Meg Cranston, Melissa Kretschmer, and Maya Lin by Saul Ostrow & David Pagel

“You could ask me, ‘Why do you do it this way?’ There’s absolutely no way I could tell you. It takes me a month with a piece of lead on a table. And day by day, it gets folded or bent. And that becomes this underlying, hidden piece that you barely see.”

BOMB 35 Spring 1991
035 Spring 1991

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Meg Cranston, Becoming a Monster, 1990, mixed media, dimensions vary as to installation. Courtesy Koury Wingate.

Immanence and historical necessity have evaporated along with the modernist assumptions that had given them their illusionary reality, a reality which is now conceived of as “merely,” a veil, a mask, a seemingly neutral facade behind which lurks a mysterious unreality of manipulated desires and false concepts of the subject (read as self). An omnivorous carnivore that had been intent on consuming everything of meaning and reducing it to homogeneous waste, this beast of our making had lulled us to sleep in the belief that it was the future out of which our necessities would be cared for.

The illumination of this situation is like awakening from a too real dream. It is disorienting; we, for a moment, may not remember where we are in the narcotic stupor of our awakening. But slowly, we recall and give meaning to our experience. An explanation comes to us, we turn this inward experience outward—its revelation gives us a new orientation. We wonder why we hadn’t seen it earlier.

So now we open ourselves to those forms of thought and practice which for so long had negative connotations and an indeterminate arbitrariness: multiplicity, otherness and marginality.

The first waves of this consciousness washed over us in the last ten years—it has been called numerous things: Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Nomadology—it has found its own past and present. A new generation has matured under its pressure. This uncertainty has not produced the horror of the void, the sense of loss fueled by existentialism, but instead has generated a newly merging concept of self as the site of meaning.

The three women interviewed here have had no exchange among them, but certain common themes become central to the work each produces; in terms of appearance, each has little in common.

—Saul Ostrow

David Pagel interviews Meg Cranston.

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Meg Cranston, installation view, 1989. On the floor: Keep Some Over, 1989. Mixed media, 240 × 240 inches. Back wall: Friends, 1989. Silkscreen with glitter on painted wood, edition of 32, 24 × 48 inches each. Courtesy Mark Richards Gallery.

David Pagel Your work is autobiographical, yet anonymous. Do you try to do that?

Meg Cranston Try to cover it up?

DP Yes.

MC No. It is really from my life. I don’t try to be sneaky about it.

DP For One of Each, you exhibited 150 doll-like figures whose initials were listed in the checklist—it was obvious that these figures had certain associations for you and yet one had no access to those associations.

MC The initials indicated they represented people even though they may have taken the form of a hairdryer or a turkey-carcass. Most of the names wouldn’t have meant anything to anyone. But some of the people would be known by the art-viewing public and some of the representations weren’t so flattering.

DP Names changed to protect the innocent?

MC Yes.

DP For another work, Keep Same Over, you displayed all your belongings in a gallery. These objects doubtlessly triggered memories for you and got different reactions from strangers and close friends.

MC I didn’t expect people to inspect them. It was more important that the whole volume hit them at once. Okay, this is the size of Meg Cranston. What was important was the scale of the work, that it posed the question, “How big am I?” And asked, “Am I as big as the space that my things occupy?” The dimensions were pretty big, but the scale was not monumental. Like a garage sale, it didn’t overwhelm you. Quite the opposite, it was deflating.

DP Your 30 foot eggshell pyramid with meringue at the top is visually overwhelming, but it’s just a bunch of fragile eggshells.

MC I wanted to be completely ridiculous. All of this effort went to exalt this thing which in the end is only sugar. It’s like something which is only an abstraction of power. I started using junk because I had absolutely no money, and I thought, “Well, that’s not going to stop me. At that time, I was not anxious to leave my apartment, except for the essential things like groceries, so I started making art from egg cartons and bottles, just leftover stuff.

DP Many of the figures in One of Each, had the kindergarten flavor of papier mâché.

MC I don’t see it that way. I try to be serious. I try to make them as well as I can, and they just come off that way.

DP I didn’t mean to imply they weren’t serious. They’re deadly serious, just as childhood is.

MC I was curious what the work of my hand looks like. Before, when people would talk of painting and the artist’s mark, about gesture—I didn’t understand the point of it and I would laugh. Then I thought, “Maybe I should see why I’m laughing.” It was a time in my life when I felt I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, so I said, “Well, you know, fuck it. I’ll just do what gives me pleasure.” So I started making these little figures not really knowing where it was all going.

DP Was it about controlling the world around you?

MC Oh, absolutely, in the same way I was trying to control my world even beyond the grave in Keep Same Over by saying, “I’ll assign the meanings to these objects—or not assign the meaning—I’ll tell you how they should be listed and how they should be arranged and I’ll do those things which are normally done, as you say, by loved ones, after you’re gone.”

DP You had arranged everything as it would be left when you died but what those lists mean is not clear. You’re disclosing everything, but you’re revealing nothing.

MC I thought I was saying, “It’s just this, so don’t start layering it with meaning. Here is the final word on it. It’s a letter saved by so-and-so, I don’t remember who she is.” People have this feeling that information is going to overwhelm them. I didn’t really feel that my life was overwhelming me, but I did want to see what it looked like, and how big it was. And the number of things was important, as if you could look through someone’s address book and understand, by the number of entries, something about them.

DP Your most recent installation, Everyday Is Christmas, turned away from the autobiographical and towards the social. It was more general and public, in a way, less vulnerable.

MC I always like things that are global, everyday, everyone, all. From making those pieces, I started feeling a kinship with women who make crocheted toilet roll covers, things like that, feeling that I was doing very much the same thing. They’re trying to create their world, the world of their home, with limited creative opportunities. And so I began thinking about Christmas as a holiday when women and children have traditionally been allowed to be creative. And men sort of fade in to the background, except for Santa and Jesus. But rather than women and children celebrating themselves, all their efforts go towards this redemptive figure who’s going to save their lives, even though they already have the means to save their own lives by making these creative things. That gets lost and those things are degraded.

DP You really don’t have any mass-produced things. Yours are homespun.

MC They come out of my own history because I was never, as a kid, allowed to make these things. Or if I made them, they’d be discarded because my mother didn’t want to be associated with the kind of people that would have them around their house because they were tacky. But I loved them. I thought they were great. A child has no sense of being gauche.

DP The figures in Everyday Is Christmas, were arranged in the middle of a huge cement floor. They seemed kind of lost.

MC In the nativity story, as I see it, Mary and Joseph are forlorn. Nobody wants to accept what she has to give. In reading the Bible, there’s no mention of the love between Mary and Joseph. I made them naked to sexualize them. It is more distant than the other piece.

DP The 12 cartoon figures on the wall, the mermaid, Pinocchio and the Frog, are adolescent and more personal, back to your universe.

MC It is my universe. The mural is my night sky. What do you look to for release from sorrow? You look to the typical, corny things, you look to the sky, to God. In my sky the constellations are all characters in my work; they are figures of redemption, forces we look to to control or save a life, be they Santa Claus or Baby Jesus.

DP Is part of the despair that we might not have a better future to look forward to? I thought this work deflated that false hope, and mourned its disappearance.

MC There seems to be the potential to live a more creative life or to create one’s world. You see that in all these craft objects and decorations. And yet, one does it all to exalt an image over which one has no control. The hopelessness of depression is what I’m trying to show in Everyday Is Christmas. We experience loneliness as vastness, as “there’s no end to it.”

DP But now you’re trying to make physical something as abstract as the time it takes to read a book.

MC I’m making this balloon which will hold the amount of air it would take to read the complete works of Jane Austen. It’s based on my body. I read, depending on the book, a page every two minutes. Every minute I’m exchanging 16 breaths of air, eight liters. So you do the math and you get the volume. It’ll be so big that, just to view it, you’ll have to crawl in and cuddle up to the balloon. It’ll completely fill the room. But because it’s flexible, you’ll be able to blubber around in there and…

DP…and suffocate.

MC It’s a good word to use because Jane Austen was quite contained in the small towns she wrote about—suffocated, if you will—though she didn’t experience it that way. She was content. She is this large spirit, completely contained by the room, while at the same time defining that space in a dynamic way, her environment.

DP You really want to make the intangible physically present.

MC Yes. Well, how do I show the effect of reading Jane Austen? How do I show “I?” You know, what’s “yourself?” And where is it, how is it manifested?

DP Again, it’s your universe that’s the center but is nowhere to be seen. It is this presence that’s slipping away and always just around the corner.

MC Because it’s an elusive thing in itself, especially to oneself. It’s preposterous to try to make the mind into a body, to make thought material.

DP But there’s more than mind going on. Most of your sculptures have this twisted psychological resonance. (silence)

MC (laughter) Yes. Well, I was thinking last night that it’s not really a dualism but a triad. It’s the intellect, the imagination and the emotions. My imagination is generating a lot of ideas, and my intellect is trying to bring them into some kind of order, but then there’s always this nagging emotional stuff coming out which I’m hoping I don’t have to deal with by just getting more and more sophisticated orders.

DP Oh, so there is a way to control the nagging emotional stuff that keeps intruding?

MC Yes, if I could see it all, just as it was. If I could lay out all my stuff and look at every piece of clothing, every piece of writing, I’d get a handle on it.

DP But wouldn’t that be boring?

MC It might be boring, but for a while I thought it might work. It is boring. In fact it’s death, right? There’s also a suicidal train going through it. I felt if I gave you all of the people I’ve known and places I’ve lived, if I forced that on you, then you could live my life for me. All of the figures could go on acting and I could step away. I wouldn’t have to live my life anymore. I have this image of the mind-body struggle; the body is this refrigerator box filled with cinder blocks that the mind or spirit has to push around, and feed, and clothe, and bathe, pay its taxes. The needs are endless. If we could just be free of that thing—it’s a terrible, negative image of the body. In a way I feel like that, but I’m fighting at the same time, trying to say, maybe there’s something worthwhile in the body. I’ll make these things with my little hands and I’ll see that the body can really do things that give some pleasure. (laughter) It’s not just a nuisance. (more laughter)

DP How do you think gender comes into your work?

MC I suspect that other women feel the desire to be free of the confines of their circumstances. That’s nothing new, that’s a typical romantic notion. I present the self, as if it could be neatly organized. It’s neat, controlled, you can see, you can know the limits of, you can measure it. So therefore, it must exist. So then you have it and it’s all just the way you ordered it, and I’m free to leave. (laughing)

DP But it’s a trick.

MC Because I don’t leave? Are you trying to get rid of me? (laughing)

DP You keep coming back and making more things.

MC (laughter) Wait, I forgot to mention this aspect. It’s like somebody going through the door saying, “Okay, it’s finished.” But they always have one last comment.


Saul Ostrow interviews Melissa Kretschmer.

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Melissa Kretschmer, Nonsequitur 1989, tar, latex, wood, 16 × 18 × 2 inches.

Saul Ostrow In a way, the work is distinctly ugly.

Melissa Kretschmer Some people say they’re really elegant.

SO Things can be ugly and elegant at the same time. They have a morbid fascination and they’re extremely aggressive. In terms of the last 30 years, it’s an unpopular appearance. Your image is highly tactile.

MK It’s my thinking about blackness—the contradiction of their being a color which denotes absence—which absorbs everything into its surface, yet which is very materially present. The more physically present they become, the blacker they become, they simultaneously materialize and dematerialize.

SO Is that because you want something authentic? Like minimal art and process, where one had the sense of the physical involvement of the maker?

MK I see what you mean, but I don’t quite know how to answer that.

SO I guess I’m talking about the idea of presence. Do you consider them painting?

MK Yes—at least I’m thinking about painting, about this idea of surface, and depth, and temporality. Actually, I don’t mull over the question of category. I’m more interested in just trying to get these objects to dissolve, to do everything they’re not supposed to do by virtue of being what they are. I see the work and the environment as two very distinct elements that affect one another. Even when they appear to merge they remain separate. It’s like an idea of grayness where you don’t lose either black or white as in the process of mixing—they’re two separate entities which, when brought together, create another quality. In my installation at Julian Pretto’s I tried to change the space by revealing what that space is. I didn’t want to completely invade it by denying what was there. I took it as is, imperfections and all. Even holes left from the previous show were used as starting points.

SO There is an interdependency between space and object. What interested me about the work is the analytical approach to the object. It’s almost a checklist: here’s a surface separate from the structure and the structure itself has its different elements. And then the aesthetic is separate from the analysis. The closest would be somebody like Ryman—where the analysis of the object and the aesthetic are two discreet elements. In the same way you were talking about the gray—where you mix the black and white without mixing them.

MK You can see how it was made but the final image, to me, never adds up to one thing because it’s always changing. The image is always there but it’s never really there, it’s always slipping out of your grasp. I don’t see myself as really the maker, but as one of the viewers—I built the painting, I constructed it myself, but when I’m looking back on it I can’t remember what led to what. In the end, my position is that I don’t recognize it.

SO The way you separate things out, is there a point where the material becomes analyzed and then aesthetically brutalized?

MK I become completely immersed in the work itself. I usually have a rough idea of what I would like to do, sometimes a more specific one, but that changes in the process of working with the materials. I may decide I don’t like something but I may or may not change it. I often don’t correct mistakes. I like to leave them as they are. In the end I have something similar to what I had in mind, but not entirely. There’s a sense in which they’re not retraceable for me.

SO Improvisational as in Jazz?

MK Yes, very much like Jazz. All these separate elements—a stack of wood, a leftover piece of canvas, a little bit of leftover tar, a section from another painting that I pried apart because I wasn’t happy with it. Some paintings end up in several different places—everything gets recycled.

SO You almost sound premodernist.

MK They’re not necessarily linear in terms of their own history or in terms of the larger history in which they sit. There’s history and then there’s history. There’s a history which is biased and traceable back to its beginnings. You can go from A to Z but you can’t necessarily go back to A from Z. And S doesn’t have to come before T in either direction.

SO Modernist history is all about the points A to B to C…These things don’t seem to be modernist in that sense. There’s another history which is immense, a history always in the present. Everything isn’t revealed to view. There isn’t a privileged position.

MK Think of memory or recall which is not about specificity. It’s about recalling moments but not being able to specify exactly what happened. In fact, exactly what happened doesn’t really matter—where you end up is more important than how you got there. It’s a sense of time that is not absolutely locatable. It’s about duration rather than time.

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Melissa Kretschmer, Black Slip, 1990, tar, latex, enamel/wood, 28 × 34 × 4 inches. Photos by Regula Mudespacher.

SO That situation, where we do not necessarily recall the event but the emotional response to it, is Proustian.

MK I see them as having to do with some intensity or series of qualities that are somewhat familiar but that you can’t absolutely place. Events are important not for their exactness, but for their product, what’s left of them, a kind of residue.

SO Is there this desire to simultaneously make something specific and vague?

MK I recognize the fact that things are both specific and vague. The work begins with the familiar. There’s nothing shocking about the work, there’s nothing new about the materials. They remind one of other things, other places. But in the end, the familiar becomes twisted and unstable. Hitchcock’s films are much more horrifying because they begin with the familiar. They’re closer to real life experiences, things are not always what they appear to be. It’s like thinking that you know something very well and then suddenly it changes. At that point, everything’s thrown into doubt. That’s horrifying.

SO One even begins to doubt reality and has to establish new points of reference.

MK Doubting existence. The ways in which things come to exist. And yes, you have to start all over again, only you never go back to square one.

SO In an existential way, things you were sure of suddenly no longer exist. It’s like somebody who’s been attacked, the next time they go out onto the street, they’re conscious of that. What you were just talking about makes these pieces look more theatrical.

MK It’s not that things don’t exist, it’s just that they exist differently. I don’t know why theatricality comes up.

SO I’m using it in the way it was used by Michael Fried in which there’s an acknowledged viewer: the work is not self-absorbed, not concerned with itself, it’s set up to address the viewer. Hitchcock uses formalism to set up the viewer even though the types of relationships being addressed are not just formal relationships. It’s a system which merely provides a starting point for some kind of vague, unspecific movement. There’s this enormous shifting gap between things. The work exists somewhere in between itself and the viewer. You can’t trace it back and the question of being able to trace it back isn’t important. It’s the difference between being and becoming. They’re propositions about what a painting can be rather than the question “Is this a painting?”

MK That question isn’t pertinent anymore. Painting is critical of itself to begin with, by default. Deleuze talks about films as being composed of separate frames and the movement from one to another as a physical gradation.

SO A gradation of what? A temporal gradation? A tonal gradation?

MK A temporal gradation.

SO Different types of time?

MK Yes.

SO Are you likening your own procedures to that of film construction?

MK Not literally, but that is how I think about things. It offers a certain confirmation in thinking about this idea of limits, where the boundaries are both specifically determined and permeable at the same time, where things move back and forth between things whose edges are very clear and distinct. The edges do not break down. One thing does not become subsumed by the other. In fact, they become all the more apparent because of this shifting back and forth. Like blackness which becomes more black because it’s coming as a material rather than as shadow. Or, like the sense of white meeting blackness and the exchange between them creating a notion of grayness which is not the loss of black to white, or white to black. It’s a triadic relationship rather than a dyadic one. It’s either, or, and all the possibilities in between. Ones we can’t even yet imagine.

SO In terms of painting, you hold—there’s still all these possible “ands.”

MK Oh yes, there are “ands” that we don’t even know about yet.

SO So you don’t see this as an attempt at being conclusive?

MK No. It’s an attempt at being open. I don’t believe in closure. If it were about closure, I would have tried to duplicate the models I made for my installation, for example. The models stayed at home. I went in only with my materials and the vague memory of what the models look like. It’s very much like collage, only I use canvas, wood, and tar.

SO Have you ever seen Zorn’s Dilemma?

MK No.

SO It’s a film in which, if I remember correctly, a couple is having an argument on the screen and the soundtrack is constantly shifting in relation to the image. It starts off in sync and then at certain points it’s out of sync, at other points it gets very loud and at others very soft. The soundtrack becomes totally independent of the image, like what you were talking about, where a piece makes a shift. It’s almost like a jump cut or the equivalent of montage.

MK It’s kind of like starting and restarting over and over again.

SO Ironically, when you’re watching the film you can locate the jump only after the transition has been made. Given how often these pieces at first appear to be homogeneous in terms of all-over black, it’s only after the event that they begin to separate themselves out.

MK Which throws the whole idea of unifying out…

SO …Or having thought of it as unified, it then becomes an aspect of thinking of it in the past even though it’s in front of you. You think about the initial experience of it.

MK You see it and begin to understand it in relationship to the limits of the past, the limits of that initial experience which are now changed and open and to the limits of the past. It’s this constant fluctuation between one thing and the other. In the end there is a sense of wholeness and completeness that’s not illusionary. But then it is illusionary—a standard in Jazz gets re-interpreted by different artists time and time again, its wholeness is both its basic structure and every variation brought to it, so that it’s never finalized. All these things are very real, although never complete.

Saul Ostrow interviews Maya Lin.

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Maya Lin, Slipshod, 1990 lead-steel, beeswax, 9 × 18 × 5 inches.

Saul Ostrow Since the ’70s, we’ve been dominated by a pop conceptual aesthetic, but your work, both public and private, seems to draw from another tradition.

Maya Lin There was another underlying group, Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark, whom I was going towards…

SO More materially engaged, less about commodity, more site specific.

ML I’m manipulating certain processes that might be very similar to processes that were founded in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but there is actually something more personal going on. Many of my pieces have been autobiographical, relating to my own physical size. And then, some go back to an idea that I have about creating topographies. But the work, by its very nature, is about the personal making of it. That’s in opposition to what came out in the late ’70s and ’80s, which was very slick, very witty, but somewhat cold. In my work, there’s a belief in the making of the object, and in the object itself, that got me more personally attached to the making of it. I can’t relate to the art object which is a very clever idea of what art is. It’s like short stories prevalent in the ’80s written by people who can’t quite admit to having feelings: they observe and make little commentaries, but never quite get actively involved in life.

SO Usually that type of work goes towards Expressionism. Your pieces are more meditative and matter of fact.

ML Nevertheless expressive of me. These sculptures are very personal. They emerge almost in due response to the extremely public and conscious process of building “the monuments.” Getting the monuments designed and built as a public process, makes me aware of every design choice I make. I go through a very specific decision-making process in order to create these pieces—(from the light on the table, the sound of the water…). The private sculptures are purely intuited, made strictly by my own hands, as opposed to being drawn up then fabricated by others. Oftentimes, I prefer not to talk about the work; they are completely nonverbal.

SO The sculptures in this group are quite sensuous. I’ve described your work as a cross between early Richard Serra and John McCracken.

ML I like that. My works are sensuous, but in a very, very—I don’t want to say controlled—but in a very quiet way, which to me is the difference between sensual and sexual. They deal with an abstract vocabulary.

The pieces are very organic, the wax is like skin. The lead is like cartilage, soft upon soft. It’s the juxtaposing of two materials, which are extremely similar: when I work with them, they’re both liquids. And even the use of glass—glass is technically a liquid. What I really love about the connection between the lead and the wax is that they’re both sweet. The sickly sweet smell of the wax and the lead as you’re melting them is attractive to work with. The wax is held by the lead, so I think about the lead as a spine. The wax is a membrane, a skin. So l don’t know which is the structure—neither is the structure—it’s only in combination that the sculpture is able to take its shape.

SO So they are really a symbiosis?

ML Pretty much. I’ve always been interested in chemistry and from that you can go into alchemy and lead. I’ve always been attracted to inorganic solids as opposed to, say, trying to create things that appear to be organic forms. It’s almost like trying to create a mineral composite that actually could have existed as a specimen.

SO Do you think that’s the connection with Smithson? Smithson kept working with nature as it became artifact.

ML He used the mirror to see what the sight actually is, although his is a completely different experience—taking a man-made substance and turning it into—well, it’s no longer there, all you’ve got is this image of nature upon it.

SO In terms of these objects you make, the objects that allow you to make them, are these artificial situations? And are these personal ones, in their organic sensuousness, the antithesis of the public sculptures?

ML Yes and no.

SO I mean, the Vietnam Wall?

ML The Vietnam Wall is a geo, it goes back to my childhood. We would polish the edge of what was basically a rock, what was basically earth, until it became absolutely polished, a mirror. All I did with the Vietnam piece is cut the earth and polish it. I have not physically inserted walls, it is not a sculpture at all.

SO It comes close to Heizer’s Double Negative. Do you know that one?

ML Yes. It’s somewhat like that. It’s the rough cut. It drove the architects crazy, you know. Architects want walls, not a stone veneer, which is considered tacky. But it’s not a wall, it is not an object.

SO It’s a surface.

ML It’s a surface. Same with the Civil Rights piece, it’s a surface, and the surface deals with the separation between the dark and the light. It’s also this love of the idea of words going onto the surface. The surface isn’t an object, it’s an interface between two different worlds, and it’s a reduction of the object into this two-dimensional plane which is the word, and the word can only exist—or I would like it very much to exist—on a two-dimensional plane.

SO What’s the connection between these surfaces and what you do privately? These personal pieces where you’ve talked of the skin, and the surface of the public pieces seems to be the point of interface.

ML The connection is that ambiguity, you can’t tell whether they’re emerging or receding. There’s always that doubt about these pieces, which is more akin to three-dimensional works. If you’re reduced to seeing sculpture just frontally, you’re talking more about Painting.

SO Richard Serra and Smithson changed the function of Sculpture to that which one could be in. In Serra’s Spin-out, there’s no place to locate yourself, there’s no outside.

ML You have to be right in the center.

SO Either you’re in the center, or in one of the quadrants, or you’re in the doorway, but somehow there’s no outside. The same thing happens in Sculpture as surface.

ML Right. I’ve done a series of reliefs that enter topographically. I’ve created rivers or a mapping of an unknown region. Again, I’m creating an entire space that you can imagine. So you’re right, it isn’t just an image, but there’s something spacial about them, but they have that quality. They really are geographic mappings. Working in an installation will probably be my next pursuit. You walk into a room within a room and that room will happen not to be a room, but a sculpture.

SO You’re in the most confusing—or the most perfect—position of being both public and private. (laughter)

ML I know.

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Maya Lin, Stele, 1990, lead, beeswax, 63 × 17½ × 2 ¼ inches. Photos courtesy of Sidney Janis Gallery.

SO The Vietnam War Memorial [Vietnam Vetrans Memorial] and the Civil Rights monument are very political and, in both cases, very touchy subjects.

ML Yes, touchy subjects and touchy architectural pieces. They are very political but they’re also, as far as public monuments go, very private. You read them privately, that’s the difference between those works and other 20th century monuments.

SO Did the success of the Vietnam Memorial surprise you? The first reactions were not positive: people were going to hate it, it wasn’t suitable…

ML I was so sure that they were wrong. It was obvious to me that what people needed to overcome a painful situation was to accept it. I was stubbornly naive at 20, psychologically. I designed this piece thinking, “They don’t know what they’re talking about, when they see it, it’ll work.” If that had happened ten years down the line, I might not have been able to be so stubborn. I really believed it would be beneficial if it was built. The older you get the more you doubt.

SO Does that same attitude, the beneficial and the naive, go into the more private work?

ML I don’t think so. In the public pieces, I’m dealing with a subject matter that is verbal, something to be communicated. There is a message. You can manipulate history, forget about history, erase history, rationalize history, which I think is wrong. I try to remain as objective or as “truthful” to history as I possibly can. How else can it really be born from our past? There’s a reason why I call the public pieces political. The difference between those and my own personal pieces is the use of the words which the private pieces, so far, have not used. I’m enjoying these private pieces for the lack of that specific…

SO The muteness of them?

ML Yes.

SO Some of the private pieces hover, like a presence.

ML Very quiet. I prefer them being mute, the form itself is what they’re about and I don’t want to add to that. What’s funny is that I refuse to use stone. People have disappointedly asked for black granite and I say, “No, no. There are very different things going on now.” To me, the aesthetic is very similar.

SO There’s something very nonaggressive about all the work, including the monuments…

ML They’re tough, though. They’re seemingly passive, but it might require a more Eastern than Western reading: the old fable about what is really strongest is that which will bend in the wind.

SO So the wax and lead pieces need nothing to be understood. The process is so dumb and straightforward that it’s not even an issue.

ML I’ve made very slow choices about how that lead gets formed and then on top of that comes the layering of the wax. They’re very intuitive. That’s what I find really troubling and also enjoyable. You could ask me, “Why do you do it this way?” There’s absolutely no way I could tell you. It takes me a month with a piece of lead on a table. And day by day, it gets folded or bent. And that becomes this underlying, hidden piece that you barely see. I bury it, and I torch it out little by little. There are three different layers to making these pieces which you will not know about. If you thought about it, then the process would be there, but it’s hidden.

SO Is that a direct reaction to the idea that art’s about information?

ML That art is about some thing. Or that the art becomes the representation of the idea. The smart ideas are very smart and I respect the ideas but they’re like a thesis project: you have your smart idea, you make the thing to prove your smart idea. It leaves me slightly unmoved.

SO What I refer to as talking a sculpture, or talking a painting, is when you go to the studio and stand in front of the piece and the artist talks. And you look at the thing and go, “Well, I wish you’d gotten that into this.” (laughter)

ML There is prevalent today a hatred, or non-acceptance of the beautiful, dumb object. As if it were immoral. (laughter)

SO When I first experienced Donald Judd’s boxes, I remember walking into the room and there was this beautiful, dumb object. It was really annoying, I felt very hostile towards it, very put upon.

ML He was making what we would consider today a beautiful object, but when he made it in 1960, he was redefining what the beautiful object was.

SO Give me the beautiful object that isn’t decorative. (laughter) All of a sudden, for something so reduced in form, there was so much to be said about it.

ML Exactly, which means that it’s not just the dumb object, it’s smart.

SO Do you read theory?

ML No, I don’t. I try not to read art or architectural theory. Part of me has been guilty of trying to be somewhat naive. Yet of what I’ve read what I have retained consciously is suspect. Unconsciously, I’ve probably appropriated. I’m just not able to list my credits.

SO The only reason I ask about theory is that Lyotard talked about the postmodern dilemma in which we’re entering into a world where we’re losing our senses. We have entered into an information society and we’re losing both the sensuous and the ability to interpret. We want facts, or those things that appear to be facts.

ML I like that, “appear to be facts.” The learned response has more weight in today’s society than the response which cannot be explained. If it is not measured or quantified, if it cannot be analyzed; there’s mistrust. There’s no allowance for the belief in myth or faith, or the belief in intuition. When I was young, I was taught to believe in science. I’ve had to believe in intuition.

SO That was Modernism, then Quantum Physics came along. Lyotard says the only way one escapes the factual tyranny of language is to be experiential. The mute experience is subject only to interpretation but never surrenders facts.

ML That’s why I’m not using words in the newer sculptures. The experience of them is the same as experiencing classical music, something that is completely abstract. We have been trained to feel music, but we were never trained that way in the visual arts. We are trained to see something and relate it back. It’s referential.

SO Seeing is believing.

ML Whatever you see, you don’t really see without all these other references to everything you’ve seen before. Not so with music.

SO Well, there’s a different sense of time. I mean music has a beginning and an end. The idea with sculpture is that you can always go back to it. A piece of music isn’t fixed.

ML The thing is, music changes every time you hear it. But the object is always going to be there. What is it? With music, we’ve been trained to suspend belief and just listen.

Jorge Pineda by Robin Greeley
Pineda 01
Portfolio by Alan Ruiz

What does form perform?

Lynda Benglis by Federica Bueti
Lynda Benglis Bomb 01

The eminent artist discusses her materials, “frozen gestures,” and the illusion of form.

Cordy Ryman by Stephen Westfall
Gluebox Body

A typical Cordy Ryman lies in a hybridized zone between sculpture and painting; pieces of wood or perhaps canvas may be isolated like small geometric paintings or even extended into the full expanse of the rooms in which they are installed, following a kind of modular accumulation strategy. 

Originally published in

BOMB 35, Spring 1991

Featuring interviews with Kathy Bates, Philip Taaffe, Lynne Tillman, Kid Capri, Luisa Valenzuela, Meg Cranston, Melissa Kretschmer & Maya Lin, Zhang Yimou, Keith Reddin, Ira Silverberg & Amy Scholder, Jennie Livingston, and James Wines.

Read the issue
035 Spring 1991