Monday, February 26, 2007

Art Space Talk: Norman Carlberg

I recently interviewed artist Norman Carlberg. Mr. Carlberg has received international acclaim for his sculptures. He is one of the fathers of Modular Constructivism and was instructed by Josef Albers at Yale University (Albers studied and taught at the Bauhaus in Germany). Mr. Carlberg was the director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He remained at MICA for 35 years.

Sculpturally, Carlberg is known for working in plaster, brass, and steel. He created objects with few preliminary sketches- if any. He also produced photographs as well as prints of city details he found sculpturally interesting, such as concrete columns, "ribbons of freeways that float," and textures of rocks and dirt on the ground.

Mr. Carlberg's work has been widely exhibited: Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Carpenter Center, Guggenheim Museum... just to name a few.

Q. You are noted as an exemplar of the modular constructivist style. Can you tell our readers about that style of work and why you embraced it?

A. "My sense of it is that "Modular" constructivism is making a work of art within the limitations that modules impose on the object. They restrict what can be made but the restrictions also give meaning and value to the object, just as a poem is beautiful, in part, because the rules, or limitations, give the words a structure that the mind finds pleasurable over and above the message.

When I began working with modules I wasn't thinking about "embracing" or being part of any movement. It was simply that, after seeing the work that Erwin Hauer was doing I was excited about the idea of modular constructions and wanted to explore the idea of modules for myself.

I think Erwin Hauer joined the Yale sculpture department in 1956 and I designed my first "finished" module in 1957 as part of my thesis project which was due the following year.

Jose Mayoral, a student from the Yale architectural school, had asked me if I wanted to work with him and develop a series of sculptures in conjunction with his thesis project, which was also due for presentation in the spring of 1958. The idea, to make a series, or group, of sculptures for his project, was very exciting and my first thought was to design a single module which I could use to make a variety of sculptures. It was a natural first step. Three situations were present at the time.

Besides having been offered the opportunity to design a group of sculptures for Jose Mayoral's architecture project, and the presence in the sculpture department of Erwin's modular screens, the head of the sculpture department, Robert Engman, had given me a sculptural problem earlier to create forms from basic geometric shapes which would retain elements of the original form. I had made a number of sketches using cubes, spheres and tetrahedrons but I had always thought of them as singular objects; now I looked at them differently, as possible building blocks and the cube and the tetrahedron could easily be visualized as the basis for units that would grow in all directions.

In George Rickey's book "Constructivism" there is a wide variety of work which falls under the definition, "constructivist art". It does not depend on other pre-existing objects for meaning and, although math and logic often lend an underlying structure, they don't impart artistic value to the work any more than the social standing or beauty of the sitter would give artistic value to a portrait.

Like some of the other movements that developed in the first half of the 20th century, constructivism finds it's meaning in the work itself, not as an interpretation or artistic reflection of an outside image. Although constructivist art is linked to logic and math, especially the geometries, good craftsmanship is also apparent in most of the work. I didn't think about it at the time but I am sure these are two of the reasons I found constructivist art attractive.

Although I was an average student in math, I did enjoy it, the geometries especially, where being able to visualize the problem helped solve it. And I always enjoyed the craftsmanship required in building the airplane models of that period. But after spending so much time and care building the balsa wood skeleton I was reluctant to cover it with tissue-paper, it was beautiful just as it was. In the end though, practicality won out, because I knew that I wouldn't see it fly without the paper covering. But there was a small reward, when water was brushed onto the paper, which would cause it to shrink and form a taut surface, the ribs and underlying structure could still be made out and I could remember the structure which gave the skin it's form. Later, in the late 50's and early 60's some of my minimal-surface sculptures would have a similar skin-like surface determined by edges."

Q. You are also known for your minimalist work. Can you recall any of your memories about the advent of minimalism?

A "Because many of my pieces are linked to outside images I hadn't thought of myself as a minimalist. The work was not pure enough and I think of minimalism as being spare and pure in concept. I was aware of various movements going on at the time but I was focused on the work I was making and not giving much thought to it's place in the world of art."
Q. It is not difficult to see the connection between the rigorous, disciplined compositions that you created and those of your Yale teacher Josef Albers. Can you discuss some of your experiences working with Mr. Albers? How did he influence your art?

A. "If one admired him, and I did, you tried to emulate him to some degree. What his values were, and the kind of person he was, was a model to learn from. Whatever he said, I paid attention to. I would think about it and often agree with it - but not always. But because I admired his qualities I never dismissed any idea without having thought about it.

One of the first of his principles that I became aware of was how a color was perceived depended on where the color was - what other colors were around it, how large or small they were relative to each other, what kind of light was illuminating the color - everything changed one's perception of the color. Relativity wasn't a word that belonged exclusively to scientists.

I liked Albers way of teaching because he didn't cop-out during a critique by using vague terms and phrases. He tried to be specific and talk about what could be seen and defined. There is a lot in art that is difficult or cannot be defined in words - that's why we use color, form, and line. But for those aspects which can be defined with words it was good to listen to someone who valued clarity.

The Yale School of Art, in the 1950's, was defined by Josef Albers, his philosophy, his own work and the people he chose to run the different departments of the school. Almost everyone studied with him in one or more of the basic classes on color or drawing.

These were large classes which he taught with assistants from the other departments, most notably, when I was there, Sewell (Si) Sillman who had worked with him when he was at Black Mountain, Norman Ives from the graphics department, Neil Welliver and William Bailey from painting and Bernard Chaet. There were so many good artists in the school, teachers and students, and arguably, the best artist/teacher in the country directing it all, it's hard to single out specifically where information and ideas came from.

At Yale, I found a school of art that linked reason with passion and, which also happened to be a part of one of the world's great universities. By accepting me into the school, Albers changed my life."

Q. At Yale, Erwin Hauer was an important influence who prodded you in a stylistic direction. Both of you employed curvilinear forms as modules. However, you used more geometric, hard-edged design units, often combining curves with straight edges (or flat planes) in the same module. How did Erwin influence you... or did you influence each other? Can you share any of your experiences working alongside him?

A. "I can't say that I influenced Erwin's work, but there's no question that he influenced mine. Seeing his modular screens changed the direction of my own work from thinking in terms of singular objects to designing units which could be multiplied and made into sculptures. His modular screens and walls that I remember were cast in concrete, powerful, but also graceful and complex and it was the quality and beauty of the sculpture, as much as the "idea" of modules that generated my interest and desire to work in that direction.

You mention differences in our work, I "used more geometric, hard-edged design units, often combining curves with straight edges (or flat planes)". This is, in part, a result of the different ways we used modules. I think, at that time anyway, Erwin would design and perfect a unit that made a single screen or wall that he had envisioned. The module was not intended to recombine in other combinations. I wanted to design a single unit which I could use to construct a variety of sculptures. I wanted the unit to be versatile and the cube seamed to be ideal as a basic form to begin from. An obvious reason was that all it's surfaces were identical and it could grow in any direction.

I began by making a unit that was a variation of one of the models I had designed while working on the problem Robert Engman had given me. It was a saddle-shape within a cube which I liked as a piece by itself. That basic design became a starting point for a number of my modules.

The "curve", you mention, is the saddle-shape (hyperbolic parabaloid) and the "straight edges (or flat planes)" are what remains of the original cube's surface. They play a part in the design and also provide contact areas for joining one unit to another.

I also like the idea of the versatile unit because, even though I could visualize different combinations or possibilities before having made any actual units, I discovered I would find new combinations once I had the units in hand and could "play" with them. The units would, in a sense, tell me what they could do - information was going both ways."

Q. Your work was featured in "Recent Sculpture USA", a 1959 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Can you recall this experiences? Care to share with our readers?

A. "The Museum of Modern Art, 1959, was probably the most prestigious space in America to have your work exhibited and as a young artist from a small town in the midwest, to say I was impressed is an understatement.

At the opening were artists whom I had read about in art magazines and I was feeling more important than I had been the day before, and it was a great feeling for a day or so.

There were four other artists from the Yale sculpture department whose work had also been accepted and, as I heard it explained later, an important factor in why we were included in the exhibition was that Albers had used his prestige to get the judges to consider our work. I think the museum was reluctant to consider the work of students but Albers pressed the point that we were artists, from different areas of the United States and should be considered in that sense. So thanks to Albers, and, I believe, the quality of the work itself, it was reviewed, and accepted.

My piece in the exhibit was "Minimal Surface Form", carved from white marble and was purchased by the Addison Gallery of American Art at the Phillips Academy in Andover. Whoever lighted the exhibit made the piece look better than I had ever seen it. There were a number of spotlights, in line, which created overlapping shadows and it was very dramatic. My only regret is that I never took a photo of it during the exhibit."

Q. Your sculptures are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Art and Architecture Gallery at Yale University in New Have, Connecticut, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Did you ever expect your work to be that well received?

A. "When I was young and my ego was larger, I don't know if I expected my work to be in museums but I did think about it. I think some of my work is quite good - whether it is valued by others or not is another question.

Also, the list of museums can be misleading. For example, the sculpture that is listed as being in the Yale Art and Architecture building was damaged in the fire and, I was told, later destroyed. The Schenectady Museum (not mentioned) has, or had, a large steel modular piece and one in black granite. The information was correct some years ago but you never know what happens to work over time."

Q. What do you think of sculpture today. Do you like where younger artists are taking it?

A. "I like work I can relate to but is not so familiar that there is nothing for me to discover. But, given my age, many of the ideas and concerns which interested me have either been answered or are no longer relevant to younger artists.

Today, there are many more factors that are a given as being part of sculpture, it's so complex. Color is a given, movement, sound, gigantic scale, high craftsmanship, no craftsmanship, if it exists, it can be used as material for art. These were all around a century ago but today the magnitude of expectations is overwhelming.

For me, it seems that It's a shift away from making art as a way to understand to making art to inform. Both directions have always been with us but the need to learn from making art seems lost in the noise of the loudspeakers. With almost total freedom to work in any direction it would suggest that it must be more difficult than ever for a young artist to find a direction. If nothing is forbidden, the choices are infinite. That's good - I guess."

Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A. "In September, 1950 and the beginning of classes at the Minneapolis School of Art. It was a revelation to find that there were so many other people who were interested in the same ideas that I found important - like being with old friends or having found your right place in the universe. It's also one of the good reasons for a young person who loves art to go to art school.

Some would say you shouldn't be that comfortable - it's not good for your art. I think it depends on the kind of artist you are. There are many reasons and passions that drive artists. You need to discover what drives you."

Q. What was your most important exhibition? Care to share that experience?

A. ""The Proposal Gallery" exhibition in 1979 was important and especially meaningful because the gallery was created and run by some of my former students who invited me to inaugurate the opening of the gallery with a one-man show.

They had spent hundreds of hours cleaning, repairing, painting, changing a second-floor, rather depressing room into a light-filled, pristine space. They worked hard and did a wonderful job turning it into a desireable show-case and I was honored when they asked me to have the opening exhibit."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "I like to sit quietly with a cup of coffee and look at what I have been working on - or what I'm going to work on - and just think about it. It's a way to find a kind of calm that helps concentration and focus. I want to look forward to what I'm going to do and I want to finding pleasure in working."

Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?

A. "That's not something I think about."

Q. Discuss one of your pieces. What were you thinking when you created it?

A. "The "Twist Column / Variant 2" 1958 or '59 (Image above: The photo is of myself with the twist column, taken in the sculpture department) It is constructed of modules which are mirror images of one another (there is a left-twist and a right-twist unit). This unit is the second variation, the first module which was also a twist-unit was more spatially complex.

I think it was Jose Mayoral who suggested making it a simpler form, more like a building block. It was the first unit I made into a larger size unit - 8 inches seemed big at the time. The simpler form also meant that the mold was less complex because of the flat top and bottom. This was another area where Erwin brought in new ideas. He used epoxy resin and fiberglass to make his molds which I then used to make the two 8 inch twist molds. Epoxies were a rather recent technology at that time and Erwin showed me the basics about working with them. It was an excellent material for making molds and sculpture.

As a mold, when it cured it had a very tough surface which accurately reflected the surface of the master unit and it had next to zero shrinkage or expansion during curing. It didn't warp and was relatively light in weight. It was almost the perfect material. I say, almost, because after a few years of working with it I became allergic to the fumes and would break out in rashes that were rather painful. Today, I just have to stay away from it in it's liquid state.

I mentioned "molds AND sculpture", I used epoxy on a series of sculptures that I mentioned earlier as having a surface like taut skin defined by an edge. (see "Construction/Minimal Surface" Hirshhorn Museum). The sculptures began with an edge, usually brass, which would be shaped into a configuration that seemed significant (as opposed to arbitrary). The edge would determine shape of the minimal surface which was formed using plaster or hydrocal. The surface of the mass was then taken down about 1/4 of an inch and a layer of epoxy would be added as an outside shell. After filing and sanding this epoxy shell I would paint the surface with automobile lacquer, sand the entire surface with 400 grit wet-or-dry paper, remove the paint from the brass edge and polish it."

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Did you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "I never hit "rock-bottom" but there were times when worries would short-circuit the ability to focus on work. Quite often there was no apparent reason for feeling down but I found, though, that doing physical work often helped. Nothing like dealing with "real" problems which are more easily identified and resolved. If nothing else, it's a good time to clean the studio."
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Norman Carlberg. Feel free to critique or discuss his work.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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