In conjunction with the catalogue for the exhibition: Harry Roseman: Cloth, Sculptures, Photographs, Drawings at Davis and Langdale Company, New York City, 2003
May, 2003 The way the fabric folds, the way the sculpted curtain parts, blown by the breeze in the mind–and also in this winter studio, the actual fabric tacked to the wall blown by a small heat gust of mysterious origin. The way the drawings, some small distance away, yearn toward the cloth, (the way the artist folds his hands). The way the window, never seen, insinuates itself: something as we speak opens, closes a little, opens again. What is it that is just outside the range of our vision? I dream of flight, but the artist calls me back. Look: he puts his thumb to the clay for a moment to demonstrate. The mark of the human hand in its business of mark making. The way the mark enlarged can be detected suddenly everywhere–and the mark of the mind. The way the photos serenely watch both outside and inside the conversation between drape and pencil and clay. The space we enter together now at first a little tentatively. The work at once emotional and cerebral, simple and complex, mundane and transcendent. I feel in the midst of a great creative and intellectual and emotional inquiry. We sit in the shimmer of resonant, rhythmic impulses that have taken shape and weight. We feel the tug of gravity, the inadequacy of words. It’s all right. The way the fabric and the clay and the line and the gaze of the lens seem to mirror and double back on each other, to sing to each other, each informing and transforming the other until we are in a kind of music together. You are asking pressing questions about the nature of perception, yes? I think the work itself sets the tone. Though he is my good friend and ostensibly I know him, the Harry Roseman sitting before me among the various shapes, hoverings, traces, remnants he has created seems different: more humble, more careful, more attentive, as we witness the intimacies of the mind in its various stages of making and unmaking and making again. There is something in our talking, as flawed and mortal as it is that gets a little close from time to time to Roseman’s wordless, essentially mysterious intentions. It is gift like no other to be able to sit with him, close to all that matters most.
CM – Harry, this body of work: the sculptures, the photos, the wall drawings, strike me as addressing pressing questions about the nature of reality. Does this feel like part of the investigation to you?
HR – When I start out to make work it is partly because I am trying to explore the nature of the physical world, the relationship between the subject and the way it sits in the mind, the relationship between what is out there and how I see it. When I was quite young, I would often be struck by and taken with those moments when reality and experience shifted: those sunny late afternoons in winter when long shadows and odd light made the familiar totally new and odd. Also as a child riding on the elevated train, although it was only up a little bit, there was something about looking down on the people’s backyards and houses, where everything was just off enough from your scale – it was like a physical jolt to me. I was lucky enough to grow up within walking distance of the Brooklyn Museum, so when I got old enough to go there by myself I would do so regularly. It was mostly things like the Egyptian collection, and the ethnographic areas where they had models of villages and of temples that particularly intrigued me. My first visit to the Museum of Natural History in sixth grade was just thrilling – between the miniaturization and the life-size tableaus, the shift from three-dimensionality to compression to flatness. These very early experiences have certainly fed into my interest in the nature of reality, but even more surprising to me, although closely related, into my interest in the tension between the two- and three-dimensional worlds. These works, all referring to related subjects, deal with issues of reality tied to perception and to experience. In almost every sculpture in this show, it is clear the way the subject is anchored to a wall, they have a pictorial as well as a physical relationship to the way they hang on the wall. That made me want to use the non-physical aspect of the wall drawings to dictate the configuration of those drawings. Because of their ethereal nature I would depict them as free-floating configurations, in suspension. It is often unclear to me if my process tells me things I needed to know or tells me things I knew, but didn’t know I knew. It is probably a combination of the two, which certainly evolves over time. It is a coming together of layers of experience and knowledge. It is rather thrilling. The photographs bring another slant to this exploration of the nature of reality. In the context of and in dialogue with the sculptures and the drawings, the metaphorical aspects of the photographs are heightened. I think it removes some of their literalness as conveyers of information. I like the notion of slippage. The wall drawings are even further about de-materializing the image. In them the image becomes physically one with the wall and becomes part of the gallery structure, another kind of slippage.
CM – Can you talk about the spiritual quality of your work? Much of your work strikes me as the progress of a soul moving through the material of this world.
HR – It is hard to respond to a question like this without being overly self-conscious. At one time I was working extensively with rocks. I was looking at them, thinking about them and sculpting them. The more I stared and searched, the more I was convinced that there were secrets in those rocks. If I could understand this knowledge I would know a great deal about everything, the physical world and the spiritual. One of my concerns at the time was that if I really deeply understood what I was being shown, I might not need to make art anymore. I love making work. Anyway, here I am still making work. I have a related feeling in my dealing with cloth, that is, that I could learn a lot of essential things through this process. Both rocks and cloth are of course nameable: a rock is a rock, a boulder, a stone, a pebble, etc.; and cloth can be a throw, a sheet, a scarf. But they are things that are not quite objects in the same way a car is; their quality of abstraction, of both specificity and scale, is up for grabs. When you make cloth into a jacket, it is a bit more like a car. And so one of the things that I knew excited me about the rocks, and that excites me about cloth, is that there is a scale shift that happens very easily and often, where something can be either quite small or quite huge simultaneously.
CM – There’s a meditative quality I love.
HR – When I am working at an intense pitch, it is meditation, and at that point you’re not concerned with what the work will finally look like. It is existence in an extended present.
CM – Yes, and in that extended present there is a kind of attentiveness, a quality of mind that is so compelling.
HR – One of the paths into that particular experience of time is the incremental. I do get real pleasure and almost reassurance in the incremental. It is satisfying; I have done much work that was overtly incrementally repetitious. In collages I have worked with accumulations of images, and in drawings with accumulations of marks and weaves. In sculpture it is often manifested in the accumulation of pieces of clay, the adding, layering, almost weaving aspect of building toward a whole. In this exhibition, the newest pieces show that quite distinctly in their surfaces (Smallknot and Notknot). If you look closely you can see the incremental nature of those surfaces. I like easing up to the final forms, making small changes until it hums. It is not always how I work, but often. I’m also very drawn to certain kinds of repetitive work in other forms: in music, and in writing. I love Gertrude Stein’s Making of Americans. I had to go with it and give myself over to it. She takes a long time to tell a story, and it’s told through increments and repetition. I also loved reading Proust. Of course the way Gertrude Stein slows up time and narrative is quite different than Proust, but I respond to both of them in a related temporal way. The first time I heard Philip Glass’ music my reaction was both cerebral as well as physical. I grew up in an intense household. It was cacophonous. People didn’t sleep regular hours, there wasn’t a lot of space, and there were lots of extra people there from time to time. But I wasn’t uncomfortable there. It was often fun. It’s not like I withdrew from there to find another place of greater comfort. I was comfortable there with the comings and goings of my family. I enjoyed it. I was able to live on both planes, within myself and in the world.
CM – In this process you’ve gained a tremendous facility, I would say. Can you talk about your relationship to facility? I find in my own work it has come to be a somewhat dangerous thing.
HR – As a young artist I did not have a great deal of natural facility. There was a point in my development when I developed facility. I realized at that point that I could sculpturally do anything that I wanted to do. And that was a little unnerving, because part of that wrangle is what gave the work some of its visual voice, and when you get to a point where you have this ability then you have to decide that it means something different. When you are working with recognizable imagery the discussion between convincingness and believability and depiction is very complicated and probably more so with sculpture because it more closely physically parallels the thing you’re talking about.
CM – I am moved by your wall drawings. I find them poignant. They’ve got an ephemeral quality. I also am drawn to them as visible thought.
HR – I think of all the work as visible thought, visible thinking. The non-physicality of these drawings does somewhat shift the balance between the solidification of thought held in an object and thought in the other. Their temporary aspect does have a poignant quality, and I think the ephemeral quality is part of its poignancy. This has an interesting relationship to Curtain Drawing from 1993, the meaning of which is very much tied to the fact that it is drawn on cloth.
CM – In 2001 you completed Curtain Wall, a major commission for John. F Kennedy International Airport. It seems to me Curtain Wall beautifully embodies all of the things you are talking about. Can you talk about it in these terms?
HR – I had been working with cloth imagery in a number of ways prior to this project. Curtain Wall helped me to articulate some of my relationships to cloth and, in the context of this project, curtains. Cloth exists in the boundary between the utilitarian and aesthetic pleasure and has qualities both of depiction and abstraction. In almost all cultures cloth and weaving are inseparable from issues of identity, status, work, craft and structure. Curtains are enveloping, protective, celebratory and ceremonial. They are presentational and theatrical. Cloth and curtains both obscure and reveal. In Curtain Wall the depicted curtains speak directly to the wall of windows opposite, setting up a dialogue across the corridor and putting the viewer in the center of the work. At night the experience is transformed by the reflection of the curtains and the viewers in the windows. I wanted a conversation between the nature of the subject and the process, between folding and carving, the two states – the way the subject functions in the world, and then the process by which you talk about it. Another conversation between movement, fluidity and stillness, another between an evocation of lightness and the blockiness and heaviness of the sculptural forms, yet another between direct experience and metaphorical evocation. I wish this to be both a dialectical and seamless situation.
CM – It seems to me that coming from that dreamspace of the airplane like that you are just open in so many different ways that even the uninitiated viewer will be able to take it in.
HR – Right, in a sense your defenses are down and you are opened up.
CM – And it’s an abstract and concrete experience, like the whole process of flight. For the traveler, it’s this liminal, transitional space between air and earth, between dream and reality. And Curtain Wall acknowledges that experience. I like the way you speak of it as narrative as well–the narrative seems to me completely open-ended, a place for the traveler to enter in his or her own way. I’m interested in the set of ideas that came from Curtain Wall, and how they have found their ways into the latest work.
HR – One of the things I couldn’t have foreseen is that so many of the ideas I was dealing with in Curtain Wall have continued to be the focus of the work I am now doing. Clearly, specific issues of scale and context are quite different, since I am not currently working on a 600-foot sculpture for an airport. A few of the concerns that were brought to the forefront by Curtain Wall are the relationship between reality and style, as well as the intersection of classicism and the cartoon.
CM – Your friends know you as someone who always seems to have a camera in hand. What is the draw to documentation? What is the role of photography in your larger project?
HR – I started photographing fairly regularly from about the time that I was ten years old. Photography satisfies my propensity to save and collect. I was documenting so much that I felt I was slowing time down: I had this collection of time moments. As you know I am almost never without my camera. A number of years ago I stopped carrying a camera everywhere I went for about six months. People would ask me if I had gotten a haircut or shaved off a mustache. The photographic series Draped, Wrapped and Covered has a distinct relationship to my sculptural undertaking of the last six years. We have talked about depiction, permanence and temporality. The photographs, sculptures, and drawings depict implied movement, which is a temporary state, held in stasis. Another aspect of these photographs is a very concrete conversation about what its draped, wrapped, or covered over. One of the main rules for the series is that I cannot intervene. Photography is like hunting for specimens. I can be out driving along a highway on my way to New York City and an ordinary trip turns into a car chase (Highway Grid). I was driving around Somerville with my friend Michael Mazur. I spotted this construction site and asked Michael to pull over. I hung around with my camera, at first getting suspicious stares from the construction workers. In a short while, they ignored me. I took a few photographs, knowing they weren’t the ones. Then this guy picks up this large piece of lumber and walks towards this incredibly tall ladder. I hold my breath, he starts up the ladder, one hand on the ladder the other steadying the lumber on his shoulder. I couldn’t believe my luck. I watched him rise through my camera, holding my breath the whole time and at just the right moment I take the photograph, ecstatic. I felt like I had been preparing for twenty years to take that photograph (Ascent, Somerville, MA). © 2003 Carole Maso