Carol Bove: Dossier

The Phaidon Folio

The Four-Hour Art Week? Read Carol Bove’s Self-Help Guide for Artists

By Artspace Editors

March 30, 2015

The Four-Hour Art Week? Read Carol Bove's Self-Help Guide for Artists

The artist Carol Bove

The sculptor Carol Bove likes to play with associations and forms as she builds her assemblages of constructed and readymade objects. Time and space to experiment are crucial elements of her process, as is a certain psychological sovereignty—Bove writes that “creating a nonpurposive, free space in which to play and have fun is essential.” Here, the Brooklyn-based artist gives her best advice for finding happiness (rather than “succeeding”) as an artist, excerpted in its entirety from the new book AKADEMIE X: Lesson in Art + Life.

WORK

Years ago, from 1995–2000, I used to live in an illegal loft building under the Manhattan Bridge. It was one of the few artists’ buildings in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) at the time, and it was known for its ridiculous DIY door buzzers. On the ground floor was a paper recycling plant and there were always clouds of flies. There must have been more than a hundred people living there, along with lots of dogs and other pets. One loft housed a black-market exotic animal dealer. When he was busted, people claimed to have seen a kangaroo, but all I ever saw, when he once held the front door open for me, was a box full of prairie dogs.

A friend of mine lived upstairs and he was photographing a special breed of butterfly that he’d mail-ordered in advance of his participation at the Venice Biennale. He was planning to make a butterfly garden there. While he was out getting lunch one day, a neighbor’s cat hunted and killed every one of his subjects. It was a disaster for him, but I couldn’t help laughing, even though I think of myself as a very kind and sympathetic friend. It was just so thrilling that this art-studio problem was so common, primal, fragile, fantastical, violent, and yet silly, all at the same time. It makes me laugh even now as I’m writing. A cat hunting butterflies is a much clearer, more available image of the drama of a studio emergency than “I overworked my painting.”

Two German girls lived in the loft next to mine and I overheard them talking one day. I wasn’t eavesdropping – the old industrial building was crudely constructed to begin with and the additions were all makeshift, so noise traveled. For several months the sounds in my studio consisted of someone sculpting with a chainsaw (upstairs), continuous jazz practice (downstairs), and the German girls talking (next door). I only understood a few words of German at the time. I knew the word for work: arbeit. So as they talked I would hear a string of syllables and then this word, arbeit  … another string of syllables, arbeit  … string of syllables, arbeit …  I couldn’t believe how much they used the word. And I wondered to myself if I used that word as often.

I decided to stop using the word “work” as an experiment. It was very difficult! I had to compensate by substituting a more specific description of the activity. For example, instead of “I’m going to my studio to work,” I’d have to say, “I’m going to make some drawings.” Or instead of “I’m going to work around the house,” I’d have to say, “I’m going to clean the kitchen and fold some laundry.” I discovered that the absence of the word ‘work’ forced me to reconsider assumptions about leisure, because the idea of work implied its opposite. I let go of the notion that I deserved a certain amount of downtime from being productive or from being active. The labour/leisure dichotomy became uncoupled and then dissolved. I couldn’t use labour to allay guilt or self-punish or feel superior. Work didn’t exist, so all the psychological payoff of work for work’s sake had nowhere to go.

WHAT IS AN ARTIST’S ACTIVITY IF IT’S NOT WORK? 

I started to adjust my thinking about productivity so that it was no longer valued in and of itself. It strikes me as vulgar always to have to apply a cost/benefit analysis to days lived; it’s like understanding an exchange of gifts only as barter. The work exercise made me feel as if I was awakening from one of the spells of capitalism. And there was more to it than that: I was able to begin the process of withdrawal from my culture’s ideology around the instrumentality of time, i.e. that you can use time. I think the ability to withdraw from consensus reality is one of the most important skills for an artist to learn because it helps her to recognize invisible forces.

TIME AND INFORMATION MANAGEMENT

Your time is not a separate thing from you; it’s not an instrument. Time is part of what you’re made from. Emerson said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” Everything that you do and think about is going to be in your artwork. The computer-science idea “garbage in, garbage out” applies to artists. This is something to consider when you’re choosing your habitual activities.

One question is, how do you create a way of being in the world that allows new things (ideas, information, people, places) into your life without letting everything in? I want to point out that your tolerance for media saturation might be lower than you realize. You need to conduct an open-ended search that doesn’t overwhelm you with information and at the same time doesn’t limit the search in a way that pre-determines your findings. That is a puzzle.

The first self-help book I want to recommend is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book is based on the idea of artistic recovery, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, but it’s recovery for a stuck artist. I don’t consider myself stuck, but I still get a lot out of most of the exercises. Cameron addresses the idea of work and to a certain extent, information management, but the book came out in 1992, before the internet really came into our lives. She understands the creative process and how to teach it; the techniques she describes work. I know what you’re thinking: “Carol, I’m scared. That sounds New Agey.” I can’t promise you that it will help you or that you will like it or that your friends won’t tease you for reading it. But I can promise that it won’t diminish your critical faculties, or your intellectual ability, or your access to rational thought or anything like that. If you’re scared or squeamish about New Agey sounding books, I say that’s all the more reason to read them. A willingness to take psychological risks is another one of the most important skills for an artist to develop.

The other self-help book I want to recommend is Tim Ferris’s The 4-Hour Workweek. What’s the opposite of New Agey? Hiring a virtual assistant in India to take care of your everyday tasks, as Ferris recommends. I didn’t take that particular piece of advice, but his techniques for time-management, dealing with information overload and email addiction are really helpful. I also liked some of his ideas regarding income automation.

UNCENSORING

Before I went to New York University to get my bachelor’s degree, and after an initial attempt at art school that only lasted a semester, I took several years off. I quickly realized in my first attempt that at the rate I was going there was way I was going to be transformed into an artist by the school and that I’d be better off waiting till I was ready to apply myself. It was a wise decision, but it didn’t come from intellect; I simply knew in an urgent, emotional way that I wasn’t capable of getting anything out of the classroom at that time. I was lucky that my parents didn’t pressure me to complete school. On the contrary; they were paying for it and reasoned that if I couldn’t get straight As in the first semester of art school I was wasting their money. (Here’s something that strikes me as very different now from back then in 1988: in those days, going to art school wasn’t considered a reasonable thing to do. The reasonable people went into graphic design or architecture or something with a practical application. Art school was for irresponsible freakazoids with no plan. Or you could say, romantics. Now, it seems as if there’s a perception that going to art school is part of a clear career path that you can follow towards a respectable profession. The market is bigger and can support more people, sure, but if it seems as if there is a clear path, that’s an illusion. Academicism, professionalism, bureaucracy, and officialdom are all toxic to artmaking. They are necessary interference and shaping obstacles, not facilitators.)

Going back to school was great – after fourteen semesters off, I was ready. The worst part about being back in school was making art and having to explain it at the same time. It made it impossible for me to feel safe when experimenting. As a consequence of my profound self-doubt and insecurity, I was censoring what I really felt compelled to make, reasoning that since I was stupid, whatever I truly wanted to make would be stupid. I thought I would be better off faking it.

As soon as I got out of school, I was very curious to know what exactly it was that I was censoring, because the repression was so assiduous that I had absolutely no idea what it might be. I decided to try an experiment. I would make whatever I wanted for three months with the understanding that I would not show what I dredged up. Not to anyone. But I felt the need to discover my secret.

I can tell you now, since a lot of time has passed, that I discovered I wanted to draw portraits of pretty women. It seemed dumb at first, but I was patient and nonjudgmental and just let my desire take me wherever it wanted to go, and that’s been my modus operandi ever since.

Creating a nonpurposive, free space in which to play and have fun is essential. You can tell when you’re looking at art that was a drag to make: it’s a drag to look at. On the other hand, it’s thrilling to watch someone work through a problem that’s exciting for him, even if the subject matter wouldn’t normally move you.

I’ve watched kids playing with exciting, fun toys like bubble guns – they’re good for ten minutes. But something like a doctor’s kit that allows them to rehearse the drama of their lives is inexhaustibly interesting; they’ll carry it everywhere for months. Your art should be like that kind of toy. It may be an intellectual project, but it needs to be invested with your psychic life and driven by emotional necessity.

This uncensoring exercise was so helpful for me. I recommend it. I did it in my late twenties, when I already had some education and experience and I was trying to find an authentic way to respond to all the ideas and artworks that already existed or that were coming into existence around me.

RHYTHM OF WORKING

The format of school dictates a certain rhythm or pace of working. In the same way that in the Law and Order universe a murderer needs to be caught and brought to justice in roughly fifty minutes, artworks need to be completed and critiqued during the semester. I get the feeling that people set their speed in school and then it’s reinforced by the art-fair schedule, and with the multiplying venues, our ability to fly cheaply and send high-res images instantly, everything is accelerating. But it’s up to you to decide whether or not your work benefits from that pace. I always find Jay DeFeo’sThe Rose inspiring when I need a reminder that it doesn’t have to happen so fast.

MONEY

Becoming an artist is not a good business plan.

GETTING A CAREER

I’m assuming you want to be an artist for life. I can see that people in their twenties have a lot of anxiety when their peers are showing and they’re not, and I worried about that too. But I understand now that it’s not a race and I wish I hadn’t wasted all that energy worrying. In almost every instance I can think of, getting off to an early start hasn’t been an advantage to artists’ careers. You probably shouldn’t even get serious about showing your work in a commercial context until you’re close to thirty. Until then, it’s best to observe. While you’re learning how the art world works, keep the stakes low. That’s to say, keep the career stakes low. It’s never the wrong time to embrace psychological risk.

I’ve just more or less equated selling with career, but those things are not equivalent and it’s obviously more complicated than that. The Gift: The Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, a book by Lewis Hyde, has been particularly helpful for me in adopting the right attitude to releasing artworks into the market. It contains an analysis of gift economies that develops a picture of unalienated labour. The first half of the book, which looks at gift-giving practices in tribal society and in folklore, has shaped my thinking even more than the treatments on artistic expression in the second half.

HISTORY

You do need to know some art history. As a producer of art objects/gestures, the conventions you decide to ignore and the conventions you decide to repeat are as important, if not more so, than what you invent. If you’re a total novice start with Cubism to Surrealism and then study 1945–75, then take it from there.

Everybody my age read Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. If you ever want to understand something about our subconscious, our unarticulated assumptions, you could get some clues from that book. The theory of the 1980s is important for the very reason that it formed our mentality, but it has receded from our conscious thoughts. The subconscious realm of unarticulated assumptions is a powerful, invisible shaping force in the world.

FINDING YOURSELF

Artwork comes from the total personality: ego, self, id, conscious and unconscious, transpersonal, linguistic and nonlinguistic, historically determined, sensual, emotional, physical, mental, ideological, and cultural. I believe that in order to make something that’s meaningful you have to start by figuring yourself out psychologically. In order to figure myself out I’ve applied different modes of critique such as Marxism, feminist theory, psychoanalytic theory, history, ayurvedic principles, philosophy, Feldenkrais technique, anthropology, astrology, the physiology of perception, contemplating life as a caveman, health-food regimens, psychedelic experiences, reading self-help books, ebay, falling in love, practicing magical rites, teaching, the scientific method, psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, and dharmic traditions, fasting and other austerities, exercise, napping, resonance repatterning, literature and poetry, friendships, parenting, humour, and countless others. Artwork is self-expression, and clearly I’m talking about a notion of self that radiates far outside of one’s body or even one’s time.

READING

– Benjamin, Walter. Illuminationen: Ausgewahlte Schriften.  Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1961. Translated by Harry Zohn as Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968.

Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is completely different every time I read it. He’s making a projection about what will happen as a result of images becoming reproducible, and we have to use all of our powers of imagination to dismantle our media environment for long enough to know what he must have meant. And then we compare this reflection to the text measured against our own time. I also often come back to one line from the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”

– Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way; A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992.

– Ferris, Timothy. The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.  New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2007.

– Kwon, Miwon. “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity.” October. Vol. 80 (March–May 1997): pp. 85–110.

There’s more to site-specificity, as this text shows, than art objects being influenced by their environments or made with a specific location in mind.

– Wallis, Brian and Marcia Tucker, eds. Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation.  New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984.

– Fifteen-year-old art magazines.

Fifteen years is about half of a fashion cycle, so you see artworks in their least flattering light.

VIEWING

– Curtis, Adam, dir. The Century of the Self. BBC Four, 2002. Television series.

This British television documentary series offers a fascinating history of the valorization of self-expression as it was popularized over the twentieth century.

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criticismExhibitions


Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
   by

Carol Bove: RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?

Maccarone
September 7 to October 19, 2013
630 Greenwich Street
New York City, 212-431-4977

Installation view of Carol Bove, RA, or Why is an orange like a bell? Photo Credit: EPW Studio/Maris Hutchinson. Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone, New York.

Installation view of Carol Bove, RA, or Why is an orange like a bell? Photo Credit: EPW Studio/Maris Hutchinson. Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone, New York.

Carol Bove does not consider her art in terms of its site-specificity, which might come as a surprise considering her recent projects for institutions such as the Highline and the Museum of Modern Art.  Hers is a more holistic approach to site specificity as a call-and-response between a sculpture, its materials, and the surrounding environment. In an interview with Art in America in May 2012, Bove explains: “My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.” This is why I find it particularly worrisome that the press releases and texts in situ introducing two of her ongoing sculpture installations in New York City, Caterpillar at the Highline Park (through May 2014) and Equinox at MoMA (through January 2014), recommend allegorical interpretations of the art based solely on their material or textual components.

It is Bove’s solo show at Maccarone, her second with the gallery, titled RA, or Why is an orange like a bell? that most thoroughly escapes this trap of over interpretation. The work in all three exhibitions share materials: concrete, brass, cast steel, and powder-finished steel; unlike the outdoor installation on the Highline and the show at MoMA, the gallery pieces are not physically bolted down and hence not corralled by a specific space and its host of references. RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?  confounds traditional notions of artistic authorship and object category. Only six of the twelve works listed are attributed to Bove herself, who regularly folds the works of others into her own shows in what she calls “forced collaborations.” Among Bove’s six works, a large percentage of the materials were industrially fabricated or found, and their identity as “artworks” is complicated by this sense of previous history. Just past the gallery’s entrance is one of Bove’s simplest and most eloquent works—an untitled sculpture in the round, made in 2013, in which a slab of petrified wood is fastened to one edge of a steel beam towering almost a dozen feet tall. Here, the support structure is an essential armature, and the fossilized organism an animated protagonist in comparison.

Carol Bove, Untitled, 2013, petrified wood, steel 143 x 43 1/2 x 35 inches. Photo credit: EPW Studio/Maris Hutchinson. Courtesy of the artist and Maccarone, New York.

 

 

One of her most virtuosic displays is Peel’s foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep (2013). The work consists of delicate brass open cubes and rectangles screwed into intricate formations and woven into the openings of a concrete pillar. Even though not all the shapes implemented are regular cubes, the edges of both materials contribute to the contours of a regular grid when viewed straight on. As one walks around the piece, however, the tidy geometry ebbs into formal chaos before straightening itself again. The same could be said of her two white powder coated steel sculptures, Solar Feminine and Hieroglyph (both 2013), whose forms yawn and contract when observed in rotation, and I-Beam Sculpture (2013), which is set low to the ground and becomes nearly indistinct from it at certain angles.  In all these works, Bove’s aforementioned notion of disaggregation is not merely a physical phenomenon, but an optical one.

The remaining works in the presentation were made by Lionel and Joanne Ziprin, Harry Smith, Richard Berger, and other unnamed members of their Lower East Side bohemian circle from the 1950s and ‘60s. Their contributions include a glass vitrine of anonymous doodles, scraps, and more complete works on paper (ca. 1951-1955). These, the list of works informs us, are not meant to be scrutinized for their content, but to be “illustrative of the creative atmosphere of the Ziprin circle”—much in the way the books in Bove’s iconic George Nelson shelf sculptures operate as cultural indicators rather than texts.  The centerpiece of the show, if such a work exists, is Harry Smith’s Design for Qor Corporation (ca. 1960), a diminutively sized painting on cardboard sporting a brash red and green grid-like pattern with Celtic affinity. It is suspended high between two large panes of glass—a two-dimensional vitrine—such that one can’t look at the Smith painting without seeing other works in periphery. In a brilliant multi-dimensional play, this work is at once a motif, a shadow, and a physical intervention, imprinted upon the show without leaving an actual trace.

The artist does not make explicit why she chose the Ziprin circle’s works to feature alongside her own. The choice was certainly not incidental or merely aesthetic; in conjunction with her Maccarone show, Bove co-curated with Philip Smith a reading-room of Ziprin and Harry Smith ephemera a few blocks away at 98 Morton Street. In this appendix-like exhibition are works from the duo’s short-lived design company Qor Collective and other eccentric commercial projects like Inkweed Studios. When Lionel Ziprin passed away in 2009, he left behind an epic volume of poetry, which included the autobiographical lines: “I am not an artist. I am not an / outsider. I am a citizen of the / republic and I have remained / anonymous all the time by choice.” Nine years ago, Bove offered a companion statement in an interview with the curator Beatrix Ruf: “It has to be apparent that the piece was put together for this particular occasion, in this particular space, which exists in a particular cultural context at a particular moment in time. […] The objects are assembled from non-art objects and my fantasy is that they could return to a state of non-art.”

The show probably leaves room for an essay to be written about the link between Ziprin and co.’s Kabbalistic undertakings and the spiritual inflections in Bove’s titles, but I believe that it is unwise to give too much emphasis to cross-interpretation. Rather than looking at either body of work as an index, allegory, and appendage to the other, we should regard RA as a staged meeting of kindred objects that we are invited to observe before everything disbands again

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May 04, 2012

Carol Bove

Carol Bove in Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany, June 9-Sept. 16.

Carol Bove’s considerable reputation rests upon more than a decade’s worth of refined and culturally literate artworks. Her early sculptural installations, often taking the form of plinths or wall-mounted shelves laden with period books and knick-knacks, evoke memories of 1960s- and ’70s-era bohemianism, and the individual and societal soul-searching that accompanied the period’s wrenching social transformations. That many viewers have no firsthand experience of that historical moment and know it only through publications, films and other cultural objects is part of Bove’s point. Born in 1971 in Geneva, Switzerland, and raised in Berkeley, Calif., she too experienced this cultural ferment at a remove, filtered as it was by the preferences of her parents and their milieu. Because of this, her ability to capture what seems like the essence of the era results as much from an understanding of how we construct history as from a feeling for the lived texture of the time. Her deft juxtapositions-of Playboy centerfold images, paperback copies of Eastern mystical writings and Western psychological treatises-both frame a worldview and reveal the act of framing.

Bove came to New York during the mid-1990s and graduated from New York University in 2000. She began exhibiting immediately thereafter, and her carefully calibrated arrangements of objects were widely acclaimed. In the ensuing years, Bove has broadened the range of materials she works with, the forms her artworks take and the historical antecedents she repurposes. Though “the ’60s” (a time not coterminous with the 1960s) remain a touchstone and one of the period’s emblematic art movements, Minimalism, a preferred esthetic framework, today her art has been drained of much of its cultural specificity. Bringing together materials both luxurious (peacock feathers, gold chains) and rough-hewn (driftwood, steel), Bove has elaborated an esthetic at once unique and capable of rehabilitating artistic precedents that have fallen into disfavor.

The artist works in a large studio a few blocks from the industrial waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The location is important: she scavenges urban detritus from her immediate environs, and produces work in collaboration with artisans whose machine shops are within walking distance of her building. At present she is working on her first two large-scale outdoor commissions. One sculpture will be exhibited in Kassel, Germany, from June 9 to Sept. 16 as part of Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The other will be presented later this year at a New York City location that is yet to be announced. The edited transcript of our conversation, which took place at her studio in February, begins in medias res as Bove describes her plans for this latter work.

CAROL BOVE The installation [in New York] will have a platform featuring a totemic sculpture-a huge I-beam with a log attached to it. It’s a 16-million-year-old piece of petrified wood. At first glance it seems like a normal object; it looks like regular wood, so pedestrian as to be almost disappointing. Then, as you touch the material, you discover that in places it’s broken like a rock. You begin to understand what it is.

The platform has another element, my attempt at generic sculpture. I wanted to make something complicated, like tangled spaghetti, out of a material that has a different texture. That part will be made out of tubular steel and appear almost sinuous, though with an awkwardness because I’m making it out of half circles joined together. In a way it’s diametrically opposed to the petrified wood. It’s shiny, hard, smooth, industrially produced; its horizontal orientation balances out the composition as well. I hope that this sculpture will engage the city in both material and temporal registers.

BRIAN SHOLIS What has it been like to scale up your work and, given the unpredictable circumstances of the setting, to build for contingencies?

BOVE It’s totally, totally different from what I’m used to. Most of the time I’m very dependent upon everyone in the exhibition space taking care of the work, ensuring that no one touches things . . . and now I have to think about the work being rained on, or people climbing on it.

SHOLIS Is it difficult to accommodate yourself to that?

BOVE No, it has actually been stimulating to revisit my early experiences of outdoor sculpture, to realize how formative and exciting they were.

SHOLIS In the past you’ve mentioned childhood experiences playing with the Arnaldo Pomodoro sculpture on the Berkeley campus.

BOVE Yes, the sculpture garden at the Berkeley Art Museum was very important to me. It does not exist now-I think because of earthquake concerns. Anyway, later I had the idea that outdoor sculpture was simplistic because of its need to be accessible, and now I’m realizing how wrong I was about that. There is something fascinating about placing out in the world an object with no instrumental purpose, something provocative about the gesture.

SHOLIS How far have you traveled along a path from, on the one hand, artworks that require knowledge of cultural references to, on the other, artworks that are easily accessible?

BOVE In terms of how I conceive of the work’s intellectual contexts, I don’t think there’s a big difference between my gallery shows and my new outdoor projects. In both instances I’m interested in the open-endedness of the situation. In an outdoor environment, especially one used for numerous other purposes, viewers’ initial indifference requires something different of the artist, a novel way to hook people. The benefit, of course, is that viewers don’t come to the work with preconceived ideas of what it should be or do. How can an artist communicate through a public artwork, even on an unconscious level? These are interesting questions to try to answer.

SHOLIS You’ve been conceiving this piece for New York at the same time as you’ve been creating a work for Documenta. Are they going to be on view at the same time?

BOVE That was the original plan; now I think they won’t.

SHOLIS I ask because I think of your exhibitions as exquisite compositions in which each work relates to every other work. Is that how you’re thinking of them here?

BOVE Well, I hadn’t thought explicitly of setting up a circuit between the two sculptures. But I was thinking of them together. The work for Germany will be situated on the grounds of the Orangerie in Kassel and will follow their compositional strategy. Everything there is placed in a line, so what I’m creating will be stiffly in line with another statue that’s already there.

SHOLIS And what kind of elements will it have?

BOVE It will have the same kind of elements [as the New York piece]: a totemic sculpture incorporating petrified wood, as well as another abstract component, this time a network of variously scaled cubes in bronze and steel. I want it to function for viewers at a distance and to have details fascinating enough to hold the attention of someone who has come closer to it. An additional platform I’m creating in this case, however, will stand apart from the rest of the work and have nothing resting on it.

SHOLIS Can you tell me a little bit about the Orangerie?

BOVE The venue is an 18th-century building with extensive grounds. Off to both sides of the main garden are hedged-in spaces I think of as outdoor rooms, in the center of which are statues. One is Apollo and the other is Flora. I wanted Apollo; I felt the Apollonian context would be a nice contrast to some of my works’ elements. But I didn’t get him. I’m OK with Flora, of course. It’s a strange space; it feels kind of metaphysical.

SHOLIS Has this been a rewarding enough experience that you would consider making more outdoor work?

BOVE Yes, it has been great, and I’m really into it. I’m excited by having to work with the viewer indifference I described earlier. I have enjoyed making works that need to be complete in themselves, that don’t need an engaged viewer. It has seemed to me like an opportunity to try and communicate with the unconscious realm.

SHOLIS Can you discuss your relationship to Berkeley, where you grew up?

BOVE There are wonderful hills and parks in Berkeley, but I also always loved the city’s more industrial areas.

SHOLIS Near the water?

BOVE Yes. Even as a teenager, making artworks-my juvenilia, I guess—I was really attracted to industrial districts. I collected rusty junk. Decades later I realized, “Oh, I’m still doing what I did as a teenager.” The use I make of these materials is different but the impulse is consistent.

I have a kind of romantic attraction to liminal spaces. I feel they are underappreciated. They feel wild, and the lack of care for them is attractive to me. Somehow I identify it with 1930s-era Farm Security Administration photographs-shabby America.

SHOLIS So it’s the atmosphere surrounding the materials more than the act of rescuing. You’re not a hoarder?

BOVE [laughs] No, I’m not obsessive-compulsive. I’m not a collector; I don’t like to hold on to things. I spend time with them and then allow them to continue their lives elsewhere.

SHOLIS Though it’s a very carefully thought out path that you set them on.

BOVE Right. For now, at least. But down the road they may end up un-becoming sculpture. I can imagine them losing their sculptural form. In a way, I build for this. My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.

SHOLIS The majority of the sculptures you’ve made are, right now, in a disaggregated state. They’re in museum storage or collectors’ storage.

BOVE They are resting [laughs]. They don’t have to be sculpture all the time. The ones that are put together, that are performing . . . well, knowing that they are out there takes some kind of energy out of me, psychic energy.

SHOLIS That’s perfectly understandable. Let’s return to the topic of place, this time Red Hook. Of all the neighborhoods in New York City in which I can imagine you living and working, this one seems the most appropriate. It’s the most weathered, it’s an aging industrial waterfront. Is that important to your practice?

BOVE Yes, totally. Like the Berkeley waterfront, it’s another site of American industrial decline, which fascinates me. The neighborhood is separate from the rest of Brooklyn, divided from it by a highway; it functions as a kind of hideout. I wasn’t looking, but when I found the building in which I now live I immediately thought, “OK, this is my house.” A close friend from Berkeley saw it and said, “You’ve moved back to Berkeley.”

SHOLIS If you moved to another part of New York would your work change?

BOVE Probably. I worry about moving. My materials are so much a part of this particular environment. My processes are also specific to the particular fabricators whose shops are in this neighborhood. I feel very attached to where I am.

SHOLIS Do you adapt your ideas to the skills possessed by the craftsmen you work with?

BOVE Yes, I would say so. It’s not just Red Hook, but New York more generally. I sometimes make sculptures that look like jewelry, and in the jewelry district here you can get any thickness of chain, or get something plated—almost anything I need I can find here. I can also sell my metal scraps and use the money to buy new materials; metals are convertible commodities in New York.

SHOLIS Your process is beginning to sound like managing a series of flows. Materials sometimes literally wash ashore a few blocks away. Some get made into artworks and enter another circuit, and the leftovers are eventually recycled.

BOVE It’s not all movement; there is also a lot of . . . well, marinating. I take in more than I need, and things sit around together for a while.

SHOLIS There’s another side to your work that many people discuss, an aspect that is derived in part from its references to spiritual seekers or guides.

BOVE Perhaps this ties in to what I said earlier about the ability of public artworks to engage a different part of a viewer’s consciousness, because it requires a different kind of attention. Sometimes when people hear the word “psychic” they think “flaky.” I’m interested in means of apprehension that are not necessarily anti-analytic but that are not routed through the intellect.

SHOLIS A prelinguistic understanding?

BOVE Not prelinguistic or anti-linguistic or anti-intellectual. Just nonlinguistic. Sort of like the process my work has undergone in the last few years, moving away from the inclusion of—or direct reference to—printed material. There are still cultural references, but it’s not as easy to discern a particular one.

That shift is in part because I don’t want my work to seem like a research project. One is rewarded for being visually literate and knowing about the culture that this material emerges from, but it’s not a game of figuring out how the different references relate to each other. I prefer the idea of “irresolvability.” I want my works to have a shifting identity.
SHOLIS
So the new works are more vague? Though perhaps without the negative connotations associated with that word.

BOVE I want to recuperate vagueness. Sometimes I imagine myself as the first viewer, and I look for elements that cause me to think, “I don’t get that,” or, “That doesn’t do anything for me.”

SHOLIS In past interviews you’ve mentioned the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the I Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Kama Sutra. Plus many of the pocket paperbacks in your early work were translations of books on sociology and psychology by European authors. How conscious are you of bringing to bear upon your work an intellectual heritage that isn’t American?

BOVE It’s important, but I’m also interested in the American filter. I feel that you’ve phrased the question as if these were active choices on my part, but the intellectual culture in Berkeley when I was growing up was very international, very assimilationist. Many people living there and then were looking to other cultures for meaning. It can seem now like an impulse to get rid of everything in American culture. Every aspect of American ideology was being reevaluated, although in retrospect I can see how a lot of the dominant culture was reproduced unconsciously.

My first big sculpture show, in 2003, was called “Experiment in Total Freedom.” That was a kind of joke about the era, or at least my experience of it. Adults seemed so permissive: “You can do whatever you want!” As a child, I wondered, “What does that mean?” I feel I actually need a structure in order to do something. There is something kind of limiting about total freedom.

SHOLIS That cultural moment didn’t last long, nor does it continue in many places today. Perhaps it’s not sustainable.

BOVE I hate to generalize about the period, or about the place. I’ll simply say that cultural inquiry of the kind that went on in the Bay Area in the ’60s is a process, and it could still be very exciting. Becoming fully conscious, you know, would be a great thing. It would be great for many people today to engage with that idea.

SHOLIS I want to ask you about the legacy of Surrealism. Do you feel that the ideas about consciousness animating it ever truly broke on these shores?

BOVE In California—Berkeley, San Francisco—there’s a tradition of found-object assemblage, stuff that is almost naively inherited from Surrealists. There was a kind of beat culture, exemplified by Wallace Berman, that seems like Surrealism plus the Kabbalah, which is an interesting formulation. My early experiences with art-making were through that instantiation of Surrealism. I was attracted as a young person to Bruce Conner’s work. If Surrealism did find a home in the U.S., I feel like that’s where it went—to California.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder whether Surrealism is too silly for us. I don’t mean that dismissively; I love Surrealism. I think there is a lot of it in American art, but people don’t want to call it that because it sounds too silly. We have an aversion to, a squeamishness about, the unseriousness of the unconscious.

SHOLIS I can tell by this long table covered with books and periodicals that you spend time sifting through all manner of visual materials. What else are you looking at lately?

BOVE Right now I’m looking at Plop Art.

SHOLIS Pop Art?

BOVE Plop Art.

SHOLIS To learn how to be a public artist?

BOVE[laughs] Not to learn how to do it—just to see what’s out there. The art world is critical of it, but I’m finding much that fascinates me. Its relative disuse gives it a lot of . . . wilderness.

SHOLIS It’s unsupervised. You can explore it at your own pace.

BOVE I like that. Do you know [George] Gurdjieff? He thought that esoteric knowledge is almost like a material—a material of which there is a finite amount. If you have certain knowledge, you can’t just give it to everyone. If you share it, you are actually parceling it out. But if no one’s paying attention, well, that’s how a sculpture that’s in plain sight could seem like it has a wilderness. For people who do want to give it attention, it can give something back. All the material hasn’t been snatched up. That’s part of what I found interesting about the New York City project.

SHOLIS Do you suspect that people will figure out that part of the work is millions of years old?

BOVE I hope so. It has a lot of . . . energy stored up in it.

SHOLIS Where did you find the petrified wood?

BOVE On the Internet, of course. I went out to Washington State to pick it up.

SHOLIS At some point you decided that it would be OK to use materials that you didn’t happen across on the Brooklyn waterfront, or you didn’t find in a used bookstore. Was that a difficult threshold to cross?

BOVE I was aware of the transition. I had set certain constraints on my activities, and I had to ask, Is there a reason for the constraint? Or does it no longer serve me?

SHOLIS What is the constraint in your studio now, if there is one? Or does your studio practice replicate the freedom and chaos of your childhood in Berkeley?

BOVE I’m sure there are a lot of constraints but maybe there are so many of them that I don’t even know how to articulate them. I started with very rigid ones. At first I was only looking at issues of Playboy published between 1967 and 1972, or something like that. That was it. I couldn’t invent anything. I could photograph them or draw from them but that was it. I started off very confined, and have gradually loosened up.

Brian Sholis is a PhD candidate in the department of history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

==

Collaborative artist book published on the occasion of Carol Bove’s exhibition, Plants and Mammals, held at the Horticutural Society of New York, 2008. Includes a poster designed by Bove, a 4″ x 5″ c-print of Bove’s sculptural contribution to the show and a fold-out, accordion-style picture book by Janine Lariviere, titled Twentieth Century Narcissus, that chronicles the narcissus cultivars, or daffodil to us laypeople, throughout the twentieth century.

“The photos of flowers in this book have been taken from the gardening catalogs that came to my house between 2002 and 2005. I composed a timeline with the photos according to each flower’s date of origin. By no means is this an exhaustive encyclopedia of the twentieth century’s daffodils. I hoped to have flowers for each year but instead found the flowers in varying concentrations throughout the century.

The daffodil bulb itself is a kind of record. It has the potential to persist indefinitely, blooming again every year. The maintenance of this living library depends on people keeping track of the flowers and choosing to grow them. Current and past tastes, breeding innovations, and the ease of growing, all contribute to determining what remains from the past to present.” – Janine Lariviere

8 ½ x 5 ½ inches (22 x 14 cm)
accordian book in slipcase with inserts
100 pages, fully illustrated in color
ISBN: 9780615285801
Horticultural Society of New York, 2009

=

Abandoned Futures: On Carol Bove

Sculpture as a study in disintegration.

In September 1967, the artist Robert Smithson boarded the No. 30 bus at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan on a science-fiction journey to his hometown. In his account of the trip, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” Smithson describes a decaying post-industrial landscape where even the equipment for building a new highway looked like “pre-historic creatures trapped in the mud, or, better, extinct machines—mechanical dinosaurs stripped of their skin.” In his day, what is now called the High Line—the park built atop an old elevated railway spur on Manhattan’s West Side—was not yet such a ruin; it was entirely abandoned only in 1980. Since the first section of the High Line opened as a park in 2009, it has been as good an advertisement as any for an outlook that is surely the antithesis of Smithson’s pessimistic vision of a landscape pocked with “monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.” Such terrain has proven ideal for real estate speculation, with its memory-traces offering a decorative “distressed” context for what might otherwise seem too glossy and boringly upmarket—dull.

The High Line project is not yet finished, and if you want a taste of the spur’s ramshackle grit from the days when only intrepid trespassers found their way onto its forgotten tracks, you can book a guided walking tour of the unfinished portion, which runs above a railyard that at some point is supposed to be occupied by sixteen mixed-use skyscrapers encompassing more than 12 million square feet of space. The topic of the tour is not the High Line itself but rather “Caterpillar,” a group of seven sculptures by the Brooklyn-based artist Carol Bove (on view through May), and the latest installment in the High Line’s ongoing public art program. Three of Bove’s pieces are rectilinear assemblages built of rusted I-beams that look as much like remains from the spur’s old rail machinery—or the flayed dinosaurs of Smithson’s Passaic—as brand-new constructions. A couple of others are, by contrast, snow-white curlicues of powder-coated steel, looking like bits of giant springs that have been partially unsprung. It’s strange to see them sitting amid weeds and rubble.

Whereas the I-beam constructions seem like remains from the past, the curlicues appear to have dropped in from a spiffy future that’s still as desirable as a child’s new toy. A representation of the present, full of plans and halfway built, might be the smallest of the pieces here, Visible Things and Colors (2013). Made of concrete and grids of little brass cubes, it could be a sort of architectural model, a reflection of the obdurate plans and glittering future being fashioned for the area. But another of the works, Monel (2012), might be an admonition against such ambitions, at least if you know its backstory. Essentially a flat slab of bronze, a kind of horizontal monolith, Monel was previously shown at last year’s Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany. Not long after being returned to Bove’s studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, it was engulfed by the salty floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy, which corroded its glossy surface and introduced an unanticipated patina of decay. For Bove as for Smithson, there are always new ruins in the future; some of them we can learn to live with.

Another seven of Bove’s works are on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 12 under the title “The Equinox.” Among them are an I-beam structure (Chesed, 2013) and one of the coiled and uncoiled powder-coated steel pieces (although its title, The White Tubular Glyph, 2012, belies the fact that one section of it is actually black); still another is very similar to Visible Things and Colors on the High Line, except that along with brass squares it uses high-density fiberboard, painted white, rather than concrete and feels correspondingly lighter. At MoMA, Bove has put the formal vocabulary of “Caterpillar” in a different context. No weeds here: the seven works are kept immaculate and untouchable on a vast white platform. Nearby, a mass of debris—wood, rusty wire and who knows what else—seems to belong to a different formal idiom altogether. Could it have been retrieved from the unkempt mess of the unrenovated portion of the High Line? Its title is Disgusting Mattress (2012). Maybe it’s another remnant of Sandy’s depredations; in any case, one more souvenir of disaster. The title of another piece at MoMA, Triguna (2012), is a reference to “the three universal qualities (gunas) of all experience in the Ayurvedic tradition: light, darkness, and change,” as the wall text notes. What’s remarkable is the understated way Bove’s art evokes all three.

* * *

Such art might, no doubt, be a little too understated for some tastes. Disgusting Mattress looks like sculpture in the pristine setting of MoMA, but on the High Line it would be just another bit of rubbish. By contrast, the works in powder-coated steel might seem too obviously sculptural in the museum, if not in the weeds. But permeability to its context is essential to Bove’s art. “A sculpture’s unfixed identity is a basic point of entry for me,” she’s said. “An artwork can be repelling for its cheesiness and conservatism and at the same time its elegance will point to the possibility for some kind of heightened experience.” The aspect of Bove’s art that points toward the search for heightened—I might even say transcendent—experience can best be seen at a third New York exhibition of her work. It’s in the West Village at Maccarone, where Bove has a solo show with the riddling title “RA, or Why is an orange like a bell?”, and she has also curated (at a project space around the corner, with Philip Smith) an exhibition called “Qor Corporation: Lionel Ziprin, Harry Smith and the Inner Language of Laminates” (both through October 19). The difference is not so much in Bove’s sculptures themselves; they are similar to the ones at MoMA and the High Line. It’s rather in the context she’s created by placing them in juxtaposition to the work of the cult figures Ziprin and Smith—of whom more shortly.

A word like “transcendent” can set off alarms. It doesn’t sound very critical or rigorous, and it might evoke New Age claptrap. The risk of plunging into some sort of hippie-dippy self-delusion comes with the territory that Bove’s been exploring ever since her sculpture began attracting attention a decade or so ago. Especially in the beginning (and in less overt ways, still today), the matter of her work—its materials and subject matter—has often mined or evoked the 1960s, which for her was the time of “a spontaneous widespread movement to reevaluate culture and to investigate being.”

It was a period of political unrest, but above all of spiritual upheaval. Among Bove’s first works to draw notice were sculptures in the form of shelving units displaying arrays of books and objects. Typical of these is one from 2002–03 called Conversations With Jorge Luis Borges, which takes its name, as you might guess, from one of the approximately twenty paperbacks it includes—some others being George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and D.T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Some of the books are shelved upright, some have been placed in piles (spine out or bottom out), but two are held open to display black-and-white picture spreads: one showing African sculpture, the other what looks like an encounter-group exercise in which a scrum of people is holding someone up above their heads; the elevated person looks full of joy. Also on the shelves are a metronome and a sort of abstract object made of sticks and string, a kind of arts-and-crafts-class version of Constructivist sculpture (apparently, it illustrates the structural principle that Buckminster Fuller dubbed “tensegrity”). The selection of books is, of course, singular; it could have been the bookshelf in the home of some kid I went to school with, whose parents were much hipper and more worldly than my own. But the piece is not only about the content of the books it contains; it’s also about style and form—how the wood-and-metal shelving unit is as much a product of its time as the books, and how the square configuration of the piece as a whole recalls the back-to-basics aesthetics of the minimalist art of the 1960s.

Could such a sculpture, a Borgesian time machine, be owned by someone whose apartment is filled with books overflowing from shelves and piling up everywhere? I doubt it. Entropy would eventually erase the carefully constructed yet fragile distinction between Bove’s fastidiously arranged books and randomly accumulated new ones, and the old ones might even be read again. For Bove, that’s as it should be. Although her work teems with clever references to the history of modern art, it does not reaffirm the idea of a self-contained and autonomous history of art. Instead, it suggests that the impetus behind changes in art are part and parcel of broader cultural trends.

* * *

Bove no longer makes pieces like Conversations With Jorge Luis Borges, but what has endured is her focus on the intellectual process by which fairly ordinary things can coalesce into a work of art and just as easily splinter apart and return to the quotidian world. As she recently told the critic Brian Sholis, “My sculptures can and must be taken apart and then put back together. Disaggregation is important. Therefore, each element needs to maintain its individual identity, its autonomy.”

Given that she seems to keep lowering the boundary between art and nonart to the point of near indiscernibility, it’s not surprising that the two shows at Maccarone left me wondering if there’s any difference between one person’s art and another’s, between an exhibition of Bove’s work and one she has curated. Although the show on Ziprin and Smith was as informative about those two fascinating and unlikely figures as one could hope—this is not one of those infuriating affairs where the curator calls more attention to herself than to her subject—in some ways it doesn’t seem that different from a Bove exhibition. One reason is that works by Smith, Ziprin, and his wife and constant collaborator Joanne Ziprin, as well as by a little-known West Coast sculptor named Richard Berger, had also crept into Bove’s show at Maccarone. Just as her art can encompass books and knickknacks by others, it can subsume their drawings, paintings and sculptures.

But I took Bove at her word and saw the show on Smith and Ziprin as just what it purports to be: a trawl through the archives meant to cast light on some of the most fascinating and mysterious characters in the American culture of the 1950s and ’60s. Smith is widely known as the compiler of the groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of then–nearly forgotten music recorded between 1927 and 1932. Sourced entirely from Smith’s own collection of 78 rpm “race” and “hillbilly” records, it was released by Folkways Records as three sets of two LPs each in 1952 and jump-started the nascent folk music revival that came to a peak a decade later with artists like Bob Dylan; it was a harbinger of the re-emergence of what Greil Marcus would later call “the old, weird America.” But Smith was also a pioneering experimental filmmaker who specialized in abstract animations, influenced at first by the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, as well as a painter and graphic artist, although few of his works in these media survive. And as the child of Theosophists, Smith was an adept of the occult, “the Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel.”

For his friend Lionel Ziprin, coming as he did from a line of mystics and renowned rabbis, the supernatural was likewise all in the family. Ziprin thought of himself as a poet, but he seems mainly to have been a nerve center for the bohemia of the Lower East Side, at whose apartment artists, filmmakers and musicians would mingle—Bruce Conner and Jordan Belson, Thelonious Monk and Bob Dylan. Ziprin was a lifelong student of Kabbalah. His wife Joanna was a designer, model and sometime artist; clearly, it was she who had to make sure of the practicalities of life in the family, and so it was she who conceived the idea—how 1950s is this?—that they support themselves by going into the greeting-card business. Thus in 1951, with the intention “to design, perfect and market an idea in greeting cards that we believe in…having to do with imagination, bits of black magic and shoe strings,” they created a company called Ink Weed Arts. It was probably the black magic that doomed the firm, which was sold off three years later, near bankruptcy, only to be succeeded by another similar—and similarly short-lived—venture, the Haunted Inkbottle. Then, in 1958, the Ziprins came across a magical new material just developed by DuPont, called Mylar. They had the idea that decorative designs could be printed on Mylar and laminated to just about anything that could be used for any imaginable purpose. To promote the idea, the Qor Corporation was founded. As one of its veterans recalled, it was “a result of both genius, lots of marijuana, and arrogance.” It just might have worked, but Lionel Ziprin had no intention of actually manufacturing anything that would then have to be sold: “I’m not going to peddle it! I’m not going to sell it on Delancey Street!” He wanted to license his designs to big corporations and collect royalties. He found no takers.

* * *

The Ziprins’ efforts to make it big in business have rightly been called “one of the most curious and wonderfully cracked attempts at merging Beat sensibility with American consumerism.” No wonder an artist like Bove is fascinated by them. That the seemingly most anodyne decorative motifs might nonetheless be impregnated with diagrammatic content of supposedly cosmic significance, such as the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (a favorite of Smith’s) and allusions to materials found in books with titles like An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, sounds like a scenario from the paranoid fantasies of a Don DeLillo character. It also offers an eccentric parallel to the oft-heard demand that the barriers between art and daily life be dissolved.

Today, as the art world becomes increasingly corporatized, artists (and not only Bove) are finding impossible projects like Ziprin’s and Smith’s more appealing than ever. Where the artists go, the curators follow—and why not, since (as with Bove) the boundary between artmaking and curating has become as porous as the boundary between one person’s present and another’s past. This year’s Venice Biennale, for instance—which I haven’t had a chance to see in person—has thrown its net far beyond the official art world to find, as one observer puts it, “esoteric cosmologies…dark fantasies, enigmatic weirdness, monomaniacal tunnel vision, and much else in like vein.” It sounds like Ziprin and Smith would have fit right in, alongside such historical precursors (and merely unofficial artists) as Carl Gustav Jung, Rudolf Steiner and Roger Caillois.

Not everyone is happy about this. I’m as wary as anyone else of art being swept into some sort of Aquarian la-la land, but consider the supposedly hardheaded alternative on offer: “current artistic endeavors that define art as a social sphere of specialized forms of knowledge and dialogues that are themselves the result of historically specific linguistic and formal interventions within a highly developed system of individual and collective reading competences, incessantly shifting on a spectrum ranging from the mnemonic to the critical.” This is the art historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, describing the virtues of the art he thinks was underplayed in the current Biennale. A closed “social sphere” of accredited operators is enough to drive anyone in their right mind to turn on, tune in and drop out of the bureaucratic morass, and start delving into the alternatives. Or better still, like Bove, to search out the uncharted territory where critically sanctioned artistic approaches like minimalism and Conceptualism cross paths with their disinherited Orphic doubles—or at least their memory-traces.

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