PRINT Summer 1980

Suzanne Harris: The Energy of Time

Who knows at what precise phase, or from what floriate green-room, the Master of Harlequinade, himself not made, maker of sequence and permutation in all things made, called us from our co-laterals out, to dance the Funeral Games of the Great Mammalia, as, long, long, long before, these danced out the Dinosaur?1

SUZANNE CAMPBELL HARRIS DIED IN her sleep on November 4, 1979, in Los Angeles, the same date as the Iranians captured their American hostages. Her work bridges several different categories from cast metal sculpture, to landscape art, to color analysis, to cut glass sculpture, to irregular pyramids of various materials, to performance art. In a development that is becoming not as rare as it was, her art makes its own genre just by coexistence in a body of work; in other words, the work resumes itself and nothing she could do would be outside its orbit; this includes her entire life of less than 40 years, less than ten of which were devoted to her art.

This article is not a biography or an obituary; it is a survey of her work in photographs and, in large part in her own words. Research in her papers uncovered a number of interviews and writings and notes which are here drawn together for the first time. This is not a definitive undertaking but a suggestive one; the book about Suzy Harris awaits its composer. Her solo show in New York in February concentrated on three plate glass works, a Dalet casting, a few color studies and sketches for her project concerning the 30th degree of parallel latitude on the earth, a great circle on which the Pyramids at Gizeh can be found. This article with its pictures should suggest the full range of her work, and the quotations give an approximation of her thought.

Although her work is very physical in that it is embodied in materials such as glass, metal, wood and plaster and is not composed of proposals for thinking, it still is highly verbal in the sense that, like the choice of a given word in sequence, it is always perfectly appropriate to its situation and modest in scale like any given word. Although it sounds banal, I should say too that Harris’ work has something to say. It is divorced from the pretension of enormous meaninglessness which has largely characterized sculpture since Constantin Brancusi died in 1957. While sharing a bit of the degraded philosophy “less is more,” Harris struck out on her own, with friends such as Jeffrey Lew, Jene Highstein and Richard Nonas to develop an art that was not about art but an art that encompassed all acts and all thoughts, all history and all daydreams, the arcane realization of passage through life. Her work is not contained by an ism or constrained into a form that might replicate itself until Doomsday. It is an art that realizes the nature of power and understates it because of the awesomeness and magnificence of things like the sun and the earth and gravity—things that can’t be trifled with, but things which can perhaps be understood.

Harris: I consider glass, as a material, to be stone. It has a similarity of formative elements, causality, density, strength and weight, with one important special characteristic—transparency. I usually use it in sheet form in the context of the body of my work as follows: (1) Structurally—to build whole forms where transparency is an important factor in perceiving volume and relationship. (2) Cut to a specific size and shape and placed (indoors or outdoors) where it acts as a marker for the most prevalent physical relationship of that space. (3) More recently, considering its likeness to Stone, I have been experimenting with casting a formula I made up into chunks of very soft glass to carve.

In a letter dated October 19, 1976, to Candace Erickson at St. Cloud University, Minnesota, Harris clarified an unrealized project:

Harris: Ideally I would like to try to make a block of crystal glass. This would entail making a mold of porcelain, mixing the formula, firing the mold, then refiring it with the chemicals to about 3,000 degrees for three hours and then cooling. What I want is to make a high-lead crystal which could be carved. The chemicals involved are lead oxide, silica oxide, alumina, calcium carbonate, potassium carbonate and a small amount of arsenic. It would take a couple of days to do it.

I am involved with a search for form as it exists as a result of relationship, and then the best way to express it; therefore the range in my work from large installation to small permanent distillation. Materials speak a language of their own. They must be experimented with in order to make new references between form and the material in which it is made.2

It is this deliberate transcendance of the given, e.g. the difference between glass and stone, and the recognition of what they have in common, which epitomizes Harris’ way of thinking—highly syncretic and never self-serving. I think she would like the possibility that somebody else may pick up this idea and make a soft glass like stone. For Harris, ideas exist to be shared, friends to be helped, and time to be used as completely as possible.

Harris: I am exploring form from the very basic concept that its origin is in the measurement of time. That is to say that non-amorphous form stems from the relationship between the sun and the earth and appears through simple geometric shapes of very specific proportions. Most of my work is made as temporary installations using the rhythm of the proportions of the site as the dictates for shape, placement and scale. These cooperate to set up an active relationship between the viewer and the environment. The installations are executed generally with wood and cardboard or plaster or with plate glass. I further work in metal casting to bring to rest the essence of form that I find in these explorations, using at least two types of metal in each casting to delineate the rhythm of the form. The work at the Biennale is an expression of the rhythm of its location in exact scale. Because the form exists within its causality and cannot be objectified, it is more comprehensible to the viewer.3

My work is involved with a philosophy concerning non-amorphous form wherein it is caused by relative phenomena in nature, i.e. the universe. It could be called a synthesis of astronomy, music, mathematics and art. Because of the sympathy between the macrocosm and the microcosm, I have so far chosen to work in two ways. The first is to work in real scale to a real space by finding a suggested form in the proportions of the space and constructing it on site. The second is to combine, by the process of metal casting, forms in proportionate relation to each other, using such elements as copper, iron, nickel, zinc and the alloy bronze. These forms are cast, one, two or three inside each other, in a process of solid pouring that I have been developing with foundries in France, Italy and America.

Form as the manifestation of the numerical relationships underlying the measurement of time through space, and the energies therein.

It is a slight error to think that these pronouncements are mystical, alchemical and heavy; they are literal and clear. If we are not accustomed to thinking large thoughts, that is our defect, not the writer’s. Suzanne Harris first showed her art publicly on May 31, 1971, at one of the first alternative spaces, 112 Greene Street, which she helped to organize, a piece of sculpture to which people had to attach themselves to make it work.

Harris: The flying machine is like a giant puppet rig. A 12-foot beam supports a cross piece at each end which connects to four pulleys. Two people strap themselves in around the waist, wrists and ankles and down the length of the beam and through the pulleys at the other end, suspends the bodies. In other words, there are four wristlets and four anklets attached through a pulley system. A third person cranks the whole mechanism up into the air. Two lengths of gum rubber at each end of the machine enable you to bounce in any direction. Pushing against the weight of the other person allows you to stretch your body as you like. You can swing any way at all—upside-down, prone, sideways. Two bodies create enough tension so that you can never just hang there.

The second thing that I did was a big gear machine that four people can ride on, called Cyclry. Two of the gears are seven feet in diameter,one is six feet and the last is five feet. Each gear is interlocked in a straight line by a steel pipe which runs through the center of each. Five more steel pipes surround the center of each gear and your body is wrapped around just above that. All four people have to cooperate to get the machine into motion. Whoever rotates to the top of their gear first triggers the movement of the other three gears. Although the rhythm can be kicked off easily, all four people have to unite their energies to achieve speed and smoothness.

These projects helped me to explore forms which emerge from a specific set of relationships to establish rhythm. Everything functions together and form is simply a piece of the whole.

These works marked a real turning point in Suzanne Campbell’s life. After studying to be a doctor at Harvard for two years, she became a nurse, then popped into rock music management first in Boston and later in New York, where she helped manage the singer Phil Ochs. She married Paul Harris and pioneered the SoHo artists’ movement with Lew and Gordon Matta-Clark and a number of performance artists, including Judy Palow, Tina Girouard and Keith Sonnier. She said it was building her loft on the second floor at 112 Greene Street that made her realize that she wanted to be an artist and actually build things herself.

Harris: [In the ’70s] people are trying to talk to each other again, I think. What I hope they’re doing is trying to break down the competition barriers between themselves [as artists]. There seemed to be a period when everybody really did withdraw, and everyone’s been frantically running around looking for the next movement, and there isn’t one. I would guess there’s a good moment at most. But within that the methods and the kind of work are very personally different and I think that people are finding personal ways to deal with themselves and their feelings and ideas rather than fitting it into a framework. I certainly think that minimal art made me wonder why a lot. There was so much about simplicity and form, line and things like that, and I always felt like so much of it was . . . about materials, or it was about process, or a particular kind of form, but it didn’t carry the information about what that form meant at all.4

One of the main innovations of the period, it seems almost ludicrous to remark, was an attempt to return to meaning. How could such an important thing have been left behind? I hope it suffices to say for the moment that art and artists received their artistic licenses—very unofficial ones, always subject to revocation without notice—by means of the informal bargain that one would be permitted to do as one wished as long as it were meaningless. I must say that this is still going on. Harris and some others broke some of the rules, but usually in rather covert manners. Really verbal art, should it develop, will require a lengthy parthenogenesis. The virginal development of anything is thwarted before and behind and though many claims for modern art be made, not many can be redeemed. In the ’70s, art was a tough row to hoe.

In 1974, I suppose, Harris had an idea which resulted the next year in perhaps her only large masterpiece. About 1971 something called Battery Park City began to materialize on the southwestern end of Manhattan Island. As had happened on a few previous occasions since the 16th century, the more-or-less Dutch merchants occupying the island felt that if it were only larger they might make more money. So they proceeded again to enlarge it. They built walls of concrete beneath the surface of the Hudson River, pumped out the water and pumped in the sand. By 1974 or ’75, they had an amazing place there, all sand, with the city right across the already defunct West Side Highway. Then the money dried up. But “the beach” kept on existing, becoming more like the earth. Grasses and clovers flourished together with numerous plants I can’t name and without much ado, landfill became land. My friends and I, including Suzy, used to sneak in there when the sand was in the form of small mountains. At night, it was more exotic than the Rockies. Later it was leveled, but they could hardly start the gigantic buildings which were planned. They poured a few foundations and quit. Suzanne Harris had something to say.

Harris: First of all I wanted to remove myself from the art world to test what I was trying to communicate by presenting a work primarily to the public. Secondly, I really wanted to do an earth work in New York City in the ground, so that everyone could experience being inside of it. If it were on top of the ground, it would just feel like standing in a room. Inside the ground, it became a power experience.

Just at that time I got a CAPS grant from New York State for $3,500. A certain amount of public work is required of CAPS recipients, so I decided to blow the whole thing on this project. Even though the grant made me legitimate enough to approach city officials, it still took four months for me to secure the necessary papers to begin work.

First I contacted the Battery Park City public relations people who said yes, they’d like to have art on the property. Then I was referred to the head engineer who for some crazy reason hated me on sight. Although it was well presented, he thought that the whole idea was absurd. He sent us away to draw up more plans. Every time he would say, no, now you have to do this. Three or four sets of drawings had to be made before the materials even supposedly complied with the building code. The last time I saw him, he said, You can’t build this thing, the union has to build it. I didn’t want to raise the extra few thousand dollars, but I really wanted to build the thing myself.

I went to the local union chief who took one look at the drawings and said, This isn’t art, it’s carpentry—it’s a building—pieces of wood—where are the naked ladies? All we did was scream and swear at each other. It took me a week to find his superior. I went to his office prepared for a fight. He turned out be very helpful and we had an interesting discussion about how art is so distant from the people. He even wrote a letter to the Battery Park City Authority telling them to get off my back. Finally I must have had to go through exactly what a real estate developer must have to do to build an apartment house, but the entire project cost me $5,500.

Geometry was discovered through making measurements of time, or, in other words, geometric form was a result of measuring the relationship between the sun and the earth. Initially what was actually revealed was the universal proportions used in sacred buildings and monuments. The Seven Wonders of the World were based upon these measurements. The latitude of the sphere of the earth at the particular site dictates the basic cubit of the structure in order to put something into what ought to be called real scale.

The circle squared is the basis of pyramidal relationships. A squared circle is the square whose perimeter is equal to the circumference of a certain circle. The height of pyramids is determined by the radius of the circle. The pyramid captures energy—if you put a dead cat into a pyramid it would mummify perfectly. It’s a relationship based on a set of proportions that captures energy.

In my piece Locus, the circle was 21 feet in diameter, the diagonal of the square within was 18 feet. A long sand path led up to Locus and as you got closer the earth began to rise on both sides. Suddenly you entered a tunnel that was 20 feet long, eight feet high and four feet wide—a very comfortable tunnel, I might add. As you came to the end of the tunnel and reached the cube within, light suddenly burst above in an area that was open only to you and to the sky. That part was nine feet high. The space between the walls of the circle and the walls of the cube was three feet. After a brief disorientation, a tremendous peace and calm came over you as you traversed the inside.5

Ted Castle is a free-lance writer who lives in New York.



1. From David Jones’ long poem Anathémata, undated edition, New York, c. 1953, p. 63.

2. Except as noted below, all the quotations in this article are from previously unpublished notes, letters and interviews by Suzanne Harris. I wish to thank David Seidner for his pertinent research in her papers and for his helpful advice.

3. In September–October 1977, Harris made a large wood work for the 10th Biennale de Paris. There is an interesting account of her difficulties in being taken seriously as a worker in Cover magazine for Jan. 1980 by Gerard Hovagimyan.

4. Quoted from “Fragments of Conversation” in the catalogue Style and Process by Marina Urbach, New York, 1976, p. 16.

5. I am indebted to an unpublished interview made for a book which exists in two versions, but whose author remains anonymous.