Steve Roden: when words become forms
Steve Roden, bowrain, 2010
Large scale installation, wood, wire, twine, sound composition, 6 audio speakers, 3 cd players, 3 stereo amplifiers, ink on 16mm film stock transferred to video, 3 DVD players, 3 video projectors
Photography by Robert Wedemeyer
Steve Roden, who lives and works in Pasadena, California, has been creating paintings, drawings, sculpture, film, and sound works for nearly two decades. He has created an unusually distinctive body of work that is marked not only by an originality of vision, but also by a resolute independence. Roden’s reputation as a visual artist has grown steadily over the last decade, and his reputation as a sound artist is stellar. So it is surprising that an artist of his magnitude and seriousness, who is capable of such beautifully eccentric work, is still working humbly below the radar.
In part to address this oversight and to accord his work the attention it deserves, the Pomona College Museum of Art is pleased to present Roden’s most ambitious work to date. One can trace the origins of this current project back to his exhibition in 2003, Project Series 17: Steve Roden the another silent green world. For this highly acclaimed exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art, Roden presented new work—including paintings, photographs, sculptures, and a site-specific audio piece—that used conceptual and intuitive frameworks to translate obscure systems of literary reference into visual designs.
Then, in early 2007, Roden visited the Pomona College Museum of Art to view the exhibition hunches, geometrics, organics: paintings by Frederick Hammersley. I learned how much Roden admired Hammersley, and was able to connect the two for a brief but memorable telephone conversation. Later in 2007, Roden accompanied me on a visit to Pomona College’s newly inaugurated James Turrell Skyspace, Dividing the Light. Roden completed an audio piece in Seattle for the Henry Art Gallery’s Skyspace by Turrell in 2006, and he was eager to see another one. We began to talk about working together again; over the next year, our plans solidified. I knew the Museum lacked the space to host the survey exhibition his work deserved. I also was aware that Roden had begun fabricating large-scale, site-specific installations that merged sculpture and sound with architecture.
I invited Roden to continue his explorations in expanding the dialogue between sculpture and architecture at Pomona. The result, Steve Roden: when words become forms, represents a significant shift in his practice since his last project at Pomona. Instead of presenting a diverse body of work from various sources, when words become forms reflects Roden’s current interest in creating large architectural environments derived from or inspired by a single source, which creates a deeper relationship between objects in different mediums.
The title of the exhibition references Roden’s long-term interests in translation and chance. For his “translations,” Roden literally fractures words and images into pieces and transforms them from the letters on the printed page into “scores” that direct certain actions towards the making of the work. Instead of simply recreating source material, he aims to explore it more fully, often going beyond its intended meanings.
Roden is also interested in illegibility, and with this new project he returned to an image that has intrigued him for several years. The title of the installation, bowrain, is an anagram of the word “rainbow.” bowrain was inspired by a small notational drawing made by Buckminster Fuller in the early 1950s. Roden found the drawing in the book Buckminster Fuller: Your Private Sky, and immediately noticed that it was the only caption-less image. The Fuller drawing indicated a kit, with listings for six numbers, six units, and six colors (the colors of the rainbow), for a structure of some kind.
Roden essentially used Fuller’s unusual drawing as a road map or a score to determine the components of the structure. For example, Roden took the six colors in Fuller’s drawing and transposed them to six different kinds of wood, the varying lengths of which were also determined by Fuller’s colors. Roden collaborated with Museum preparator Gary Murphy on choosing the wood, and Murphy fabricated the units of wood to the specifications he and Roden generated from Fuller’s notes. To build the work, the six variables of wood type and length were noted upon six small slips of paper, which were then drawn randomly from an empty can until all 490 pieces of wood had been placed. While Roden determined the type of units and their order by chance, he built the installation intuitively, making architectural, sculptural, and aesthetic decisions in negotiation with Fuller’s drawing. The units and colors in three films projected on the sculpture also take their cues from Fuller’s drawing. In addition, an audio work was created for the installation using six found ceramic bowls—each a color of Fuller’s rainbow—to generate sounds and tones.
In addition to bowrain, the exhibition contains a series of new paintings that are inspired by an equally unusual source: a group of postcards that Frederick Hammersley gave to me in 2003. When Roden saw these postcards, they immediately intrigued him as objects collected by an artist whom he admired who also happened to be a fellow collector. The postcards became the focal point of a collaboration between Roden and Holte in which each created a new body of work: Roden produced the smallest paintings he has ever made and Michael Ned Holte wrote a series of prose poems.
This exhibition and catalog reflect the collaborative nature of Roden’s work. His willingness to engage with other artists, writers, musicians, fabricators, and designers allows his work to enter a realm where the unexpected and unknown not only happen, but lead to unforeseen beauty and visionary possibilities. Very few artists, past or present, are willing to take the risks Roden does and to push their practices into challenging, often uncomfortable, terrain. Perhaps this openness, and yes, humbleness, in Roden’s work is why his profoundly engaging and creative practice resides contentedly in a world of its own.
Supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts' program, Challenge America: Reaching Every Community
Related Links and Reviews
Steve Roden Interview
Steve Roden, bowrain, 2010
Large scale installation, wood, wire, twine, sound composition, 6 audio speakers, 3 cd players, 3 stereo amplifiers, ink on 16mm film stock transferred to video, 3 DVD players, 3 video projectors
Photography by Robert Wedemeyer
A Starting Point (or Two): Steve Roden and Michael Ned Holte in Conversation
I interviewed Steve Roden twice as he embarked on creating bowrain—a sculptural installation incorporating video and sound that is his largest work to date. While his working process might seem mysterious or idiosyncratic, in our conversation Steve was typically modest, open-minded, and just as curious about the work’s development as a perceptive viewer might be. What follows are excerpts from our conversations. --Michael Ned Holte
June 8, 2010
MICHAEL NED HOLTE: You recently said that Bowrain, your installation for the Pomona College Museum of Art, is the least complex work you’ve made conceptually, yet the most complex visually. What exactly does that mean?
STEVE RODEN: The initial idea for this piece was to try to use the chapter about “white” in Moby Dick as a score towards generating a sculpture reflective of the scale of a whale skeleton that I saw hanging from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum in Bergen, Norway. I was also interested in relating those two sources to a small drawing by Buckminster Fuller. In the end, the Moby Dick text turned out to not feel right, and the skeleton felt too pre-determined. So I was standing in a room holding one piece of paper, the Fuller drawing, wondering what it could generate. Instead of allowing a number of different things generate one work, I am using one thing to generate at least four things: sculpture, drawing, film/video, and sound. The process is like tying disparate things together with string—connecting histories, objects, people, or places that normally wouldn’t be connected.
The system or score I’m using is still a bit complex, but there's no real transformation of something from one medium to another, which is something I also usually do. Here, I’m using an interpretation of a drawing and a list to build something spatial—which is essentially what Fuller made the original drawing for in the first place. It feels simpler by not having that conceptual disconnect. It is simpler.
MNH: Text is often a starting point for you, and you use it as a score to produce a work, whether a painting or a sound installation. But in this case the act of translation is much closer in some sense, because you're going from Buckminster Fuller's kit of parts to your own kit of parts.
SR: Yes, it’s like the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but rather than taking straw and spinning it into gold, I’m taking straw and spinning it into straw. That makes it quite a simple place to start. I am generally not too interested in thinking through everything before starting the actual process of making a work. The Fuller drawing is an ignition switch. I’m interested in how it can influence the learning and conceptualizing that will emerge through the making of this work.
MNH: As opposed to Sol LeWitt’s definition of conceptual art, where the “idea becomes the machine that makes the art” and “all decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair,” my sense of Bowrain is that it's not a perfunctory affair—which is true of most of your work. There's a system, but the outcome is not necessarily governed by it in a transparent way. If a painting is a translation of a text, one couldn’t necessarily go up to that painting and retranslate it back into that text.
To what extent do you think it's important that viewers know what the system is, or that they participate in it?
SR: It's a difficult question, but my answer is very simple: the viewer should not need to know the system at all. The work is not about decoding. It's more about privately acknowledging a history than situating myself. I don’t want to use the overbearing weight of the source to give my own work weight. Even with using the Fuller drawing, I don’t want to put Fuller out there as the main focal point. If people have to go through Fuller to get to me, then I'm exploiting the cultural value of Fuller, and my work doesn’t have to perform on its own as a visual, audio, or time-based experience. That's a dead end for me.
I want the pieces to be able to perform on their own. In a way, the process of making meaning for the viewer is connected to the process of me making the thing, because I'm building meaning for myself during the process of making it.
If the notion of translation is present on the surface, I think it suggests a one-dimensional way of dealing with the object. I think people should be able to have their own experience with the thing they're confronted with through inspecting and listening. I'm not leading them through it; I'm not handing them a roadmap towards a clear destination. This is very different from most of our experiences with culture at this point; often we’re handed something, and we know what we're supposed to do with it, or we're watching something and we know when we're supposed to laugh and why.
MNH: Whether or not one thinks about Fuller when looking at Bowrain, I do think there is a curious relationship between what you're doing in the gallery and Fuller's own kit of parts. I think it's important to remember that he was an engineer first and foremost, and you're not. Yet for all of his interest in efficiency, which is one of the things that engineers tend to be most interested in, the kinds of spaces that Fuller’s architecture produced were very unusual. For example, there wasn’t a lot of furniture available that readily fit into a geodesic dome. So in some ways Fuller’s logic produced very illogical results.
Even if you're winging it as you build your sculpture, you're generating a structure that eventually produces its own logic. You might close down a space by putting too many parts into it, which then prevents you from using a ladder in that space to build higher. That structures your decision-making. I think there's a funny, inverse relationship with Fuller in that way.
SR: I think you could probably look at the funkiness of what I'm making as being contradictory in a lot of ways. But I'm not interested in an antagonistic relationship to Fuller’s work at all. I tend to do these things with the hope of a conversation with the source. Because he was an engineer, I think fabrication was the least important part. The conceptual thinking and the plan of the finished design were the main things.
For me, it's really the opposite. I'm much more interested in wandering within the process of building or drawing. The most important aspect is the time spent making it. Because I have no drawing of the end result in advance, all of my knowledge comes from the “during” part, rather than the “before” part. I will obviously be surprised at the “after” part.
MNH: It seems important that the Fuller schematic that you’re responding to is a kit of parts, rather than a finished work of architecture.
SR: I think that was the most exciting aspect of the drawing. The photo of it in the book [where I found it] doesn’t have a caption. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it's an instruction list for constructing something. It seems so fitting as a starting point.
MNH: It's pure potential.
SR: Yeah. I've always been interested in working with something that seems limited. What else can I mine from this information? What else is this telling me to do that it didn’t intend to tell me to do?
MNH: Obviously, it’s a very different than if you would have continued to work from Melville.
SR: The thing that sent me to Melville was seeing the whale skeleton; the scale and form of it was really interesting. But when I went back to the Melville text I didn’t see these two things coming together. Moby Dick is a beautiful text, but the “white” chapter is so charged that it would be disrespectful to ignore that aspect. So, it didn’t feel right. Later, I pulled out the Fuller drawing as a way to generate the whale skeleton. But by the time we started building Bowrain, the whale skeleton had left my mind as well.
MNH: This piece started with the question of scale—in part because you were given a specific exhibition space.
SR: Rebecca McGrew initially asked me about rebuilding when stars become words (2007), the pieces that I did in Porto Alegre. That work came about because Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, the curator for the show in Brazil, had asked me to recreate ear(th) (2004), a piece I did at Art Center. I figure I'm not going to get a lot of opportunities to work at that scale, so each time I chose to do a new piece.
This is really the first big piece I’m building incrementally, so that it's completely connected to the scale of the space. It's quite different.
MNH: With bowrain, as well as ear(th) and when stars become words, there's an immediate relationship to the scale of the body—a mobile body.
SR: At the beginning of the previous two pieces, I was clear about what I wanted to get out of them as spaces. I wanted things you could walk inside of and hear sound, which would be perceived differently when you were outside of them. Bowrain is less an architecture than a fence, trellis, or lattice. It's a space. It’s evocative of space, but it doesn’t really contain space in the same way that my earlier pieces did. It's more a sculptural work than an architectural work, but it hovers between the two. Obviously a lot of architecture in the past 100 years has done that.
MNH: Buckminster Fuller included.
SR: Of course.
MNH: When I first encountered your work nearly a decade ago, it seemed so small, tentative, and unassertive in a certain way. What's exciting for me about seeing this big installation is that the scale is assertive and commanding.
SR: When I got out of grad school in 1989 the prevalent painting was mostly large scale. A lot of paintings were macho, full of bravura, like Julian Schnabel and his broken plate paintings. I've never felt that ambition equals scale. Early on, I responded to work by people like Arthur Dove and Albert Pinkham Ryder, or Richard Tuttle and the inkblot drawings of Bruce Conner. Everything I was responding to was contained, intimate, and quiet. It spoke in a humble voice. That's where I wanted to be.
My practice was just painting then, and I was making paintings that were mostly twelve inches square or smaller. After ten years of small paintings, I felt that changing scale would push me out of my comfort zone. I didn’t want to be known as “the guy who makes small paintings.” There's something exciting about what happens when the work grows in scale, yet still maintains that quiet voice. A lot of people would probably think I'm kind of nuts to think a painting with eighty colors is quiet, but that intimacy is something that I try to maintain even when the work grows.
Scale shifts are great because they throw me off. It's ironic that bowrain is the largest piece I've ever made and the paintings that will accompany it in the adjacent gallery are the smallest paintings I’ve made in about twenty years. They're kicking my butt way more than the sculpture is.
MNH: You seem most comfortable when you're out of your comfort zone.
SR: I think struggle is a really important part of the thought process for me. The ability to fail is super important—not only knowing that it's okay to fail but the notion that failure is a real possibility. I have a hard time with risk when talking about making work in a studio because actual risk is when you're walking around naked in public and you get hit by a bus! The studio is a relatively safe place.
But I like not having a sense of how to resolve something. It's hard to work yourself into this situation, but I think it's important because it allows for things to resolve less consistently. You pull the rug out from under yourself so you're not always finishing works the same way. The sense of balance isn't always the same.
MNH: This is kind of a cliché, but I think it's true that almost anything good comes out of a struggle. In art the struggle is not always legible—or even an intrinsic part of the work. I think a lot of artists want to cover their tracks, and I can’t blame them. I try to do the same when I wrestle with a piece of writing. But I do think you somehow maintain that struggle as a significant aspect of the work.
SR: Honesty is a really important part of making work for me. If you make mistakes, or bad decisions, or whatever you want to call them, they should participate rather than getting covered up. When I was a little kid I drove my mom crazy because I'd never erase stuff; I just scribbled it out. It's a perfect model for what I'm still doing. Why would I erase it? It was part of the process. It’s important to acknowledge those moments as well.
I don’t know the end at the beginning. I generally don’t even know what I want. There are times when I make things I'm really pleased with because they don’t conform to my taste or to the thing I thought I wanted to make. If the work is honest, then it’s not about technique or ability. It’s about what gets learned through the process of making, which is such a basic thing but it’s at the core of my practice.
June 22, 2010
MNH: When I was here two weeks ago, you mentioned that the process of building Bowrain called to mind several childhood memories, including you and a friend creating “make-up” models by combining parts from various kits, and an episode of Gumby featuring the Groobee—a bee that inexplicably built wooden cages around animals. Can you talk about what’s happened in the past two weeks?
SR: Yes. The wood structure was half done the last time you were there. It felt fairly skeletal at that point. The scale felt right for the space, but the structure started to seem almost prop-like. It didn’t have enough physical presence. I wanted a kind of unresolved feeling. You can’t walk around the entire thing, like a sculpture. There are places that are inaccessible. And for it to really be architecture, you have to crawl inside some areas so you can be contained by it, because it’s quite open.
We decided to cluster the wood in certain areas, and leave certain areas more frame-like. I am still deciding how the colored string can weave sections of the structure together, and how the video will project through it.
MNH: When we spoke earlier, you noted that the form of the wooden structure had started to remind you of the Philips Pavilion (1958), designed by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenaxis. That’s a funny reference to combine with Gumby—and obviously you’re miles away from Moby Dick!
SR: On one hand, the form of the wood structure is indicative of just using sticks and making triangles, but on the other hand the Philips Pavilion is such a clear precedent for what I'm doing.
MNH: My sense of the Philips Pavilion, which no longer exists, is of a hierarchy of architecture over sound and image. I can see certain formal relationships to the Philips Pavilion, but you’re bringing together those three elements—architectonics, sound, projected image—without that hierarchy.
SR: When I first started to work with sound, there was no physical presence at all. I mean, there were speakers and gear, but there was no sculptural presence. My first film works were silent, and I was always leery of hierarchy. If I had sound next to a sculpture, the sound would have the tendency to become a soundtrack for the static object, you know?
This piece is the largest example of trying to integrate these three idioms in a way where they all have a presence. They’re not supporting each other; they’re conversing with each other. At times they’re pulling away from each other, as much as they’re integrating. They don’t express anything about each other, but they’re all birthed from the same sketch as the sculpture.
MNH: The elements seem like they’re going to change each other.
SR: They do change each other. Because we’re lighting the entire piece with video, and the light is always moving, it’s clearly changing the perception of space with the sculpture. And I think the sound is going to be somewhat slow, melancholic, and episodic. So the speeds of movement within the piece will be different. I think all of those elements will come into play equally. The structure appears to have the largest presence, though maybe the video will take up more square footage when all the projections are up. The sound will be the smallest, but it’ll also be very present.
MNH: With each of the large-scaled works that you’ve done, including the reworking of Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts (1959) at LACE in 2008, it seems like collaboration has been a fairly important aspect. At first that seems like a contradiction, because your working process is seemingly so idiosyncratic. But from my experience working with you, you’re a very thoughtful and enabling collaborator. So, what does collaboration enable in your own practice?
SR: To bring something into my practice, I always need to have a reason. When I got out of grad school, I only painted. I didn’t work on drawings until I found some justification for making them, which was a question of what they offered me that painting didn’t. Slowly, I added sound, then sculpture, then film, and then writing to my practice. Collaboration is the same.
MNH: Are you differentiating between collaboration and working with fabricators?
SR: In my studio, I have no interest in collaboration. I’ve never had an assistant. If I’m going to collaborate, I don’t want to just bring someone in as a technical person to help realize my vision. It’s clear from this project that I don’t necessarily have a vision at the beginning. You know, I set up a situation.
With the ear(th) piece I did at Art Center, I physically couldn’t make the thing. I designed it with help from Julian Goldwhite and John O'Brien, and the entire project was initiated and guided by Stephen Nowlin. If I had made that thing by myself, it would’ve fallen apart immediately, and someone would’ve gotten hurt. Probably me. I was there while they were building, and I continually told them not to do things perfectly. I would have to say, “No, leave the bent nail. Don’t worry about that extra drill hole. Mistakes have to be part of this.” I was nervous that it would not feel like my work. But over time it did. They weren’t totally free to shift the thing, but they were making decisions and suggestions. When questions arose my answer generally would be, “If that’s the way you want to solve that, go ahead,” as opposed to, “No, I need this particular size finishing nail.”
When I did the piece in Brazil, I worked with the architect Rafael Silva, who helped translate my wonky cardboard model into into architectural plans using a CAD program. The guys that built it normally build sets for theater, so it had this great temporary feel to it. When I got there it was half done, and mostly through conversation I got them to weave a bit of imperfection into it, so it still felt human. Fabrication tends to be a question of hiring the people with the best skills, and they make the thing that you can’t make. But that’s not collaboration. That’s a car mechanic or a great porcelain maker. Those two projects were tentative first steps towards collaboration.
MNH: It was fun to see you put in charge of reconstructing Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts, because from the outset it seemed like a great fit for your sensibilities, but also a real stretch in terms of the number of personalities involved.
SR: I was sort of the director by default. Reading Kaprow’s writings, it became clear that this was not a performance that should be based on one person’s vision. Honestly, I think there would have been no way for us to have pulled it off if we hadn’t completely given the thing over to everyone. After initial discussions with Carol [Stakenas, LACE director], I brought Rae [Shao-Lan Blum, choreographer] and you in, and the three of us constructed the main basis of the piece. Then we brought in Simone Forti, which was another level of collaboration, with someone who was part of that history, and then Flora [Wiegmann] and Steve [Irvin], who brought other experiences into the conversation. The piece evolved when all of us were together having rehearsals—not through repetition, but through our conversations. One thing Kaprow wrote about that I found so true was the idea that collaboration can have more value for the participants than for the audience.
MNH: You’ve mentioned that you think of Bowrain as a collaboration with Gary Murphy, the preparator at the Pomona College Museum of Art.
SR: Generally, I show up with my stuff, and the preparator helps me hang it. Gary and I went to look at lumber, and he said, “Well, if you want to use six different kinds of wood, I should mill it.” So when I arrived at the space to begin, he’d already done a lot more work than I had. I felt like he made me a cool toy and I was going to play with it, but I was very timid about screwing up the stuff he made. And initially, he was timid about injecting any direction toward how we put this thing together because I was the “artist.” So we just grabbed two pieces of wood and wired them together to get started. We talked a bit about whether to use stronger or softer wire, and then without much talking, we just started to mold this thing together.
Gary and I had an equal voice in the decisions. So, I think there’s no doubt that that structure is both of ours. If I had built this piece with someone else, it would have looked totally different. It’s an idea exchange, which is what I want.
MNH: You’ve empowered the facilitator.
SR: As you know from the Kaprow situation, I don’t like to tell people what to do. I want to be surrounded by people I trust and have us build something together. Even though there’s a level of scoring or notation, and gathering the materials can be cerebral, my process is still completely intuitive and very organic at its core. I’m not seeking a final form that’s predetermined, ever. So, when you’re doing that with someone else, there are even more variables, and greater potential to be surprised.
MNH: This leads us to the postcards project, which is a three-way collaboration with Frederick Hammersley and with me.
SR: It’s funny, because the idea of a “posthumous” collaboration with Hammersley, or with postcards he left behind, is not inconsistent with my practice. I’ve made work related to other artists’ work many times. But I haven’t made work from images in over twenty years. We know Hammersley gathered these postcards when he was in Europe during WWII. But there’s no sense of them being sources for his paintings, or even things that inspired him in the studio. There’s no immediate sense of their importance in his life.
MNH: They’re very impersonal, or if they are personal it’s coded in a way that we probably can’t figure out.
SR: I view Hammersley—who was an abstract painter from Southern California—as an incredibly important precedent for my own abstract paintings. But I don’t look at these postcards with the burden of that history. I look at them and wonder, “How the hell am I going to make a painting using an image of a church?” So I’m collaborating with someone in a totally different way, allowing him to push me into new territory.
And, of course, I’m also collaborating with you, and in a way we’re making two works that may or may not be understood as one work. But as with Bowrain, both elements of our collaboration are birthed from the same source. I find that incredibly interesting.
MNH: Beyond our initial conversation about which postcards we wanted to work with, and our recent conversations about where my texts are heading and where your paintings are going, you and I haven’t really been aware of what the other is doing. So there is a strange sense of collaboration with blindfolds on.
SR: Picking the postcards together was enormously collaborative; we both responded to certain things instantly, but we are now negotiating them separately. Even though we’re not collaborating on the process of making work per se, the works will be integrated in the book. Because we’re working from the same source, it’s like we’ve been given the same map. We’re going to end up in different places, but maybe we’ll be able to see each other across the river.
MNH: I was really excited when I first saw the postcards because nothing was written on them, which opened the space for me to provide texts for them. A postcard sent in the mail is entirely different than a postcard that’s left blank. That sense of potential was exciting—and somewhat daunting—from the outset.
SR: It’s like you’re finally sending these postcards. I found a kind of freedom in the fact that they don’t have fingerprints, or paint stains, or any other reference to what Hammersley might have used them for. If he was anything like I am, he gathered a lot of stuff that he was planning to use but never did. Maybe this is a way of finally utilizing these things that he never got around to. It’s wonderful to feel some connection to that.
Michael Ned Holte is a writer and independent curator based in Los Angeles. He contributes regularly to Artforum International and his writing has also appeared in periodicals such as Afterall, Domus, Frieze, Interview, Pin-Up, and X-TRA. He has written essays for numerous monographs and exhibition catalogs including Roy McMakin: When is a Chair Not a Chair (Skira/Rizzoli); Ricky Swallow: The Bricoleur (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia); and Katie Grinnan: Rubble Division (Pomona College Museum of Art). He recently organized the exhibition Support Group for Thomas Solomon Gallery @ Cottage Home, Los Angeles.
Steve Roden on Hammersley
Steve Roden, pergola, 2010
Acrylic and oil on linen, 3.75” x 5.5
In addition to bowrain, Steve Roden's exhibition contains a series of new paintings that are inspired by an unusual source: a group of postcards that Frederick Hammersley gave to Curator Rebecca McGrew in 2003. Here is an explanation of the collaboration written by Steve Roden.
In the spring of 2007, after seeing Frederick Hammersley’s exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art, I decided to send him a fan letter. I’d never done such a thing, but I had always felt a deep connection to his paintings, particularly his small-scaled “organics.” While I’d known Hammersley’s abstract paintings for years, I was floored by a series of drawings in the exhibition that were made in the late 1960s using a computer. I had always felt that we shared a similar sense of color, but these 1969 experiments suggested a potential shared interest in systems and process as well. Since he was already in his mid-eighties, I figured it might be my last shot at having some contact. So I sent him a letter, along with a recent catalog of my work.
Three or four months after I sent the letter, my phone rang. When I answered, a voice on the other end simply said, “Roden? This is Hammersley...” Over the next ten minutes, words spewed from the phone like a train running downhill with a full head of steam. There were no awkward pauses. In fact, I’m not even sure he took a breath between sentences, and I don’t believe I said a word other than that first “hello.” As he was talking, I tried to jot down everything he was saying, although I couldn’t come close to writing as fast as he was speaking. I think because I had sent him a catalog of my work, he felt the need to tell me what he thought of my paintings. And he didn’t mince words.
He told me my work was too contemporary, and that I needed to see as many of the “old master works” as I possibly could. He said there were seven tools that make up every picture (although he never mentioned what those seven tools were). He spoke about scale, in particular how the image in a painting of mine called pneumatic forms was floating and wasn’t connected to the form of the canvas or its scale. He noted the vertical clarity of Velázquez and the composition of a cross. He also brought up Degas and Bonnard (the latter I suspect in relation to color, but I don’t really remember). He mentioned that the strings in my sculptural works were too loose, and that things should be straight and taut “like you mean it.” He said that the most productive time of the day was a nap, and that “we feel that we have been thinking and can resolve much during a nap, but in reality it is just our mind rummaging” through a kind of archive. (I can’t remember if he called it a file cabinet or something else; but I do remember he referred to this archive as “her” or “she.”) He then told me he was tired and would have to go, and hung up the phone.
A few months before I got the call, Rebecca [McGrew] showed me a small stack of postcards that were a gift from Hammersley when she and Kathleen [Howe] were working with him on the 2007 exhibition. After I saw the postcards, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Part of my interest was that these images might have been a source of inspiration for an artist I greatly admired. But I have also been a voracious collector of old printed things for much of my life, so I was interested in these images as simply being something that Hammersley had gathered—regardless of whether they ever became the basis for any of his work—because I knew he responded to their visual presence. The postcards connected him in my mind to other artist collectors whom I admire, such as Walker Evans, whose obsessive collecting of postcards generated interior conversations within his own work, and Joseph Cornell, who gathered old printed things and physically inserted them into his work.
After Hammersley passed away in 2009, Rebecca and I started talking about my creating a sound and sculptural installation for the museum. When we began to talk about the second gallery, I didn’t have to think twice before asking if I could borrow the postcards and use them to generate a small body of work. In many ways, I felt it would allow me to continue conversing with Hammersley, and I was pretty sure that, based on his phone call, my looking at these highly composed images would somehow influence not just what I might make, but also how I might make it. I should also mention that I have not made paintings while looking at, or being inspired by, photographic or realistic imagery since 1984—when I was in undergraduate school.
Hammersley had also given Kathleen some postcards, and the entire lot was made available to me. After discussing with Michael [Ned Holte] how I planned to use the postcards to generate a series of postcard-sized paintings, we spoke about a possible collaboration, with Michael using the images to generate a series of postcard-sized texts. We then went through all of the postcards together, and selected a group of twenty to converse with. Since then, each of us has followed our own path, stopping on occasion to marvel and ruminate upon the stepping stones that Hammersley had unknowingly placed beneath our feet.