Bruce Beasley

Oakland Museum, July 17, 2005

Beasley’s “Untitled”

I had a chance to see one of my sculpture heroes the other day, as Bruce Beasley gave a talk about his life and work in conjunction with a major retrospective exhibition at the Oakland Museum. His talk was low-key, and very light on ArtSpeak. He spoke of his early breakthrough in 1960, when a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art put him into the groundbreaking Art of Assemblage show along with giants of the art world like Rauschenberg and Picasso, although he was still an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley at the time. This work featured broken pieces of cast-iron sewer pipes welded together into gravity-defying works, the fruit of a trip to a scrap metal yard and a familiarity with metalworking due to an adolescent fascination with hot-rod construction. From that point, he never looked back, and managed, despite his initial expectations, to make a living from sculpture from then on.

Leaving cast-iron rearrangements behind in a move that was to become characteristic, once he felt he’d explored a mode of working to his satisfaction (“professional suicide” is how he described it), he went on to building objects from pieces of styrofoam packing material which he’d bandsaw into shapes he found appealing, put together into assemblies, then pack in sand and pour metal on (the “lost foam” method) to make solid metal castings. There were quite a few examples of this kind of work, which I’d never seen before, in the show. While I found them interesting, and certainly reflective of the Abstract-Expressionist aesthetic prevalent at the time, he soon grew tired of this whole vein of work and turned (as the result, literally, of a dream) to the problems posed by transparency.

At the time, there were few materials that would allow the production of transparent sculpture. Glass was a possibility, but he found that as it got thicker, the transparent quality was reduced (think of a glass tabletop seen from the edge). Also, glass is difficult to work with, and of course fragile. The other transparent material used by sculptors at the time was polyester resin, but this could only be cast in very thin sections, so it wasn’t able to produce the sort of inner reflections and refractions he dreamed of. After some research, he found out about acrylic. It seemed ideal for the purpose; it was durable and transparent even through the width of a plate, it could be carved and polished, and it could be cast into molds. The only problem was, that nobody could cast it any thicker than a couple of inches. Any thicker than that, it would suddenly form bubbles and cracks, and all the technical people at the manufacturers assured him that this was an absolute limitation of the material.

Undaunted, Beasley threw himself into experimentation with acrylic resin, and managed to extend the working range to about 4 inches thick. But no matter what he did, it would self-destruct if he tried to go thicker. At this point, he entered a competition for a large freestanding sculpture to be installed at the California state capital in Sacramento, and presented a model cast in acrylic, 4 inches thick. When he won the competition, he was faced with a major problem. How was he going to be able to cast this thing, which was supposed to be more than a foot thick, when everyone who knew about acrylic casting said it couldn’t be done? Beasley had a talk with Dupont, and said that if they wanted him to call it a Lucite sculpture (Dupont’s brand name for cast acrylic) they’d have to give him some support—otherwise it would have to be called Plexiglas (a Rohm and Haas trademark for the same thing). Dupont came around, and delivered 50,000 lbs of resin for free, so he could have something to experiment with. This turned out to be an excellent investment for them. Working with glass molds in a giant autoclave he’d constructed from a railroad tank car, he persevered with his trial batches, trying to glimpse the moment of polymerization (or catastrophe) in large volumes of catalyzing resin. When he finally glimpsed it, suddenly everything fell into place, and he realized that he could cast acrylic in any thickness he wanted. (I tried to pin him down on what exactly he saw, but he had a hard time putting it into words I could grasp. The central point, though, was that polymerization was neither uniform nor simultaneous.) After completing the Sacramento commission to great acclaim, he went on to create a series of works that explore the aesthetic of transparency in a couple of ways; by making basically prismatic forms with polished voids, and also by creating totally organic pieces where light rolls and spreads unpredictably through the transparent volumes of his water-like forms as one moves around them.

Having solved a major technical problem, Beasley was forced to decide what to do with his discovery. He did spend a year applying his technique to the production of bathysphere windows (these are the large clear bubble-shaped front portions of the small manned submarines used for oceanic research, which allowed an unprecedented clear view of the oceans’ deeps.) He could have gone on to head an industrial company dedicated to large-scale acrylic casting, and incidentally to enjoy the personal wealth that would entail, but he ultimately decided to remain a sculptor instead, since that’s what he really cared about doing with his life. He might have gone on creating Lucite sculpture, an artistic niche he pretty much owned at that point, but he eventually got bored with it, since he felt he’d adequately explored the issues that made it interesting to him, while he was tired of acrylic’s inescapable limitations, such as weight per volume, which limits its application to monumental-scale work. So, characteristically, he gave it up and launched into developing yet another completely different technique and style.

This latest phase of work, which he continues to explore, involves the arrangement of relatively simple six-sided prismatic solids with quadrilateral facets into soaring constructions ranging from table-top size up to monumental scale. Beasley considers these admittedly nondescript forms to be the words in his sculptural vocabulary, comparing them to a composer’s musical notes or a dancer’s body movements. By arranging them in different ways, he feels he can get a range of emotional effects which resonate with viewers. As he isn’t the sort of artist who visualizes a complete piece at the outset, he likes to be able to try out different things until a satisfying solution emerges. Initially, this involved a lot of cutting and fitting, since building the interpenetrating forms he favors is difficult, even for a sketch model in cardboard. But being the sort of artist who is unafraid of technology, he became, in the ’eighties, one of the first sculptors to involve the computer in his creative process. By working with virtual shapes instead of real ones, he could make his mistakes with electrons, (as he expressed it) not real material. The shapes could intersect without a problem, and only after he’s decided on a final arrangement—”when it sings”—would the cutting templates be generated. The process he described involves bringing forms together until he saw something significant start to happen, then removing pieces that weren’t necessary to the effect he noticed. Inevitably, removing one piece too many would cause the effect to collapse—then he would put it back, and consider the composition complete.

He described the process he uses to make medium-sized pieces in cast bronze; it involves printing out templates for each surface and cutting each piece out of foam-core board with a matt knife. The pieces are assembled with hot glue, and covered with a thin layer of wax, which allows for subtle textural variations on the basically planar surfaces. These constructions are then sent to a foundry to be cast directly, using the ceramic shell process. For larger pieces, parts are cut in bronze plate or steel, and welded together directly. Another group of work on display (some of my favorites, actually) were executed in plywood, although he didn’t elaborate on the process used to figure out all the odd saw-cut angles necessary to make the joints work out. While I’m not sure I necessarily feel the emotions Beasley is aiming at evoking, these works have a satisfying sense of rhythm to them, a sense of organic rightness—although they resemble crystal forms more than anything living. (He claims to get inspiration from all sorts of natural objects, such as the collection of animal skulls transported from his studio and installed as part of the exhibit.) As well as the works in the show, the Oakland Museum also has some pieces of his from its permanent collection displayed outdoors. And of course one can also see the major monument Vitality he installed last year in the nearby Frank Ogawa Center—at 37 feet tall, it shows the scalability—and yes, vitality—of Beasley’s latest sculptural concepts.

Andrew Werby