For instance, his spoof on Henry Moore—Nauman cast a mold of his own back with his arms tied behind him and called it Henry Moore Bound to Fail (Back View). The literalness combined with the punning, the fun, the artist and the art laughing at itself—it’s very healthy and meaningful.
JS Play. There’s that word again.
BH And Nauman just stayed on course, full of surprises. He’s still a force. Eva Hesse’s work was very influential early on because of her level of exploration, bringing in the formalism of, say, a grid and then just completely warping it and pushing it outward. It seemed to have freedom and that’s what I was always thinking about—having latitude, but maintaining a certain handmade quality.
JS So, what’s next for you?
BH As you mentioned earlier, I recently made a series of small-scale ceramic asteroids called Cubewanos. Asteroids are protean in nature; they are fragments of something larger and lost. Their sizes are relatively small. They are autonomous oddities, like islands in a vast sea. I’m thinking of a large-scale sculpture with extraterrestrial features that would be really quirky yet familiar, as if the wind just blew it in, like a seed.
Jack Stephens is a Brooklyn-based poet, novelist, and screenwriter. He has written or produced over a dozen award-winning IMAX documentaries, and published in many genres including libretti and children’s literature. He is currently at work on a memoir and has finished a novel, The Weight of The Sun.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.