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Bruce Beasley : acrylic & metal sculpture
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Curatorial Notes

Excerpted from the 1990 catalog essay by Dr. Albert Elsen, Walter A. Haas Professor of Art History, Stanford University

What These Sculptures Are About

From the considerable culture which he brings to art, (Bruce) Beasley has drawn his inspiration from natural structures, rather than the built environment. Science and the microscope have changed the modern artist's understanding of nature as shown by Beasley's explanation: "The major source materials for me are what I call the building blocks of nature. People tend to think about natural forms as tree bark, waves, the bodies of animals, or people, but much more basic forms of nature are crystalline structures, molecular building blocks and bones. I'm very interested in the way nature refines these things down to very simple forms, and how it puts things together."

In the modernist tradition, Beasley does not see sculpture's purpose as providing the viewer with things the mind already knows. The sculptor's vision is to see what could be. His sculpture adds to, rather than confirms, our knowledge of what structures can look like that perform no practical function, such as do an architect's building or chemist's molecular models. Beasley's forms are dictated by a purely intellectual and aesthetic inquiry.

His purpose and personal reward are, as he puts it, that "I want to be able to take someone to a place he is not able to get to on his own. That "place" is not social wisdom but "emotional territory." Never are the sculptures intended as political metaphors or social symbols that offer veiled commentary on a tragic human condition.

Beasley's constructions require that attention be paid to a series of sights that overall reveal the intelligence and beauty of their form. In the artist's words, "when you join a group of shapes that alone had no significance, and they sing when they're together, that is the best feeling there is. "Not for the first time in modern art's history, it is the artist affirming that this is what his art and specifically sculpture alone can do with tangible forms in light and space.

A Sculptor's Curse: The Perils of Solving Problems Too Well

It is a given that sculptors have special aptitudes for forming and joining three-dimensional shapes. They have an affinity for tools, endless patience, and because of demands on ingenuity and time, a love/hate relation with the sculptural process. With Beasley these attributes go back to youthful experiences of building racing cars. When we met in 1963 it was in a foundry he had built that allowed 200 pounds of molten metal to be poured by him alone, a feat that would have amazed and delighted Cellini.

Beasley was later to win international fame with his optically illusory lucite sculptures for which he, and not Dupont, had to solve the problems of controlled casting of acrylic in big sizes. Within the limits of his needs, the sculptor has taught himself: mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, chemistry, physics and engineering.

In Quest of Quality

For Beasley quality includes but means more than the well-made. In fact, he doesn't want to divert the viewer's concentration by the excellence of his technique. The personal standards by which he evaluates his own sculpture comprise the quality of thought as expressed in the final composition and the coordination of all the components that include material, color and the relation to the space the work occupies. Does the sculpture reflect his mind when it is most awake? Above all for the serious artist, whether or not we can define it in words, quality means esthetic durability, a sculpture not wearing out its intellectual and emotional welcome.

The More Things Change

At this stage in his career Beasley has not re-invented his basic vocabulary but changed his grammar, and found that his visual language "is much more materially neutral," meaning that it can be expressed in many materials including stone as well as metals, but not acrylics. As with nature's "building blocks", he still relies upon an art formed from known simple geometric shapes that are then joined in complex relationships. With the Seventies acrylic pieces Beasley opened an optically rich inner life to the transparent cube. The appeal of the transparent image "was the visual ambiguity that occurred when the eye was not sure where the surfaces were." Recently the constant is the conjugation of several closed cubes by bringing them together in unpredictable conjunctions such that they seem to lose their original identity and become complex and often surprising polyhedrons. "I don't want these to be visually ambiguous. I want the viewer to know where the shapes are." In all this is a playful use of geometry for serious artistic purposes.

The originality of Beasley's personal cubism and recent contribution to the constructivist tradition lies in what he chooses to emphasize: a new means of integrating simple shapes, not by their addition to or contiguity with each other, but rather their mutual interpenetration. As will be shown, the inspiration for this grammar and the resulting fragmentation principle owes much not to the history of modern art, but also to that of technology.

Within the evolution of his own sculpture, and in the last three years, Beasley has moved from thin hexagonal sheets to cubes, to closed volumes rather than flat planes that surround and divide space. Weight wins over lightness. Continued is the art of plain flat-faced forms in unpredictable union; these perform similar sculptural gestures to those found earlier in the cast aluminum and steel pieces, for example. Such configurations include cantilevering into space, a rugged seemingly precarious arching, and the whole form springing, usually from a stance of multiple points. A continued and calculated paradox is that Beasley wants his formal structures to have a sense of dynamism, to seem animated, as if perilously poised, and having the implication of movement, something not normally associated with cubes.

The artist is playing with a co-existence of contraries, a precise kind of geometry used in what seems a casual way. These recent structures are less predictable in the round than before partly because no sides line up so that they touch a common plane. They display new curved profiles as he begins to re-engage his polyhedral forms with a sphere. (In the cast acrylic sculptures hemispherical cavities were introduced into the polyhedrons.) And then there is the use of patina. The application off acid to raw bronze offers Beasley what had been for his art a missing dimension: surface nuance of inconstant color and texture. A suggestion of sensuousness counters the touch-repelling severe rectilinearity of the shapes. All these changes add up to a more overt appeal to feeling in order to balance an art with a strong address to the mind and our inclinations to look for the measurable and resolutions of threats to balance, or to see gravity confirmed or defied.

Freedom's New Tool

In 1987 Beasley was invited to the International Steel Sculpture Symposium in Krefeld, Germany. He was given the opportunity of having for the first time one of his new volumetric models enlarged in Cor-Ten steel to nine feet in height. A team of skilled German steel workers and hundreds of manhours supplied by the Symposium had to be thrown into the solving of the problem of calculating all of the angles where the cubes conjoined before the steel sheets could be cut. The result was the fabricating of "Titiopoli's Arch," a descendant of "Vanguard" on the Stanford University campus. (A private homage, "Titiopoli's Arch" is named after the Greek who in the third century A.D. was the first to study the order and logic of crystals.) Lacking such human resources as were available at the Symposium, Beasley realized that he needed a dramatically different tool.

Crucial to liberation from the tedious labors of making his constructions by hand and trial and error was Beasley's turning to the use in 1988 of a computer and program that allows him to visualize from any angle the complicated cubic conjunctions that he proposes. This required eight months of research and finding a high-end solids modelling program that was developed for aerospace engineering and molecular modelling by scientists. "It lets me do something that I want to do very gracefully."

Beasley now finds it appropriate and easier to draw with the computer using it as basically a "three-dimensional drawing pad." Unlike a modeller's in clay, his configurations are linear and susceptible to being transformed into digital information.

Cubes of varying dimension and proportion, and usually tilted, do not just abutt, but are made to intersect one another. "That's where the surprises come. New shapes appear as a result of the intersection that are not known to me, or that I might not have come up with just out of my imagination. The part of a cube that is penetrating out of another one is no longer a cube." That is when the extremely difficult computation of the angles of joints becomes appropriate for the computer. The artist is not only allowed but encouraged by his new tool to treat very spontaneously with a level of geometric complexity invited by the cube. This incentive to make changes owes to the fact that adjustments come in seconds, not days.

Another radical change encouraged by the computer is to liberate the sculptor from the tendency to work on a sculpture in terms of its primary view. "When I am working on the computer, there is no front view; I'm working on it completely in the round at all times."

Art and Citizenship

In his maturity and from history, Beasley has learned that each must do professionally what he or she does best. The rest is for other forms of good citizenship. An artist's humanity is evidenced not just by what he doesn't, but in all that he does. Although it may not always be their conscious intent, through their invented, austere and abstract harmonies, artists like Gabo, Mondrian, David Smith and Beasley reassure us of the constructive potential of the human mind. They have created tangible poetic analogies to the diverse balances in life that each of us seeks in our own way.

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