Leonardo Drew's newest and largest work to date, Number 197 (on view through October 29),
activates and energizes the atrium of the de Young Museum in San Francisco with an orchestrated
arrangement of wall-mounted sculptural elements. Claudia Schmuckli, the de Young's curator-in-charge
of contemporary art and programming, invited Drew to create the first in a continuing series of site-specific installations
designed to respond to the museum's landmark architecture. Drew uses a variety of off-the-shelf materials--wood, cardboard, paint,
paper, plastic, rope, and string--combining them with occasional found objects such as branches or tree trunks. In his studio, he subjects
these elements to labor-intensive manipulations that mimic natural processes, giving the illusion that they have burned, rotted,
Number 197 is a good example of what Drew calls "making chaos legible." It reads like music or text, moving right to left in mostly
straight horizontal lines that progress down the walls from ceiling to floor, accented with textural elements and occasional bits of
color, broken up with jagged black sticks and chunks erupting from the corners.
Drew, who was born in Tallahassee, Florida, and grew up in the housing projects of Bridgeport, Connecticut, now lives and works
in Brooklyn and internationally. He attended Parsons School of Design and received a BFA from the Cooper Union in 1985. He considers
his works as a continuum, with new projects feeding off those that came before. Like many of his works from the early 1990s on, Number
197, which harks back to Number 123 (2007), employs the grid as an organizing principle while also subverting it. Drew has had solo
shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and Artpace
in San Antonio, Texas. His mid-career survey, "Existed: Leonardo Drew," also curated by Schmuckli, premiered at the Blaffer Art Gallery
of the University of Houston in 2009 and traveled nationally.
Number 159, 2012. Wood and aluminum, 114 x 186 x 71 in.
Jane Ingram Allen: Number 197 was commissioned
by the de Young Museum, but
what was its inspiration? Why do you
number your works rather than giving them
Leonardo Drew: As far as inspiration, I work
pretty much around the clock in the studio,
18 to 20 hours a day sometimes, and it's
an ongoing process--one work feeds the
next. It's a symbiotic relationship with
what is occurring in my life at certain times
and how that is translated into what I
do in the studio. My life is the studio, but
traveling and seeing constitute revelations--
like jazz music, or music in general.
I am developing a cuneiform, and the
parts are a microcosm of possibilities. The
elements come together to create tone,
with a resonance between tones, like key
notes in music.
JIA What do you want people to get from
your work, particularly from Number 197?
LD: I don't think one can exist without the
other--viewer and artist. There's complicity
between them. I want people to read the
work and experience it. I would love to be
a fly on the wall and hear what people
are saying when they look at my work.
You are not giving them anything but the
actual work, and sometimes it becomes
a black hole that they have to work their
way out of. A photograph just won't do
it. There's nothing like standing in front of
the work. It's like standing in front of the
Grand Canyon, as opposed to looking at
a picture of it. There should be a spiritual
connection between the viewer and the
work, which happens only when standing
before the actual work. What the viewer
should come away with, I hope, is a version
of what I went through to create it.
JIA How did you react to the huge lobby
at the de Young Museum? Was the space
challenging or intimidating?
LD: Yes, I can do big. This is probably my
largest piece, but for me, small would
actually be more of a challenge. Making
something grandiose, large scale, involving the whole body, for
me, is like an exorcism. I have to get it out. The three walls
impressed me--a perfect three-point perspective, a demand to
use all three walls. An artist and a museum working together like
this always has to be coordinated, and you have to consider all
parts of the triangle--museum, public, artist--and give them all
equal consideration. That being said, the artist needs to feel
affirmed; he needs to be allowed to realize his dream in full, and
the museum, in effect, has to get out of the way. The given is
that they understand the history and the impact of art. They can't
take the paintbrush out of your hand. The artist needs to give a
rounded and full experience and get to the truth about the work;
it's important to stay centered.
Number 186, 2016. Wood, paint, screws, metal,
and Conté crayon, 180 x 109 x 25 in.
JIA Did you see the space before coming for a week to do the
LD: It was not necessary to see the space beforehand. Oddly enough,
in this respect, I can get a sense of the space through photographs
and measurements. It made perfect sense to do all three
walls. At first, the museum thought only of using the center wall.
For some years, they had a Gerhard Richter painting there, but I
knew it had to be all three walls. I had no inclination to spare the
other walls because of expense or damage or anything like that. I
wanted to take on the whole thing. I said, "What if you activated
the space and gave the public something they could wrap their
heads around and that, in effect, would wrap around them?"
JIA How do you relate to materials? What kinds of materials compose
Number 197? Are there recycled objects or parts from nature?
LD: I am not a found object artist. I create material in the studio,
and it is absolutely necessary for me to go through this process.
The work echoes the natural. We are connected to nature, not
separate from it. We are all lived in and weathered. I do not distance
myself from this process. I become the weather. It is important
to understand the layering, the history, and the nature
of nature. There is the illusion of decay and burning, but it's all
done in the studio. Going through the whole process is important
to my work. For example, in the cotton wall piece I did some
years ago, I went through the whole process of cutting it, layering
it, stacking it, and making the cotton cubes. About 10 years later,
I saw my whole sculpture sitting in a cotton field outside of
Atlanta. There was a machine that did everything without having
to go through all the work that I had done in the studio. But I have
a need to create the work with my hands.
JIA Black, white, and neutrals dominate your work. How important
is color to you?
LD: Color is definitely there. I have been drawing and painting all
my life. My first exhibition, at age 13, consisted of drawings and
paintings. After 1982, I decided to find
another way. In order to find my voice, I
needed to tie my hands--no more drawing,
no more painting. Color had been a big
part of how I saw things. Jackson Pollock
was an important influence. Now color has
returned. I have been working with porcelain
in China, and color is an important
part of the history of that art. I have been
traveling to different provinces, studying
with different masters. I am trying to get
past my failures with the material. I want
to create something substantial with
porcelain, that says something about this
part of my journey. I feel there is something
there, and I want to realize it. When
I go back to China, I will start to put
together all the things I have learned (and
what they have learned from me). I have
to live this out.
JIA Could you talk about your working
process and how you put together the de
Young installation? Did you use parts from
LD: The way of realizing something like this
is through improvisation, like improvised
jazz. You start off with one note and then
go from there. It is a complex process, but
in the end, it has a structure. You have
anchors that are like planets and then stars
and solar systems surrounding those
planets. You have to think more cosmically,
and you fall into a rhythm to develop the
overall. I don't feel like any one piece is
sacred. This work is actually made up of
other works that have been taken apart,
expanded, and changed. I cannibalize parts
from other works to create new work. Anything
is possible; doors are continuously
opening, and possibilities are always there.
It pulls me along--sometimes it's a rough
ride. It is a way of realizing things. I have
to test it, feel it, create it.
Number 185, 2016. Wood, paint,
pastel, and screws, 121 x 134 x 30 in.
JIA You create via trial and error?
LD: Yes, it's making sense of chaos. It could
be unreadable chaos, but I make sense of
chaos. I think of it as making chaos legible.
There is a book coming out that I created
and designed using my notes, writings, and
sketches. In this monograph, you will be
able to see, by way of photos, how things
are developed in the studio. The books that
are available on-line are very expensive, so
I wanted to do a inexpensive version. I will
give the public a cookbook that will allow
them to create their own Leonardo.
JIA Looking at your de Young installation,
I see the many parts, as well as the whole. I
really like the area that resembles an explosion
coming from the corner. The almost
violent eruptions of black elements against
the white walls give off lots of spontaneous
LD: I almost didn't create that part. It's like
an improvisation, flying by the seat of your
pants. I asked myself, "Okay, what has to
happen now?" Trying to figure it out was
where that explosion came from. It almost
didn't get done.
JIAWhat do you see as the relationship of
your work to sculpture? Why do you usually
work in wall relief?
LD: My works are indeed sculpture, but
sculptures that evolved from painting. It's
sculpture that understands two-dimensional
composition, but is fully realized in
three dimensions. Pollock was a key influence;
he made sense out of chaos. Other
influences would be Richard Serra for understanding
how the body accents and affects
scale. I leave no stones unturned, and I use
every material--porcelain, cotton, paper,
wood. Change is a constant. All the works
are merging and progressing. For example,
you can see how Number 8 and Number 14
add up to Number 43.
Number 197, 2017. Wood, mixed
media, paper, and paint, view of
installation at the de Young Museum,
JIA What are you doing next?
LD: Going back to China to continue my
work with porcelain. The book is also coming
out this year. In the summer of 2018
or 2019, I will be doing a public art piece
for Madison Square Park in New York City.
This will be a monster project in the middle
of the park in the middle of the city.
I am thinking that rather than doing the
obvious monumental sculpture, like what
has been done before, I would like the
viewer to be the giant, like a giant looking
down on a city in the grass.
Jane Ingram Allen is an artist, curator,
and art writer who lives in California.