|A publication of the International Sculpture Center
Collecting Experience :
A Conversation with Steven Oliver
by Donna Brookman
Bruce Nauman, Untitled, 199899
Cast concrete, 30 in. wide; .5 miles long
Entering the Oliver Ranch on a narrow climbing road, one suddenly encounters hundreds of white
concrete steps cascading down the hill, crossing the road, and continuing
below. Bruce Naumans site-specific sculpture is one of many commissioned
works scattered throughout the grounds of Steven Olivers Alexander
Valley ranch. A Fontana sound sculpture rumbles in the hills; wind instruments
by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel glint in the trees. Roger Berrys
two large steel arcs precisely track the sun at the summer and winter
solstice. Other works include sculptures by Martin Puryear, Richard Serra,
Ursula von Rydingsvard, and Terry Allen. David Rabinowitchs incised
concrete walls for new artists residences and a planned tower sculpture/performance
space by Ann Hamilton are currently in progress.
Olivers unusual approach to collecting has evolved over time, partly
through his fascination with artistic process. The owner of a large construction
company, he is able to observe, and in many cases facilitate, the realization
of each project. Above all, he wants to allow artists time and space to
engage intimately with the land. Each artist has found a different relationship
to the landscape. Oliver, who is the recipient of the ISCs 2002
Patrons Special Recognition Award, is committed
to making all this possible.
After collecting art for a decade, you commissioned your first site-specific
work from Judith Shea in 1985. What got you started?
In 1985 I was really disgusted with the art world. I was tired of reading
about art on the financial pages. It was one auction record after another.
The world had suddenly discovered contemporary art as commodity. When
my wife and I first started out we collected prints because it was what
we could afford. One time I was talking to a friend over dinner, complaining
about an insurance issueinsuring a work of art going to a museum.
A grin came over this guys face, who up until that time just thought
I was crazy. He said Youre collecting art as an investment!
Youre making money on this stuff! And I said No, no,
Ive never sold anything. Its not that at all.
After that we decided
to commission something. The ranch had then been underway five years as
a working sheep ranch, we were starting to build this house, and I said
to my wife, lets do something site-specific, the purest formI
cant sell it, I cant give it away. The truth is, until Richard
Serra came, I had a heck of a time getting artists. It was the go-go 80s.
Galleries wanted artists in theirstudios producing stuff to sell. They
didnt want them out here mucking around. So we struggled. It all
happened by chance. We learned a lot about ourselves and about the process
during Judith Sheas project. She had been here a lot, and we found
that we missed that, so we said lets do one more.
Ellen Driscoll, Untitled, 2001. Steel rings with bronze overlay
and copper infill, 4 pieces: 814 ft. long.
What got you hooked?
SO: I give
Judith all the credit. Our first try could have been a stinker. But she
sensed our transitionfrom
buying an existing object, when we knew the exact color, shape, and form,
to the commissioning process, when its like a child. If it turns
out bad you cant give it backyoure stuck with it. She
talked through a lot of issues with us, because she was going through
a big transition in her work. Finally she said, You just have to
trust me. And then, we learned where she was headed, and it was
a magical process. Ellen Driscoll and Roger Berry followed; they both
did terrific projects too.
you say something about how the process begins and your insistence on
it being a dialogue with this place?
SO: Each artist
we invite has to come here three times before making a proposal. They
have to come in different times of the yearsummer and winter for
sure, and they can pick either spring or fall. Early on we tried to do
two works a year, which lasted until 1994. Then, with Dennis Leon and
Richard Serra working at the same time, it just became overwhelming.
that was the last time you did two in the same year. I was wondering how
the process evolved over time, and thats one of the elements, obviously.
I felt as though I missed something. There was too much going on, and
Im still working in my own career, so its hard. We decided
to do just one at a time. Over the last five years, some projects became
drawn out, in some cases a year and a half, and Ive become less
concerned about it. I always want the next thing cooking. But I dont
worry about whether a project takes a year or longer.
has your involvement changed over the years? Does it vary dramatically
depending on the specific artist?
SO: Yes, and the
materials. Its been the same from the beginning. Its almost
directly proportional to the amount of time theyre here or the activity
that is here. I was very involved with the Rabinowitch because all the
carving was done here, but in Judiths case the bronze and the cast
head were done in New York. I went there often and saw them in process.
With some its just the installation, with others its the fabrication.
For instance, all of Ursula von Rydingsvards work was done here.
DB: I was
struck by the number of women artists who have completed works here.
SO: Of the
first 10, its about half. We were even with men and women until
last year. The reason is that the womens movement in the 60s
freed women to do non-traditional things. I think the outgrowth we saw
in the late 70s and early 80s benefited from people such as
Eva Hesse who were doing different things. von Rydingsvard was carving
with a chain saw, and Shea was casting iron. Ellen Driscoll is the single
best welder Ive ever seen. Id have my people [construction
workers] come up and Id say, I dont know what shes
doing, but shes doing it a hell of a lot better than you guys are.
Sit here, watch, and learn something.
Miroslaw Balka, 43 x 30 x 2, 43 x 30 x 2,
1554 x 688 x 10,199596. Cast concrete.
is such a variety of work here. Serra and Nauman responded to physical
contours; Judith Shea and Ellen Driscoll, to the Arcadian traditions of
shepherding and growing grapes. Others, such as Miroslaw Balka and Ursula
von Rydingsvard, take it as an opportunity to do something very personal.
Somehow this place frees them. The von Rydingsvard is a big project, an
SO: Yes, and it took
the longest13 months of carving, gluing, picking: she was here throughout
that time. If an artist is given a supportive environment and essentially
no limitations, if they need more time its no problem, theres
no pressure, no deadline. Generally artists who do commissions work
in a public process. The public process is agonizing.
piece that I found very moving was the Balka installation, the footprint
of his childhood home in Poland.
SO: Its fascinatingtwo
Polish artists, two hundred yards apart, the same sort of angst in their
did you find him?
SO: Hes a real
anomaly. In 1993 and 1995 we didnt go to the Venice Biennale. I
called three friends who did, none of whom knew each other, and I asked
what they thought. They all said that one artist knocked them out: Balka.
In 1995 we started tracking him down. Hed had shows at the Renaissance
Society in Chicago and in L.A. We met the dealer in L.A., who helped us
find him. He came several times, picked the site, and did the project.
gave him an amazing level of technical support.
SO: It helps when
youre in the business. The piece is a single casting of white sand
and white cement, so everything came down to one four-hour period. The
concrete had to be mixed, moved here, and placed within 40 minutes, and
it had to be cured properly, so it was a real logistical problem. We worked
about three months to get the schedule right. A local concrete batch plant
allowed us to shut it down for three days while we washed out their bunkers
and brought in sand from the Del Monte beaches on 17 Mile Drive, which
is the purest white sand, and white cement. If youre doing something
serious and interesting, people will go out of their way to help you.
They get into it.
comes across in your documentary video about the Serra piece, too. You
can feel the seriousness of the people involved.
SO: The fascinating
thing was that about a third of the way through the forge master realized
that his workcrushing and smashing the blocks togetherwas
the finished product. He had never been the last one to touch something
before it left the plant. All of a sudden you could see the seriousness
in his face. And this came out because we did a couple of test blocks
that were rejected. Hed never had to be that careful because somebody
was always going to do something with it after he was done. His was ordinarily
an industrial process. When he caught on that this was a finish process,
he took it very seriously.
were quoted as saying that working with Serra on Snake Eyes and Boxcars
was a life-altering experience.
such an electric personality, not always easy; he can be prickly at times.
Weve had our conflicts, but weve crossed the line into friendshipso
he doesnt have any compunction about yelling at me, which is okay
because the relationship is so open. He has a difficult reputation, but
I think he got comfortable with my commitment to his work, which is genuine.
Being around somebody so creative made me understand that this is the
reason Im workingto invest in these relationships. I first
heard about the torqued ellipses here, when Serra drew them for me.
Richard Serra, Snake Eyes and Boxcars, 199093.
Forged Cor-ten steel, 12 blocks: (small) 41 x 41 x 48 in.; (large)
41 x 41 x 7 ft. .
decision to work with an artist for such an extended period is a big commitment,
and you seem to have maintained ongoing relationships with many of them.
SO: Yes. I have a
real continuing interest in their work. A couple of artists whove
worked here have asked to do another project, but Im trying not
to do that. Im trying to have new experiences. I still buy some
of their work; I buy drawings. I try to be at their openings, be supportive
of the work.
has surprised you about being so closely involved with an artists
SO: Im constantly
surprised. I remember one situation in particular. Roger Berry was talking
about the approach to the arch. The road was in a different spot then,
and he said, I really dont like the perspective approaching
it this way. Id rather approach it from over here. And I said,
Well, lets just dig this thing down. Well get the bulldozers
over here. But he said, No, why dont we just change
the path? That was 15 years ago, and I think in some ways the interaction
with artists has changed how I think. Its made me a better person
for my clients. I think more creatively. It seems that artists, who are
often forced to do more with less, tend to be better problem-solvers because
they cant commit unlimited resources.
Having this involvement
in art as a life pursuit gives me a reason for my own work and it enriches
my own work ethic. This is the only reason Im still working. I have
a lot of wonderful clients and we do a lot of interesting projects, but
the brightest people Ive ever worked with are artists. They happened
to choose this venue for expressing themselves, rather than writing or
mixing chemicals in a laboratory.
Someone asked me
recently about beauty in sculpture. I dont think beauty has anything
to do with it anymore. Its intellect. The intellect may be expressed
in a beautiful manner, but Ive come to the conclusion that the difference
between the very good and the very best artists is this incredible intellect.
And Im not sure thats always recognized. That doesnt
mean that the artist has necessarily had financial success. Clearly some
of the people whove worked here are more renowned than others. But
the ones I find intriguing as personalities agonize over the work, twisting
and turning within themselves, and I look over their shoulders while theyre
doing it, which is whats fun. Thats why I said that I found
myself addicted to the process. And when it ends, its gut-wrenching
in some ways. For instance, when Serras project ended we talked
on the phone once a week for three or four months afterward to try to
wean ourselves off the process. We still talk with some frequency, and
I love talking to him. That project was a very intense thing to do.
wondering how seeing the artists respond to the landscape has changed
your own perception of the place.
SO: Immensely. They
see things Id never seen before. My favorite time of year is winter,
when theres a grayness, sometimes fog from the valley. You can see
the shape and form of the trees. Serra, and Roger Berry too, talked a
lot about the shape of the oaks when theyre denuded of leaves. You
learn from each artist. Each has a different look at it.
Roger Berry, Darwin, 198889.
Rolled Cor-ten steel, 22 x 55 ft.
it changed your sense of what art can be or what art does compared to
your years as a collector?
SO: Yes, it
intensifies the relationship. I know a lot of collectors who have no interest
in meeting the artist, and I can understand that they dont want
to personalize or change their relationship with what the artist does.
I never minded that. But you dont want to be persuaded one way or
the other by the artists personality. So, the only rule we have
is that we want to make a decision about the work before we meet the artist.
Know it for a while, see it in some kind of context, then make the decision
to invite them.
DB: Youve talked about the excesses of the 80s as
the driving force that led you to commission site-specific work. Yet these
projects come across as incredibly expensive. Its a paradox. Do
you think its possible to escape commodification, or do you think
its inherent in making an object?
SO: Its a fair
question. I think the only difference is that we never talk about what
they cost and they have no value after they are done. Thats my answer.
Some are more modestly scaled, others are enormously expensive. I just
commit to do it and give
up something else.
about making ephemeral work? Andy Goldsworthy worked here in 1991. How
did you feel about having it all disappear?
SO: It doesnt
bother me at all. Its another experience. In some ways Im
not collecting art, Im collecting experiences now. I find life much
do you feel is the most vital area of contemporary art right now? What
really excites you?
were going through an awkward time right now. The 90s saw
a lot of technological innovation. I got a little lost in film, media,
video, and Web developments, because I lost the hand of the artist. Ive
become more interested in art as craft, although that word sometimes gets
I see Serras hand even in the big cast blocks. Im interested
in the mark that the artist makes. Look at William Kentridges work:
he makes films by doing drawings and then erasing them. He animates erasings
and cut-out pieces of paper. The work is brilliant, and its film,
which five years ago I would have said I didnt like. But now I see
within it the hand of the artist.
Ursula von Rydingsvard, Iggys Pride, 199091.
Cedar with graphite overlay, 6 x 55 x 15 ft.
about your project with Ann Hamilton?
very excited; were in the beginning stages of the engineering. The
survey work was just finished. Ann and I have been friends for 10 years.
See that Artforum magazine over there? Its the only agricultural
cover that Artforum ever had. Those are my sheep in Ann Hamiltons
famous installation at Capp Street Project.
SO: Yes. I
was on the board at Capp Street and helped Ann fund the work. I met her,
she was an incredibly engaging person, and she needed sheep. We became
friends, and as soon as the ranch started I talked to her. Weve
been talking from the late 80s until now, trying to find something
to do. Because her work is so ephemeral, making that permanent mark has
always been hard for her. When she was in the Venice Biennale she developed
whirling curtainsbig cylinders that twirl around, kind of like Sufis
spinning. Then she became interested in towers and began to bring me picture
books and a lot of books about a particular tower in Italy. Her project
here evolved from that tower.
We own a home near
Orvieto, the site of the so-called Well of St. Patrick (152740),
which was built by Clement VII to provide the city with a water supply
in case of attack. The site has a traditional connection to St. Patrick.
The well descends more that 60 meters: in order to get enough water to
the surface the architect designed a double helix staircase. This means
that the mule goes down one staircase, loads up with water, and comes
back up the other staircase. The two staircases never touch; they are
interlaced with each other so that the mule never has to turn around and
never meets another mule. Its the same form as DNA. Ann proposed
a double helix staircase inside the stonework, descending to a water source:
into the ground and up out of the ground. It looks rather agricultural
in form, like a silo, and she wants to put it down by the barn. It will
be a performance space, and she will curate poetry readings and concerts
of a single voice or a single instrument.
We hired acoustic
engineers to do some studies and then realized we didnt really care.
Clearly there are going to be reverberations and echoes. The artists will
adapt to the space. The nice thing is that the audience and the performers
will never be more than a staircase apart, because the audience can all
be on the up staircase and the performers on the down staircase. But theyre
going to be interlaced with each other. Its going to be quite an
sounds magical. The idea of using it for performances makes me wonder
how you imagine the future of the ranch.
now its set up to become a public trust with a maintenance endowment.
The dilemma is that we played along the edge with a lot of the artists.
Weve worked with some acknowledged masters in recent
years, but it hasnt always been that way. So the question is, if
you create a trust out of this, how long do you keep works that may not
be significant? Artists careers get rehabilitated. You dont
want to decide in one year; but is it 100 years or 20 years? At some point
in time works can be removed if theyre not considered significant,
and new works can be commissioned. The only other stipulation is that
we prefer not to be open to the public with picnic tables and garbage
cans, but to have some controlled access for visitors to come in groups.
The rest of the time it would be a residence or retreat center. There
will be three residence facilities when the guest house project is done,
and we bought another building in town.
have worked with a variety of arts organizations, from small alternative
spaces such as Capp Street Project to the NEA. Where do you feel particularly
engaged at the moment?
Martin Puryear, Untitled, 199495.
Stone, 18 x 14 ft.
really a personal thing. I feel engaged with SFMOMA because of Neal Benezra,
who is a friend. Im engaged in the California College of Arts and
Crafts. The new president, Michael Roth, came from the Getty Institute.
CCAC is on the edge of one of those magic moments art schools have, when
things come together.
I chaired some things
for the NEA, but I lost interest when they took away the artist fellowships.
Those $15,000 grants change peoples livesthey stop waiting
tables and get in the studio. Im also chairing the American Arts
Alliance, which is an malgam of ballets, opera, dance, and theater groups.
My job is raising money to support political candidates who support the
arts. Its never been done before. Judy Rubin in New York is my co-chair,
a real powerhouse. We started this two years ago, and weve raised
a fair amount of money. People say, Where have you been for the
last 50 years?"
I like the idea that
there is a healthy variety of alternative spaces. I encourage my fellow
citizens to support them, which is one of the reasons we have visitors
at the ranch. The rules are that visitors have to pay $50 per person to
the visual arts organization of their choice, so weve raised a half
million dollars here for arts organizations. Were open to organizations
that support the visual arts [not individual visitors]. It needs to be
scheduled in advance, but were interested in encouraging citizens
who are curious about the ranch to support their local arts organizations.
is a Bay Area artist and writer.