New York CityThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
Charles Ray: Figure Ground
January 31 – June 5, 2022
New York CityWhitney Museum of American Art
Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept
April 6 – September 5, 2022
Paris, FanceCentre Pomidou
February 16 – June 20, 2022
Paris, FranceBourse De Commerce – Pinault Collection
February 16 – June 6, 2022
In the middle of the pandemic Toby Kamps interviewed me in a live broadcast for the Brooklyn Rail. And now a year and a half later, the Brooklyn Rail asked if they could publish the interview. I’m not sure why, but I felt that interview should be left in the lockdown. We couldn’t go out, we were all at our screens, so perhaps it would be better to begin it again. I took Toby’s questions and changed them around, not because I didn’t like them, but my answers were different. They no longer strictly fell from his questions. It’s not that they’re better. It’s not even that the virus is gone, but the thinking has changed, no matter how slightly. So I rewrote everything. Like my copy of The Great Eleusinian Relief, it’s a hybrid interview of what was once said and is now being read.
Toby Kamps (Rail): You have been making sculpture for your entire life. What has changed or developed from your early work until now?
Charles Ray: I’m approaching seventy and while not obsessing about death, its finality is on the horizon. While this can seem bleak, it is also liberating. One’s last breath is the first in reverse. Our creative intentions, authorship of works, deeds, and sins dissipate with our bodies. Causality might continue, but it’s an afterlife without glory. To work towards immortality is illusionary and momentary. But today I’m still alive and making my sculptures that stand on the ground.
My sculptures are guideposts, and I would be lost if you ask: “Who put that here? How long is it here for?” Sculpture needs to be part of its location in the complexity of location. Its location is not site-specific. There is a dynamic to location that our perception of place fails to stabilize. Property lines are not boundaries. The inside and the outside are interchangeable. If you take a great sculpture apart, there’s nothing left, not even a void, because in the dismantling you have also taken apart a place. But how much of its location do you also dismantle? My intentions are ultimately sculptural because context and specific meaning start to dissolve into a temporal solution of the past, present, and future.
Rail: Your answer is poetic, but I’m not really sure if I understand what you’re trying to say. From my perspective, your earliest work was performative. As a young man you made sculptures by stacking, leaning, and balancing. You used steel rods, bricks, I-beams, concrete blocks and other materials that were more commonly found in sculpture of the ’60s and ’70s than the art of today. In the ’80s you inserted your own body, often naked, into sculptural configurations, creating a tension between body as persona and body as object. You abruptly stopped and began using inks and dyes that filled cubes and bathtubs, even flowed in an unbroken line from ceiling to floor. And then in the ’90s, your figure reappears in the form of a mannequin. Has figuration always weaved in and out of your art? Does it ever really leave? Were your stacked concrete blocks primitive figures? Even Ink Line (1987) can be seen as a moving figure without limbs. Do you consider yourself a figurative artist?
Ray: The beauty of watching a child stack blocks is not in our amazement at what he or she is building, but in the child’s relationship to gravity and emotion. There is a developmental aspect to the structure of play, but visually you can reverse this childhood equation and find figuration. A child engages in the activity of play. A child is producing a world made in play. But visually, it is play that animates the child. The figure of a child is produced in play just as the ordering of toy blocks is produced by the child. These equations also run in multiple directions. Location, place, or position is the soul of a sculpture. There isn’t a separation of the soul and the body. The ancient Greeks talked to sculptures. We also speak to these objects, but the conversation is visual rather than audio. Oedipus was talking to a sculpture, not a sphinx, and our psychology is like clay that can be modeled by art.
Rail: You are suggesting that you can’t separate the figure from the sculpture, or at least the making of the sculpture from the figure. Is this a form of play, or closer to the activity of prayer? You also seem to suggest that your work is something rather than about something. But this something eludes me.
Ray: I don’t think about sculpture, but I do think sculpturally. For me, sculpture is a behavior rather than a practice. Sculpture is a punctuation mark in an activity, and is the ultimate result of my behavior. My sculptural self is a stick planted upright in the ground. This log is not animated until I dress it in my own clothes. My sculptures have a template of formal respectability. They come out of an era or a time of sculptural thinking. The structure of sculpture is preexisting. My persona doesn’t have to stay out of the way, but it is my intuition that makes me a sculptor. I am less a figurative artist, than I am a figurative sculpture. If you take me apart, you also take apart everything I’ve made.
Rail: Let’s talk about specific works. The new beetle (2006), a life-size image of a boy playing with a toy car, and Aluminum Girl (2003), a nude female figure, are both painted white. Why white? You think immediately of classical sculpture.
Ray: For you, the viewer, the relationship of this sculpture to classicism is instantaneous. But for me, it’s slower and subtler. I began the sculpture in the late ’90s, while I was working on Hinoki (2007) and Tractor (2005). A few years earlier I had re-entered figuration, or you could say, proper figuration with Aluminum Girl. The decade prior to that, my involvement was with mannequin sculptures. They were not figurative sculptures, they were sculptures of mannequins. While figurative, my interest lay in the mannequin as a contemporary form of figuration. The Greek kouros smiles and steps forward in space, bringing animation to form in stone. This archaic figure is alive, and neither the ancient nor contemporary viewer can project their persona into the form. A department store mannequin is the opposite. It can never smile, and the eyes are painted outward. There is no eye contact with the consumer. The conventions of mannequin sculpting are such that the mannequin has no soul or animation. There is an uncanny creepiness to The Twilight Zone episode in which mannequins leave the store in the middle of the night. Unlike an ancient Greek sculpture, a mannequin has an internal inertness—it is un-animated and soulless—so the modern viewer can project themselves into the department store figure to imagine wearing the clothing on display. While classical Greek figuration used a sophisticated mathematical idealization, the department store mannequin is reflective of our own post-war contemporary idealization.
Family romance (1993) and Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley… (1992) used mannequin technology and production methods in a kind of pop-figuration. Both these sculptures existed in a bright cultural light but simultaneously darkened and muddied my attempts to move past mannequin figuration. Mannequins and consumers form a visual economic equation, but were products of the same cultural moment. Family Romance and Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley… did not exist in this equation, but were products of my cultural milieux. Similar coloration, wigs, painted details created a pop-figurative hybrid. What I’m trying to say is that I used mannequin conventions and technologies to move into figuration that today seems more like folk art, not from intention, but ability. I think all the works from this time had a generosity that pushed my psychological self into the social imagination.
The classical gestalt of Aluminum Girl and The New Beetle came from a total acceptance of their sculptural structure. I had a desire to use the figure the way Judd used his boxes. They were almost a given. Rather than as a representation, I saw the figure as a manifold for sculptural events to occur on: a modern kouros where the relationship of what is stylized and what is natural is culturally dynamic. It is an accident that I used aluminum as a material for the sculpture. I was casting Tractor in aluminum, and the material was available in my stream of production. The first version of this sculpture was carved in wood. German carvers copied a plaster pattern. The pattern was a hybrid between body molds and hand-modeling. The use of plaster and silicone molds shrunk the sculpture. Not past life-size, but enough to raise a question on the physicality of scale in the spectator’s mind. Aluminum, as a material, is soft and holds detail in a much different way than the sharpness of bronze. The softness of aluminum has a quality of flesh. But it’s also difficult to weld without revealing seams. I abandoned the wood sculpture and cast it in aluminum because I felt the sculpture needed to be poured rather than carved. The sculpture flowed from the head, through the hands, down to the toes. I painted it white because I had accepted that its primitive armature was art. My interest was in detail, and I wanted a clarity between parts and the whole. The classical is present—but, subtly, it’s also not. The white extends the sculpture into the present, not the past. The white is exact. This is hard to explain, but I worked with the white for a very long time. It’s barely there, painted so thin as not to obscure or fill details or forms. It’s less of a skin and more of a field. A little bit cooler, and the figure is haunted. A little bit warmer, and it walks in the daylight. But the exact color I used makes the figure appear to be stepping out of the white. You might see the sculpture as classical, but I don’t see it that way. I think movement through subtlety can be infinite and profound.
The new beetle also slides out of the classical. The pose of the figure has been seen as the Dying Gaul.1 It’s a pinwheel, spiraling across the floor. At the beginning, this sculpture was polychromed, the boy was painted white, and the car red with black tires and a beige interior. The boy holding the car was like a ghost connected to the world the toy was present in, and the boy retreated into memory and mind. I felt my way into the sculpture. I worked with my own body, moving down onto the floor, finding my way into the sculpture. Once I had determined the pose, I used a friend’s son as my model. I made various studies sculpted in clay. The toy car was from a toy store. It was sculpted separately in great detail and precision. During this process, I used a wooden stand-in as a toy that the clay figure was holding. Somewhere in the process, I differentiated the boy from the car not through color, but sculpture. The car’s sculpting is meticulous, while the boy, like a child, is slightly out of focus. If a sculpture can move you physically, it can also move you mentally. I found myself moving down onto the ground again, now to look at the boy and the car. But this was difficult to achieve. There are complex spaces that exist between gaze, arms, car, chest and hands. This space is young. It’s simple and pure. It flows in and around. But in order to sculpt it, I filled in the toy car’s interior, so the interior of the sculpture would be that of the boy, not of his toy. This sculpture does not sit on the floor. It doesn’t end at the ground. But the floor that it’s on is the last element of the sculpture. The floor of The new beetle is an infinite plane. All this boy’s life will unfold on it, and he is infinitely vulnerable. And I think that your movement and childhood’s anatomy allows classicism to fully exist not as an anchor but more in the vastness of the ocean itself.
Rail: There’s a great Calvin Tomkins piece on you in The New Yorker, that talks about your famous failed commission for the Whitney Museum of American Art, a work based on Huckleberry Finn and the escaped slave Jim and their raft trip, which is now in your exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And you have since made another sculpture called Sarah Williams (2021), which is also from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’m not sure where all of your ideas and figures originate, but these characters come from a novel, they’re literary figures. Can you talk about how you come upon them and why you used them?
Ray: Huck and Jim (2014) was not a failed commission, even if it was intended to be placed in front of the Whitney’s new building. My relationship to the commission, the museum, and the controversy that followed, were in my control. They swung outside my intentions, but finally back into my sculptural interest. The sculpture has a complex relationship to space and place. The original site or location is not following the sculpture but is a template, a social-political shape that I extruded the work through. When I began it occurred to me that the full name of the institution is the Whitney Museum of American Art. It seemed that my sculpture should be embedded in the civic space surrounding the museum, in the space and time of American culture. I didn’t go to Twain’s novel for inspiration, but I saw Huck and Jim standing on the edge of Chapter 19 of Twain’s novel. I saw both figures as an abstraction, a forest of limbs, one beast. But it’s like a fountain. The water that flows through it is the water of the Mississippi. The Mississippi has a riverbed that carves our culture as it carves its flood plains. The figures of the sculpture are naked. I saw them naked rather than nude. As Huck said, we had no reasons for clothes no how. It is an abstraction rather than a literalness that connects Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The sculpture means nothing. I sculpted it, and you bring meaning and even controversy to these figures. My sculpture is like an oxbow lake. It fell out of an American novel that is troubling, complicated, and spatial. It doesn’t need to be placed in front of the Whitney. Huck and Jim and SarahWilliams are to Twain’s novel what an oxbow lake is to the Mississippi. But like an oxbow lake, they have their own identity and ecology separate from the river and the novel. They lost their intended placement at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but my attempt to fulfill the commission embedded the sculpture in our culture, spatially, temporally, and civically. My interest in the civic dimension is not about citizenship. It was a way to find bedrock to ground my sculpture. Anything an artist makes reveals aspects of the artist’s self, so to say I simply used these two literary figures to ground my sculpture in the civic is true, but in reality I made the sculpture out of who and where I am.
Rail: You talk about civic sculpture, but you don’t use the term public art. Why?
Ray: The difference is the sculpture, and how we form our relationship to its visual and cultural matrix. The large cor-ten steel sculpture Picasso donated to the city of Chicago in 1967 confused and outraged people at the moment of its creation. Some Chicagoans thought it was a portrait of Jackie O. Others thought it was a practical joke played on the city. Its material and spatial relationship to Daley Plaza allowed the sculpture to become a citizen of Chicago. Whether we like the work or not, it is a mascot of the Chicago Loop, a sphinx guarding the secret rights and wrongs of the democratic machine. It’s not the sculpture’s context that makes it civic. It’s all that it does in a public place and what it couldn’t do in private. A work that is private can be placed in public, but it won’t do the work of the civic.
When François Pinault had asked me to make a sculpture for the Punta della Dogana in Venice, it was difficult to make a new figurative sculpture that would not be swallowed up by the city itself. Boy with Frog (2009), at the tip of the Dogana was not an inch taller or smaller than needed for its scale, to allow it to sculpturally hold its ground, to be in a relationship to the city—not to have Venice define the sculpture or the sculpture to be a provocation to the city. It’s a dynamic equation. It’s not neutral. It’s not always easy to accept. A sculpture can be in the public realm. It can be placed in a park or in front of a building, but a civic sculpture can’t be removed from a culture. That’s not to say it can’t be taken, toppled, or melted into bullets. The civic realm has multiple dimensions. Its embedment in the politics of emotion is equal to its embedment in space and time. Perhaps when we turn this inside out, we find that they are the same. Boy with Frog is a toppled sculpture. A Facebook campaign insisted that the nineteenth-century light post that it displaced return. I had wanted Boy with Frog to be a citizen of Venice. Not to define a place, but to be a place. A few years later, after the sculpture’s removal, I exhibited it at Kunstmuseum Basel and the Art Institute of Chicago. I stepped back and wondered if the sculpture hadn’t dragged the entire Dogana into the museum. Does the civic exist within a place, or is it a shape and form? If it’s shape and form, it must be a sculpture.
Rail: At the moment, you have a large exhibition up at the Met: Charles Ray, Figure Ground. You’re also in the Whitney Biennial for the sixth time. You have an installation of four sculptures at Glenstone in Potomac, Maryland, and major exhibitions at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris, and also the Centre Pompidou. How did this great frenzy of exhibitions and work occur?
Ray: It’s too much for me to think about. I keep a low profile, and these exhibitions were planned in advance and originally spread over a period of time. COVID—while it didn’t cancel these exhibitions—caused postponements and changes in their order of occurrence. Originally, the Met exhibition was a year after the two Paris exhibitions. The Met exhibition opened a month before the Paris exhibitions. The Whitney Biennial was to open a year ago, but it just opened this week. COVID compressed this exhibition sequence into almost simultaneous opening and closing dates. What may seem from the outside as celebratory is really just another effect of the virus.
Rail: Let’s talk about a more recent work, for instance, Two horses (2019). Why is it made of stone, and why is it not in the Met exhibition, even while being exhibited in the collection there?
Ray: The Two horses relief was exhibited in Los Angeles and acquired by the Met shortly before I began working on these exhibitions. Stone is a new material for me, and it has taken a lot longer to complete stone sculptures than I initially envisioned. Marble is easier to work with than steel, but it’s less forgiving of mistakes. In my stone, wood, and steel sculptures, I first make patterns. A figure could start in foam, clay, before moving into plaster and finally fiberglass. Each material has unique qualities that I find useful in the development of a sculpture. When the pattern is finished, a digital scan is taken and converted into a machine file. The file is fed into the mind of an industrial robot. These robots create tool paths and are capable of changing their own machine bits and becoming more intelligent or perhaps more economical in the paths and methods that are used in the machining of a particular sculpture. After the robot has completed its work, there is still hand work and sculptural decisions to complete the form and surface of the sculpture. Alignment is often an issue. Detail and undercuts can be a cause for concern. It is not a question of how a robot can complete a work, but how a work can be left incomplete. How traces of various hands, misalignments, and subtle differences of focus can find relationships across the surface of the manifold. All this is hand chased. And I found accuracy-to-form difficult to achieve by machining my sculptures in marble. It isn’t that I attempt to match the pattern exactly, but decisions concerning hands, assembly, and chasing continue the activity of sculpting. This process is full of divergent paths to navigate through. After several years of working and not completing my marble sculptures, I concluded that to continue my relationship with the stonecutters, I needed to complete at least one project. A sculpture in the round is difficult because it exists in three dimensions and needs a five-axis machine. A relief is simpler to machine, because you can work with three axes rather than five. I had a large relief in my studio that I was looking at and thinking about. The relief was of one horse in front of another. It was larger than life. At the beginning of the project, I told my assistant to cover the armature with clay. This was to be the first in a very long series of steps. These steps or stages would include adding and erasing detail. An exchange of hands sculpting the surface. Mold making and different materials and the development of patterns. Making the relief in clay was the beginning of the extended process. When my assistant finished, it seemed that I had enough to look at, at least momentarily. I told her just to leave it, not to continue sculpting. After two years, I still wasn’t tired of looking at it. I decided not to sculpt it further, but to scan it and make a machine file in this simpler state. It’s not like my thinking occurred in stages, but the ideas that brought this relief into being came to me simultaneously, but slowly. At a certain point it was clear that stone and my relationship with the stonecutters I was working with superimposed and became a path to completion. I decided to work in granite rather than marble. Marble is made from sediment, a compressed seabed that is millions of years old. Fissures occur and are compressed back into grain. Granite, on the other hand, forms in an afternoon. When you look into a piece of granite, you are looking at the moment the molten earth cooled in an afternoon at that location. Quarry masters are unique individuals. They can look into the earth and read the stone. They quarry down and build roads for equipment along the flaws in the stone. They cut out huge blocks by running wire saws through long and drifting drill holes. At a granite quarry in Virginia, I worked with the quarry master to locate a section of granite wall where a block big enough might be found. The process takes a long time because stone has to be cut and blocks taken out. The quarry master moves the stone wall in dimensional directions. Intuition tells where your stone might be. Eventually it was cut from the wall. I bought it and transported it halfway across the country to Quarra, a stone cutting company in Madison, where I have been working on my stone sculptures. I used the scan of the Two horses relief to produce a machine file and then cut into the surface of the granite. I had orientated the stone and the future relief to existing grain, but coloration in the form of mist and heavier diagonal lines produced by turbulence in the stone were slowly revealed as I machined down the surface. My relief seemed to fit the stone. Or I could say the stone fit my relief. When reading the image carved upon the granite, you not only move across the surface, but you move into the stone. The second horse emerges from the shadows of the granite. It’s quiet and subtle and isn’t always there. It was made by a process that slowly revealed itself to me and I couldn’t really control. Michelangelo spoke of his figures being pre-existent, locked in the stone. But I think he was a quarry master and was seeing fissures, cracks, and flaws in his stone. Like figures and shapes in the clouds, he saw what could fit rather than what was already there. When you look at my relief, I hope you move inside the stone. The granite’s mist was formed from a time when it was molten. If we can physically step into the landscape, I think the two horses both penetrate and emerge out of the stone.
Rail: Can you talk a little bit about another relief, A copy of ten marble fragments of The Great Eleusinian Relief (2017)?
Ray: The Great Eleusinian Relief is in Athens. It was carved in 440–430 B.C., and it’s a complicated pictorial structure. Demeter is handing Triptolemos seeds. It marks the beginning of agriculture, a gift to man from the gods. Triptolemos is beautifully naked. He stands between two taller women, goddesses. They look down upon him, the way our gods look down upon us. The Athenian original is carved the way Greeks could carve. Was the sculptor a slave? Is the relief subject, the dawn of agriculture, also the dawn of our artistic eye? In the nineteenth century someone acquired ten marble fragments of a Roman copy of the Great Eleusinian Relief. These Roman fragments were inserted into a plaster copy of the Greek original. The result is at the Met, and it’s an interesting object, because it’s a hybrid between two cultures, two styles or two sets of intentionality. If you look closely with patience, you see the difference between Athens and Rome. There is a temporal gap between the style of the Greek original and the Roman copy. A hybrid between two periods and cultures. I wondered one day if I could further this hybrid and bring the hand of our age or the eye of my time into meaningful play. Using technology from today, I made a third copy, machined by a robot. It brings back the bedazzlement held in the original. The work, now being a hybrid, spread through three cultures and twenty-four-hundred years. There is a fourth work in this hybrid not often talked about. What is Persephone pouring into Tripolemos’s head? The composition of this relief is thought to have been taken from a cup. It’s the same composition, but reversed in gender. Pandora is in the middle and two male gods are around her. Pandora can be thought of as an android, she was set upon the earth by the gods to revenge human theft of fire. The Greeks thought of life as a fluid, and this composition is the animation of pouring life into Pandora before she was set forth to wreak havoc on man. It’s a beautiful thought that cuts and dissolves while it floats up through the past into the present. It has the buoyancy of popular culture.
Rail: In Paris, you have several new figurative sculptures, three made of paper, one of concrete, but in Paris at the Bourse, you also have a new non-figurative work. What appears to be a found object is really a pounded-out sculpture. What is this work, titled Unbaled Truck (2021), about?
Ray: Well before I begin, one might ask “what is a baled truck?” as much as what is an “unbaled truck?” When cars get old and are sold for scrap, one only wants the metal, not the volume of space inside the vehicle. Cars are compressed into cubes, space squeezed out. I think they’ve become or have passed through an aspect of pop culture. The popular twentieth-century French sculptor César Baldacinni used them. They’re instantly recognizable, cars crushed and compressed into cubes, hay bales made of tires and metal, broken glass and plastic, lenses and seats. They readily stack, and, in some movies, monsters might dispose of a corpse in the trunk of a car that’s compressed into scrap. In the early ’60s, Mr. Solo in the movie Goldfinger had such a car as a sarcophagus. A playboy might buy one, put a glass top on it and call it a coffee table. They’re intriguing to look at. The one thing they all have in common is that the equation runs one way. While it recognizably comes from a car, there’s no way this process of compression can seemingly be reversed. But I have an interest in time. Is causality the direction of time? As a thought experiment, not as a sculpture, I wondered if I could reverse causality. I had a baled truck, and my assistants who are good with their hands pulled it apart and pounded it back out, finding the forms and the shapes that had been lost in the scrapyard. I see it as Greek, in that it’s related to breath. What was crinkled, crunched-up and compressed was filled with pneuma and came back from the dead. It’s not really different from my sculptural figures. They are physical and mental. Their animation occurs between you and the object, not so dissimilar than you in the world. God has to be gravity. A field so pervasive that it both creates and destroys.
Rail: What do you mean by creates and destroys?
Ray: I don’t know. When I was a very young boy, not even six, I was given a hammer and boxes of nails. I wanted to build a raft out of wood. It was a creation of love, but the love was in pounding, nailing all summer. By the end of the season, I built a little raft so filled with nails that it couldn’t float on the surface. Even if the raft didn’t float, my act of building did.
- Dying Gaul is a first or second century Roman marble sculpture depicting a mortally wounded warrior in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. It is believed to be a copy of a lost Greek sculpture, likely bronze, from between 331-323 BCE.