Back in the day – the “before times” – while meandering through the nooks and crannies, portals and mounds, at Grounds For Sculpture, I’d fear a future in which a natural disaster might befall this utopian garden of contemporary art, allowing it to fall into ruins: a possible disease that would confine people to their homes? A loss of revenue? The death of a founder?
Grounds For Sculpture endured all three of upheavals beginning in March 2020. It was Friday the 13th when the death of founder J. Seward Johnson Jr. was announced. The same day the museum had to close its doors and furlough much of its staff.
Happily, Grounds For Sculpture is back, with a significant number of employees rehired. The gardens have been spruced up, new paths had been laid to make the space more accessible, and “Bruce Beasley: Sixty Year Retrospective, 1960-2020” encompasses three indoor exhibition spaces with additional works scattered throughout the grounds themselves. A sizeable number of these sculptures gave this visitor that sensation of being in some kind of nirvana; a feeling that comes from a combination of how the sculpture is sited, how the light hits it, what is reflected off of or seen through the interstices. Even how carefully polished its surfaces are.
The exhibition is Curator Tom Moran’s swan song at GFS, and his vision and voice are still very present, both in how he has sited works as well as in exhibition text and a catalog essay.
Originally slated to open May 2020, the galleries sat closed until June of this year, following a special tribute to founder Johnson. “Bruce Beasley” will remain on view through January 9, 2022.
In January 2020, GFS Director of Exhibitions and Collections Faith McClellan made a trip to Oakland, California – her second to see Beasley – to oversee the loading of the sculptures onto the trucks that would carry them to New Jersey.
“The artist and I had been working for months on a load plan that included diagrams of how each work would be placed on the truck,” McClellan recounts. “I flew out with a rigging team and our assistant preparator and we spent a week loading sculptures on to large trailers. We also hired a local California team that wraps boats to wrap the sculptures in a protective film for transit. One of the studios that Bruce has on his property has a large overhead bridge crane and the trucks could literally back into the building and be loaded inside.
“It was amazing to have that kind of ease of equipment to help that process,” McClellan continues. “And that’s just Bruce in a nutshell – he thinks about every step of that process from making the work but also how it can be moved, packed and shipped. He is very passionate about his work and the field of sculpture, and that comes through in everything he sets his mind to. I definitely learned a lot about trucking oversized loads across the country!”
The truckloads reached New Jersey in mid-February. “We were just about done with the installation by mid-March when we had to drop our tools and walk away. Bruce handled it in stride and graciously agreed to extend the loan of these works, which is a significant amount of his inventory, so that we could reopen the exhibition this year and extend the closing.”
Beasley, 82, is no stranger to GFS visitors: his shiny stainless steel three-pointed pointed sculpture, “Dorion,” part of the permanent collection, hovers over a triangular pond in the sculpture court (not far from George Segal’s “Depression Breadline”) like a vehicle from another planet just landed. Its reflection in the pond adds to the sensation that this is something larger than us. Indoors, one can see a smaller scale model of “Dorion” that the artist crafted in maple – even in this warmer material, even at this more approachable size, it still conveys something with mystical power.
On the occasion of the exhibition, a new work by Beasely, “Horizon II,” has been acquired: a low horizontal piece, often mistaken for a bench in that it echoes that form, with a rich patina in textured verdigris and rust.
The artist’s oeuvre can be divided into periods based on his chosen materials and processes. His earliest, made of scrap iron, recompose relics of old pipes into forms completely new. “Over my whole career, I’ve been in search of freedom of shape. I want the widest possible jungle of shape to explore,” Beasley is quoted as saying in exhibition materials. “All the different shapes of the world aren’t just floating around to have. They come from different things and different sources.”
In the 1960s, as a student scouting junkyard metal to build a welding table, Beasley discovered old iron plumbing pipes broken into shards. He brought them back to his studio and began to break and re-assemble them, welding the pieces together. This lead to the realization that previsualization of what a finished sculpture would look like was not part of his process.
“I realized very quickly that I do not pre-visualize the artwork,” he continues. “At first, I thought this was a lack on my part because I assumed that the great sculptors knew or envisioned what the sculpture would be when they began. I, however, had to try lots of different possibilities to finally discover a sculpture that felt right to me. But along with realizing that I do not pre-visualize an artwork, I also found that I have an extraordinarily strong, almost physical, sense of when it is right.”
In 1961, the 21-year-old Beasley submitted some of these newly created iron sculptures to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where the chief curator at Museum of Modern Art in New York had the opportunity to view them. Shortly thereafter, Beasley was included in MOMA’s “The Art of Assemblage” exhibition, alongside Picasso and Rauschenberg (that work, “Tree House,” seen on right). The following year, MOMA acquired a work by Beasley, making him the youngest artist in the collection at that time.
The GFS retrospective also features the sculptor’s cast aluminum works of the 1970s; cast acrylic sculptures of the 1970s and 80s; and stainless steel and bronze works of the 1990s to the present day. His processes range from casting and welding to computer-aided design. Just when it seems like this is more than one artist could produce in a lifetime, the exhibition continues with four monumental paper on canvas collages, created with the aid of virtual reality.
I was not expecting to be excited by the acrylic works. I mean, plastic? But these transparent undulating forms create a dialogue with the landscape through the window at GFS. “Suzanne’s Window,” like an assemblage of glass bricks, creates 16 distorted views, reflecting and refracting, of what’s on the other side.
As the exhibition text says, he was using light as a medium in these acrylic works. Apparently Beasley went back to Dupont persistently to get the formulation right to make these pieces. Overheard at GFS: “He wasn’t taking ‘no’ as an answer from DuPont.” In fact, his groundbreaking work in clear acrylic changed the plastics industry, and was subsequently used to make public aquariums and undersea vehicles, like the deep-sea bathyspheres used by NASA.
In contrast, the cast aluminum works are rugged, with craggy surfaces and contrasting textures and limbs that reach into space like wings. These began as constructions in Styrofoam, eventually cast in Beasley’s foundry.
While many mourn the passing of founder J. Seward Johnson Jr., it’s nice to think that, somewhere, he’s winking, please with this exhibition, and the legions who sustain his greatest creation, in which his legacy endures.
“Bruce Beasley: Sixty Year Retrospective, 1960-2020” will be documented in a 180-page catalog, including a reflection by the artist; an essay by exhibition curator Tom Moran; and a conversation between the artist and Lawrence Weschler on the role of art and social activism and his robust community accomplishments in West Oakland, CA. It is on view through January 2022 outdoors and in the East Gallery, Domestic Arts Building, and Museum Building.
Images in cover:
Bruce Beasley, Rondo VI, 2017, stainless steel, 154 x 208 x 137 inches, 2/9, Courtesy of the Artist, photo: Ken Ek; Torqueri XII, 2017, stainless steel, 144 x 130 x 140 inches, 1/9, Courtesy of the Artist, © Artist or Artist's Estate; and Foray III, 1997, bronze, 120 x 120 x 32 inches, 3/9, Courtesy of the Artist, photo: Bruce White