With her sculptures, Alice Aycock can make massive pieces of metal swirl in the air, and with her drawings she makes impossible worlds appear perfectly plausible.
Alice Aycock is in a turbulent phase. That’s not to say that her life is in disorder; far from it; she’s a highly productive artist with a studio in New York’s SoHo who’s been steadily making art for four decades. The turbulence is in the work she’s making right now—sculptures and drawings in which ribbon-like abstract elements coalesce in tornado-like configurations. They are strikingly, unignorably beautiful, but they also seem dangerous, as if their rotational kinetic energy could at any moment spiral out of control. But she’s content with that. “These turbulent, chaotic forms I’m investigating right now, I’m happy to stay with them for a little while,” she says. She relates them to the period that humanity is entering into at present, a period of great change—in the climate, in culture, in global politics. Her current series of works, called “Twisters,” embodies that instability, acknowledging and analyzing it without aspiring to exorcize it.
Aycock is known for large-scale, outdoor public sculptures, constructed from aluminum by the artist in collaboration with a team of designer-fabricators. Some, like Another Twister (João) (2015), taper downward to a tiny point on which they balance balletically, which gives them them a sense of weightlessness. Others, like Cyclonic Twist (Park Avenue Paper Chase) (2013), consist of a concatenation of tornado-like forms, nested one within the other. These sculptures are not literal depictions of tornadoes or any other natural phenomena; they are more like diagrams of forces—or, as Aycock puts it, examples of “complexity that can’t be seen literally but that can be visualized.” In 2014, some of these pieces were installed on Park Avenue in New York. Aycock sees her works as equally appropriate to urban and rural environments: “When in a pastoral setting, it’s speaking to nature; in New York City, it’s speaking to the chaos of the city.”
Aycock is also exploring the possibilities of the twist forms in two-dimensional media; a still-in-progress group of 15 digital inkjet prints places a row of white twister forms, each rotating on an axis or pole, against light-suffused skies in a range of warm and cool colors. Looking at these, one comes away with the impression that the slightly ominous, seething energy of the twister is always present, vibrating beneath every mood. Aycock herself describes the process of creating these works as “having fun.”
Other recent Aycock pieces, such as The Riddle of the Flying Saucer #1 (2015), deploy her characteristic intertwining aluminum strips in a way that is more reminiscent of mechanical devices than of natural phenomena. Aycock has always been interested in science; she has drawn inspiration from Renaissance cosmic diagrams, Leonardo’s scientific drawings, mechanical engineering and architecture, and computer technology. Some of her drawings look like physics experiments gone mad—the title of a 1990/2012 watercolor and ink on paper, Hoodo (Laura), From the Series, “How to Catch and Manufacture Ghosts”—Vertical and Horizontal Cross-section of the Ether Wind (1981), references the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, in which two American physicists proved that the speed of light was always the same, laying the groundwork for the theory of relativity. In the course of their experiment, they disproved the old theory of the “ether wind,” the supposed movement of a hypothetical medium in which light waves would travel.
Aycock has a certain fondness for outmoded notions such as this one. “I’m as curious about false theories that are obsolete as I am about true ones,” she says. “A lot of my machine-oriented work was about getting these pieces of scientific apparatus together for totally magical reasons.” Rather than trying to make art out of science—which would be bad art in any case—Aycock has been engaging in what she calls “a kind of imaginative play with science” that helps her get at “the relationship between scientific thinking and magical thinking.” In her magical aspirations, Aycock fits herself into a centuries-old—if not millennia-old—tradition of art as a source of mind- and world-altering power, but among the most recent magicians in art she finds the most inspiration from Marcel Duchamp, especially in his complex, intricately crafted works such as The Large Glass and the kinetic pieces. “Duchamp was very much one of my mentors,” says Aycock. “He opened Pandora’s Box, as all great artists do. He had one foot in science and one foot in alchemy.”
Aycock, who was born in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1946, came of age during the heyday of the land art movement. When she was at Hunter College in New York getting her master’s degree, her teacher was Robert Morris, who was himself deeply influenced by Duchamp. Aycock’s early works were mainly land-based, site-specific structures—for example, a maze, a house that spins on an axis, or a tower—that worked their magic by placing the viewer within the work, where his or her perceptions would inevitably be manipulated by it. Aycock cites as a major influence Tatlin’s Tower (1919–20), a famously never-built design for a monument to the Bolshevik Revolution. This piece of Russian Constructivist architecture was to consist of two intertwined spirals rising at an angle to a height of 400 meters and housing electronic equipment for information storage and radio transmission—in short, it was intended to be not only a monument but an incarnation of modernism. Aycock compares it to Jorge Luis Borges’ “aleph,” a portal in space and time, adding, “To me, it was the major move that reoriented us in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
As the daughter of an engineer and builder who owned a construction company, Aycock absorbed influences at home that resonated years later when she encountered Tatlin’s Tower, land art, and conceptual site-specific sculpture. From her father, she says, she “learned how to bring together a group of people to construct things. He said, ‘You can always find a way to do something, but the idea has to be good enough.’” Today, for her large-scale works (which range from about 20 feet high to well over 100), Aycock works with 8 to 10 fabricators from the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.–based firm EES Design LLC, and has also worked with a group called Perfection Electricks. She says, “This kind of work cannot happen without a team of extraordinary talents. The computer gives me the ability to design very complex forms; it has enlarged my ability to make things without infringing on my creativity.”
As a woman artist who has had to compete in the particularly male-dominated realm of large-scale sculpture, Aycock has her own take on feminism. “For whatever reason,” she says, “from a very early age I felt that I had a direction. It occurred to me that if I had been born a man, things would have been easier, but the way men feel entitled, I felt entitled. If I was interested in something, I was going to follow it. I want to eat at the table where I have access to everything. Not that I didn’t feel that men didn’t discount me, because they did. But is there a male science and a female science? No, there’s just science.” Her grandmother, a math teacher who attended college at the end of the 19th century, was another big influence in her life. Aycock’s most recent work, still in the studio, is an homage to one of the earliest known creative women in history, the Greek poet Sappho. Terra Incognita for Sappho (2017), a large digital inkjet print on watercolor, depicts a globe with a fiery core, surrounded by a corona like that of a solar eclipse. Within it are grid-like structures that resemble electronic circuits or diagrams of force fields, and the entire surface of the sphere is strewn with fragments of a papyrus manuscript of Sappho’s poems, which assume the place of continents. Of Sappho, Aycock says, “She seems like someone who could be alive today, someone who was just born. There she is, speaking to us from 700 B.C.! That’s why I thought she deserved a drawing.”
By John Dorfman