PRINT December 1969

An Interview with Richard Van Buren

Why did you stop making forms in terms of boxes?

At the time, I think the major problem was that it was a boring job. I got to the point where I really hated doing it. That probably has more to do with what I’m doing now than anything else; just the fact of disliking it so much. It’s economics, economics with time. I was spending so much time doing things that are boring, like sanding. It’s not a question of having a good time in your studio, but I don’t want to be that much of a bummer either. If I had to list the things I was doing in my studio for a job opening, I just wouldn’t even think about it. So I stopped making these things in terms of boxes (these are all hollow). I went from that to stippling wood together. I took two-by-fours and glued them together: it was much more direct.

Why did you take the polyester off the wood boards?

The boards weren’t flexible enough; they’re linear, just straight linear things. They have their own structure within them. Every material has its own structure, but wood was just too imposing. You can do a lot of things with wood, but I didn’t want to do them. I didn’t want to become a cabinet maker. Then too, I was also using wood as a color source and the color I was interested in was just wood and polyester But I stopped doing that because there was a real conflict there in terms of the viewer. It was hard to reconcile the wood as a color because it was so much a part of structure. And for me, those pieces had a lot to do with color. But wood being wood, it’s a building material and you relate to it in a structural way. A viewer would see the color, but then get into what’s happening structurally. So I thought a lot about structure at the time, but was still mainly interested in color. I’m interested in a particular kind of density and that density has a lot to do with light. These recent things have the same kind of density, but have much more to do with units. They’re architectural in a structural sense: they hang on a wall.

What happens to them as sculpture once they hang on a wall?

I think of them as sculpture, but I don’t care. The only thing that bothers me is when someone says it’s painting and they relate it to painting. That’s fine if that’s where their heads are at, but it’s just bringing too much to it. I think they’re bad paintings, really bad paintings.

Were you exploring the same type of color situation in your box-like forms?

Yes, I was, but in a very cumbersome way—and I was using pigment then too. By that time though, I was throwing in graphite, abalone shell, and different minerals. I was trying to do something like this, but I wasn’t. It didn’t come off—it came off like a very expensive paint job. There was almost always a fantastic contradiction between the wood and the pigment. In a sense, I enjoyed the contradictions, but it didn’t do what I wanted. For me, this is much more direct.

Has your recent sculpture been affected by anything from your “primary structure” phase?

Sure, hopefully it has. I was working very consciously on a lot of levels and a lot of it was romantically intuitive. Just thinking about geometry (the primary structure stage) has made architecture very clear to me. It also had a lot to do with the materials. If the materials were around or if I wanted to deal with wood again, it would probably come out looking like the primary structures. I know a certain clarity took place in the earlier work that I had to come to grips with. When you deal with that type of clarity, you also get into a time thing. You see something and right away you understand it. O.K., after it’s very quick, if you like hanging around the object, there has to be a reason for it. And my time—just in a very natural way—is very slow, even though I talk fast and live in New York. In terms of the work, I think it’s closer together now. The time element makes more sense. One of the problems of the work was that there seemed to be a dichotomy there: the wood was at one speed, at one sense of time, and the resin was at another sense of time. The wood was overpowering what was going down with the resin. That was one of the problems. Now it’s simple: the material is all one material (even though I add different ingredients to the resin). They’re much more compatible in terms of the material, so the time element is much more together in terms of the material. But the main thing was that—that the whole period made me a lot more conscious, it gave me much more to deal with. It gave me clarity; it just made things very clear to me.

Why did you stop using pigment?

I really got tired of it, even in terms of looking at it. That’s just me. I’m bored with looking at that type of color reference. We accept physical situations as being a particular color. We accept ground blue cobalt as being blue; well, it is blue. But ground glass is also a color. We’ve been using the same ingredients for colors all this time. I want to put other materials together and come up with other colors. That doesn’t mean anything because if you come up with another color, you have the same problem. What are you going to do with it?

How do you get a color like that grey?

That grey is made out of white Spackle and hardwood charcoal and a lot of clear resin which didn’t filter the color to the extent of the regular, more opaque resin. That’s what caused that color—and the light, of course. That’s one of the most opaque color situations. That color was formed by using a little bit of ground charcoal and a lot of regular resin, which is a darker material with a lot of catalyst so that it sets up and scorches. It’s very hot when it turns into a solid. That one is the same material as the smaller units at top, except that I added about a teaspoon of charcoal and a lot of catalysts so it sets up very quickly. All these things are like recipes, really. Those pieces are wallpaper paste, white Spackle, some ground charcoal, and different types of glass. Those pieces over there are made up of ground charcoal again and I used a cube of carpenter’s blue chalk (ground up) to see what it would do with the charcoal. But I’m a little bit leery of things like that because it’s still blue. So why not use blue cobalt? That’s probably one of the only formal problems I’m relating to right now—in a purely esoteric way. It’s unimportant in that it’s not a problem you can solve, but something I simply want to deal with. I want to see what I can do with color without using pigments. I’m tired of looking at pigment color. It would be very romantic to give some people a handful of sand, have them look at it, and then describe what colors they have. You could name about 15 and then you’d be stumped. You’d start faking it. Painters deal with pigment. I’m not making any formal stand for anybody else. It would be silly to say pigments are bad or useless now or that they’re even worn-out. I’m just personally tired of looking at pigments in terms of dealing with them. It’s just very personal.

How does color relate to the units?

It just has to do with the light. Like if it’s a quarter of an inch thick, it’s not transparent material, it’s very translucent. If it’s a half inch thick, it’s just going to filter that much light out. If it’s thinner, the light will go through it at a faster rate. So it depends on how thick I leave the resin.

Would you say that in your work color is synonymous with light, not pigment?

Yes, I couldn’t separate the two at all: light/color. We can’t see certain colors in light because we’re not set up for it. I don’t separate the two at all. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a separation, but I don’t know the separation. I like the idea of using nature—Vermeer used nature/light. I like the idea of using light for the color. Look at the way the light hits those glazes, the material and the light going through the glazes. It’s the same thing with gravity. I like the fact that there’s a nail on the wall and the strands are hanging down. You just see gravity. You see the nail, you see the strands. You don’t have to worry how that thing is up there. It’s so clear, you can dismiss it. We’re surrounded by gravity, so why not use it? I like using gravity for logic, just to show it. But color is probably one of the most important things to me.

Have you noticed any affect that your new studio has had on your work?

My last studio was on the northwest corner of Broadway and Broome. I was in that studio for five years and the light there wasn’t as aggressive as the light here. It had a lot more to do with artificial light there. When I got here, the change in the light really affected the work. And also, the change in architecture—having more walls to deal with.

How do you determine the arrangement of the units?

I’m interested in seeing what I can do with these units. Harvey Quaytman told me about a friend who saw the spring group show at Bykert and felt that I could take down any one of the units in the large piece and it wouldn’t make any difference. In a sense, that’s the idea. It’s not compositional to that point—and that piece filled up that wall. I could take the same units and in another space hang it differently. They’re fun to put up (fun, I don’t know what that means exactly), but I enjoy that part. There are just no problems; I just put them up until they feel comfortable. In fact, when I see real strong color relationships happening, it cracks me up because I didn’t put them up there for that reason. And then usually, I change it because I don’t want that. It just means shifting a couple of things and that reference is gone.

Has your viewing process changed?

It’s different when I sit around with these new ones (though I sit around these for a long viewing time too). I wanted to sit around the early things but there was a different kind of relationship between me and those objects. I was trying to figure out in a very academic, formal way how, say, this round curve made sense with this hard line. Now I sit around and I don’t make decisions like that. I don’t think about relationships in that sense at all: I’m not concerned with composition in that kind of formal manner. I might have moved one or two units in that piece but it has essentially stayed the same since I put it up. I think more of situations than compositions. They have a funny logic about them: the elements themselves put themselves together on the wall.

Do you consciously create the shapes in the new sculpture?

The shapes, they’re funny things. When I’m building them (they’re all poured), I don’t think of them in terms of shapes. I think of them in terms of volume and in terms of material. They’re not important to me as shapes. Once they’re on the wall and I see what I want to see, then I notice the shapes. I enjoy that.

Were your “primary structures” intentionally not anthropomorphic?

I don’t like that word. It always comes up; it always came up with my work in San Francisco. I never read a review of the work I was doing where that word didn’t come up. And I never really related to that word and I never think about it in my studio. These primary pieces are probably the most extreme things in terms of pretty basic ideas that I’m involved in; yet, in terms of relating and the color, it’s anthropomorphic in its own sense. They were probably the most unnatural things I’ve done. I was putting myself in a very conscious, analytic space and I was doing a lot of formal thinking. This became kind of senseless to me.