WONDERCABINET : Lawrence Weschler’s Fortnightly Compendium of the Miscellaneous Diverse
This time out, we’ll start and end with two sets of paired convergences (one going in, as it were, the other coming out). And wedged in between, the main event, a conversation with West Oakland monumental abstract sculptor Bruce Beasley on art and socio-political activism.
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A CONVERGENT PROLOG:
Sometimes convergences just present themselves one after the next, in real time. I myself was felled by one such synchronous blast just the other day when, first, I received a short video from my Seattle brother Robert of himself playing piano with a visiting neighbor tyke:
Followed just a few minutes later by a video from our Melbourne cousin, economist Nicholas Gruen, who’d graced his own Substack aggregator with this magical bit of footage, portraying a potaroo mom and pouch-pup supping on a pair of raspberries:
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The Main Event
A Conversation with abstract sculptor Bruce Beasley on Art and Socio-Political Activism
Almost three years ago, in February 2022, a few weeks as it happens before the onset of the Covid pandemic, I ventured out to West Oakland to converse with Bruce Beasley, one of the country’s leading and most prolific monumental abstract sculptors, himself on the eve of a big sixty-year retrospective at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. (The pandemic would end up delaying both the show, now alas concluded, and the publication of its catalog, but the latter has now emerged, and it’s a beauty). I’d thought we’d spend most of our time talking about Beasley’s theories of abstraction and practice as a monumental sculptor, but it turned out Beasley had other, in some ways more urgent, things on his mind. And it struck me this past few weeks, with the long slog toward the just-concluded elections, that this might be a particularly good moment to review that conversation.
Heading out to meet the sculptor Bruce Beasley, I’d been planning to talk to him about his conception of the sculptural vocation—what precisely he meant, for example, when he described his various geometric forms as “calling” to him as they took shape in the vividly, sometimes almost epically, abstract gestures for which he is widely celebrated.
And I was expecting to be doing so in what had at least once (and not so long ago) been one of the sketchiest, most blighted neighborhoods in the entire East Bay, which is to say West Oakland, wedged up against the teeming harbor docks.
The neighborhood into which I instead alighted—the South Prescott subdistrict— was made up of cozy, mostly century-old single-family units, and Beasley’s compound, in particular, situated at the nub end of one of the leafy tree-shaded streets, was positively Edenic.
A well-appointed home designed by the artist, brimming with indigenous artwork, and next door, the multi-use workspace that he had purchased for studio and living at the very outset of his career, back in 1962. Girdling the two structures, a fragrant garden, in part given over to the spacious display of a career’s worth of Beasley works, and across the street, a huge gleaming hangar workspace, also designed by the artist, complete with a bridge crane and expanses of elegant glass for light, all to hold his still prodigious productivity.
When I commented on the exceptional and unexpected beauty of it all, Beasley pulled out a sheaf of photos, to prove to me that it hadn’t always been thus. The images, from when he’d first moved here in the early ‘60s, were more like what I’d been expecting: Dismal potholed streets patrolled by loping stray dogs, junkyards strewn with stacked cars, derelict houses, empty lots covered over with all manner of refuse, and underemployed neighbors.
As we now returned to his home’s airy two-story living room and took our seats, Beasley set about setting the table, as it were, for what he was hoping we’d be talking about: “There is a rather limited way that we define the political artist in our current climate,” he began. “There seems to be a presumption that including overtly political subject matter makes an artist ‘activist,’ and failing to do so suggests a lamentable failure of political responsibility, all of which comes with the corollary idea that merely by engaging political issues art has the capacity to actually effect social change in some way. And I question all of that. I’m not denying that political art communicates and has a profound place in history—just think of Goya!—but what drew me to social activism fifty years ago was a desire to be part of effecting concrete, on-the-ground results, and I’m not sure that most of what passes for political art today does that.”
He paused, before continuing: “I suppose this question comes up for me at this late stage in my life in part because of the heightened character of the discourse around these issues in the artworld generally these days, especially on campus; but also because I often wonder what that artworld would make of an artist like me who resolutely does not use social issues as subject matter in his artistic production but who has actually practiced social activism in a committed way throughout his working life. Am I then a political artist, an activist artist, or just an engaged citizen who happens to be an artist? I don’t think art discourse and narrow definitions about political artists have investigated this question with any real depth. . . And I’d hoped that we might try to do that today.”
He continued as to how two braided strands—art and activism—had long dovetailed across the length of his own life, though he’d long avoided discussing his history of activism in the context of his art, because he wanted to keep the two distinct from one another. He did not want his community activism to then invite forced politicized narratives of his decidedly abstract work. But on the brink of a 60-year retrospective, he’d come to feel that now might be the time for a discussion of the full breadth of his life as both an artist and a citizen.
Perhaps, I suggested, he might begin with a quick overview of how he’d gotten into art, on the one hand, and activism, on the other, and then, for that matter, into West Oakland, of all places. Well, he recounted, he’d enjoyed a normal childhood in Southern California, but from early on he’d been drawn to the world of the visual, and in particular the spatial. In high school, he’d loved welding and shop as much as the college prep subjects in which he exceled, and he presently went off to Dartmouth to study rocket engineering which was thought to be the logical option for a precocious kid with both design and science interests. Quickly, however, he realized that missile dynamics were not his passion. “I was a seeker, I was seeking my place in the world, I just didn’t know what it was.” Things began to clarify in that regard, however, when he took a drawing class, the only such art offering at the school (“a holdover from this very Edwardian idea that an educated gentleman should be able to do a little sketching”). In lieu of a final group of drawings, he submitted a suite of 3-D objects. “And that was it. I had found what I’d been seeking: a way to combine the head, the heart and the hand.”
Two years in at Dartmouth, he transferred to UC Berkeley, one of the few collegiate institutions then offering a degree in sculpture, going on to study with Sydney Gordon, Peter Voulkos, and others. By the time he got his degree, his sophisticated pedestal-mounted assemblages (meshing together all manner of discarded tubing and welded parts) were already receiving awards and widespread recognition; in 1961, in fact, Beasley became the youngest of the artists selected by William Seitz for inclusion in MOMA’s celebrated Art of Assemblage show.
More to the point in this context, however, Beasley was also coming into his own politically in those very same socially charged years. These were the early ’60s (the end of the quiescent ’50s, especially there in Berkeley), an era of swelling activism, and the artist threw himself into the various uprisings with gusto, starting with protests against the rabid descent onto San Francisco of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. “Getting hosed down on the steps of City Hall was my baptism of fire, and my suffering such a fate even radicalized my moderate Rockefeller-backing mother, who wrote J. Edgar Hoover a furious letter insisting that her son was no communist.” Beasley engaged in the Free Speech Movement from its earliest days; he eventually found his way into the battles around People’s Park, where he was even present the day the police fired live shots directly over his head, killing a bystander in a nearby house; and of course he also protested the Vietnam War.
“I had always been politically aware, I came from a humanistic if Republican family who supported any free thinking—we kids were never required to agree with our parents. Back then, I was always involved as a demonstrator, as an informed voter and liberal thinker, though I knew I was not a leader in that regard, not an orator or a college organizer who could motivate others into activism through fiery rhetoric and such. I have always been inclined towards making things, towards concrete results—that is probably why I love sculpture. You actually produce something that then exists, even if my instinctive artistic language has always taken a pure non-narrative shape. And even then, I couldn’t see how my making social art could or would actually change things on the ground.”
Thus, Beasley went on to explain, he knew on graduating that for him, his art and activism would remain resolutely separate. And he’d confirmed for himself that he was, above all else, an abstract sculptor. Now, as for deciding where this passion might best flourish, he knew he’d need space. He travelled back to check out New York, still a hotbed of abstract art—painting especially—but perhaps not as conducive for a sculptor. “You could get a loft, but in order to get any really serious materials you had to file permits for truck deliveries and so forth, whereas back West you could just buy a load of steel, say, throw it in the back of your pickup and haul it right to your studio, no questions asked. The real draw of New York would have been the prospect of Fame and Fortune, neither of which were my top priorities, and I just felt I could make better sculpture by staying on the West Coast.”
So, alright, he decided to stay in the Bay Area—but why West Oakland? “Simple: sculpture.” As Beasley tells it, Oakland had places that were cheap even if they needed work to fix them up—all sorts of abandoned and dilapidated factories and warehouses, the remnants of an area that had once been a thriving industrial power and transport base.
In the early 1960s, the neighborhood was 80% black, 20% Latino, and 0% white, except for me. It had always been poor, at best lower middle class. But culturally fascinating. Jack London grew up just a few blocks away. This was the place where the Southern Pacific Railroad terminated in the Oakland dockyards, and back in those days before containerization, there’d been all these warehouses for storing and repackaging products coming in and going out. Along with all those jobs. The national headquarters for the Sleeping Car Porters Union was right nearby. At one point the city fathers had the idea to recast Oakland as ‘Pittsburgh on the Pacific’ and re-zoned the whole area industrial. Then with World War II, Kaiser Shipyards set to building Liberty Ships, and there was a huge influx of rural southern blacks who were redlined into the immediate vicinity, though with the end of the war, those jobs also petered out, and the neighborhood fell on hard times.”
Speaking of which, Beasley recalled how back at the start he’d taken to putting in new windows in the old, run-down grain milling factory he had just bought and was endeavoring to reclaim, and how each morning they’d turn up broken again. One day, he was working on the building when a rock came crashing through a freshly installed pane. “And I just lost it,” he recounted, “I came tearing down the stairs and out the front door, down the middle of the street, I began chasing two kids, maybe eight-years-old, who had thrown the rocks. I didn’t really have any plan, I was just reacting, and when I caught one I marched him back to where he lived and turned him over to his mother to be disciplined. And it was only then that I realized that this whole incident had taken place in front of the entire neighborhood, people on porches, men working on cars, etc. This was at a time of a lot of racial tensions and before that incident I had not really reflected on, given that context, what actions on my part might be appropriate given my status as the only white person in the neighborhood. But as things came to a head that day, I realized that this wasn’t a racial issue, it was a troublesome kid issue, and I ended up doing what anyone should do in that situation, which was to take the kid back to his parents and not to involve the police. I think it was that incident that set the tone of where I stood in both my eyes and the eyes of my neighbors. This was my community—I didn’t insist on being an ‘instant’ insider, but nor did I intend to be a longterm outsider.”
It was simply a question of neighborly relations. A few months later, a group of radical white SDS’ers (from a group soon to turn into The Weathermen) moved into a house just around the corner and began trying to recruit Beasley, a fellow white radical as they imagined him, but to no avail. Finally, a group of them came over to confront him: why was he giving them the cold shoulder? “I’ll tell you the problem,” he responded. “How many of you do you have living all together in that house?” About thirteen or fourteen. “Half boys and half girls?” Yeah. “Well here’s the situation. Next-door to you lives a lady named Mrs. Johnson, a lady who may not share your revolutionary values. And Mrs. Johnson has a fifteen-year-old daughter who goes to McClymonds High School, and what’s important to Mrs. Johnson is that her daughter graduates from McClymonds High School and not end up in trouble. And Mrs. Johnson thinks that you are a terrible influence. I get it, and I live here now. I don’t think you guys are going to be around very long. But I intend to be. So, if there’s a side here, I’m on Mrs. Johnson side.”
The place was fast becoming not just his house but his home: these were his neighbors and Beasley was beginning to see how, as neighbors, they might be able to join together to get very specific things accomplished, one by one. The evidence of this would unfold in a series of specific activist “campaigns,” in some cases spearheaded by Beasley, that helped change the face of Prescott.
For starters, the streetlights. West Oakland was the only part of the entire city that didn’t have any streetlights, which was both a safety issue and a quality of life statement. “Now,” Beasley explained, “we could have all marched on city hall with placards, making a ruckus, and likely got nothing done. But as a collective, we started strategizing. I was the only one with a college education, and I knew how to research things, that’s what I brought to the table. I discovered that PG&E, the electricity company, had a policy that it would itself cover the expense of installing streetlights if the city would just pay the subsequent electricity bills. I thought that was going to prove a crucial piece of information because I guessed the city was going to say that they didn’t have the money to install street lights.
“So we organized a community meeting and invited the head of the city’s electricity department to come and explain why West Oakland didn’t have street lights. I did not want to be the white guy leading the show—this was for all of us, and other residents would be much better at direct pressure. So, we spent several evenings rehearsing everybody’s roles, and when he arrived, we were ready. We asked why we did not have street lights, and, sure enough, he said because installing street lights was very expensive and the city didn’t have the money for them, and then one of the residents—fully prepped—shot back, ‘Well, PG&E tells us that they’d install the lights for free if the city would just pay the subsequent bills.’ The guy started sputtering and said that it was still the same issue, the City Council set his budget and they didn’t give him the money. Then we demanded to know how much the city guy had asked for when he submitted his budget and how much he’d received. Well, it turned out that he’d gotten whatever he’d asked for. And then he was asked ‘Was it because West Oakland has the highest percentage of blacks that he hadn’t even asked for enough money so that West Oakland could have streetlights like the rest of the city?’ We shamed him, and he left, stunned. And we had streetlights within six months.
“The thing is, I approached community issues the very same way I approached making a sculpture: trusting my instinct or my heart, applying logic, or using my head, and finally with my hands, which is to say, finding a concrete process I could undertake to get the desired effect. In the studio when, for instance, I cast bronze, as I say, my instinct tells me when a final arrangement of shapes ‘speak;’ but then I think through and research the ways of achieving that effect, whereupon I execute it across a very careful process. If there is any way my art and political life intertwine it is in that I approach both quite similarly: both reflect my personal approach to creative exploration.”
Meanwhile, alone across the broader city of Oakland, West Oakland in particular could claim no access to such other civic amenities as street curbs, gutters or sidewalks. Because there were no curbs and gutters, cars parked where the sidewalks should have been. It was all just exposed dirt which was muddy in the winter and dry and dusty in the summers, By this point, though, Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities program had come into play. Significant money in total was flowing into the region, but the grants were spread around so widely that nothing significant ever got accomplished. Beasley and his fellow neighbors therefore mounted a campaign to run a slate for the district Model Cities Council, their slate (including him) won, and amazingly, they convinced all the other council members to pool all their small grants for two years to fund curbs, gutters and sidewalks for all of West Oakland. “This was a really important improvement in basic livability and appearance,” Beasley insists, “and proved a keystone victory in that it led to many other improvements like street trees, re-zoning, and the elimination of red-lining.”
As early as 1966 The Black Panther party had established its founding headquarters just a few blocks away, at 14th and Peralta Streets. How, I asked Beasley, had that worked for the area? “That worked great,” he replied, somewhat surprisingly. “They basically paid no attention to our neighborhood group but on the other hand they were a perfect foil for us. On the one hand, they had these scary black guys brandishing guns and talking about revolution and all, while over on our side, we were some neighborhood people who wanted a health center, or a park, some curbs, gutters and street trees. By contrast we looked reasonable, so we got more than we otherwise might have. The Panthers were scaring the pants off people, advocating for things that they were not likely to achieve, whereas we were proposing actual stepwise changes that were doable. And like I’ve been saying, for me activism needs to produce concrete results, it cannot be just a studio subtext.”
By 1975, a decade had passed, Beasley had met Laurence Leaute, a Parisian veteran of the student risings of ‘68, and convinced her to join him there in West Oakland. They’d married and were expecting their first child, Julien, and Beasley decided to try to buy the rubble-strewn vacant lot next-door so as to build a play yard for the coming child. Thus began the Story of the Thirty Nine Parcels. Having resolved to buy that lot, as usual Beasley headed downtown to do his research, and he determined that the lot was owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad, of all entities, who in fact appeared to own dozens of other such lots, some inhabited, others abandoned, all around the eight blocks of South Prescott. Beasley made an appointment to meet with Oscar Osness, the VP for Real Estate in SPRR’s San Francisco office, who summarily interrupted his inquiry about purchasing the lot to inform him, “Young man, Southern Pacific has a very firm policy: we acquire property, we don’t sell property.”
Beasley asked Osness what the Railroad intended to do with the scattered properties and was told that, actually, they had once had plans for an expansion of their facilities, but those had been shelved, and that actually, if anything, the parcels had become something of a problem for them. So why, asked Beasley, wouldn’t they consider selling them? To which Osness replied, blandly, dryly, self-evidently, “Because we have a policy of not selling land.”
So, Beasley decided he’d just have to help them change their policy. He and Laurence began canvassing neighbors, especially those with properties adjacent to the festering abandoned lots, and they formed a committee to start demanding that the city insist that Southern Pacific clean up those vacant lots and then keep them regularly serviced. Which the city authorities agreed to do. Then, after a few months of forced clean-up, which was adding up to a significant cost for the railroad, Beasley returned to Mr. Osness, who had in the meantime experienced a magical change of heart. “Okay,” he said, handing Beasley a sheet of paper with thirty-nine addresses and next to each one a number (400, or 800, and one 1200). “Here’s the deal, we will sell all of the parcels, the number is the price, all the properties must be sold in one transaction, and all for cash.”
“You mean,” Beasley asked, “I can’t just give you a cashier’s check for the lot I want to buy, and Mrs. Taylor can’t do the same to buy the house she is renting?” “No” replied Osness: “All for cash, no negotiating and all in one transaction, We want to be sure to get rid of all that property, we don’t want to be left with any, and we won’t dicker about the price.”
Beasley gulped, the lump sum was not small, but he figured that at these prices, most of his neighbors would be able to come up with mattress money or the support of relatives, so he asked for a few months to try to gain the cooperation of the community. “Why,” Osness asked Beasley, “don’t you just buy up all the lots yourself? You know those are a great bargain.“ To which Beasley responded, “Because I can’t do that. I live there and I am raising a family there. I can’t suddenly become the guy who owns a third of the neighborhood. I wouldn’t be a neighbor anymore, I would become a real estate mogul.” “You’re missing a great opportunity,” huffed Osness as Beasley left.
Beasley’s neighbors exulted at the news and quickly mobilized at the prospect of transforming their status from renters to homeowners virtually overnight. To assure the transparency and to avoid co-mingling of funds of the entire operation, they took out a safe deposit box and one by one filled it with individual cashier’s checks made out to Southern Pacific, and by the end of two months, they had all managed to meet their goals with the exception of four elderly retired RR porter-tenants (all residents of $800 parcels, each of whom had only been able to come up with $400).
Beasley returned to Osness and presented the situation: couldn’t the huge corporation grant the four senior tenants the outright gift of the remainder of the amount due? “Nope,” said Osness, sternly, “I told you, it was all at once and no dickering over the price.” Well then, could the corporation grant each of the remaining four $400 mortgages? (Granted that such ridiculously small monthly premiums would cost more in paperwork just to process.) No, Osness insisted, he had stated the rules. At which point Beasley said, “I have this list on your own letterhead showing the addresses and the prices. I happen to know that you are renting those run-down houses to your own, to retired black Pulman Porters for sixty dollars a month, which comes to $720 a year, which is 90% of your asking price of $800. Do you really want me to hold a press conference and demonstrate, with figures on your own letterhead, that SP has been getting a 92 percent return by renting slum housing to their own retired black employees?” Beasley smiled at the memory. “I had heard the expression ‘if looks could kill,’ but I only really understood it for the first time when Osness glared at me after I said that.”
Southern Pacific did write those last four niggling mortgages, the deal went through, and on April 10, 1975, they all gathered for the transfer at the neighborhood school. SPRR showing up with a thick stack of 39 deeds, the tenants breaking open their safe deposit box, and the exchanges getting made sequentially, one after the next. “That evening,” Beasley recalled, “many people became homeowners for the first time in their lives, and South Prescott became the neighborhood with the highest percentage of homeowners in all the Oakland flatlands. And that really transformed South Prescott. Houses got repaired and painted, and trashy vacant lots became gardens. And a burgeoning and palpable sense of solidarity spread throughout the neighborhood.”
Beasley paused for a moment before continuing. “But I want to make clear, I wasn’t doing any of this out of any sense of selfless devotion or privileged charity: the streetlights, the sidewalks, the trees, cleaning up the lots, an area for a garden—my family benefited just as much as anyone else in the neighborhood. And that growing sense of neighborhood solidarity in turn benefitted all of us.”
The years passed, the actions continued, the Beasley family grew (a second child, a daughter, Celia, joining the brood in 1977), and on its separate track, Beasley’s art career continued to flourish. Then on the balmy evening of October 17, 1989 (when across the Bay the National League champion baseball Giants were getting set to contest the first game of the World Series), one of the worst earthquakes in California history suddenly struck, with West Oakland as an epicenter and serious damage just a few hundred yards from the Beasley home. Assessing that everyone at home was safe, Beasley and 14-year-old Julien went racing out only to discover that just a few blocks away, the top span of the elevated Cypress Freeway had pancaked down onto its lower tiers, crushing cars and passengers, leaving the lower span looking as if it too was on the brink of collapse.
Bruce and his son rushed back to the studio, grabbed construction vests and hardhats and returned to the scene to join the neighborhood’s spontaneous rescue efforts. After the highway department trucks arrived with huge wooden beams, others still, along with Beasley and Julien, assisted in helping to insert those beams under the tottering span to secure the scene. “It was fascinating to watch the difference in how city agencies and the community at large responded,” Beasley recalls. “Neighbors were arriving with ladders, anything that might help in the rescue efforts, while the police were busy pushing folks away, trying to establish a secure corridor and take control, claiming there was looting; I was there and I can tell you, there was no looting. Meanwhile, the fire department was welcoming all the help they could get.”
The collapse of that over-a-mile-long stretch of the Cypress Freeway causeway ended up costing over forty lives and proved “a lasting trauma” for West Oakland. For his own part, Beasley went back in the days that followed and gathered up long twisted bundles of thick-gauge rebar, some of the very strands that had so catastrophically failed in the collapse, melted the rebar down, and cast the molten steel into what he considers perhaps his only overtly political work of art, his Pillars of Cypress:
That piece, evoking one of the collapsed freeway pillars, was intended to memorialize the volunteer efforts of his neighbors who’d risked their very lives in direct contravention of police aspersions on that dreadful day, and, incidentally, anticipated a similar reclamation of twisted rebar by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei following the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.
“And yet,” Beasley recalled, “at the same time, it has to be acknowledged that the now-collapsed freeway had been hated. Put up in the early fifties, it was this big, dark gash of concrete, completely dividing the neighborhood, utterly blocking the sky, and with trash continually building up underneath—it was more than an eyesore, it was a was a thumb in the eye of the entire neighborhood. So, when it came down and suddenly the sky opened up and the light came pouring in—I don’t mean that we didn’t share profound feelings for the people who had died, but it was wonderful not to have it there any longer.”
Cal Trans was initially eager to resurrect a new freeway in the exact ruins of the old one, but the agency had not factored in the fierce resolve of South Prescott. Beasley and his Prescott neighbors mobilized in opposition to that plan, nixing the double-decker causeway and even forcing a rerouting of its ground-level replacement. They fought for and prevailed with their vision of turning the old right of way into a 1.5-mile-long, meandering green parkway planted with 600 trees.
“With the added bonus” Beasley now told me, “that in the process our neighborhood cemented its well-deserved reputation: “Don’t mess with South Prescott.”
In the end, it seemed, only South Prescott and its own progress could mess with South Prescott. The neighbors had so vastly improved the neighborhood that, what with its proximity to the BART station and Silicon Valley, prices began soaring in the inevitable dance of gentrification.
“Gentrification,” Beasley now said with a sigh. “It’s such a painful issue for me, a shadow over my heart: this way that making the neighborhood more beautiful with and for the residents ended up making it more desirable for everybody else, too. When I grew up, the whites were leaving the inner cities and moving out to the suburbs to raise their families, and I was one of the first who came back the other way. But for the kids who grew up in the inner city, there was no magic about the inner city. So, when their parents died and they inherited those houses, they were eager to move out. Several right here on this block. I’d go over and urge them not to sell. ‘Come on,’ I’d say, ‘stay, you’ve got friends here, we’re a real neighborhood.’ But they’d answer, ‘Oh Bruce, come on, with the money I can get selling this property in this market, out in Vallejo I can buy a bigger house on a better lot.’ And who was I to tell them they shouldn’t?”
He paused, reflecting. “But I sure miss the solidarity. The younger whites who are moving in, they’re okay, but they lack a spirit of community engagement. They come out of their houses and apartments each morning, headed for BART, their eyes fixated on their little screens. Back in the day, neighbors made eye contact, said hi across the street, inquired how things were going. There’s hardly any of that anymore.
“So, there you have it,” Beasley now moved to sum up his position. “I imagine that a sixty-year record of civic engagement qualifies me to be considered an activist artist. And as such I still feel that there ought to be room for artists like me within the currently roiling discourse, to qualify as a political artist, albeit one whose artistic production simply does not itself reflect any strong political sensibilities.”
What about those stacked cube pieces he’d been showing me back in the studio, those crystalline cuboid accumulations, each individual cube seemingly growing out of the others, reminiscent of some of those Proto-Cubist townscapes of Cezanne and later Braque and Picasso?
Mightn’t they suggest a sort of abstract parallel with the civic activism, the veritable town-building, he’d been so vividly engaged in at the very moment of their creation on that other, supposedly walled-off, track of his life?
Or the massive transparent acrylic sculpture titled Apolymon now gracing the state capitol grounds in Sacramento, for example, or some of the vertically twisting and soaring conglomerations situated in public sites across the globe—mightn’t one interpret
those, at least partially, as celebrations of such political virtues as transparency, in the one case (and that at the very end of the Nixonian Watergate era!), or of the reach toward liberty, freedom or sheer aspiration in the other? Beasley almost bridled at the suggestion. “No,” he insisted, “really not, not from my perspective as their creator, none of that is going on in any of them. And I’d rather you not pursue such facile correlations. I think, instead, that it would be great to open an artworld conversation about the difference—philosophic, aesthetic, ideological—between merely representing politics in art and actually enacting social change. ”
And yet, looking at things from the other side, what of the value in the work, say, of such blatantly political artists as Ed Kienholz, with his Vietnam or abortion or mental hospital pieces? “As it happens,” Beasley replied, “I knew Ed quite well and for a long time, going all the way back to our shared participation in that Art of Assemblage show at MOMA in the early sixties, and I admired him enormously, even went to visit him on occasion up at his compound in Hope, Idaho—that NonWar Memorial piece of his I think is one of the great political statements of the last century. And I want to be clear on this: I am not criticizing other ways of being a political artist. It’s just that I myself am singularly devoted to abstraction for its own sake, to the pure expressive potential of shape and form. That has fueled my creative endeavors and marked my life as an artist. But I am also a singularly dedicated citizen. And both facts should be able to co-exist.”
I pressed back a bit more. What of someone like Robert Irwin, the great Light and Space master and seemingly one of the least conventionally political artists ever, so emphatic is he in focusing on perception itself as the pure subject of his art, that and perhaps coaxing the viewers of that art to perceive themselves perceiving—what of his claim that expanding people’s perceptual capacities necessarily expands their ability to perceive both the reality and the interconnectedness of the world around them, and as such has decidedly political implications?
“Well,” Beasley responded, “I guess I just don’t see how I address my civic responsibility by making beautiful things, in the hope perhaps of bringing out a more refined political sensibility in the viewer. I feel that if you see an injustice, you need to respond to it directly.”
The room began to darken, a harbinger of the coming evening.
“I suppose it all goes back to my being a hands-on sculptor,” Beasley surmised, “and the mere fact that sculptors have to be, no matter what else, distinctly practical – philosophical ruminations just won’t get a spatial object built or keep it standing. Most sculptors tend by nature to be grounded. We have to be. We can’t make real three-dimensional objects that stand, exist, and persist in our haptic world if we’re not grounded in well-considered processes and outcomes. We are inherently involved in the physicality of what is real.
“There’s a great passage in Leonardo’s notebook about painting being more refined than sculpture—he was apparently disparaging Michelangelo—and he wrote something along the lines that the painter sits very neatly in front of his easel wearing velvet and silk while listening to boys playing lutes, but the sculptor hammers
away on his stone covered in sweat and dust. Leonardo meant that as a criticism of the directness of sculpture. But you can’t insult us sculptors for the physicality of our work—it is the core of what we do. It’s messy, it’s lived and it has to exist within the physical reality of our world. Civic work is similarly messy, hard and necessarily practical. It also exists in the reality of our world. And I don’t quite understand claims of the relevance of social activism—artistic or any other—that does not do the same.”
Beasley went into a long description of some recent work of his, planting a tall new sculpture on site onto its precision engineered base, all the prior calculations that had gone into the process, the winching and lifting and then slotting of the thing’s precisely measured pins into the base’s perfectly pre-drilled holes so that everything could be held in place, vertical, soaring and secure.
I told him that all of that in turn sounded exactly like the way he and his neighbors had approached his meetings with city bureaucrats, the CalTrans bunch, or his own ultimate confrontation with the guy from Southern Pacific, how he had to have it all set up in advance. He knew the guy was going to say this, and he had to be ready with an answer that was going to do that, and so forth, and that that was how one got “If Looks Could Kill” moments to happen.
Beasley broke into a broad smile: “That’s exactly the point. And to me, that’s the art connection. As with one’s art, one’s activism has to center on things that can be achieved, that take shape in the world. Not solely intellectually, nor philosophically, nor ideologically based, but for real.”
The room had gone quite dark and, getting up, we decided to go out into the garden to watch the night come on.
NOTE: This piece was included in the recently published, lavishly illustrated catalog Bruce Beasley: Sixty Year Retrospective (1960-2020), out from Scala and Grounds for Sculpture.
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Cartoons by David Stanford.
The Animal Mitchell archive.
And finally, in closing, another Convergence:
Adam Tooze’s Chartbook (which if you’re not following it, you should be, and if you are, you should consider subscribing as well!) just included this remarkable bit of documentary footage of a farmer, born in 1842, talking about life and change, shot in 1929:
I forwarded the footage to a variety of friends, and my brother Ray in Berkeley immediately shot back: “Awesome, and here’s his grandson:”
Dana Carvey as A Grumpy Old Man on SNL.
A footnote to end all footnotes, on the history of footnotes and Edward Gibbon and Sigmund Freud and Edward and Judith Bernays—all (like those before it from earlier on in this Substack series) from a book you never have to read but at least now could if you wanted, because (ta-daah!) it is finally out. And more…
Becoming a paid subscriber would create a convergence between our need and your generosity, and our gratitude would make it a three-fer.
What a wonderful read. I will be looking at Oakland more carefully next time I get there. That collapsed freeway still haunts me when I’m visiting my daughter there. Love you artists who realize their vision! Carolyn Garcia
Thank you for such an interesting and inspiring newsletter with Issue 29.