In Conversation

ALICE AYCOCK with Phong Bui

While preparing for her forthcoming dual-venue retrospective of drawings, Alice Aycock Drawings: Some Stories Are Worth Repeating (Parrish Art Museum, April 21 – July 14, 2013 and Grey Art Gallery, April 23 – July 14, 2013), the sculptor welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui to her live/work loft in SoHo to talk about her life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): The last time I saw you, you talked about some specific works of Richard Serra and Michael Heizer.

Alice Aycock: Richard has made pieces that have stunning curves, which are just beautiful, as well as rectilinear or solid pieces that have an amazing presence. But with his “Torqued Ellipsis” it became an architectural space. I’m also interested in the sense of the “path,” which supposedly leads you to somewhere, but you end up nowhere, confronting an enclosed obstacle, which is the sheer weight of the steel. It’s not exactly a euphoric feeling. It’s a very serious feeling. Richard gives you nothing except weight, mass, gravity, enclosure, and a sense of precarious balance. It’s very dangerous. It’s like life. He doesn’t make art to make you feel good. All of these are things that I admire in his work and that I consider to be present in some of my best work. This is also true with Heizer’s deep depressions (“North, East, South, West”) at Dia Beacon, which has this vertigo-inducing power that just knocks you off your feet. The sense of monumentality from the depths below is brilliant. Both of them are able to create this deep, deep psychological state of precariousness, which is just powerful. Period. I can relate to that state because this sense of precariousness exists in my work. For example, in “The Thousand and One Nights in the Mansion of Bliss” (1983) there is a big, slowly spinning blade machine, which suggests a sense of danger but is also hypnotic and seductive at the same time. Right now I’m so fascinated with wind, turbulence, turbines, whirlpools, and tornadoes. When I finish my Park Avenue Paper Chase project (2014), which has to do with movement of wind energy as it blows up and down the Avenue creating all sorts of random whirlpools, it’s going to be really strong, I hope! But I would also say that I also admire beauty. I think it’s okay to make something that is so beautiful it’s irresistible, just like you can make something that is so dangerous it’s irresistible. I think that is why we are so transfixed by images of nuclear explosions. On another note I’m a gardener, and there are moments when I would just kneel down in front of an iris and worship it.

Rail: Okay [laughs].

Aycock: And I would look at my peonies and pray to my peonies—it’s just that one moment in one summer day when they look so beautiful and smell so good and there is nothing better! [Laughs.]

Rail: I can only relate from afar. Anyway, in 2004 I taught a course in cultural studies at Mason Gross, so every week I would commute and before entering the building I would look at your piece “The Turning Fork Oracle”(1997) in the courtyard. It strikes me as an abstract still life, although you can see the large tuning fork placed in the middle of a tilted hexagonal table. And right on top are six or seven circular Plexiglas forms— —

Aycock:  That spin around.

Rail: And there are also cup-like shapes, plus an arrow sign. I know that each of your works have a narrative. What was the narrative behind that image?

Aycock: I was reading Foucault’s “Death and the Labyrinth” at the time, and I was interested in making these sort of surrealist gestures. Surrealism itself never reveals any rational narrative, so I was trying to bring together different images and elements that are in a certain way disconnected from one another. Also, I have always been interested in how science and magic dance around each other: in one epoch it’s magic and in the next it’s science. I was reading all about alchemy, magnetism, and fortune telling, and I read about the turning fork as the instrument that supposedly receives all information and vibrates back to the universe. Then I started looking into the secret society of freemasonry and discovered that many of the founding fathers, like George Washington and others, were members of the Masonic lodge.

Rail: Like George Bush senior and junior are members of the Skull and Bones Society.

Alice Aycock, “Project for Five Wells Descending a Hillside,” 1975. Pencil on vellum, 21 × 37 1⁄2”. Collection of the artist.

Aycock: Exactly! So I thought about the relationship between alchemy, which became magic, and then chemistry. A child may say I’m going to be a great scientist someday, or a great doctor, or a brilliant lawyer, and there are paths to that—but what if they say, “I’m going to be an artist”? How would they do that? They can play the Ouija board or take a magic eight ball and shake it then ask, “am I going to be a great artist?” It rolls around and then it says “yes,” and they shake it again and it says “ask again”

Rail: [Laughs.] What an insane idea!

Aycock: So I thought that the art students would go outside their studios and try to think of what they’re going to do next, “What’s my new idea?” Of course, a lot of us back in the day like the Fluxus artists asked the I Ching, “What should I do?” I still ask the I Ching all the time! It just never tells me what I want it to tell me! [Laughs.]

Rail: What about Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, which was popular reading in the late ’60s and the early ’70s. I am thinking specifically of the second chapter “House and Universe,” in which the ambivalent reading between house and universe is far removed from simple geometric forms?

Aycock: An architect married to a friend of mine told me to read it, and it was the right book for me at the time in the early ’70s. All my friends have read it as well. I remember Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim, and I had very passionate conversations about art and what we were reading at the time. Sometimes they would become like the abstract expressionist kind of arguments, and Dennis and I would throw things at each other, arguing and storming out. But we were always ultimately supportive of each other. We were all consumed with what we were doing. That was all we had. But to answer you, Poetics of Space dealt with so many issues in reference to interior and exterior space, and memory and metaphor, which fed right into what I was doing, particularly with my interests in architecture, machine, the body, and so on. I was also reading Merleau-Ponty, George Kubler, Roland Barthes, Thomas Kuhn, and on and on.

Rail: Can we talk about your early history? I know your wonderful grandmother told a lot of great stories, took you to the Met, and gave you art books. We just talked about Richard Serra. His father was a pipe fitter who took him to a shipyard to see a ship launch as a kid; he’s acknowledged that watching such an obdurate and heavy object as the huge ship become lyrical and light once it hit the water really informed who he is as an artist. Your father was an engineer who owned a business (Aycock, Inc.) that made giant bridge girders and installed condensers, transformers, all sorts of huge machines. Do you think this may be the root of your attraction to big forms and machine-like elements?

Aycock: Sure. I took it for granted because that was the environment that surrounded me. It was just there; like a kid growing up in New York City and not in Kansas. I was and still am comfortable around ironworkers, big machines, overhead cranes, and so on. It’s like home for me. But at the same time I wasn’t a tomboy either. And my father was a perfect gentleman. He ran his business but also read widely. We would talk about books and ideas at the dinner table.

Rail: I was impressed that your father went to Scribner’s bookstore and bought you 50 books, from Huck Finn to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Shakespeare, The Arabian Nights.

Aycock: Everything. Camille, The House of the Seven Gables.

Rail: And then he would say to you, “If you read all of them, I’ll get you another 50.” So that was the relationship.

Aycock: Yes. That was the relationship. He was an extraordinary role model in the sense that he was very smart and extremely responsible. But the fact that he did not present a lot of flaws could be very difficult. There was a lot of pressure when I was an adolescent as I recognized that he was somebody who was going to play hardball with me. He was not going to tell me that something was good if it wasn’t. If I said something that didn’t interest him he just didn’t pay attention. I mean, he gave me Bullfinch’s Mythology when I was 8 years old. Well, it was very hard for me to read, I have to tell you. But I would say that any father that gives his daughter Camille and The Picture of Dorian Gray at the same time is not somebody who’s trying to protect her from real life. He did not give me D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller, however. I had to find them in his bookshelves. But he was definitely a romantic.

Rail: So he treated you like an adult. He expected you to talk on his level.

Aycock: And he was very competitive.

Rail:  Oh boy. Why did you decide to go to Douglass College, the women’s division of Rutgers, instead of elsewhere?

Aycock:  Well, I applied to Sarah Lawrence, Radcliffe, and Wellesley, and I was rejected. I was so heartbroken. I went into the bathroom and I wouldn’t come out for days. And then it turned out I was on the waiting list at Douglass, which was perfect, because I got to go to a school near New York, I got to go to a women’s college, and I got to get away from Pennsylvania which was all I wanted. Had I gone to any of those other schools, I would never have been exposed to some of the most amazing artists doing the most experimental work and with, at that moment, probably the best art department anywhere.

Rail:  You mean Allan Kaprow, Geoffrey Hendricks, Robert Watts, among others at Rutgers?

Aycock: Yes. Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Morris, everybody.

Rail:  But you initially went there as a creative writing major.

Alice Aycock, “Project for a Circular Building with Narrow Ledges for Walking,” 1976. Reinforced concrete, cast in place; 12’ diameter x 17’ high. Originally sited at Silver Springs, Pennsylvania (destroyed). Photo: Artist.

Aycock:  Right, and it was hard. I realized in my sophomore year that art was also for people who could make it academically [laughs], so I switched and majored in studio art and minored in art history.

Rail: Joan Snyder went there as well. What kind of things were you making at the time?

Aycock: I started out as a very bad painter. One of my first paintings was of a still life garbage can. Then I decided I liked the volumetric quality of the can, so I stopped painting and started making wooden constructions that had volumetric interior spaces. I also made hideous plaster trees that I painted pink, green and gold. 

Rail: And who were among the graduate students at the time?

Aycock:  Jackie Winsor and Keith Sonnier. I just wanted to hang out with the grown-ups, and it was great that Jackie was there because it was so important to see a woman serious about what she was doing. In fact, when I later taught at Yale Matthew Barney was a senior, and he did exactly the same thing: he hung out only with the graduate students. You know, he’d come back at night and he’d sit at every critique and you just knew that he was thinking ahead.

Rail:  Did you apply to Yale? Or elsewhere besides Hunter for graduate school?

Aycock: I applied to both Yale and Cornell but I was rejected. So once again, I was lucky to have ended up at Hunter.

Rail: Which couldn’t have been better with everyone like Leo Steinberg, Tony Smith, Ray Parker, and Ron Gorchov,

Aycock: Bob Morris, Ralph Humphrey, Rosalind Krauss, Linda Nochlin—you name it.

Rail:  Were you like a little dry sponge?

Aycock: Absolutely yes.

Rail: Just sucking, absorbing away. From what I read in Robert Hobb’s monograph on your work it seems that Robert Morris was one professor you had a strong affinity with.

Aycock:  From an intellectual point of view, yes, I did. He was really about ideas. I would to say that Bob made art like a probing tool. Philosophical premises and ideas spurred him on. I still feel strongly that Bob was really important to everybody in that whole period. Besides, he was extremely generous. He was constantly trying to get his friends and students to show their work in different galleries. Bob really tried to posit things in terms of say, how can the stew of ideas that we have access to at this point in time be the resource for what we make as artists?

Rail: He felt the pulse more than anyone else did.

Aycock: Yes. And he wasn’t afraid to materialize that pulse into art either.  I just think he needs to be rediscovered and brought back because I think he had a tremendous influence on all of us.

Rail: Did you see his solo show at the Whitney in 1970?

Aycock: Yes. It was staggering. And as you may know, he demanded that the show be closed early as his protest against the war in Vietnam. I can’t think of a single artist that would do that today, because everybody is so self-involved.

Rail: [Laughs.] True. Did the Machine As Seen At the End of the Mechanical Age show curated by K.G. Pontus Hulten at MoMA in 1968 have a profound effect on you?

“I was and still am comfortable around ironworkers, big machines, overhead cranes, and so on. It’s like home for me.”

Aycock: Yes. Dennis and I used to fight over the catalogue with the metal cover. I had to photocopy the pages so I could read the texts and have the copied version with me in the studio.

Rail: So it was a huge experience in that it reaffirmed that science can be a sociological and historical construct in which you can extrapolate and experiment, instead of just thinking of it as an absolute a model for truth.

Aycock: That’s right. Science is something that’s constantly undergoing change; parts of it become obsolete, parts of it are fiction. It’s always getting rid of parts of itself. In his book The Shape of Time George Kubler says that we divide objects into things that are useful and things that are useless, and all things useful are tools. But the word invention is for both. So if you invent a tool, does it only become art when it’s useless? Sometimes yes, but I think that there’s a very close relationship in the human brain between making art and inventing tools. You know, art and science are very closely connected. But if I were to sit down and talk to a scientist, he would think I was an idiot and I would think he doesn’t really understand me. [Both laugh.]

Alice Aycock, “Maze,” 1972. Wood, 32’ diameter x 6’ high. Originally sited at Gibney Farm near New Kingston, Pennsylvania (destroyed). Photo: Silver Springs Township Police Department.
Alice Aycock, “The Leonardo Swirl,” 1984. Galvanized sheet metal, 21” diameter x 12”. Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody.

Rail: A shift took place from the early works like “Maze” (1972), “The First National Bank Building, Dayton, Ohio, the 21st floor: A Series of 21 Walls” (1977), or “Stair” (1974), which all deal with spatial decentering and the legible geometry of minimalist structure, to, say, pieces like “Project Untitled Studies for a Town” (1977), “Machine that Makes the World” (1979), “The Miraculating Machine in the Garden” (1980-82), or “Hoodo (Laura): Vertical and Horizontal Cross Section of the Ether Wind” (1981) in which everything became insane and irrational, yet lyrical at the same time. They look like early Kandinsky’s watercolors of the early to mid ’20s that became three-dimensional in the way of Popova’s constructions.

Aycock: I was looking and digesting all the materials in Pontus Hulten’s catalogue all along, but certainly “The Machine That Makes the World” was a major shift. You could see the ghost of minimalism but it had these other things that undercut it. And despite the early work being more legible in its use of geometry, for example, “A Simple Network of Underground and Tunnels,”it was always irrational above ground; as you went underground you moved from darkness to light encased in concrete. You confronted a space of claustrophobia and psychological danger. At some point, you didn’t know where you were anymore. I think that what happened was I had started looking at early archaeological, architectural landmarks, then moved through architectural history before coming up to the 20th century, particularly to Russian Constructivism, a period of art that I became obsessed with.

Rail: Without the political content!

Aycock: Right but not totally. I was mostly interested in the formal issues. Although I liked reading their manifestos, the Constructivists, were all involved in industry, the machine, and the future. Anyway, at some point, I thought, well, what about machine architecture? What about form and function? And that’s when I got very interested in amusement parks because they tend to bridge the gap between the machine and the human. And they have no purpose except the purpose of thrills, so that worked for me. Then of course what began to happen was that since I’d grown up all around big moving machines— —

Rail: Size and scale of that magnitude didn’t frighten you.

Aycock: It just didn’t. Then I began to get interested from a conceptual point of view; what was the nature of invention? I grew up in a situation in which I had a mother who was a religious Catholic and a father who was an atheist scientist and I began to question the relationship between the two; between magic and science, between art and invention. I always liked Lévi-Strauss saying, well, if we look at the history of human beings, do you really believe that domestication of plants and animals happened because people were steeped in magic? Or do you think that they used the scientific method in order to do this enormously complex thing? Well, they used observation and the scientific method. They didn’t just pray to the gods to domesticate the animals and plants. So I thought that was a fascinating question, what is the relationship in society between these two modes of thought? So that got me off on these, mixing magic and invention.

Rail: Did taking on a bigger scale lead to public works?

Aycock: Yes. For me the chance to work on an architectural scale through public funding became a way to enact my work in the world on a large scale. I never thought of it as kowtowing to some democratic, governmental taste. I thought of it as the way architects work. You’re given a set of conditions and then you try to invent something that makes a rupture, plays on and off the context, and ruptures the context, whatever. I never thought of it as in any way compromising my vision.

Alice Ayock, “Tropico de Cancer: Boundary Line 23 1/2 degrees North, Tamaulipas, Mexico; Left (side): Torrid Zone; Right (side): North Temperate Zone,” 1973. Vintage photograph, 6 3⁄4 × 10”. Collection of the Artist. Photo: Mark Segal.

Rail: I feel like the next shift occurred right after you had your travelling retrospective in Europe in 1983. It seems that you had added a new paracelsian chapter to your work, one of occult and humanist philosophy, concerning scientific as well as hermetic possibilities toward knowledge. I’m thinking of, for example, “Leonardo Swirl,” which is a direct reference to da Vinci’s “Study of the Flow of Water” (1503); as you know, da Vinci regarded as water “the vehicle of nature,” believing it to be to the world what blood is to our bodies.

Aycock: Well, of course, he is a real hero of mine. Interestingly enough, it was Robert Morris who pointed me to da Vinci’s Deluge drawings.

Rail: In the early ’80s.

Aycock: Yes. And Bob portrayed the series in a very political way. You’d see skeletons and human bodies get swirled up in a storm or an explosion of a bomb. It’s very courageous of Bob to have made that body of work really. 

Rail: Was it during that time that you discovered Robert Fludd?

Aycock: Yes. I thought Fludd was just amazing because he had one foot in alchemy and other foot in science.

Rail: Like Frank Stella and his obsession with Hendrich von Kleist, who wanted both realism and expressionism, or Aeschylus and Shakespeare at the same time?

Aycock: Stella is interesting to me too, because, like me, he’s always going to mix it up. I admire that. He could have easily stayed in one place, but instead he constantly mixed it. Again, it goes back to Lévi-Strauss saying both science and magic have always walked side by side throughout all of human history. I never went back to believing in anything other than the rational, frankly. I’d love to believe otherwise, but everything tells me that things are a result of random events which we have yet to fully grasp. Like for example, how would you explain when you walk into a room and someone opens his or her mouth to say something and within ten minutes you’re in love with them? I’m sure there’s going to be a scientific explanation for it and I want to know soon so I can get a handle on that. [Laughs.] What is that about?

Rail: Animal magnetism! [Laughs.] Is it fair to say that your early piece “Circular Building with Narrow Ledges for Walking” (1976) already has a bit of the mystical, esoteric, or alchemical firmament that you were later interested in?

Aycock:  Yes. I was also looking at Brueghel and Bosch’s paintings. Like Bosch’s painting “Ascent into the Empyrean” which has the whirling light tunnel taking up the angels—I was trying to do the same with that piece, except in mine people are being pulled down.

Rail:  How would you describe your relationship with architecture?

Aycock:  I’ve studied mostly archaeological and historical architecture, from Greek, Roman, Gothic, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Étienne-Louis Bouleé, among others. And then when it got to contemporary, I kind of dropped out of it. I was not all that interested. Then all of a sudden architecture just burst out like nobody’s business. I soon realized that the most ambitious architects are those who build museums because that’s the place where they think they can make their buildings as close as possible to art. Architecture was and is important to me because so much of the great architecture like the City of the Dead in Cairo, Pre-Columbian Teotihuacan or Angkor Wat were all built for the gods. Two personal favorites of mine are the Jantar Mantars (observatories) of Delhi and Jaipur, particularly the one in Delhi, which basically is the source of my thinking and my structures. The building is cut on a skew (a bird’s eye view) so you have the plan and the three-dimensional structure at the same time. As in Pre-Columbian architecture, there are steep steps. It’s got these radical curves created in order to observe the stars. There are bowls that are set in the ground and then cut in different, complex ways. And it’s in the center of busy Delhi. The entire site was essentially built in order to look at the heavens. The other thing that’s so fascinating about it that I never quite put together until I saw it in 2007 (I’m sure Frank Gehry has seen it, because everything’s twisted and curved and turned), is that the architects of the Indian observatories took astronomical and navigational devices developed in the 14th through 16th centuries and scaled them up as architecture. All of it was very scientifically precise to measure this and that star and that sun here and that moon there. But it was all so the Indian princes could tell their fortune. So all that scientific precision to tell your fortune in the service of magic. I thought, this is incredible. So there you have it again. What’s going to happen to me in the future? Let’s just ask the stars. That’s how the Starry Night series got started where I played a game of connect-the-dots with the stars using dances, wars, city plans, languages, etc. 

Alice Aycock, “Super Twister for University of Cincinnati Medical Science Building Rehab (CARE),” Cincinnati, OH, 2012. Aluminum; Approximately 20’ high x 20’ diameter. Digital photo composite: Dave Rittinger.
Alice Aycock “Rock, Paper, Scissors (India ’07),” 2010. Watercolor and ink on paper, 95 11/16 × 59 1⁄2”. Collection of Miami Art Museum, Gift of Jerry Lindzon, FL. Photo: Adam Reich.

Rail: Your urge towards clarity, toward mechanical and diagrammatic representation was inevitable from the very beginning because of your early exposure to mechanical apparatuses, plus your training as a minimalist artist in grad school. At some point you began to work with the computer. How are you able to proceed and sustain without any revisions while you’re making the drawing? How do you know what would and could be built without drawing and redrawing, which requires erasing?

Aycock:  Since I studied with the Fluxus artists who never cared for any form of academic training, they didn’t teach me how to draw, but I did learn how to draw on graph paper when I was a little girl with my father. I am like an outsider artist who taught herself to draw the way that it makes sense to her. The way I originally worked is first I would look at all sorts of pictures in books, then photocopied them and spread them all around. Then I would think and think and walk it around. Then I imagined it in my head over and over for days. Then I would sit down and I take my ruler and would draw very precisely with my ruler and my templates and my whatever.

Rail:  Not even a sketch before the final drawing?

Aycock:  No. Because while I was looking, thinking, pacing around, I was also editing things out. What I need to draw are things that I only wanted to see. Now when I work on the computer, I will say make it 10 percent bigger, take that out, put that in, whatever. But basically I start from images that already exist somewhere and get layered and conflated with other images inside my head, and then the computer matches and augments what I had in my head.

Rail: When exactly did that occur?

Aycock: We started using the computer around the same time architects did in the early ’90s. And because of the big commissions we were getting, the renderings have to be precise for the fabricators and the engineers to work with. And over the years I’ve gotten to be pretty efficient with the whole process.

Rail:  How do you feel about this retrospective in two different institutions?

Aycock:  I am, of course, very grateful to the Grey and the Parrish. It is like coming home after long years. I am getting to see the patterns and the threads that connect my work over a lifetime not just the first 15 minutes. But ultimately, it’s all a crapshoot, right. You can feel great one day, the next day you can feel deeply inadequate. There is always the next work that will nail it. However, I always wake up in the morning with my head full of new ideas, and ready to go to work. I have many other projects to get done.

More Articles by the Author

Phong Bui