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An Interview with John Van Alstine
by Glenn Harper
Van Alstine is widely known for works that combine stone, steel, and found
objects (sometimes industrial in origin and sometimes natural or manmade
forms cast in bronze). The work is abstract yet allegorical, exhibiting
an ongoing narrative that is carried forward by the artists alchemical
combination of forms and materials. He began his career as a stone sculptor,
emulating Brancusi, Arp, and Moore. but he soon became interested in Noguchis
use of rough-hewn rocks and in the Postminimalist strategies of Richard
Serra and Jackie Ferrara, among others. In the 1970s, he began assembling
stones, taken straight from the quarry, with added wood and steel elements.
His later works continue to juxtapose stone and steel, but in the context
of the inherent imagery of found objects that suggest human industry and
labor as well as the history and fate of the environment and the landscape.
Tether (Boys Toys) (1995) is a key work that includes a huge airplane
fuel tank that floats at the end of a chain above a large round stone
and an anchor. The assemblage suggests a vessel or a missile and brings
to mind both the constructive and the destructive, the comic and the apocalyptic
aspects of boys toys. Van Alstines formal language
includes tools, vessels, voyages, and rams horns, always in combination
with the dichotomy of stone and metal that forms the basis of his artistic
vocabulary. As Nick Capasso has noted, his works also establish
places of contemplation, about humanitys many physical, cultural,
and spiritual relationships with the land and our planetary home.
Glenn Harper: Your work seems to start with stone, even though
youve used it most often in conjunction with metal.
John Van Alstine: Stone is central to my work, although I do most
of the hands-on work with metal. My first stone works were carved, but
it didnt take long for the idea of smoothing out the stone, trying
to make it into something that it wasnt (the Arp or Brancusi influence),
to give way to the ideas of Noguchi and other influences, such as Japanese
gardens, where stone is accepted, even championed for what is. I grew
up in upstate New York and spent a lot of time in New England. I vividly
remember the rough split-granite fence posts, sidewalks, and outcroppings
of granite. But like many sculptors of my generation, I was influenced
by David Smith. So, ultimately the work is a confluence of different materials
and approachesthe duality of an Eastern acceptance of stone and
a 20th-century industrial American can do attitude toward
GH: What led you to assemblage as a method?
JVA: I realized that I wanted to work larger, so I started using
multiple stones and then introduced wood elements. I began using stone
as an additive element rather than carving it in the traditional subtractive
way. Some of the pieces incorporated found curbstones that were pinned
together. The drilling channels in the rough stone gave the work a quarry
graphic, adding a visual cadence, and revealed a history of how
the material was extracted from the ground. Also, because of their cylindrical
nature, the channels suggested a logical way to connect the stone via
solid round bars that, in the early sculpture, appeared as large staples.
Then I eliminated the wood and started taking greater advantage of the
structural capabilities of the materials, creating systems of interlocking
steel bar to control and to hold the stone. For instance, in Boundary
(1976) the granite is literally bound by the steel in such
a way that the four stones rest on their edges with an opening underneath.
To assemble the work, the stones are propped up and the formed steel rod
is wrapped around them, then the blocks are kicked out, and the whole
piece settles into a bound position. I felt that I was creating realistic
sculpture because of the real energy involved. In other pieces, such as
Crimp (1976) and Torque I (1976), the weight of the stone applies the
energy to crimp or torque the bars together and
actually provides the glue that holds the works together. I wanted the
works to be a static energy event. People have referred to these as my
mousetrap pieces, because they have that sort of energy.
GH: You make arm gestures when you describe the steel system that
holds those pieces togetherwere you thinking figurally, as in arms
holding the stone, when you made the pieces?
JVA: A little bit, yeah. I was showing the slides somewhere, and
one person commented that the fitting together of the steel forms reminded
him of the Elks Club handshake.
GH: The relation of your work to landscape seems to have a lot
to do with human effort rather than
a pure landscape: its not Frederick Church, its
the farmer or laborer at work in the landscape.
JVA: I do respond to the idea of the farmer taking a plow and cutting
lines in the field. But Im even more interested in the tools used
and in their functional and conceptual relationship to the landscape.
In 1976, I moved to Laramie, Wyominguntil then I had lived in the
East, where the landscape is generally obscured by vegetation. The Western
landscape was stripped bare, revealing the geology and conveying vast
amounts of information about its formation and history. Considering that
stone was my primary material, all of this had a profound impact. There
was an empowering sense of scalethe overwhelming amount of sedimentary
stone, created by millions of years of layering. Sparked by Jackie Ferraras
1970s stacked plywood pieces and the way they were informed by the layers
in that material, I started building works that incorporated stacked Colorado
flagstone to echo or reiterate the nature of the material and how it came
into existence. The more I worked on this series the more I realized how
much a fundamental human activity stacking is; it is a common, universal
form of sculpture. We stack to store, to move, to count, to
take inventory, to build, etc. I began to notice all kinds and ways, different
shapes and forms, with lumber, firewood, stone, hay, many types of architecture,
etc. I started putting spacer bars in between the stacked stones, to create
a visual tension and to increase the volume, and also so you could get
your fingers in and out as you stack them. They arent just round
straight bars, they make a little u, so that they cant
roll off (though they give the feeling that they could).
GH: Tripod with Umbilical (1982) is a work that marked a shift,
a breakthrough: the steel isnt just structural, its a graphic
line trailing off into the air.
JVA: I had moved to Washington, DC, late in 1980, and the Tripod
piece was like my flag going up to say, Im beginning to break
away. The umbilical or squiggly steel bar was a sort
of lifeline back to where I had been and forward to something else.
In the Clear (1982) combined this continuing need to break away with a
timely discovery of a supply
of crushed I-beams, pipes, and tubes, found in a subway construction yard
just outside the city. The piece incorporates a physical suggestion of
vegetation and in one way its a landscape reference, in a
clearing, but at the same time its about breaking clear
from that self-imposed restriction of only making structurally driven
GH: The found objects in the more recent works are ultimately as
much landscape, urban landscape, as the pieces that reflect the West.
JVA: The industrial and marine salvage landscape in Jersey City,
where I moved in 1983, had a major impact on my work, both as a source
of found objects, such as anchors, chain, buoys, and cleats, and as a
place with unique and compelling characteristics.
The calming characteristic of marine salvage yards, which are transitional
zones from the intensity of the city to the serenity of the sea, has inspired
many works. Tether (Boys Toys) (1995), for example, uses a 1,500-pound
anchor to hold aloft a large piece of animated welded chain and a wafting
torpedo form. It generates a passive, almost weightless feeling of being
viewed from underwater. When I was working on it, I was reminded of the
magic I felt as a kid when I first saw farmers mailboxes along a
county road floating atop welded chain. The fact that the piece simultaneously
conveys a sense of folksy and marine urban attracted
me. The floating cigar/missile/penis form seemed to demand that it reference
made several works that use large ocean buoys found in these yards; in
fact one is titled Buoy (1995). Its occurred to me that the act
of making art is like dropping buoys as you bob along in your stream
of creativity, leaving floating reminders of where youve been.
GH: A lot of the found objects seem to have to do with working,
with effort or fabrication.
JVA: Many of my works incorporate anvils, either real or cast.
Anvils have a shape suggestive of a boat or vessel, which implies journeyan
implication that interests me. But as a metal worker, its the place
where I physically and conceptually forge things together. Its almost
like an altar. Also, the anvil is the quintessential heavy object, and
to get it up in the air creates a wonderful sense of tension.
I use references to tillers, both in the sense of the agricultural implement
and tiller as a navigational device. The idea of an instrument that aids
one in carrying out decisions, to chart a course, is significant. Its
a metaphor for the very thing that distinguishes us from other beings
on the planet.
GH: There are other seagoing references, especially vessels.
JVA: The ship or vessel is a common and perhaps universal metaphor
for passage. Many of the found objects that I was attracted to suggest
boat forms. Actually, the vessels in my work started out first as containers,
influenced by my background as a potter. I put myself through graduate
school working as a production potter, and playing off the idea of a functional
vessel is in my vocabulary. The works in the Chalice series, for example,
start with the suggestion of function, but because of their scale (613
feet), unusual combination of materials, and unnerving positioning of
elements, they move beyond function and transform all the elements, including
the open-ended aluminum aeronautical fuselage, into something akin to
spirited cups of life.
GH: In the Chalice series, did you polish the aluminum to get the
JVA: Sort of. I took a belt sander and worked through the applied
paint, revealing different layers of color and, in some places, sanding
down to the aluminum. In a way, its a lot like my drawings, where
I add color, building up layers of pastel and charcoal, and then go back
with an eraser, digging through to reveal some of whats underneath.
GH: How do you plan the sculptures? Do you select the materials
first or match the materials to an idea?
JVA: I seldom work from a predetermined plan or drawing. I have
a big reservoir of found objects: stone, steel, and other nonmetallic
objects. When I travel, I try to collect interesting things that I think
someday, somehow might inspire a piece. In the studio I do a lot of experimenting,
like an alchemist putting stuff together until something happens. Sometimes
it works and sometimes it doesnt; you keep at it until you feel
like youve got something. I use a fishing analogy: you work hard
to get a keeper, sometimes you have to throw it back.
The fun part is bringing disparate elements together and never quite knowing
where its going to lead. Usually the piece reveals itself as its
developing, in terms of what the title might be or ultimately what it
GH: There is a figural aspect to your work in that (except for the
large public pieces) its at your scale, you are in the middle of
it putting it together. But there are also more explicit references to
JVA: For a long time I really didnt want to acknowledge the
figure, but I came to the point where it was a conscious aspect of the
work. Reconsidering Sisyphus (1992), for example, is, in a way, a self-portraitIm
out there literally pushing stone around, aiming for this very elusive
place, and once there, I start over again, with no real end.
For the artist, the creative experience is not a goal, one never just
reaches the top and says Im done.
more recent pieces refer to movement of the figure, particularly the Juggler
and the Pique à Terre series. Pique à terre is a term from
classical French ballet for a pose with one toe touching the ground, the
other foot firmly planted, and a sweeping arm gesture. Once you are aware
of the title, when you see the piece the connection is clear. I am in
a sense choreographing these works, getting a heavy weight off the ground
and making it dancetaking what is often seen as a negative, the
fact that stone is damn heavy and a big hassle to move around, and turning
it into a positive.
GH: For the large public pieces, there is also a found-object quality
in the stone. Are you actually cutting a piece to match a maquette?
JVA: Landing large commissions can be really tough for me. I present
a scale model, but there is no way that I want to go out and try to chip
a large stone into that exact shape. It would never have the sense of
spontaneity or freshness that I feel my work demands. So Im always
making qualifications, saying, This is the spirit of the work, and
we will find a stone that will convey those same movements and characteristics,
but its not going to be exactly the samehopefully it will
be better! The trick is to get the client or committee to trust
you and feel comfortable with this way of working; sometimes thats
GH: Your public works have their own distinct imagery, they dont
just use the smaller works as a template. How did that develop?
JVA: I had a chance to spend time in England and visited many standing
stone sites. It got me thinking much larger, thinking about placing stones
in a way that would track larger landscape forms or the movement of the
earth and ultimately create works with a more meaningful connection to
their site or setting. Trough (1982), my first large-scale public piece,
in Billings, Montana, consists of two large slabs of granite held in perpetual
suspension by two interlocking linear steel elements. In addition to being
the climax of my early tension pieces in terms of scale and
raw power, the physically charged negative space created between these
very large arrested stones was designed to echo the main geological
formation in the area, an impressive trough cut through the high plains
by the Yellowstone River.
Other public art pieces were influenced in part by sites out West, like
the Anasazi sun dagger, as well as Meso-American pyramids and observatories.
Solstice Calendar (1986), built for Austin College in Sherman, Texas,
has two large, 22-foot-high columns of stone connected near the top with
a four-inch diameter stainless steel rod. The work is aligned north/south
so that on the summer solstice, light from the noon sun (which is then
at its highest) passes through the columns and creates a shadow which
aligns with the solstice bar on a third, low horizontal stone element.
Each day that follows, the noon sun is a bit lower, creating a shadow
a little further down the horizontal stone. It reaches the equinox marker
on or around March 20, continuing until it arrives at the winter solstice
bar, where it reverses course and returns to complete the cycle. I was
working in Jersey City at the time, and my studio happened to have one
western window, the only window, and when the sun would set every day
I would get a beam of light that would slowly work its way around the
room until the solstice and then come back.
GH: Recently, youve included animal horns and other organic
forms. What led you to natural forms?
JVA: The introduction of organic forms, animal horns, and other
nautilus-like shapes is really a spin-off from the arc that Ive
used a lot, a pure geometric shape that is an ideal link between disparate
materials. Ive been looking for ways to expand that idea. Currently
I live in the Adirondack Mountains where hunting is a big part of the
history and culture. You see a lot of mounted trophy heads
is big; in a way, its a local form of sculpture. I find many of
the horns very exciting from a purely formal perspective. Plus, they add
all kinds of interesting symbolism and associations. Once theyre
cast in bronze, you can weld them and use them as you would any metal
GH: Your use of color has changed from the stone and steel works
to pieces with applied color to the combination of bronze and stone.
JVA: The stone in the early stacked pieces is Colorado flagstone;
its a kind of neutral pukey pink in color. Youd
stack it on the truck, and it would scrape and take its own marks of use,
creating an interesting patina and revealing its history. Because the
stones were all flat and rectilinear, the marks began to appear like writing
on a tablet, in a way describing what they were and where they had been.
That weird color was wonderful, because I wanted the viewer to focus on
the stones volume, its weight, its history, its geological layering,
not on how pretty it was. Ive always been put off by stones that
seem too pretty or polished and look like plastic. They attract
attention for the wrong reason and seem too sweet. They hurt my aesthetic
In some later pieces, I added color to the stone, thinning enamel and
letting it soak in. This was influenced partly by living in the West,
where I came across stones that seemed unreal because of their crazy shades
of gold or yellow. By slightly tinting the stones in the sculpture, I
was able to tap into a similar sense of mystery, getting to the point
where most people didnt know if the color was real or altered.
GH: How does that sense of color relate to the more recent pieces
with additive color?
JVA: The addition of color on pieces such as Drastic Measures (198487)
or Luna (1985), and others done around the same time, came as a spin-off
of my work with pastel drawings. At that time, I was using mostly gray
granite and steel, which can be very monochromatic, and I got to a point
where I felt I needed more color excitement. The early painted works were
more like stoneware glazesmuted, very earthy, very low-key colors,
influenced by my work as a potter.
GH: In some of the more recent pieces, like Column II (1999), there
is a lot of color.
JVA: Yes, I guess thats my recent reaction to late winter
in the Adirondacks; it seems mostly gray up there then. I started experimenting
with color again, with very flat enamels, first applying different and
distinct color on each of the geometric elements of
a work, and staining the stone. By the end of that series (there were
five columns), I began blending the colors, rubbing through them with
solvents to reveal some of the layers underneath. To mute things a bit
I added dark sprays, working the surface like my drawings. I guess working
through the cycle I ended up near, but not quite, where I started. This
happens a lot with my work, its one way it grows. I push out in
a new direction, reaching a point of being uncomfortable and then cycle
back, hopefully not
to the exact spot, stay there for a while, then launch out again.
GH: When did you start working in bronze?
JVA: Somewhere around 1988 or 1989. There were a couple of reasons:
maintenance of outdoor works, and I wanted to reuse some of the particularly
interesting found objects in several different pieces. I work with a foundry
in Brooklyn that does sand casting, and that is great for me, because
99 percent of my pieces are unique. The fact that I am not usually interested
in editions makes sand casting efficient and reasonably economical. I
take parts that need to be cast to the foundry and retrieve their bronze
counterparts just the way they come out of the sand. I like the rips,
tears, and textures that occur during the casting process. I approach
them like new found objects, accepting and incorporating their new information
into the piece. Once back in my studio, the bronze is fit with the stone,
and I do whatever welding or pinning that is needed, then the patina is
applied. Casting both expands what I can do with the objects and introduces
fresh important new information to the mix.
GH: Your work has a suggestive rather than a linear relationship
with the mythologies and the histories and landscapes that you refer to.
Do you think that comes from the additive way that you work?
JVA: I think so. As Im putting objects together I try to
be very mindful of their individual associations, their past histories,
and ultimately what they will communicate when combined. Sometimes when
working, a mythological reference or interesting notion about the landscape
will suggest itself which provides a vehicle for comment or communication.
I guess the trick is to be open to those suggestions when they arise.
Like most artists, Im looking for common truths or conditions that
not only speak to me but make sense and connect to a broader audience.
GH: All your work, not just the large public art, has an epic qualitysuggesting
the sweep of human history, a larger language or scope. Is that an outgrowth
of a conscious choice to look in the long view, the large scale?
JVA: Yes, in my mind, significant sculpture or art strives to reveal
universals, rather than being navel-oriented. Im interested in making
statements or raising questions that generate discussions on broad, universal
topics, uncovering truths that resonate and echo.
This interview is adapted from a longer discussion that appears in Bones
of the Earth, Spirit of the Land: The Sculpture of John Van Alstine, published
this year by Editions ARIEL, an imprint of Grayson Publishing, Suite 505,
1700 17th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20009; 202-387-8500. Price: $24.95.
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