PRINT October 1966

An Interview with Robert Murray

B. R.: When did you begin to find the conditions of the studio unsatisfactory and begin to work with commercial or industrial processes?

R. M.: I started out as a painter. I have never actually studied sculpture. During the summers of 1957 and 1958 I worked in city planning offices in Regina and Saskatoon. The people in Saskatoon told me of their intention to commission a piece of sculpture for the grounds of the City Hall and at the time I recommended a sculptor in Regina. A year later they wrote to me in Mexico asking if I had any interest in the commission and I decided to have a go at it. Dealing with a city government proved to be more of a handful than I had expected and considerable controversy still surrounds the piece. Once I had been given the commission however, I went directly to John East Iron Works, the largest metal fabricators in the area and made arrangements to construct the piece in their plant. The arrangement worked out very well and I have since worked in plants in a number of different cities.

B. R.: It was really David Smith who began turning the studio into a factory.

R. M.: I think I must have been aware of the kind of facilities Smith had. I remember a photograph of him at the Brooklyn plant in particular. I had always admired Smith’s work along with certain of Calder’s stabiles, although I knew their work then only on the basis of a few photographs. I have never had any desire to set up a studio workshop, however. I enjoy working in industrial situations but I’m not sentimental about it as environment. In fact I wanted to avoid the problems of equipment and technique and the mystique surrounding the making of sculpture in favor of greater concentration on the idea, particularly since I was interested in large simple forms rather than complicated, pieced-together work.

B. R.: What do you think would be the optimum working conditions for a sculptor today?

R. M.: Conditions vary for each sculptor although sculptors working in metal plate or with metal fabricated forms require much the same equipment—brakes for bending and forming plate, flame-cutting torches, metal saws, gas or electric welding equipment, grinders, sand blasting tanks—that sort of thing. Often small industries are more accessible to the sculptor than large plants set up for high production or large scale work. Most of my work has been fabricated at Treitel-Gratz here in Manhattan. When I first went there in 1962, Alexander Liberman was the only sculptor using the place. They normally fabricate such things as architect furniture and designers’ models. Today it is crowded with pieces of sculpture by a large number of artists.

B. R.: In other words you think that adequate facilities exist, and that it’s just a matter of money.

R. M.: There’s no question it’s expensive to work this way. On the other hand it gives me access to heavy equipment I couldn’t possibly afford myself. And if I’m not able to build as many pieces as I might wish, the pieces that do get built approach the size and scale that interests me.

B. R.: Do you think that there will be any return to conventional casting and carving?

R. M.: I’m always cautious about this point because I think the means are often more easily discussed than the ideas. At the moment, sculpture that utilizes new techniques and new materials does seem to outnumber work that is cast or carved. Technique can be an important consideration, especially when one thinks of how welding enabled Picasso and Gonzalez to get into the air with a new kind of delicacy. In the end, however, the work must stand as idea and no amount of epoxy cement or bright color paint will save it.

B. R.: It seems to me that there are two polarities in the new sculpture, the kind of work you do and the volumetric work of Judd and Morris, for example.

R. M.: To some extent, I feel I am involved with volumes. In fact, I like to work with a kind of contradiction in my sculpture. When I worked for a short time in bronze, I made sculpture that was meant to he seen in a two-dimensional way. That is, as strong in silhouette. They were simple cylinders stacked irregularly on top of each other which made a configuration I thought of as being more linear than volumetric. When I went hack to fabricated sculpture, I tried to use plate in such a way as to suggest volume without actually boxing-in the form. In other words, I wanted to activate more space than I could actually fill. Occasionally I still work with cylinders, but they, too, are fabricated rather than cast. I found I liked the directness and clean finish that is characteristic of the fabricated form.

B. R.: In a sense, then, we are witnessing the same transition from a tactile to a conceptual art that we have had in painting.

R. M.: I try to end up with as direct a statement as possible, free from unnecessary embellishments. This attitude came from painting rather than other sculpture, both in terms of my own experience and the work of painters that I respect.

B. R.: I have noticed a reaction against the imagistic elements in Smith. Newer work tends to he more abstract, and younger sculptors are reacting, as far as I can make out, against the anthropomorphic element in Smith.

R. M.: To a large extent I think this applies to his earlier work which reflected the general interest in Surrealism both painters and sculptors had. Even so, his inventiveness was remarkable. The works that interest me most are the earlier grid-like pieces such as Australia or The Banquet. The relationship of these pieces to Mondrian’s large charcoal drawings or Gottlieb’s cubicled pictograph paintings made Smith uniquely interesting as a sculptor then, just as certain of his large stainless steel pieces seem to place him in context with recent painting and sculpture. The question of what is abstract sculpture is a thorny one. I think the arrangement of objects, geometric or otherwise, is often no more an advance over a Cubist still-life than some allusion to the figure. It seems to be the sculptor’s plight today to try to solve this problem.

B. R.: Do you think that we’re witnessing a recapitulation of earlier, perhaps unresolved, revolutionary movements in sculpture such as de Stijl and Constructivism?

R. M.: I don’t know to what extent American sculptors have been aware of the Russian Constructivists . . .

B. R.: From all appearances, not at all. One has the impression that there was an incredible lack of sophistication on the part of the sculptors as opposed to the painters, with, of course, the exception of Smith who was able to totally absorb and assimilate earlier movements.

R. M.: I feel that the inventive kind of Surrealism that most New York painters and sculptors were working with in the forties gave a personal quality to their work that kept later, more precise statements from becoming cold and calculated. De Stijl and Constructivist manifestoes based more directly on Cubism resulted in a less personal, much more mathematical art. About all I can admire in most of it is the clarity of construction. The formality of the Europeans consists of preconceived ideas about arrangement and composition which I have always thought New York artists were trying to get rid of. Barnett Newman’s paintings, for example, have an inevitability about them because the bands are intuitively placed rather than formally arranged. The important difference, I think, is that each work can be a fresh possibility, rather than an illustration for a point of view. Perhaps Smith’s late work has some of the architectural qualities of Constructivist sculpture; however, he had a sense of weight and scale entirely his own. He had the best sense for weights of material and material thickness I’ve come across.

B. R.: Do you think we are seeing the same reaction against Cubism in sculpture as we have seen in painting?

R. M.: I’m not so certain all the painters did succeed in getting away from Cubist space. I think Newman and Still in particular gave us a new kind of spatial sensation which others have followed. Whether we experience the painting as a single phenomenon, on or behind or in front of the actual surface, is an interesting break with Cubist ideas. The lack of an object-background relationship was equally important.

B. R.: This is the point of departure, really, for the new abstract painting.

R. M.: These considerations are largely pictorial and don’t have much bearing on sculpture, except perhaps in the use of color. Color, used to enforce emotion in a work rather than as decoration or definition, does relate to the use of color in contemporary painting. Personally, I prefer to use one color overall for each piece. Regardless of the number of parts involved, I like to give the impression of oneness, perhaps with an internal dialogue going on, rather than of an arrangement of parts.

B. R.: Do you think that contemporary architecture is compatible with sculptural decoration?

R. M.: Sculpture used to enhance a building or fill up left-over space is somewhat a dated idea. And the notion that commissioned work must necessarily be fitted to the building is, I think, greatly overplayed. Sculptors today work with much the same attitudes as painters, creating on impulse rather than to order, and like painting, sculpture can look good in any number of different situations. With the move to larger and larger work, however, the possibilities of outdoor installations in parks and public plazas have been getting fresh consideration. The opportunity that commissioned work does offer, when it is handled intelligently, is that it generally enables the sculptor to work larger than usual. But when an architect feels that he must guard his client’s money by placing all sorts of limitations on the work, then I think he is much better off purchasing sculpture that already exists.

B. R.: To what do you attribute the new interest in monumental sculpture? Clearly there is a kind of sculpture being made now, or at least conceived, that we have never had in this country.

R. M.: For one thing, I think we have gotten over the idea that large sculpture went outdoors and had to be marble or bronze and small sculpture went indoors and onto a pedestal. After Brancusi sculptors had to take the artificial aspects of the pedestal seriously and doing away with it meant the work had to get larger or remain underfoot. The question of how large for abstract sculpture, as opposed to the internal solutions of figurative sculpture, was similarly important for painting and I think the work of Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still, among others, served as an example. The problem of size and scale is, I think, one of the more interesting issues in both painting and sculpture. There is a size and scale to each man’s work which I think stems to some extent from his physical size and a sense of himself in his world. What I would like to have understood about my work however is that I do not work from preconceived ideas nor am I involved in the manipulation of shapes as in a collage.