Bruce Beasley, sculptor and inventor, makes technology serve art.
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Talking to Bruce Beasley, one feels drawn back to the Renaissance, a time when an artist had to be at least half a scientist, with a minor in architecture. The Oakland, Calif.–based sculptor speaks the philosophical language of Plato while designing his works with Autodesk software. A staunch modernist, Beasley champions abstraction in an age of resurgent figuration. By the age of 23 he was exhibiting on both coasts, and today, at 75, he is still innovating—the medium for his latest series is a material called acylonitrile butadiene styrene, which is extruded into complex space-probing coils by a 3-D printing machine.
Engagement with technology is nothing new for Beasley. His earliest works were put together from pieces of scrap metal, the detritus of 20th-century heavy industry. He would use both welding and casting processes to reassemble the fragments of a single object, such as a length of pipe, thereby rescuing it from oblivion while abstracting it from its original function. In some of his sculptures, the sense of redemption comes through in the way these cast-off, cast-down materials appear to float in mid-air.
Recognition came early. In 1961–62 a piece of his was the MoMA exhibition “The Art of Assemblage,” and another piece was subsequently acquired by the museum, making Beasley the youngest artist to have his work enter that collection. In 1963 he had his first solo show at Everett Ellin Gallery in Los Angeles, his hometown. That same year, Beasley’s work, along with that of 11 sculptors associated with the University of California at Berkeley, was featured at the Biennale de Paris, where none other than the novelist and art critic André Malraux handed the young sculptor the Purchase Prize. The work purchased, which went into the collection of the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne, was cast in aluminum from forms based on pieces of found Styrofoam—another act of industrial redemption.
Later in the 1960s, Beasley abruptly changed direction. “I literally started having dreams about transparent sculptures,” he recalls. “I felt no one had taken it on as an aesthetic issue in itself. To be able to manipulate transparency, to bend light as the central issue of the work, I felt hadn’t been done.” At that time the only fully transparent castable material was acrylic (known by the brand name Lucite, among others), but there was a problem—the maximum thickness attainable was four inches, and Beasley was thinking more like four feet. While he was still pondering the solution, he bid for a monumental sculpture commission from the state of California, submitting a small, transparent model. “When they asked if it was a problem to make it bigger, I said no, even though I had no idea how,” he says. “To my chagrin, I won the competition, and then I had to do it. I was young. I had taken the first payment and was using it to work on the process. For a while I thought I was going to blow it. It was a bit tense. They could have come after me and taken my studio.”
Beasley saved himself from embarrassment or worse by inventing a new kind of acrylic compound that could be cast at any size and maintain full transparency, a home-brew effort that yielded something that the boys at DuPont and Dow Chemical hadn’t thought of. The transparent sculptures he made with his new substance can seem insubstantial, almost disappearing when viewed from certain angles, and other times exploding into light shows. Most are pellucidly clear, though some are partially frosted, like gigantic chunks of Lalique glass.
Not only did this wonder material set the direction of Beasley’ art work for the next decade and a half, it attracted the attention of a group of oceanographers who in 1970 asked him to design an all-transparent bathysphere, or undersea observation globe. Up to that point, bathyspheres had been mainly metal with many small windows set into it, but this new castable acrylic enabled the entire sphere to be transparent, greatly enlarging the occupants’ field of view. Today, the Beasley bathyspheres, which can withstand pressure to 3,000 feet below sea level, are still in use at oceanographic institutes around the world. In 1986, one was used to scour the seabed for wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger, for which the artist-inventor received a commendation from NASA.
In the’80s, Beasley changed direction again, creating cast bronze and steel pieces made up of agglutinated sharp-angled forms, like analytic Cubist monochromes come to three-dimensional life. Some move dramatically in a lateral way, all straight-edged elements approximating a curve; others surge upward like aspiring towers. “I have a problem where I get interested in new things and don’t want to pursue the old thing,” says the artist. “When you get a style that’s accepted and that people like, you’re supposed to keep it up, because you’ve arrived at that level. But my motivation isn’t to have sculptures; it’s stretching myself and the having the excitement of exploration of shape.”
It was in the late ’80s that Beasley started working with computer modeling as an aid to visualization, when the technology was still comparatively immature. “I was in pursuit of freedom of shape,” he says. “I wanted to develop a kind of vocabulary of complexly intersecting cubic forms that I just couldn’t do without being able to see the shapes intersecting each other in a way I could manipulate easily and readily. I was led to necessity to find a tool that would let me be spontaneous.” His 3-D printed work grew out of his use of computer modeling. A few years ago he started using it to prepare models to send to carvers who would fabricate metal pieces for him, but he decided that the prototypes were “legitimate sculptures in their own right. It’s very interesting because it brings up the issue of the artist’s hand. Of course, for thousands of years sculptors have had foundry workers and carvers to assist them. With the 3-D printer, I have full control over every aspect of form and texture. The machine is simply an extension of my hand, like a hammer or chisel.”
Beasley is happy to admit that he is totally devoid of formal scientific or technical training. While an undergraduate at Dartmouth, he says, he almost flunked chemistry. “But,” he adds, “I’ve been a maker all my life.” When he was 12, he learned welding. As a teenager in the ’50s, he and his friends immersed themselves in the California hot-rod culture, conducting experiments like stuffing a Cadillac engine into a Ford body. What he absorbed, Beasley recalls, “was more of an attitude toward technology than a skill set.”
A major early influence was his brother, who did in fact go on to become a scientist, a biologist. “I tagged along with him, collecting specimens in tide pools and deserts,” Beasley recalls. “I was interested in the shape, color, and texture of things, and felt inadequate in a way, compared to my brother. In my family, if you responded to mountains at all, that was called geology; if you responded to the way animals looked, that was called zoology. Then I discovered that there was something called sculpture that was a language of shape. When I realized that it was something I could participate in, that I could make speak and sing, it was an epiphany. Since then, I haven’t wanted to do anything else than sculpture.” After college graduation he went to the Bay Area, where he studied with Peter Voulkos and Sidney Gordin at Berkeley and helped establish the Garbanzo Studio, the first artist-led cooperative foundry. Among the influences he cites, beyond his teachers, are Rodin, Henry Moore, and the Chilean sculptor Eduardo Chillida, who became a close friend of his.
The notion of a language of shape is central to Beasley’s work, no matter what form it takes. “Shape itself is a human language,” he says. “We respond to shape intuitively and fundamentally in a non-verbal way.” He talks about the Platonic solids, explaining that for the Greeks, abstract mathematical entities had a “spiritual aspect,” an inherent meaning and value for human beings. He sums up the subject in an aphorism: “Geometry is the intellectual language of shape, while sculpture is the emotional language of shape.” As proponent of abstract, or “non-objective” (his preferred term) sculpture, Beasley insists on the expressive qualities of geometric forms arranged in certain ways. “Shapes alone have no human connection, but by their intersecting or clumping together, they make a shape that hopefully finally sings to us.”
For people who have trouble with the idea of non-objective sculpture, the best analogy, he says, is music: “Happy music doesn’t sound like people laughing, and sad music doesn’t sound like people crying. Sculptures are like that. They don’t represent anything that can be put in words. In the art world now, there’s such an emphasis on social meaning that it’s just overwhelming. But the arts have to carry their message in the language of themselves. The language of dance is human movement; the language of painting is color and line; and the language of sculpture is shape. If what comes to us isn’t in that language, then the work is a failure.”