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Bruce Beasley : acrylic & metal sculpture
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Bruce Beasley: Acrylic Casting

In the late 1960’s I began to have dreams of transparent sculpture. I was fascinated by the idea of sculpture that you could see into and through. Sculpture where you saw the front and backside at the same time. What would be the esthetic problems of a transparent medium?

Research into glass and plastics quickly revealed that both glass and polyester resin (the traditional casting resin sold in hobby shops) are not sufficiently transparent at the thickness I wanted to cast. Further research led me to the conclusion that only polymethyl methacrylate, the acrylic plastic better known by the trade names Lucite and Plexiglas possessed the absolute transparency that I wanted.

Acrylic is one of the oldest plastics and in some ways it is still one of the most remarkable because of its outdoor durability and exceptional transparency. With these characteristics acrylic was the perfect material for the sculpture I wanted to cast, with one drawback. No one, including the manufacturers Rohm & Haas or Dupont or the military, had succeeded in casting thick sections without having it crack and fill with massive amounts of bubbles.

Casting acrylic is just the opposite of casting bronze. Instead of starting with a solid material and using heat to make it liquid, you begin with a liquid and use heat to turn it solid. The problems are twofold. The first problem is that acrylic shrinks significantly when it polymerizes (polymerization is the term for turning from the liquid to the solid state). The shrinkage not only distorts the shape, but it causes massive voids in the center of the casting. This happens because the outside of the casting polymerizes first and as the outside hardens and shrinks it pulls material from the center, thereby causing shrink voids.

These shrink voids appear to be bubbles, but they are actually small voids that have a vacuum in them. The second problem is that the polymerization or hardening itself is highly exothermic, meaning it gives off a great deal of heat. This causes a runaway reaction where the heat given off by the initial stages of polymerizing causes too many other molecules to polymerize too fast and the heat generated is enough to boil or even set on fire the acrylic that is still liquid.

I experimented for most of a year and was able to get to the point where I could cast acrylic up to six inches thick. This was encouraging but was far from the thickness needed for the sculptures I wanted to make. However, this size of casting allowed me to see enough to know that transparency had rich and exciting esthetic possibilities.

Just at this time when I had learned to cast moderately sized acrylic sculptures, I was chosen to compete for the first public artwork for the State of California. I was a young sculptor only twenty eight years old and this was a great honor and an important opportunity for a young artist. The state competition created a huge dilemma for me because I had been selected to compete in the competition based on my previous work in cast metal. My heart was in the ideas I had for transparency, but I did not know if I could learn to cast acrylic in really large sizes. I screwed up my courage, or you might say that I was foolhardy, and I entered and won the competition. I entered a model in cast acrylic not knowing know to cast the large sculpture that I would have to make and that I had confidently told the jury that I knew how to do.

With a lot of added motivation, I continued to do experiments in the direction that I had been pursuing, but I made little or no further progress in being able to cast thicker. It was as though the material was telling me that DuPont was right and that acrylic simply could not be cast in massive thickness. I did not know what direction to pursue next and I began to fear that I had been foolishly over-confidant and that I would be a failure at my first opportunity to do a large public sculpture.

I decided to approach the problem in a different way and to try to feel what happened to the material over the entire process. This allowed me to understand what was happening more completely than analyzing step by step what I thought were the critical elements. It sounds trite, but the understanding of what was happening, and therefore the solution, came to me in a flash. The next experiment produced a casting three times thicker than I had done previously, and I knew then that I could cast any thickness.

The casting of the big sculpture for the state capitol was successful. It is titled Apolymon and it is 15 feet wide, nine feet high and four feet thick.

Casting acrylic requires that the curing takes place under high pressure in a rather sophisticated and expensive device called an autoclave. It is basically a high-pressure oven. Since the entire casting has to cure inside, you need an autoclave with an interior space as large as your largest casting. The critical variables are catalyst, time, heat and pressure. The curing cycle increases as the casting gets thicker. Apolymon was in the autoclave for three weeks and during that time I did not know if the casting was successful or not. I timed the opening of the autoclave to correspond to the first moon landing – I wanted to benefit from any extra good luck there might be floating around.

Metal and Wood: 1980-1986

In 1980 I began a series of maple constructions and larger welded metal sculptures. The metal pieces were a development of a 40-foot welded steel sculpture I made at the Oregon International Sculpture Symposium in 1974. I was interested in doing larger sculptures than were possible in acrylic. I also wanted to be able to do some of the same shapes smaller, and I decided to do them in maple.

Using the computer: 1987

In 1987 I was struggling with trying to make sculptures using complex intersections of simple box-like shapes. I was interested in the often-surprising new shapes that result from the intersections of simpler shapes. What interested me was to start with a vocabulary of shapes that alone were boring and did not evoke human emotions and to see if by combining these shapes I could make new shapes and arrangements that did. This idea is analogous to musical composition. The composer does not invent any new notes. It is the arrangement of the notes to each other that makes the difference between banality and beauty.

I wanted to approach shape the same way. To achieve this I was struggling with building cardboard models from compositions I was constructing in my head. I could build two and sometimes three intersecting blocks, but past that I simply could not visualize the results of the intersecting blocks. If I couldn’t visualize it, then I couldn’t build it. Even the few cardboard models that I made presented a problem of scale-up because the models were not accurate enough to serve as patterns for larger pieces, and it would be a nightmare to do the same sort of fitting and trimming with large plates of metal.

Just at this time I was invited to be one of nine sculptors from the US and Europe to each make a big steel sculpture in a large and very sophisticated machinery-manufacturing factory in Germany. I sent off one of my cardboard models hoping that this company that made some of the most sophisticated machinery in the world would figure out a clever way to build my sculpture. They started making the sculpture before I was scheduled to arrive, and when I got there the piece looked absolutely terrific. All the planes fitted perfectly and the edges and intersections were precise and sharp.

I thought to myself, “great, they have figured out a smart way to generate patterns to cut the plates of steel”. It turned out that they had made the sculpture by the very labor-intensive technique of making a full-size sculpture in wood pattern stock, doing all the fitting and trimming in wood, and then using that piece to measure and cut the steel plates. It made a wonderful sculpture, but it was too labor intensive a technique to use myself. If I made them that way, I would only be able to make one sculpture a year. However, the symposium did give me the opportunity to see a large and superbly crafted sculpture in the new shapes that I was struggling with. I returned home determined to find a more efficient and spontaneous technique so that I could make sculptures using this kind of arrangement of intersecting shapes.

I am not an artist who sees a finished sculpture in my head before making it. I am not sure that any artists do, but I don’t. I also do not find drawing in two dimensions allows me to work out three-dimensional ideas. I always found myself turning the drawing over to see what was on the other side. For me, the final sculpture is the result of an exploration of shape as I make the sculpture. Therefore what I needed was a way to spontaneously experiment with intersecting shapes without getting bogged down in the drudgery of cutting and fitting just to see if I liked a particular arrangement. What I needed was a three-dimensional drawing pad.

I guessed that the solution would be the use of computers and I began an investigation into three-dimensional computer modeling. 3D-computer modeling was in its infancy in the late 80’s, but it did exist. One of the first really robust 3D computer modelers is the program “UG” made by Unigraphic Solutions Co. They became interested in my use of their program to make sculpture, and were of enormous assistance in adapting the program for my needs and use.

UG is unusual in its ability to be customized to the user’s particular needs. This is a very important characteristic, and makes UG quite unique. A full-blown 3D modeling program like UG is quite complex to learn and at that time, UG did not run on personal computers and required a workstation level of computer that was more expensive and complicated than today’s robust personal computers. I was able to use UG at one of the science labs at UC Berkeley enough to convince me that it was worth the investment of time and money to set up my own computer lab. With a lot of help from Hewlett Packard, I installed a HP UNIX workstation running UG software. The combination of the HP hardware and UG software has proved to be outstanding.

Some people have the misconception that the computer is involved in the esthetic decisions of making the sculpture. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What the computer does is to allow me to experiment and play with many different compositions of shapes in a spontaneous way. I am free from the distractions of cutting, fitting gluing, and supporting a real model. It is truly a 3-dimensional drawing pad where I have the ease and spontaneity of drawing but I am drawing in a 3- dimensional world where I can walk around the sculpture as I am drawing it. I find working this way to be very liberating. I feel very free to try many possibilities and experiment because no real material has been used yet. When I change my mind I throw away electrons instead of bronze.

Once I have a composition that I like, I have to bring it into the real world and make it in materials that have weight and substance. The bronze castings are done in the traditional lost wax process except that for each casting I make the sculpture in foam core, which is then burnt out just as wax would be. The larger bronze sculptures are welded from bronze plate that has been carefully cut from patterns. Accuracy is very important because if there are errors in fitting the shapes then the sculpture simply will not go together.

Bruce Beasley
February 2001

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