PRINT April 1980

[Thump Thump]

LISTEN. I’M GOING TO TELL you about the dignity and
propriety of dangerous objects.
Don Bahr is an old friend, an anthropologist.
I was an anthropologist, too.
We both worked with Papago Indians in the Southwest.
I stayed for two years and left.
Then I started making sculpture.
Don stayed on.
After seven years, he wrote a book on shamanism and
the Papago theory of sickness.
A beautiful, tough, closely reasoned book.
I ran across it by accident.
I haven’t seen Don in eight or nine years.
I was moved and excited by it.
Don’s mind is both literal and wonderfully abstract.
Analyzing in the most creative and yet plodding way.
Real creation, by continual and careful classification.
It’s a mind that works differently from mine.
So it impresses and confuses me.
—Smaller steps, more steps.
Smaller jumps, more jumps.
I don’t know.
The idea of maintaining control, knowing at each step
what, and why, and how, you’re moving.
Knowing the meaning, the importance, of some context
larger than that of your own excitement.
The exotic idea of activity structured to end in conclusion.
Structured to have meaning and importance outside
itself, no matter where it leads.
—Relevance to theory, to frame, to a context already
accepted, or at least recognized, as a communicable
understanding of the world.

But that gets done only by selection.
By weighting, by screening, by choosing to avoid
certain information.
By starting with some defensible and previously
agreed upon theory of relevance, out of which everything
else grows, against which the work is measured,
and on which the final meaning depends.
—And that is the step I somehow miss.
The ongoing knowledge of what is relevant and what
is secondary to the matter at hand.
That sense of what is important.
That sense of selection—of both problem and the
methods of solution that keeps the work tied to an
identifiable context, a communicable frame through
which it can be read and judged.
—And more than that, I continually forget what the
matter at hand is.

What I lose is not only the continuity of activity, but any
clear way of understanding it.
I not only forget what I am doing, I forget why I wanted
to do it and why it seemed important.
I forget what my context was and how I got there.
I forget what selections I made and why I made
them—at the beginning and all through the course of
And this despite the relative simplicity of my sculpture.
—I narrow down my choice of materials and how I can
use them.
I select the few forms that are interesting to me.
I decide on the limited ways I can modify them.
And I attempt to control the relationship of objects to
the space they are in.
But with all that, I still can’t really remember what I’m
trying to do or why I’m trying to do it.
I still can’t remember what it is I’m trying to look at.
And what it is that I’m trying to say.
I can’t remember what the idea, the context, of my
work was when I started it.
I can’t imagine what it will be when I finish it.
And I certainly don’t know what it is now; other than my
own excitement, my own immediate feelings, my own
immediate interests.
Which is not, I think, where I thought I was when I

I’m trying to tell you something now, without doing
much to help you understand.
But you can understand, in an ambiguous way.
And that is what interests me now.
That ambiguity is the thing that fascinates me.
That is the clue to what is important to me.
—Because it’s not just bad memory.
It’s a sense of the limitation of those selective processes.
A sense of their specificity, of their narrowness, and
the ways in which they necessarily distort reality.
And it’s more than that.
It’s the continuity of that reasoning process that
unnerves me.
The idea of sticking to one viewpoint, one sense of
what is important, one yardstick.
The idea of sticking with one theory of relevance, one
sense of task and its meaning.
The idea of focusing everything on one view.
It’s the clarity that unnerves me.
The elegance,
The single mindedness of it.
The unmitigated simplicity.

I’m much happier with the idea of confusion.
Much more comfortable with ambiguity.
Much more content with unpredicted change.
They are what interest me.
Interest me because through them I touch the world.
Stroke my life, rather than point at it.
Play with it, rather than diagram it.
Ride it, rather than explain it.
—Those ideas toss me in for more.
And more is what I want in an inconclusive world.

But its not as simple as that either.
For what I sense is not just confusion, ambiguity, flux
as the way the world is, but rather that that kind of
complexity is one constant aspect of the world.
Is one unavoidable feature of it which I cannot allow
myself to ignore.
Is one overpowering characteristic of the world which
I must acknowledge constantly.
So what I search for are the boundaries of ambiguity,
the edges of change.
The ball on the top of the curve.
What I want is to whittle the ambiguity down to a fine
What I want are the flash points of change, where an
object, an idea, an activity is neither one thing nor the
other, but something in between.
What I want is: almost-clarity about not-quite-confusion.

And making sculpture?
I start with memories of how places feel.
The ache of that desert, those woods, that room
opening out.
Places I’ve been, places I’ve seen and felt.
And felt always with some component of unease,
apprehension, disquiet, fear even, discomfort certainly.
Memories of places that seem always slightly confusing,
slightly ambiguous.
Places whose meaning slips away, but not too far
Places that tantalize, tantalize by their approach to—
and lack of—clarity.
By their existence on—and insistence on—an ambiguous edge.

And what is my memory of these places?
Its a memory of space, open or closed, space
pushing down or up, in or out.
Space as an emotional and intellectual stimulant.
Space shaped by materials, by objects with complex
and confusing realities.
Objects and materials whose connotations, whose
meanings, are always more complex than the place
they make.
Objects and materials that somehow come together
to shape a space that is always less diverse than they
Less confusing, but still not clear.
Less ambiguous, but ambiguous still.
A place on an edge, neither one thing nor another.
But one thing becoming another.
Spaces insistent on their own ambiguous edge.

These memories are my strongest memories.
I feel them almost as pain.
And what I want as a sculptor is to make objects that
feel like those places.
Objects that move like those places.
Objects that cut their own boundaries.
Objects that jump when I reach for them.
—And I don’t know why I want to do it.
Art history doesn’t help me much.
Nor does other sculpture.
The idea of art itself doesn’t help either.

But I work and I show.
I show because I can’t even see what I’m doing until I
watch other people seeing what I’ve done.
And I show because each new space is a challenge.
The challenge not only of how to shape that new
place, but the challenge also of whether I can shape
—And why do I work within this art system?
Because I’m a part of it; narrow and necessarily self-interested.
Open eyes are a dream.
Don Bahr knows that too, I think.
Understanding is tentative.
Knowledge is conditional.
Each person’s world is partly his own.
Even marginal communication is difficult.
It’s a slippery stage we give our speeches from.

—And besides, what I want is a place to stop in.
A place to bump around in.
A place to jump from.
A place to rest in the not-quite-confusion of my life.
What I want now is a place to flash from.
Listen. A place to thump—in the dignity and propriety
of dangerous objects.

Richard Nonas