Marrying shape and scale to location

WHERE did the road to the sculpture ``Alex's Place'' begin? Did it begin in Austria, at Melk, that most marvelous of Austrian monasteries, where I first truly felt what scale and size mean? Or did it begin with the Freiluft Museum, where I saw old wooden Austrian houses? Or in Romania, where I was struck by the stunning simplicity of the one-room wooden house where the great sculptor Brancusi was born?

Surely ``Alex's Place'' began with a love of warmth, strength, shelter, and the objects that express these qualities. It was named for my assistant's son Alex, whose enthusiasm for the project and love of art were irresistible. And so the name commemorates that place in each of us where a love of art dwells.

``Alex's Place'' is about 9 feet tall, 10 feet wide, and 23 feet long. Although it could inhabit many places, it is site-specific, designed with a certain location in mind. It is at Snug Harbor, on Staten Island, New York, just across the water from the southern tip of Manhattan. It is part of an exhibition of outdoor sculpture, through Oct. 2, sponsored by the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art and the Organization of Independent Artists.

The problem and the joy of Snug Harbor are these: Its parklike grounds, its graciously faded, elegant, pale yellow brick buildings, are so beautiful that the sculptor is hard put to improve on these surroundings. The echoes of its past, when it was a home for retired sailors, reverberate still. Its site on the water plays host to passing boats and ships of every variety. How does one relate to such a site, comment upon it, wed one's work to it?

Wood was, for me, a natural choice, relating to my smaller works and to the Connecticut barns, wooden boats, New Mexican vegas, and old Austrian houses I knew and loved. Wood also formed a link with nature and the outdoor site. At first I had planned to use 8-foot lengths of cedar, 4 inches by 4 inches wide, laminated to form planes.

But a ``trial run'' with a cut paper silhouette of the sculpture showed that at this particular site 12-foot lengths of lumber would be necessary to achieve a size that was in harmony with the surroundings.

This question of relative size, or scale, is so important to sculptors. Claes Oldenburg has played with it in constructing baseball bats that are stories high. Red Grooms has us looking deep into cavernous spaces and at swayingly high buildings by using distortions to create a sense of ``looking up'' or ``looking down'' in his wonderful ``Ruckus Manhattan,'' a re-creation of New York City experiences.

We all know that looking at a model of a city is very different from being in the city, surrounded by it. When artists create installations that people can walk through or sculptures they can enter, they are in a different realm from when they look at a small object. The relationship between viewer and artwork changes.

It was this change of scale that was all-important for ``Alex's Place'' and for me as an artist experiencing the conceiving and making of it. As the building of the work began, new worlds emerged. The world of lag-bolts and thread-chasers for putting new threads on large bolts with threads destroyed by hammer blows.

The world of engineering. How do you support and balance huge planes of wood? How do you laminate and secure twenty 12-foot boards to create a smooth 6-foot-wide plane? How do you account for the shrinking and expanding properties of wood?

Then there was the world of weather. If it was raining, we couldn't work outside with power tools, and with deadlines fast approaching I became like a farmer scrutinizing the skies at day's end for signs of tomorrow's weather.

And, of course, there was the world of the artist and aesthetics. It turned out that the angle of intersection of the two major planes, so simple and effective when looking down at the small model I had made, would not do when the piece was enlarged. The angle of intersection of the two planes had to be changed, and this changed the whole support system. But one by one the problems were worked out.

When an artist embarks on a public work, all these various worlds come into play. If the artist cannot welcome and embrace these worlds with enthusiasm and still keep an overriding sense of vision and momentum, the experience will not be a happy one. All of these experiences must become part of the creative process.

When the structure was complete, I had the sculptor's pleasure of working at the edges with a chain saw. The purpose was to take an abstract form and make it look concrete, like an object or thing rather than simply an abstract design. I hoped it would be simple enough to function as a sort of universal symbol or emblem and yet worked and weathered enough to remind the viewer of all sorts of objects: boats, shelters. It was important that one could sit beneath the intersecting planes, shielded from the elements.

The finished work has reminded people of boats and nautical things, and this has reinforced the sense of site. The thickness of the wood planes has contributed to a great sense of sturdiness and solidity. The cedar exudes its own perfume. The surface continues to weather.

Each public sculpture leaves an artist with indelible memories. I remember riding down the cobblestone streets of Vienna in the open back of a pickup truck, hanging on to a just-completed 8-foot-high stainless steel monument to be installed in the courtyard of the Technical University.

As we rattled along in the truck, the stainless steel facets of the sculpture blazed with reflected patches of sunlight and bright blue sky. ``How funny,'' I thought, ``to be riding down these centuries-old streets with a stainless steel abstract sculpture in the back of a truck.'' It was pure joy.

And now I think of Snug Harbor - which I have come to love more than ever. I have worked there from dawn well into the inky blackness of night, seeing boats glide by, feeling sun-changes, and the changing look of trees and sky as dawn goes to dusk. I have also had the satisfaction of contact with a larger and different public from that found in galleries and museums. I have seen my work in the company of that of my colleagues ... each work different, each singing its own song.

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