Neoclassicism, Surrealism, or Pop? Markus Klammer, Stefan Neuner and Andrei Pop in conversation on the Exhibition Charles Ray. Sculptures 1997–2014

Markus Klammer, Stefan Neuner, Andrei Pop
Kunstmuseum Basel, 02.02.2015

Stefan Neuner: I would like to begin our discussion with the following statement: both sculptures in the last room of the exhibition, Sleeping Woman (2012) and Mime (2014) can be seen as allegories of Charles Ray’s project.

Charles Ray          Fig. 1

But not in the sense that the subject of Mime (is a sleeping “Mime” actually sleeping or just acting as if he were sleeping?) superficially suggests, thus, not as an allegory of imitation whose reliability always remains in doubt. What interests me is that in both pieces, the theme of sleep and also something resembling a pedestal play a role: in one, a bench on which the homeless person sits slumped over, and the other, a kind of folding cot. Because Ray’s work grows out of Post-Minimalism. To that effect, his early works are pieces that define themselves as objects situated in real space that are not cordoned off from their environment by barriers consisting of pedestals and frames. Up to this point Ray was a typical Neo-Avantgardist. Then, in the 1990’s, again very typically, his mannequin sculptures touch on the world of simulacra. The artwork situates itself in the world of signs. After that, there is – how shall I say it? – a shift towards classicism. He starts tackling the classical themes of sculpture and the representation of human beings again. And at the same time, the theme of “inner space,” or rather, “the interior” seems to acquire significance. In the sleepers, it appears as a psychological “interior,” as “interiority.” We can see images of humans that ask us to reflect on states of consciousness. We encounter a vision of the depth of our consciousness at the level of content, and are compelled as observers to fathom it within our own imagination. This is exactly what seems to set Ray’s first sculptures apart. And this corresponds with the impression that the new sculptures generate, or should generate, their own space. This is why I find it significant that the exhibition ends with two sculptures where pedestal-like elements appear. In brief, Sleeping Woman and Mime are figures that withdraw inwardly and push outwardly into an independent space (sleep, the bench, or the folding cot), that project a separate space around themselves, and that also erect a barrier between themselves and the viewing public (who wouldn’t keep a sleeping homeless person at a distance?). This is why they seem to suggest an allegorical reading, if I’ve understood Charles Ray’s work correctly.

Andrei Pop: I have a real issue with the notion of the “recurring pedestal,” because in Future Fragment on a Solid Base (2011), for example, we very literally have a pedestal.

charles rayFig. 2

It is perhaps even thematized here (they way it is in Piero Manzoni’s work), but the contraptions on which the two sleeping bodies lie are lacking the framing or parergon function that would make them a classic pedestal. Pedestals are interchangeable. They can be a part of the sculpture or not, existing in relation to a certain notion of craftsmanship, for example, according to which the artist views the pedestal itself as a sculpture, as with a Brancusi or the Sleeping Hermaphroditus. In such works, the pedestal is an integral part of the diegesis and is thus incomplete as a frame. Charles Ray stresses that this is a bench, and that in Mime, everything is allegedly being “mimed,” or it is part of a mime’s performance. I find the argument concerning the inner space of one’s imagination to be interesting. One might also say that it wasn’t possible in the 1960s to make a sculpture of a dreaming boy. We find this same dreamy atmosphere in the bearded young man (Young Man, 2012). That we can sense them even in these “literalist,” pedestal-less sculptures is of course part of the shift to his later style. But do you mean to say that this phenomenon is actually formally tied to the pedestal?

charles rayFig. 3

SN: No, it doesn’t matter whether the pedestal, or something similar, is physically present or not; it’s how a piece of sculpture relates to space. Again, one way of looking at it, loosely speaking, is that the object exists in real space, and the other is that a work constitutes its own sense of space. That there are actual pedestal-like elements in some of the works only reiterates this fundamental question. In this sense it seems significant to me that the relationship between the sculpture and the surrounding space in Ray’s work re-emerges as being represented by a delineated boundary. The contact between the sculpture and the floor seems to be an important motif. I discovered a fascinating detail in Aluminum Girl (2003), which is very schematized, but which has a few, very conspicuous, realistic details. One is in fact the toe, which seems pressed very hard against the floor, and which accentuates the relationship to the real space that the sculpture occupies.

charles rayFig. 4

AP: So, do you see them in the real space of minimalism?

SN: I actually think that Ray is an artist who thinks dialectically. In other words, I don’t believe for one minute that he is trying to say that we can make our way back to traditional sculpture (even when this often appears to be his rhetoric). He comes much more out of the break of the Avant-garde, and this dialectical maneuvering differentiates his work from actual neoclassical figures, like the ones produced in Macedonia, for example.

Markus Klammer: I wanted to come back again to the issue of the pedestal. I remember that during our visit to the exhibition in the Kunstmuseum, Andrei got right down on his knees in the first room in front of Unpainted Sculpture (1997) and noticed that this sculpture of a wrecked car was also standing on a pedestal.

charles ray             Fig. 5

The piece depicts a vehicle jacked up on top of a bunch of bricks. Except the ‘pedestal-ness’ of this first piece in the exhibition is not visible. It testifies instead in a very subtle manner to the months-long, highly detailed working process during which Ray and his assistants transformed a bought, in a sense ‘found’ wreck of an industrially manufactured vehicle into a hand-finished sculpture. They jacked the crashed car up and made molds of every piece of the wreck, which they then used to make reinforced fiberglass copies. Next to the ‘real car’ in real space in the workshop, a second car gradually also came to be, both more real and spookier than its original model. More real, because this other car wasn’t bought; it didn’t come off the assembly line. It was instead hand-made, the result of the activity of bodies, an activity that was in fact based on a certain division of labor, though more in a manufactural than in a Fordist sense. I think the work conveys a sense of sculpture as a non-alienated production, as a re-appropriation of work in post-capitalist terms. The spooky element on the other hand comes from the fact that Unpainted Sculpture doesn’t just represent a car that is never going to be driven again, but shows a car that literally never has, even though it depicts the severe wreckage of an accident. Cause and effect are torn apart from one another to the maximum. The accident that this car suffered was a metaphysical one. In this sense we can read the jacking up also as an allegorical moment that refers to the otherworldliness of the sculpture in relation to physical time, in which the accident of the original model occurred. It is also functions as an umbilical cord that ties the sculpture to its model.

AP: I find Unpainted Sculpture related to Sleeping Woman in an interesting way. But I question whether the idea of an imaginary space is first created through a narration or the subjectivity of the man-made object, to echo Michael Fried, who considered ‘literalist’ sculpture to be soaked in subjectivity. You walk into a phenomenal space and you might even feel threatened by the neutral masses of these sculptures, and so on. So, I find the suggestion that many sculptures don’t have this to be implausible. Perhaps really bad sculptures, but we don’t need to consider them. The pedestal moment in Unpainted Sculpture is interesting, because it may well be that a true car wreck needs bricks so that the pieces don’t fall apart. I am assuming that Ray didn’t need one for his fiberglass version. We can view it as a reference to the making. But I find that superficial somehow. He wants to show us that these are not real things, rather fabricated ones. Fine, but who was expecting anything different?

MK: I don’t agree. It’s not simply about the abstract opposition between “authentic” and fabricated objects, but about the articulation of actual differences that emerge between a wrecked machine and its reconstruction, differences that we find both in terms of the production and of the sculpture itself as we perceive it in the exhibition space. I’m also not sure whether there is a development between Ray’s early works and his current ones, the way Stefan described at the outset, that testifies to the return of the pedestal. Even early works such as Fall ’91 (1992) exhibit pedestal elements. The difference could be seen instead in the pedestal’s function. Whereas the pedestals in the early works are often violent and prosthetic – I would in this sense also term the wooden board in Plank Piece I-II (1973) as a “pedestal” – they serve to embed the figures in these early pieces in a simultaneously real and imaginary space which observers share due to their corporeal nature, but from which they are also fundamentally excluded. If I understand it correctly, Michael Fried calls this space an “absolute space.”[1]

AP: Was Sleeping Woman actually made from one piece? Because Ray placed a lot of emphasis on the fact that in The New Beetle (2006), the car and the child were treated as independent objects. We’re no longer dealing with the monochrome nature of the sculptor’s vision as Rilke described it, which perceives the whole world as the surfaces of an archetypal phenomenon. Ray distinguishes between the various parts. Interestingly in Tractor (2005), engine parts that remain out of sight were meticulously fabricated and then covered.

charles ray          Fig. 6

charles ray            Fig. 7

MK: Ray uses various strategies to connect the different parts of a sculpture and to articulate or mask their seams and joints. Take Mime and Sleeping Woman, for example. In Mime, the connecting points of the individual “limbs” are exhibited as seams, but not in Sleeping Woman. The massive body of the sleeping woman creates the impression that it is sunk into the bench, that it is of the same material as the bench. And in a literal sense, this is in fact true for the whole sculpture is made of stainless steel. I also find there to be a significant difference in the materials Ray has used in his new works – stainless steel, aluminum, fiberglass-reinforced materials – from the kitsch neoclassicism that Stefan located in Macedonia. If you don’t know that Sleeping Woman is made of stainless steel or that Aluminum Girl (2003) is made of a lacquered aluminum, the white color having been applied with a spray gun, and you instead imagine the material as marble… Ray often goes through a several years-long process experimenting and testing the right “materiality” for his sculptures. And he has to convey this process to his audience. It fundamentally belongs to the structure of the artwork.

AP: But that’s a weakness if the artist has to come tell us that his assistants have been welding this thing for years.

SN: That brings us to an important question: to what extent are production and materiality visible?

MK: But are we agreed that this constitutes an essential difference from a kind of tasteless neoclassicism?

SN: There are surely many other differences as well. I would first point out a moment of tension between the literal nature of the reproduction in the work and the more abstract aspects. This strikes me as essential for the works’ esthetic effect. The figures are consciously not uniform. On the one hand, there are certain details of the body – wrinkles, the aforementioned toe in Aluminum Girl or her vulva, which Ray has highlighted in this sense – and on the other, a smoothness to the surface that is achieved through honing or reshaping, as Ray explained it. We can see this everywhere. And the pieces seem to thrive on this. So there isn’t an abstract, idealized surface, but rather tensions between literal-descriptive, realistic elements and very highly stylized ones. That is what I see and experience.

MK: I understand it that way as well, but I would interpret it as a sign of traditional classicism. A Canova sculpture like the statue of Paolina Borghese as Venus Victrix has the characteristics that you are describing. It also exhibits a calculated mediation between individual and general features. Think of Heinrich Wölfflin’s definition of the classical as the manifestation of the general in a portrait of an individual that nevertheless does not erase or destroy the individual.

SN: Yes, but that’s not what I meant. I wasn’t referring to classical art, but rather – of course in order to be provocative – to the neoclassical kitsch that has ruined the center of Skopje.

MK: I understand. What I meant was that the classical mediation of the general and the individual that I described for Canova does not necessarily mean the same thing two hundred years later for Ray. That’s why it appears as potentially reactionary to me, even if it is technically and esthetically just as sophisticated as in Canova’s work. A more confusing problem that the Macedonian neoclassicism posits may reside in the fact that in Ray’s case, we are dealing with outstanding classicist works of art. But precisely because they are exceptional classicist works of art in our time, they run the risk of being reactionary. The quality argument doesn’t necessarily help us here; actually, to the contrary.

AP: Aside from the artistic question, what style does this art have? Is it also possible to ask, what style does the viewer have? When Donald Judd exhibits old clocks in Vienna in the Kunstgewerbemuseum because they remind him of his own boxes, I find that completely legitimate. The question is simply, can we deceive ourselves into seeing such objects as minimalist cubes? In which case I might rhapsodize about the amazing consistency of Shoe Tie (2012) or the literality of Aluminum Girl, but there are actually interesting articulations within these works. No one would necessarily consider Tractor or even Unpainted Sculpture to be neoclassical, but The New Beetle or Boy with Frog (2009) are works that refer not to classicism, but – as in neoclassicism – to known classical models, like the Apollo Sauroctonos, for example. I don’t think we should either disassociate his entire oeuvre from classicism or peg it to that. That would be platitudinous, because then we would have to focus on classicism. Canova could never have produced Young Man (2012), nor would he even have wanted to depict a man in this way, using his own methods. To this extent, it is a very contemporary work of art.

charles rayFig. 8

SN:I also think it’s unproductive to speak about it categorically. I’m just trying to understand his project and establish an immanent criterion. And when I look at the arc along which his work has developed, I find this criterion to reside in the dialectical recovery of figurative sculpture. The materials are surely an important part of what that dialectic is addressing. For example, in Young Man, my first association was: “Figurative sculpture in the time of Terminator 2.” The impression of fluidity – which he himself emphasizes – is the key point. This is why the association is not just based on a joke. Ray is trying to give the materiality a contemporary character using contemporary technologies that in this case also produce a strong alienation effect. On the other hand, Boy with Frog at the Punta della Dogana in Venice looked like a marble sculpture when seen from the boat. And there, again relative to this immanent criterion, I wanted to raise the issue of success.

charles rayFig. 9

MK: To elaborate on what you were saying, Stefan, there seem to be two artistic sensibilities that meet in Ray’s newer works, often within the same piece. One is a more or less “classicist” view of art as being enriched by formal decisions, by “intention” or “intentionality,” as Fried would say. And these choices lead to something that we used to call “composition,” to a certain visual order that one sees in the works, an order that is communicated by the works themselves. Then, there is this other sensibility, which has to do with the technology, with the “state of the material”, not necessarily in Adorno’s sense, but literally, technically. It occurred to me that Ray tends to downplay this last strand when he talks about his work. Whereas he says a lot about how the surfaces of his metal sculptures shine, what effects they produce on the audience, how they are polished, similar to the way marble needs to be polished… But he downplays this “Terminator Moment” that confronts his classicism and creates a peculiar amalgam with it. Fried also does not seem interested in it.

AP: That’s just because you’re younger than Fried and Ray.

MK: But it might not have escaped Fried, who places much emphasis on the understanding of the artistic processes of contemporary artists, that Ray makes models on the computer using what they call “digital clay”. Until recently, I didn’t even know that such a thing as digital clay existed.

AP: In fact he stressed that the metal sculptures are not cast, but fabricated. He repeatedly said, “That’s not a casting, but a fabricated piece.” And we sat there like idiots. What does that mean? That it was somehow produced using a formula, by a machine. I don’t exactly know how one fabricates using solid stainless steel, but you make individual pieces and then you weld them together. I think that’s important to him. He put a good bit of emphasis on the fact that he was not producing them in a “neoclassical” manner, that he does not engage in any handcraft, that he himself isn’t chiseling. At least that’s what he very expressly stated.

MK: Wait, I would be careful about that. One of the sentences Ray reiterated several times on our tour of the exhibition that stayed with was: “You can see the hand of the machine.” There seems to be a conscious, metaphoric assignment of manual processes to the machine (and perhaps also vice-versa). The machine has a hand, a handwriting, a style. “Handcraft” doesn’t mean necessarily that everything is made just with your hands, without any tools. Instead, I would like to refer the term to the concentration of the working processes in a readily manageable space, a manufactory, a workshop, an atelier, where every technical and esthetic decision can be controlled to the fullest extent possible. This notion of control seems crucial to me.

AP: That may be true, but the atelier’s product still has to be rendered subjective somehow, perhaps through a very sensitive context of associations, or even through a criterion. The criterion is incredibly important, even in that odd piece, Family Romance (1993). The only interesting thing to me about that sculpture is the fact that all the figures are deliberately the same size, and it is the only thing that lets us in on the psychoanalytical gag, because the baby is in fact as big as the father. You had to see that in the sculpture, not because the artist said, “This is about family eroticism.” That is very clear in these pieces. The importance of the criterion is also an attribute of classicism. You calculate carefully, not always using the same yardstick. The rules must instead be established reasonably for certain purposes. This is why we come back around to the artist’s intentions, despite the complete refusal of his abilities.

MK: In no way does Ray present himself as a “deskilled artist” or a mere planner and conceptualist. On the contrary, he is an artist who, in his collaboration with specialists on specific technical problems, is himself a specialist in certain areas of production.

AP: Yes, that’s true.

SN: Another comment on the problem of the criterion. In some of the works from the 90s, like Fall ’91, this oversized mannequin, businesswoman, or whatever she is, and of course also in Family Romance, the criterion always leads to an uncomfortable sense of alienation. In the newer works, like Boy with Frog, something totally different is going on. There the question is, can we still make monumental sculptures? That is a very significant about-face. I don’t see either the uncanny or a comparable sense of alienation effect in the new works.

AP: That has been dwellt upon at length, since Pomponius Gauricus probably. With regard to the issue of monumentality, the issue in the work is of course not that we feel threatened by a giant with a frog, and I find that very interesting! In the 1980s, there was a lot of boring stuff in the realm of the uncanny. Uncanny puppets here and there, the ones by Cindy Sherman, built a bit along the lines of the surrealist model, among others. The thing just needed eyes to become eerie somehow. The interesting thing about the new pieces is that Ray avoided these vulgar methods of “making something eerie” for the viewer. He doesn’t want to drill out a pair of eyes in order to somehow draw attention to the eyes. He justified this as a rejection of violence, which I find non-essential. These figures don’t belong to that class of puppets…

MK: One of Fried’s main arguments about Ray’s work in Four Honest Outlaws[2] is that it doesn’t have anything to do with surrealism. Ray himself seems to concur with this assessment, but of course some of his pieces tend to have surrealist effects, especially if you consider the 1980s and early 1990s.

AP: For that matter, I don’t think that the Surrealists always wanted the same thing. But there is definitely a surrealist key to reading even the new works. What is the paradox of Surrealism? When you’re always trying to show the repressed, it loses power, doesn’t it?

MK: That may well be true. The repression that Ray seems to depict automatically reminds one of traditional Freudian themes: the big woman in Fall ’91 as a phallic mother, or the leveling of the size differences between parents and children in Family Romance as an oedipal scenario. And what does the orgiastic reproduction of the artist as a subject in Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley … (1992) mean? Of course, it’s about masturbation, narcissism, and whatever else. You can fit these works snugly, actually very snugly, within Freudian parameters, which however does not do them any good. If we call this Freudian logic “surrealist” (which would be a very particular notion of “surrealism” of course), then the surrealist component in Ray’s works has lessened. But it’s still there; for example, in the sculpture with the tiny, not yet hatched baby bird still lying in its egg, which you can see by peering through a circular hole on the top (Chicken, 2007). The sculpture gives rise to an emotional ambivalence between a feeling of gentleness, caring, and tenderness for the hatchling and the suggestion that it would take very little force to crush the egg.

charles ray                  Fig. 10

AP: It also recalls Giacometti’s surrealist phase, his “Quiet Surrealism.” But we should come back to the theme of the traumatic, the sexual, and the repressed, because during our tour of the exhibition, Ray issued one of his most vehement disavowals in this regard, even though none of us provoked it: “That has nothing to do with my themes. I have no interest in the erotic, etc.”

MK: I found it remarkable that during that same talk, Ray reported his amusement at some hostile and puritanic reactions to his work that branded it as obscene, immoral, or even latently pedophilic. He replied that these suggestions were absurd in the first place, because he was concerned with form, not content. This suggests that form is so thoroughly developed in Ray’s work, so strongly “intentionalized,” that the content effectively dissolves in the form. This is classicism taken to an extreme. According to this rationale, scandalous, traumatic, perverted content could be regarded as a suitable antagonism to the cathartic, formalizing power of Ray’s art.

AP: But it’s absurd to try to provide evidence against perversion, because a pervert or a fetishist may experience happiness in the form and so forth. I believe that we shouldn’t venture any further into these arguments. He may well be innocent, but he can’t make himself innocent through his works. It would also be a kind of bad repression to try to overcome one’s own bad appetites through one’s art. I’m not interested in that at all. Back to Surrealism. There is another side to surrealism that Rosalind Krauss put very much in the foreground when talking about Arp, Giacometti, and Brancusi; you could probably even add Twombly as a sculptor. So, these artists don’t work with scary dolls. They instead use very refined, classical means – very deliberately and uniformly – to achieve a certain power of suggestion, and in that way, their sculptures provide a projective surface to different kinds of viewers. Therefore, one shouldn’t dispel all surrealist motivations in Ray’s work just because he no longer works with dolls. Surrealism also deals with the uncanniness of the beautiful, the everyday, and the simple. One could say that the eggs (Chicken and Hand Holding Egg, 2007) are the most unsettling thing in the whole exhibition, because you want to know what is happening inside them. And these works aren’t as bloated as the giant ladies of the 90s, which have fortunately gone away again.

charles ray              Fig. 11

SN: OK, so Ray’s insistence on the formal against everything else does not seem to render his subjects irrelevant. We just approached the issue of content in an art historical manner. Are his subjects surrealist or neo-surrealist? In relation to art history, especially American art, there would still be a lot to say. Starting with the car wreck, which comes out of Pop Art. We can understand it as a clever reference and from that infer that Ray wishes to locate himself within a certain tradition. Fine, we get that. But I don’t know how far one can carry it. Cultural history would be another way of approaching the topic. One could take Hollywood movies as a cultural context, especially in the case of a West Coast artist. The question is not interesting in terms of the references, but in relation to comparable esthetic structures or problems. The question more or less of how the image of the human body changes here and there. At any rate, a problem I thought about arises in film when digital technology comes into play. It consists of how one “striates” or “notches” the overly smooth surfaces of digitally generated forms. Or, rather than the problem, the phenomenon of a predilection for artificiality that converges with the digital processing or “smoothing” of film stock. I confess that I can’t say off the top of my head what that would yield, but the relationship of “smoothing” and “notching” undoubtedly plays a role in Ray’s figures.

AP: Yes, his sculptures, which recall marble, actually look more like computer models that have not yet been colored. But they aren’t that either! I will advance a complete hunch: If a computerized Frankenstein were to become the perfect computerized actor and we would see him on the screen, we would be scared, because he is just like us, but without a soul. That would be a simple thesis, that perfection itself reveals certain invisible flaws. But I don’t know whether we can consider Ray’s work in this light. Perhaps we should compare him to a neo-classical minimalist, or something like that.

MK: This problem is actually central to Ray’s art. Why do so many of his recent figures look like computer models that have not been colored yet? I don’t find this fact to be uncanny, as Andrei suggests. And I don’t think it fits within a notion of surrealism, because these figures are clearly characterized as models, they are not lifelike in a disquieting surrealist sense. Almost all of Ray’s human figures in the exhibition are in an unfinished state, actually in a state of “technically becoming”. They are figures that clearly differ from living beings, because they are the result of a technological abstraction. They have no skin, they are instead lacquered white or are made from reflective metal. Ray himself reported that he also made versions of the finished sculptures that were more lifelike, which were painted, for example. He produced figures at different scales, using different materials, but he nevertheless settled on the “prototypes” in the exhibition. Their forms are already individualized, but they are also pre-subjective. To me, this reflects an obsession with the search for an equivalent of a metaphysical form under high-tech conditions. You don’t choose the finished avatar, because you’re looking for the matrix that generates the avatars. You don’t emulate the form of human beings in ways they may have been emulated for the last five thousand years; instead you emulate a form in which human beings are still in a state of becoming.

SN: The approach that we have just settled on perhaps leads us to describe Ray’s subjects as an attempt to draft a contemporary image of humans, to place this image next to the image of humans in commercial film, to counter this image somewhat. And perhaps it leads us to understand Ray’s work as an attempt to come back to style. No longer as the literal realism of photography and metal casting, nor as an appropriation of media garbage, but rather the creation of an idealizing figural style which probably hasn’t been possible for some time now.

MK: If there is such a style today, Ray invented it.

SN: But has he really managed to do this?

MK: If you consider both strands of his work, the classicist and the technoid one, as equally important, then he has achieved it, in my opinion, though in an unintentional manner. Because the prominence of the technoid for Ray himself is, I believe, an accident, and according to Fried, mine is an inadmissible reading. But I find it to be achieved objectively in these works, even if Ray himself doesn’t want to admit it. You implied that Ray was more or less consciously alluding to the quicksilver T-1000 in James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991). I’m not so sure about that, because the way that Ray talks about his work points to something else. And yet the surfaces of his works speak a language of their own, such that it becomes impossible not to think about these films.

AP: But there are other kinds of idealization. I don’t think Young Man looks like the Terminator, especially because of the man’s corpulence, which stands in contrast to certain classical ideals, but not all of them. There is already a representation of the techno-hero that becomes powerless when applied to forms such as mimes, which are unmanly anyway. What emerges – which is also what Pop Art tried to do – is a kind of immortalization of the ephemeral, and you can see the same intentions in Ray’s work as in Warhol’s Marilyns. His subjects may be complicated. There is no one reason for his trying to lift the trivial and the everyday to the level of a general principle. One more thing about fabrication. Already in the 60’s there were artists that were doing very radical things with castings by simply making unpainted plaster casts. The approach was understood as part of the appropriation.

MK: You’re talking about George Segal, right?

AP: Yes, George Segal, or in another way, Edward Kienholz. The cast was a form of appropriation art. You achieved the maximum realism without making certain traditional efforts to get there. It was also said that you didn’t have to obtain a precise surface texture, that it came about accidentally. In sculpture, copying by casting was always accompanied by a profound sense of concern that, as we know, went so far in Rodin’s case, that he was once accused of delivering a raw instead of a finished cast. I am interested in the fact that Ray says, “Yes, we forged things, but then we put them together and used technology to change them a little.” Not radically changed, like in a Robert Gober or Jeff Koons, but changed in a way that makes them artistically independent.

SN: I think one can define these changes very precisely in certain cases. There is at least one piece from the 1990s where this is possible: Self Portrait (1990), a mannequin with a superimposed portrait head. The head was originally a cast of Ray’s own head that was then smoothed out by sandblasting until all individual traits were eliminated. “Idealized form” is here defined in purely negative terms as a smoothing out, as the result of the elimination of specific, realistic details. Here again we see this dialectical approach that I ascribed to Ray.

AP: This what Kant terms as “ordinary beauty,” which only arises when it is somewhat similar to everything else. When you simply project thousands of photographs over one another, that gives rise to a kind of ideal that has nothing remarkable or specific about it. It is a kind of average.

SN: A statistical average value. Is that still Ray’s manifesto? It was certainly still true in the 90’s. There it was a question of leveling in the world of signs, the question of identity, and the self-portrait in this context. And we can interpret it to mean that Ray answered these questions in the negative. In the realm of images as signs, the individual expires, is hollowed out, spectral, multiple, reproducible. That was an ironic idealization. What about now? Even though he always uses certain individuals as models, he doesn’t set out to portray them; he instead wants to show “a young man.” The individual no longer appears erased or hollowed out, and is instead “sublated” in the general, just like in Hegel. And yet, the point of departure for him is still only a literal, mechanical copying. Perhaps there are no significant differences from certain traditional practices in bronze casting; but, on the other hand, they do contradict the traditional art-theoretical conception of “ideal form.” And that again appears to concern the general difficulty experienced in the visual arts today in creating forms, in coming up with them at all.

AP: But why do we need that at all? I am thinking of artist photographers, who already have enough problems sifting through our world of mostly boring images for a few interesting ones which they will then rework in some way. This problem is interesting when we look at Sleeping Woman, because the idealization process is not so developed in this piece. We recognize traits in her that prevent her from being every “sleeping woman.” Ray also spoke very naturally about the fact that her hair should look like that of a homeless person, unkempt and whatnot. Almost naïve. As if it were about a kind of platonic ideal of a homeless person that sleeps in the bus station. He also said that she was very deeply asleep and was therefore especially representative of Sleep. Then he gave us a tasteless, moralizing lecture about how we are all the same when we sleep. But then, interestingly, he made a very important, general comment that one would have to jail him if he were actually interested in the content of his works. I don’t know if the representation of naked children is punishable by law, but it recalls Baudelaire’s statement about Delacroix, that anyone interested in such subjects is either a butcher or a libertine. Consequently, it is impossible to be interested in the fiction without any sense of guile or bad reasons. You have to stick to the form, and it has remained undecided in all eras why artists need real objects for their artworks. Perhaps they need executions, because they seem so formally unbelievable, like in a Tarantino film. But I can’t abide by such statements. I consider Ray’s dictum to be a significant ideological statement, which is also wonderfully formulated. And it made everyone laugh. I think he had already thought up this catch phrase, perhaps even as a defense against idiots who think he is a child molester simply because of these sculptures. But isn’t it worth it for the sake of art to go to jail for trying to say something with it? So that is no excuse. And then he told us a very personal story that for example Tractor was actually a playground, which wasn’t necessary at all. In a sense, I therefore believe that he doesn’t agree with the official party line that everything is just about form. “A vulva is just a form.” Perhaps he also means to be ironic.

MK: That was funny. The problem becomes even more complicated when the form of the sexual organ acquires a certain double meaning, which is the case in some of the sculptures.

SN: So, what is the final result of our discussion of Ray’s subjects?

AP: I think that it is fairly charged for a lot of the works! Young Man is perhaps a man from our century or our millennium, but to add to that, “That’s a student of mine who is not very successful” trivialized him. He becomes a loser, which I absolutely did not take away from the sculpture. I also think he has a certain gravity and even a certain splendor, a certain metallic perfection.

MK: But the facial expression is fairly confused. He reminds me of a former fellow student. This slightly opened mouth…

AP: That may well be, but it is a typical, Olympic sense of disorientation. Even if he doesn’t seem very sensible, he might be able to smash us to bits with his steely fist anyway.

MK: To answer your question, Stefan, one can definitely talk about a Pop iconography, but it is nevertheless interesting to me because in Ray’s case it is tied to the issue of high-tech industrial and post-industrial manufacturing techniques that range from the automotive industry in Detroit to “digital clay” and the “hand of the machine” that hones human figures out of solid steel.

AP: But I am skeptical that it is the old Pop content. There aren’t any celebrities here.

MK: No, but there is a recognizable Pop Art framework. There are certain features that recall Jeff Koons, such as the surfaces. I’m thinking of several pieces in the Celebration series for example. Or the materials. Think of Rabbit (1986) or Kiepenkerl (1987), both made of solid stainless steel.

AP: That is a stereotypical quality.

MK: There is a stereotypical quality to Ray’s figures. Works such as Tractor and the car wreck in Unpainted Sculpture engage in something like a reflexive mimicry of an industrial society that might not even exist anymore. But we can also understand Ray’s naked figures as counter-ideals, just as the Baudelaire poem “L’invitation au voyage” (1857) may be read as both a utopian and ironic reaction to the living conditions in the 19th century metropolis of Paris, whose texture is perceptible in many other poems in Les Fleurs du Mal. It seems to me that we can interpret the nakedness in Ray’s work as a reaction formation in quite the same way. Ray is trying to achieve a utopian classicism under present-day conditions. That does not necessarily mean that Fried’s interpretation of Ray’s work is mistaken or that Ray’s assessment of himself is deficient. However, both of them are wrong in smoothening out the fundamental ambivalence characterizing Ray’s artistic enterprise – as if Ray’s work simply succeeded. The quality of his work instead lies precisely in this ambivalence, and actually in its failure.

Charles Ray. Skulpturen 1997–2014
June 15 to September 28 2014 at the Kunstmuseum
Sankt Alban-Graben 16, CH-4051 Basel

[1] The roundtable participants were part of a viewing tour of the exhibition on June 13, 2014 with the artist and in the company of Michael Fried. Ray’s and Fried’s comments cited in the conversation were made at this event.

[2] See Michael Fried, Four Honest Outlaws. Sala Ray Marioni Gordon, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2011.

Fig. 1
Charles Ray, Sleeping Woman, 2012, solid stainless steel, 90 x 113 x 127 cm, Ed. 1/2 + AP, Glenstone
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Joshua White

Fig. 2
Charles Ray, Future Fragment on a Solid Base, 2011, aluminum , 210 x 122 x 91 cm, Ed. 3/3 + AP, in possession of the artist
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Joshua White

Fig. 3
Charles Ray, Young Man, 2012, solid stainless steel, 180 x 53 x 34,2 cm, Ed. 1/3 + AP, Pinault Collection
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Ron Amstuz

Fig. 4
Charles Ray, Aluminum Girl, 2003, painted aluminum, 159 x 45,7 x 28,5 cm, Ed. 2/3 + AP, private collection
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Joshua White

Fig. 5
Charles Ray, Unpainted Sculpture, 1997, fiberglass and paint, 152 x 198 x 434 cm, Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Donation from Bruce and Martha Atwater, Anne and Barrie Birks, Dolly Fiterman, Erwin and Miriam Kelen, Larry Perlman and Linda Peterson Perlman as well as Harriet and Edson Spencer with means from the T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1998
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Joshua White

Fig. 6
Charles Ray, The New Beetle, 2006, painted steel, 53 x 88 x 72 cm, Ed. 1/3 + AP, Glenstone
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Joshua White

Fig. 7
Charles Ray, Tractor, 2005, aluminum, 158 x 278 x 137 cm, AP/Ed. 3 + AP, in possession of the artist
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Beth Phillips

Fig. 8
Charles Ray, Shoe Tie, 2012, solid stainless steel, 73 x 74 x 60 cm, Ed. 1/3 + AP, private collection
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Bryan Krueger

Fig. 9
Charles Ray, Boy with Frog, 2009, painted steel, 244 x 75 x 105 cm, Ed. 1/1 + AP, Pinault Collection
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Charles Ray

Fig. 10
Charles Ray, Chicken, 2007, porcelain, painted steel, 4 x 6 x 4 cm, Ed. 1/2 + AP, Glenstone
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Joshua White

Fig. 11
Charles Ray, Hand Holding Egg, 2007, porcelain, 8 x 20 x 10 cm, Ed. 2/4 + AP, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
© Charles Ray, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Photo: Joshua White

Translation: Claudio Cambon