Gary Kuehn: a conversation with Mario Pérez

Photo: Andrea Stappert

Gary Kuehn is an artist whose extensive career spans decades since the 60s to the present. His body of work include different media but remains true to his aesthetic ideas while preserving a wide range of visual solutions.  He is very concerned with materials, but he also cares about invisible aspects of his works such as time and literary references.

Here is a conversation that explores some aspects of his way of making art and thinking about it.

 

Footnote: Some questions were combined to favor the fluency of the answers, but they are included to preserve the full meaning of the interview.

 

 

 

Mario Pérez: 1-The titles in some of your works such as “Open Secrets” (1998-2004) and “Sex of Heavenly Bodies” (1995-1997) are content-oriented instead of focusing on the materiality of the objects  themselves, so those titles make an input on the pieces. This fact indicates that the way you name a work is important. What can you tell me about it?

Gary Kuehn: I’ve always said that most of my work lies somewhere between sex and geometry. Open Secrets is a series that considers the book as a container for secrets.  Sex of Heavenly Bodies is titled after an essay by Claude Levi-Strauss and although it admittedly has little connection to do with the essay itself, the title is an invitation to the viewer to get into the work. These titles refer, in an ambiguous way, to the metaphoric potential of sculptural materials and processes.

Open Secrets, 1998
Foam rubber and epoxy
36 x 48 x 5”
Photo: Lea Gryze
Courtesy Galerie Michael Haas, Berlin
Sex of Heavenly Bodies, 1995
Wood, graphite
61 x 56 x 18″

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MP:

2-Some of your pieces remain untitled, which is another way of naming them without being specific. What is it that makes you decide that one work of art must pass from a state of not having a name to one in which they are individualized by their titles?

3-There are also series of works such as “Twist Pieces” (1970-1987) or “Burn Print” (1975-Present) in which the titles refer to the process of making them. What can you tell me about this practice?

4-The titles of your works seem to form different groups: those which indicate the materials they are made of, in others the process of manipulating the materials is the focus of the work.

Questions 2, 3 & 4 combined

GK: The matter of titles has been of interest and sometimes consternation to me throughout my career.  My earliest works are almost all untitled, I tend to work in series, so it became an easy organizing principle to give each work in the series the same title.  I could never remember titles anyway. If a work isn’t part of a series, it is usually untitled.  Most of my series titles are descriptive, the first examples that come to mind are the Branch Pieces, Bolt Pieces, Melt Pieces, Twist Pieces, and Black Paintings.  At certain times, I felt compelled to specifically title a work within any one of the given series such as Veronika (1986) which is from the Pick-Axe Piece series or Lovers which is a Twist Piece.  Within any one of these series I sometimes used poetic or historical references in a title, an example being The Course of Empire (Thinking Thomas Cole and Barnett Newman) (2012).

Twist Piece, 1986 
Steel
55 x 4.75 x 2.75”
Photo: Cindy Hinant
The Course of Empire (Thinking Thomas Cole and Barnett Newman), 2012
Stone, steel
19 x 30 x 26″

 

 

 

Veronika, 1986
Wood, steel
47 x 44 x 22″
Lovers, 1986
Steel
55 x 5 x 3″
Photo: Cindy Hinant

MP: 5-In your sculptures there is a practice that seems to be aiming to conciliate the opposites: bent hard materials, and soft materials, like paper combined with copper or foam rubber with steel. That way of combining them remarks on each material´s own nature. Which criteria do you use to choose them?

GK: In my experience as a construction worker, I became aware of the expressive and metaphoric potential of construction materials. The way materials were stacked on job sites interested me. There would be piles of geometric materials stacked haphazardly, which I saw as a metaphor for the line between order and chaos. Some of my early works force ephemeral objects like branches, twigs and mops into a relationship with geometric figures, often held together with bolts or steel wire. Working with binary opposites, such as solid/liquid, hard/soft, and strong/weak, inevitably creates a tension that is of interest to me for the metaphorical nature of such binary pairings.  Further and much more complicated is the question of binaries that face us in our daily lives as political and social human beings.  In my Copper Piece series (1976-2015) the copper functions as a stencil that absolutely determines the gesture which is robbed of its spontaneity.  In a larger sense I’m interested in the authority and power that we all submit to in our daily encounters.

Copper Piece, 1977
Copper and graphite on paper
36 x 36″
Courtesy Hauelser Contemporary Zurich

MP: 6-Your drawings show both organic and geometric shapes. Does that have anything to do with the way you combine soft and hard materials?

GK: The juxtaposition of hard and soft materials or organic and geometric forms address the same dialectical issues that have interested me since the very beginning of my career.  This is so ingrained in my thinking that it is reasonable to say that it informs my approach to life. If someone proposed that something should exist in a certain form, I would always be quick to ask why it could not be its opposite.  As a student I always had a problem with the idea that something like composition involved a set of sacred principles and that things had to be done according to those accepted principles. As soon as I make an aesthetic decision about a material or a procedure I begin to think of possible alternatives.

Esther, 2002
Ink on paper on canvas
30 x 30”
Courtesy Cindy Hinant

 

MP: 7-In the video titled Gesture Project (2011), there is a series of short sequences in which you repeat patterns of black lines all over a white surface until they are completely filled. Once you finish, we don´t see the final result for a long time, and then the next video begins, so we spend more time watching the process of making the drawings than the drawings by themselves. What kind of processes are you interested in when you make a piece of art? 

GK: The Gesture Project video relates to years of focus on the gesture in its multiple manifestations and afforded me the opportunity to explore the time-based nature of the production of the work.  This is preceded by an earlier version made in Germany in 1970 with Gerry Schum produced by Videogalerie in a project called Identifications.  Both the videos serve in my mind to give viewers an inside view of the Gesture Project (1964-Present) as it has been of ongoing concern to me throughout my career.  I view any given format as a trap in the sense that I insist that the gesture is thwarted at the edge of the chosen drawing space that is, there is no possibility actual or implied that the hand gesture can exist outside of the given picture space.

The Gesture Project and the Copper Pieces are essentially pre-conceived works in which I set the parameters for a series in which once set in motion the works make themselves leaving me the option of either accepting or rejecting them. This seems to characterize the types of material processes that interest me, including the Chalk Line Drawings (1964-1968), the Chance Series (rope drawings) (2001-2012) and more recently the Niagara series (2014-2016). Collectively these processes are of interest to me to the extent that they relieves me of the responsibility of making aesthetic decisions.

Gesture Project, 1973
Felt pen on canvas
46″ diameter 
Courtesy Jochem Hendricks
Gesture Project, 1991
Oil and graphite on panel
19 x 19”
Photo: Cindy Hinant
Courtesy Hauelser Contemporary Zurich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chalk Line Drawing, 1968
Chalk on paper
30 × 45 cm
Courtesy Hauelser Contemporary Zurich

 

MP: 8-Although your art is not figurative, there are some visual solutions that you have repeatedly used during decades which appears to be a kind of abstract iconography. One of them is the solid volumes of hard bent materials, the other one is a kind of sculpture made up of hard materials that seem to be melting down. There is another solution in which you use different industrial devices to press materials until they look compressed. What can you tell me about that?

GK: I am interested in questions of strength and weakness, soft and hard, success and failure, and the psychological implications of binary opposites.  In my Provisional series (1969-70) clamps are used to force aluminum and steel to bend to the will of the stronger material. They imply power struggles related to the human experience. In the fiberglass piece Practitioner’s Delight (1966), the cut in the rectangular prism element allows a portion of its dimensional integrity to flow out and solidify and freeze at a given moment.  The physical action evident in Practitioner’s Delight is a disruption to the geometric element by externally inflicted violence, altering its form and thereby pushing it towards an iconography that’s vaguely figurative.

Another example is the Twist Pieces that have two pieces of one-inch steel, one square and the other round that are placed next to each other.  They are made by heating the steel and twisting the two elements together to form a permanent unity of round and square, indicating a power struggle that ends in a draw and strongly suggests interpersonal conflicts.

Practitioner’s Delight, 1966
Steel, fiberglass, enamel
30,5 x 106,7 x 89 cm / 12 x 42 x 35”
Photo: Axel Schneider
Courtesy MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main
Former Rolf Ricke collection at Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main
Provisional, 1969
Steel, stainless steel, and clamps
45.5 x 59.6 x 50 “
Installation view Kunstmuseuem Liechenstein, Vaduz
Photo: Cindy Hinant, New York

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MP: 9-During an interview for the exhibition “Practitioner´s Delight” at GAMeC (Galleria d´Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo, you said that you are interested in the casting processes and the ways the materials behave as metaphors of sculpture. Is yours an art about art itself?

GK: I’ve always been fascinated by the connections I observed in the handling of materials and the processes that relate to them as analogies for human experience involving such things as power struggles, failure of confidence, shame, and guilt.  I’m interested in the metaphoric potential of materials, and I’ve always found a connection between construction processes and materials and my personal life.

 

MP: 10-How interested are you in referencing art history in your work?

GK: The history of art has always been of interest to me. In fact I began my university academic work with a focus on Art History. From there it was a reasonable transition from the study of art to the practice of art and once it became clear that I had aspirations as an artist, those far exceeded my interest in becoming an art historian. What seems to have made the transition from art history to the practice of art was my attraction to the idea that the visual arts had the potential to outdistance the verbal as a mode of communication. The visual prompts the viewer into a realm which is often more speculative, broader and deeper in its capacity to offer an unlimited focus on any given human concern. I am interested in art history in a general way and find inspiration across centuries without being interested in or referencing it specifically. I can only think of two examples in which historical works are referenced, those being Thomas Cole’s painting Course of Empire (1833-1836) and Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk (1963-1967).    

Empire, 1985
Wood, steel
149,9 x 61 x 119,4 cm / 59 x 27 x 33″
Private Collection, Berlin

 

MP: 11-What is the role of risk in your works?

GK: I’m interested in the brinkmanship involved in which the way I proceed is to set up a situation, where the elements are assembled and I just go about the process, like inventing a game. The Niagara pieces (2014-2016) are a good example. I set up the situation and the work makes itself.  I’m not in control of the final product and in the end my only recourse is to either accept or reject the results.

Niagara, 2014
Graphite and acrylic/latex on canvas
36 x 24″
Photo: Cindy Hinant
Provisional, 1969
Steel, stainless steel, and clamps
45.5 × 59.6 × 50 cm
Photo: Cindy Hinant
Courtesy Galerie Michael Haas Berlin

 

MP: 12-What do your assistants do for you when they help you make a work of art?

GK: I’ve always preferred to work alone because for me thinking and working take place simultaneously.  I believe in the sanctity of the studio where all work mental and physical takes place in a mutually inspired interaction. Most of my work is made without assistance though on occasion I have had help when weight and scale were beyond my physical capabilities and on a rare occasion I will have an element constructed by a fabricator.

 

MP: 13-What is the role of color in your pieces?

GK: I haven’t much need for color in my work.  In the 60s and 70s I used color to indicate that one element in a sculpture was delineated from another though there was no particular significance to the colors chosen.  In fact, the colors almost always came from the Benjamin Moore palette of gloss enamels. Early on I didn’t have enough money to buy a wide variety of colors which is why The Mattress Dream Piece (1965) along with a number of other sculptures are all painted the same color yellow.

Mattress Dream Piece, 1965
Wood, mattress, steel, and enamel
120 × 119.5 × 61 cm
Collectition Neues Museum, Staatliches Museum für Kunst und Design in Nürnberg
Acquired by the museum initiative Freunde und Förderer des Neuen Museums e.V. in 1999

 

I’m uneasy about the implications associated with chosen color and became interested in the authority of found color.  The sculpture Stillness of Broken Men (1989) is made from found automobile hoods that had been factory painted in a variety of colors. I chose to use found automobile scrap metal as a way of avoiding the psychological implications of personally chosen colors. Another work where found color is of significance is Empire (1985) which is made with found multicolored mop handles.

 

Stillness of Broken Men, 1989
Wood, steel
100,3 x 264,2 x 96,5 cm / 39½ x 104 x 38″

 

The Black Paintings (1969-present) are painted black in order to avoid references that any arbitrarily chosen color would inevitably imply (playful, tasteful, erotic, or otherwise). Black to my way of thinking is a statement of everything and nothing simultaneously.

Black Painting, 1972
Oil on canvas
5 parts, each: 69.5 × 30.5 × 4.8 cm
Photo: Cindy Hinant
Private Collection, Cologne
Black Painting, 2016
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 24”
Photo: Cindy Hinant
Courtesy Haeusler Contemporary Zurich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MP:

14-How important is precision in your work?

15-How important is rawness in your work?

20-Virtuosity does not seem to be one of the most important characteristics in your works. Instead of that, rawness is more visible in your pieces. Please tell me more about it.

Questions 14, 15 & 20 (Combined) 

GK: Precision serves no purpose in my work, I’m drawn more to the messiness of life and the process and materials of the physical world. I’m partial to the idea that there is a battle, struggle and conflict that needs resolution and I usually approach a new project with this mindset. Mostly it’s a matter of trial and error with the expectation that there will be complications along the way as I search for solutions to the issues that I’ve in each case been drawn to. I see no reason to hide the process involved in bringing a particular work to conclusion; in fact, I am strongly attached to the complications and invested personally in their resolution.

 

MP: 16-What can you tell me about your method?

GK: I think it’s important for any artist to have a working method or method of inquiry that relates to the current cultural moment.  I became interested early on in the idea of juxtaposing themes from everyday life and forcing them into a relationship with ideas about art.  I played these two sides against each other without favoring one or the other and it seemed to be a big enough subject- the play between the idea of art, with respect for history on the one side, and the vitality of everyday life and culture on the other.  Much of my work came from this working method. It was both personal and had an anchor in history.  I had to find a semblance of rationality and control and insisted on art grounded in my own content which also involved finding a new unburdened way to proceed.  I didn’t want my personal biography upfront and in the viewer’s face, so I always couched the work in terms that allows for (in the absence of wild speculation) rational dialectical interpretation. In the end method is everything.

MP: 17 – How does the context influence your work? For example: political, economic or social situations, surrounding space where your work is made or exhibited, etc.

GK: In the broadest sense my lifelong interest in exploring issues of strength and weakness, pride and shame, success and failure, as explored through the use of materials and processes is a timeless and enduring way to explore social, political, and personal issues of concern to me and it is my wish to explore them for subsequent generations.

My upbringing was working class American coming out of the second World War in which the atmosphere was one of relief and optimism as earlier years were characterized by anxiety and material deprivation. My father was a machinist by trade with a strong inclination to investigate issues of class, both social and political. This served to make my family environment one of unusual political activism. My background and elements of this mindset can be found throughout my life’s work.

 

MP: 18-There was an accident that you witnessed when you were a worker in a building site. Is there another circumstance which has influenced the way you think about art and the way you make your pieces?

GK: As a young artist I chose to explore in a general way the expressive potential of basic materials and related processes as a way to do away with what I considered in the early 60s to be an obsessive reliance on subjectivity. I wanted my work to offer an alternative to abstract expressionism. I had been working in this direction when in the course of earning a living as a heavy construction worker I witnessed the construction accident that brought into focus in a dramatic way what I was already exploring in the studio on a small scale. The accident occurred when an unusually large concrete pour exceeded the strength of the wooden form, which had been built to define the form of a massive retaining wall. The concrete pour was to be monolithic. A long line of concrete mixer trucks queued up to deposit the concrete into the wooden structure in a massive continuous pour. The volume of concrete strained the wooden structure to the breaking point, and it broke through at the base and tons of concrete poured out of the form and streamed down a gentle hillside in the manner of what I imagined to replicate a volcanic lava flow, without of course the heat. I always viewed my experiences as a construction worker as an inspiration and learning experience for my work as an artist. The construction accident being the most dramatic.

There were many observations about the behavior of materials and the way an architectural structure comes into being that were to influence my earliest efforts. Thinking of the early years when I first felt drawn to the idea of being an artist I have been thankful for many reasons that the impulse was grounded in my experience as a construction worker.  Being confronted on a daily basis with the nuts and bolts, so to speak of witnessing the grandeur of a large-scale industrial projects pulls one’s attention in multiple directions. The construction accident was in fact a dramatic negative event that was for me an inspiration for many of the early sculptures.  I saw the accident as a metaphor for notions of weakness that extended beyond the event and continued into issues of a social and political dimension. More specifically, I was thinking about human issues of weakness, shame, and failure that were embodied in the simple construction accident.

 

MP: 19-Which characteristics of figurative art can be found in your works?

GK: While I have great respect for the figurative tradition, my focus as an artist lay in issues beyond the representational as they relate to human, aesthetic, and narrative concerns. My brief attempts to explore figuration in the 1980s were an attempt to broaden my focus and make work that was more personal and timely. I found figuration too specific and limiting in its implications, preferring instead an abstract way of working that allowed for a more general and open-ended focus on more universal notions about human conflict in its myriad complications. This accounts for my lifelong interest in literature and philosophy.