PRINT April 1970

An Interview with Robert Rohm

THERE ARE FIVE WALL PIECES and one floor piece.1 Are they made of the same rope?

They have different diameters. The two largest ones are half-inch. The vertical one is three-eighths. The two smaller ones are five-sixteenths. Generally the scale of the rope is governed by the scale of the piece. It’s manila rope which is stained a dark brown with an oil stain. It’s a kind of preservative that’s primarily made for wood. I apply it with a brush. I wanted the dark color so that the rope had impact against the generally white walls. The floor piece in this case was not stained, since the floor was dark.

How was the floor piece worked out?

It’s eighty feet long and six feet wide. It’s a grid whose components are two feet by four feet . . . The long measurement exceeds the dimensions of the room. The cross members are grabbed at the four foot intervals and dragged forward and piled in an S curve. I wired the knots. Otherwise they tend to slip with seven-eighths rope. The wiring also gives additional strength at the intersections so that the form piles more prominently. One of the notions is to get it fairly high off the floor which is somewhat contrary to what rope normally would be thought of as doing—to get a three-dimensional form out of something which is so linear. In a smaller version, using the same rope,2 the stacking ends up being even more three-dimensional. It’s more rigid—enough so that the loops stand up maybe two feet off the floor.

What about the sixteen by forty foot wall piece?

It’s the only random-cut piece. There’ve been three processes that I’ve used so far with rope. One is releasing or dropping something which is stretched; there’s a series dealing with cuts; then there’s a series dealing with either rolling or folding or stacking. The large one is in a way the cutting to end all cutting. All the ones that were cut up until now were cut in a regular way—a rather formal way. This is the only one cut intuitively. I just sort of had the notion that, since I was just cutting grids, what would happen if I just kept hacking away at it? I set up a camera and recorded it along the way. I wasn’t quite sure where to stop. Obviously, if I went all the way, I’d end up with just a pile on the floor—which is another idea I’m not certain I’m going to get to—where the evidence of its ever having been on the wall will be the nail holes and the smudge marks from the tying. I also have some ideas now of things that would start on the wall and would get cut and cut, and as the pieces fall I would trace their falling.

In the string pieces3 the whole activity seems different from the rope.

The physical qualities become a large factor. You get into things where weight and span become more critical. When you release the string after it’s been stretched you get a different kind of line. Some will be kinky, some will have a smooth drape. You can always stretch it unless you go to extreme span. You get very little sagging. It’s not true of rope. I have some outdoor pieces—the first ones I did—where I found that a half-inch rope can be really drawn on maybe across twenty feet. But if you don’t want an inordinate amount of drape you either have to plant intermediate stakes or plan it in such a way that you’re staking every twenty feet. If you go down to one-quarter inch you can go longer distances—maybe thirty feet with some of the synthetic rope. What I was interested in was using it as a line, or edge of a defined plane.

What were you after in the smaller draped triangle piece?

It’s a five foot by five foot area. The nails were simply pulled out on two sides—the top and the right vertical side—and that corner allowed to drop. I had an idea about its dropping on a diagonal. But what happens is that it doesn’t really drop on a diagonal. I guess I was thinking in terms of paper. You fold the flap of an envelope or take a square of paper and fold the corner and you have a triangle on top of a square. But when you do that with a soft material, when you drop it, it just hangs down so that you get a kind of draped form, not a triangle. So a whole series of ideas had to be thrown out. Here you don’t get a crisp triangle. I still like those ideas. One way might be to orient the grid parallel with the floor so you have a kind of diamond shape.

Correcting to that gravity thing of the straight fall?


What about the pieces where you cut out the entire center or a good part of it?

In the fourteen by fourteen foot piece it’s really kind of a progressive thing where you cut the center section out leaving two sections of the grid intact on either side and then cut that again. Finally, the center rope becomes a line. It’s no longer a grid. Your final center strand is actually a center strand with a short section of the horizontal still attached at every intersection.

These pieces are all semi-reliefs in a sense, in terms of traditional sculpture. They’re on the wall. They’re shallow. Some stick out further than others depending on the rope, the nails. There’s a shadow cast. The pieces that come out from the wall, depending on the degree to which they come out, become more three-dimensional in form.

A lot of people see them as drawings. I suppose that’s perhaps so, but for me, I think my orientation is basically sculptural. I really see them as sculpture because their physical existence is there. Even though it’s very shallow space.

They’re very frontal too. They are very straight-on. Have you ever thought of doing any that hang down free in space?

I have some drawings, particularly of ones that come from the wall to the floor on a diagonal and would be stretched tight. I think there are certain dangers. One of the obvious ones is the kind of seafood restaurant thing. You get a net and you drape it—it’s a very seductive thing. How one gets beyond that . . . Certainly scale is one way. Even though these things are fairly close to the wall, I see the space that they’ve fallen through as part of the piece. For instance, the one where the whole center is cut out and drops to the floor. That space between where the debris lands and where it’s come from remains active for me. Even though there’s nothing tangible there. In the released sections I see the path of their fall as kind of borrowed or occupied space. Visually, if it’s clear enough, one would read that that’s what happened and so that takes it out of the realm of drawing. It’s not an illusion, it’s what actually did happen. In that sense it’s very real, even though there’s nothing left in that space. Which I suppose goes back to the negative notion of tracing the path of their falling with fine wire or something. Putting something physical in that space to claim it for that particular object.

Would you ever do that?

Yeah. One of the things I hope to do soon in the studio is some of these pieces when I trace that path, or the locations, or re-locations, that’s what I’ve thought of them as. I’m not sure how it will end up, but I’d actually nail a wire to the wall indicating where the section was and then secure it to the floor or tie it around the piece that’s lying on the floor. If you have a grid and you cut a section out and it becomes limp so it doesn’t look like part of a grid any longer, just a loose scattering of rope on the floor—I would tack a wire to where the cuts were made at the wall level and at the floor.

You couldn’t trace the actual route though—just the shortest distance.

It may or may not work. The final impact for me still has to be a visual one. One of the curious things that happens in all this is that you become identified with the material you’ve been working with, in a craft way. Suddenly, you become “the guy who does ropes.” I’m also doing pieces with steel re-inforcing rod. It’s a kind of traditional notion—you work with clay or bronze or you cast. I suppose the idea of its being acceptable to switch materials is fairly recent. The ideas, I think, are consistent. It’s the attitude about material that’s the more basic concern. One is always on the prowl. Every time I’m in the hardware store I see things and react to them in a certain way. I’m not interested really in exotic things. I did bronze casting and the time span from when you conceived the initial thing to when you finally got it out of the furnace was such a drag. It’s so easy technically, even in this kind of work, to throw yourself back into that—to where you get into materials that are so special you have to go through this rigamarole. I want to avoid all that. I just want to go in and get a ball of twine.

––Ralph Pomeroy


1. In the one-man show installed in the Anna Leonowens Gallery of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, 24 Nov. to 14 Dec. 1969.

2. A version of which was included in the “String & Rope” exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, January, 1970.

3. Two of which were included in the “Soft Art” exhibition organized by the author for the New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, 1 March to 27 April, 1969.