Bob Clyatt is an extraordinarily talented artist www.clyattsculpture.com. He's the first sculptor I've ever interviewed and I'm glad I had the chance to chat with him. His commitment to making his work accessible is so clear and admirable. Read on and find out why Bob says despite heavy challenges, sculpture remains as relevant today as it was centuries ago.
MICHAEL: Hey Bob. Your work is very cool. How do you think sculpture is regarded in the world today? It's difficult enough to get people to appreciate contemporary art and photography, but sculpture must really have it tough.
BOB: It's hard for any visual artist these days, and you're right that sculpture is sometimes an afterthought next to some of the 2-D formats. But I take some comfort in the way I see people lining up to take pictures of themselves and friends in front of a particularly engaging piece of public sculpture and in the explosion of materials and cross-media formats that are coalescing under the heading of Sculpture in contemporary art. I think the fact that 3-D objects and creations live in the same space we live in gives them some extra power to reach audiences directly. Still, it can be a challenge for collectors - sculpture takes up room - where will we put this thing? Do we need a pedestal or bolts in our ceiling? At least with 2-D art it can always be hung on the wall.
As a figurative sculptor though, I face an added challenge which a quick fly-through of figurative art history makes clear; looking back, the Greeks, the Romans, enlightenment Europe, even the 19th century French were doing stunning figurative work, well-grounded in an understanding of anatomy and form. Then the modernists moved in with sculptors like Giacometti and Moore taking the figure into abstracted and psychological directions. Starting around 50 years ago though, it became virtually impossible to sculpt the figure in polite company-- figure sculpting just dried up except for a few body-casting types like Hansen and Segal. The bronze man on the horse in the center of town was dead, RIP. But the figure being what it is, the most irresistible subject for artists, some of us have been wading back in, looking for ways to make the figure work again. This is work that is anatomically informed, rigorous in its sculptural foundations, yet decidedly fresh, somehow entering into dialog with the concerns and sensibility of contemporary audiences.
MICHAEL: I think sculptors like you are undeniably gifted. I look at your work and wonder how it's possible anyone can do that. I'm waiting for you to tell me this all began when you started playing with Clay-Doh as a kid.
BOB: Hah! It's funny that a few years ago my mom sent me my first ceramic piece, a head actually, that I did in kindergarten. Cute pink glaze and green hair. So you see, I was sculpting the figure in clay at an early age, along with every other five year old in California. Actually during all those early years, I was doing 2-D work, figurative photography mostly, but when I finally picked up clay seriously 10 years ago, it was like a scene out of that movie Ghost, where something took over and there was sort of a buzzing in my ears for a few hours and it has been clay figures ever since.
MICHAEL: Are you proud of that work back then?
BOB: Of course the early pieces were fun, but fairly awful. I was lucky to find my way quickly to great teachers who set me on a course of study that isn't much changed from the way the Greeks and Romans were learning the figure a few thousand years ago. There are a handful of schools here that never stopped teaching the figure, even during the 'exile years' when no other fine art departments would touch it, places like the National Academy and the Art Students League of New York and that's where I spent years getting up to speed; Anatomy, drawing, a bunch of students working from a live model. The other thing I did was to start hanging out with potters. Fairly early on, I grew frustrated with the normal mold-and-casting options for sculptures. The lost-wax bronze or painted plaster have a limited range for finished surfaces, but fired clay was amazing to me. So I was trying to figure out what potters knew about clay and glazes and then mashing that together with the figurative sculpture world. Instead of making things in clay and casting or painting them, I made things that could actually be fired, which is surprisingly hard to do without things blowing up or cracking. Over the years I worked out a bunch of techniques to make fairly large clay figures that will stand up without wires inside, which allows them to go through the kinds of pottery firing processes that give a distinct voice to the work. I still blow things up occasionally, but the odds are better now.
MICHAEL: As you well know, sculpture tends to be most associated with art institutions and the art establishment, not to mention the wealthy. You've already mentioned some of the reasons why, but what do you think can or should be done to promote the accessibility of sculpture?
BOB: You're right that the sculpture we most often think of, the larger bronze or carved sculptures, site specific installations or large fabricated works are all super-sized in their space needs and their costs, which has tended to mean they go to very wealthy collectors or institutions. That's been like that for a long time I think. The Church and the carved grave monument industry kept generations of sculptors employed. But if we think about it, people have always wanted to have more intimate-scale sculptural objects in their living and working spaces, or gardens. Some of it has been functional; hand-made ceramic pots, for instance and a lot of it has been what might generally be lumped under the term 'decorative art', which today can make for especially stiff competition. A trip through Pier One or HomeGoods will show you plenty of decent looking stuff being churned out in Indonesian workshops and selling for under $100.
So how to navigate between these two land masses? How to create strong work that can still be affordable for individual collectors who want more than the import-craft-workshop stuff? Not every sculptor wants to make this sort of work, but I do and I'm convinced there is a way to make powerful contemporary sculpture that packs cultural insight and ideas, yet is still reasonably priced. My own evolution from the more labor-intensive cast bronze work to the ceramic work suggests one approach to keeping costs and prices lower. Just making work smaller can save costs, but it may not work as art the way larger scale works do. Staying on top of new technologies, processes and materials can point the way to translating artistic vision into a finished work at lower costs. I don't mean to imply this has been easy. It always feels like an uphill struggle, but a worthwhile one.
MICHAEL: Technology and sculpture. Hmm. Do you think Michelangelo would approve? Can technology top David?
BOB: Michelangelo was using the best technology and resources available to him in order to create his vision although he had a heck of a lot of talent and skill, too! When the incentives were right, he even learned a new medium in order to get the job done; a fresco, mixing pigments into stucco to do the Sistine Chapel ceiling. If a new material or method will help me express the point and vision I want, I'm all over it. It isn't just talent or skill that gets an artist into the art history books, but their ability to innovate. We're actually lucky that way these days. There are so many new construction processes, materials and so forth that enable sculptors to do things on a grand scale that have never been possible. Have a look at Janet Echelman's work for a good example. Obviously it's hard to top David, but then again, if you made another David today, it would probably be met with a huge yawn. Sad, but true. We want our contemporary art to speak in a new voice, even if the themes and messages are perennials.
MICHAEL: Isn't it interesting how society continues to make sculpture synonymous with antiquity? We've had a serious brainwashing. Where would it be without Rome? Still, before we get back to your work, I must say that I love the work of Giacometti and Fernando Botero. Just stunning, but so many people don't even know about them. As a contemporary artist, how do you deal with that?
BOB: I totally agree with you. Both of these guys are absolute stunners! My foundry got the job of "re-patina-ing" a Botero a few years ago (nude woman lying on her stomach smoking a cigar) and I got to spend some quality time with that piece outside the museum setting. What a treat. And if you like Giacometti, you have to read the extensive (possibly the most extensive biography of a sculptor ever published) book by Lord. It's filled with real juicy stuff about his Paris years. On to your question though. Another great one - can you tell I'm enjoying this?
MICHAEL: Great. Chatting with artists is my specialty.
BOB: Good point that many people associate sculpture with old. I think figurative sculpture for many viewers gets held to the high standards not only of the Greeks and Romans, as it should, but also to sculptors from the past few centuries, like Rodin and Carpeaux. And after that, we are all struggling to move beyond the gravitational pull of the Modernists like Giacometti, Botero or Moore. Those guys were so good and their work seems like such a natural and obvious 20th century response to the Greeks and Romans. It's captivating work and I, for one, spent plenty of my early years lovingly trying to re-create work that was, at its best, nothing more than 'modernist wannabe'. These modernist figures (and their Greek and Roman ancestors) carry this iconic power that is mesmerizing. Who wouldn't want to sculpt that!
MICHAEL: Yes, past artists have certainly set the bar high, but can't we honor them and still move on at the same time?
BOB: For me, one of the ways to get past this siren-like pull of the modernists has been by puttering around with collage and assemblage, which breaks up the iconic nature of the figures, introducing found objects and other contemporary elements that would never have been found in the clean, abstracted modernists work, figurative or not. It doesn't mean I slap together a bunch of wood, rebar and plaster, though; plenty of contemporary work seems to have the underlying notion that "if I pile stuff together without a lot of thought or effort, then it must be contemporary." I think we'll be able to watch that trend die out in real time over the next few years. Another way I think I am able to move beyond modernism has been to go back to a different set of ancient influences (the modernists were forever doing that too); in my case, to Asian and pre-historic ceramic traditions. This in turn allows Asian and shamanic philosophical traditions to work their way into my work in some of the same ways Greek and Roman traditions seem to have been the soil feeding the modernists. I think this will be like different DNA whose impact becomes clear over time. Finally, I think we can just look around us at the full spectrum of the 20th century history and to post-modern-and-beyond ideas and let it inform the work. This introduces streams like randomness, humor or gestalt-shifting that didn't show up with the modernists, to say nothing of messing around with new materials, media and technologies they simply didn't have. The lens that I look at sculpture through these days, my own or others is to ask, "Does this work acknowledge that the 20th Century happened?" A surprising amount doesn't convincingly meet that test. But it would be a mistake to think we've had a clean break with modernism, at least I haven't. It still is a big influence in my work.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. Given that, how would you describe your work thus far?
BOB: At a lot of levels of my work tries to bring the ancient and the contemporary simultaneously into focus. I do that by using really old materials (clay mostly, sometimes cast metals) and processes such as traditional ceramic and wood firing that leaves the mark of naturally deposited carbon on the work. The modeling, too, is rooted in classical anatomical figure training. Then it all gets flipped around into something fresh where it supports my vision. I may mix in a contemporary found object, a contemporary gesture or expression, or something else about the composition that speaks to today and postmodern concerns. A few recent examples are "Woman Holding Blue Ventilator," which is a fairly traditional lifesize rusted iron nude female standing figure holding an International Klein Blue Ventilator fetchingly slung over her wrist. Another is the recent series, "Butoh" of large raku-fired ceramic figures, drawn from performance stills of this avant garde, post-war Japanese meditative dance theater movement. The pieces are oddly or disturbingly mounted in ways that don't match traditional expectations of how figurative sculpture is displayed (typically on the ground or on a pedestal). Three of the figures for instance, hang upside down from the ceiling at eye level. Others writhe about on the floor, while three others are designed as interlocking free standing pieces that hold each other up without any other support. Another caws like a crow from her perch on a steel roof fragment. The whole installation takes me into this psychological place where I think a lot of healing and learning are possible.
MICHAEL: Bob, your work is very warm, human and accessible. Of course, what could be more human than the human figure? Still, I think there's a warmth and a freer quality about your work that makes it friendly and appealing. It's simultaneously rugged and elegant. It feels more casual and not so formal and uptight. Am I right?
BOB: Absolutely. Even though I have the formal training for a "perfect figure," I always stay this side of it. Anything else gets too clinical. Working in clay especially, lets things be looser, almost demands it in fact. That means the pieces can start to speak in a more emotive language. The glazes and traditional firing, too, brings that warmth back in. I've mixed up about a thousand different glaze tests in order to find a few that give the sense of skin tone and life, though. It's loose now, but it took a lot of experimentation and false starts to get here.
MICHAEL: I believe you live in Westchester (NY). How does climate affect the creation of sculpture ... if at all?
BOB: I'm just outside New York City, and if I were in the city itself the fire marshal would shut me down for the kinds of things I do with kilns and flame. It has been great for me to be near the city though, because of the resources here: the mold makers, casting places, foundries and figurative schools, to say nothing of the chance to see other people's art and be near the art market. Although you could do the sculpting itself almost anywhere, it helps a lot to be in a nexus of other artists and artisans.
MICHAEL: You know, whenever I see sculptural works, especially bronzes for some reason, I want to touch them and feel them. Of course, I would never touch anything, but whenever I visit an art museum, I feel like the experience of texture is lost because we cannot touch which makes perfect sense. You can't have a million people touching things. The art probably wouldn't last a year and of course, if I were the sculptor, I'd probably have a heart attack seeing people manhandle my work!
BOB: I've often thought of posting my work with a sign that reads, "Please Touch." It is a big part of the experience of sculpture, touching. When I was just coming under sculpture's spell, at MIT, we had a big reclining Henry Moore out on the Great Lawn where people could hang out and touch to their heart's content. Obviously, some pieces are fragile or have easy-to-smudge patinas, but sculptural forms are not just for looking and a surprising number of sculptures on display out there can be touched, if only surreptitiously. My three hanging Butoh men will be in a show this Fall at Tribes Gallery on New York's Lower East Side where the whole show will be held in the dark with the idea that people will actually go in and discover the sculpture almost entirely through touch, as a blind person might. I had an extraordinary experience at a recent exhibition where a blind visitor asked if he could 'read' my sculpture through touching and I watched his hands moving purposefully across the piece almost exactly as mine do during final check-throughs, where the hands routinely find minor imperfections that have been missed all along by the eyes.
MICHAEL: I would imagine that being a sculptor isn't an inexpensive undertaking ... the materials, the space, the equipment, etc.
BOB: Yeah, as we speak, I'm listening to the sounds of the masons building out foundations for my new studio. I don't have it too bad, though, with the size I work in. If you're fabricating large pieces, you need some pretty hefty equipment, hoists and so on, as well as large spaces and complex crating and shipping. And bronze foundries are a pretty labor and capital-intensive affair. In an age when everything seems to be getting more efficient and cheaper, sculpture is an exception and those higher costs have hurt the field. For a select group of sculptors, their work gets valuable enough in collectors' eyes that the economics can work, but I think it's fair to say every sculptor struggles with costs.
MICHAEL: Finally Bob, What do you want people to know about sculpture and what do you want them to take away after experiencing your own work?
BOB: I'd like people to give sculpture a chance; make room for it, think about places it could work in their living spaces, think of it as a viable enhancement to your community spaces. In my view, sculpture is at a multi-hundred year low point in terms of its prominence in the arts. It's sort of a vicious cycle. Interest is low, funding for sculpture is scant and innumerable talented people who might have become great sculptors have abandoned the field to do other things that could earn them a living (3-D-animation design, product and packaging design, sign design or just out of the 3-D world entirely). Ancillary services like foundries and mold makers are withering as the old guard retires and young people don't see enough opportunity to warrant their commitment.
MICHAEL: Wow. I'm so sorry to be hearing this.
BOB: As a result, collectors and curators, planning committees and the like have unprecedented influence. A single commission can mean the difference between a sculptor staying in the game or leaving it in frustration and can help support the fabricators and other artisans who help sculptors realize their finished pieces. You'll have a big impact and a high level of access and appreciation if you are showing, critiquing or acquiring sculpture now. With the field so thin, much of the momentum for old forms has faded and new forms, materials, compositions are being tried, which means innovation and excitement is coming to the field. Still, this needs collector interest to be sustained, critical attention to ensure a healthy debate, curator interest to ensure the public has access to the new works and academic support to ensure good foundations for student sculptors. I see my own work as part of a resurgent movement in figurative sculpture, where the old approaches of just making a sculpted likeness are giving way to something more contemporary, more poly-layered, more able to speak to the complexity of our world and to inform our path through it. This has always been art's job, and if sculpture is able to do anything in this area, then it deserves to survive as an art form.
MICHAEL: Bob, what a pleasure talking with you. You're a fantastic ambassador for sculpture. I got such an education chatting with you. Thanks.
If you'd like to find out more about Bob Clyatt and his work check out his website at www.clyattsculpture.com.