There is method in the madness of Allan Wexler’s art. He was trained as an architect but doesn’t build buildings, preferring instead to make installations, sculpture, and two-dimensional work that explores the physical and human nature of architecture. At the launch of his recent book “Absurd Thinking: Between Art and Design,” published by Lars Müller, at the Museum of Modern Art, Sean Anderson, Associate Curator of Architecture and Design, commented on the open-ended nature of Wexler’s process—another way of noting how difficult Wexler’s work is to pin down. By turns rational and irrational, spontaneous and profound, real and mystical, his art often falls between the cracks of critical and popular recognition.
JOYCE BECKENSTEIN: The title of your new book is “Absurd Thinking”; what is absurd about the way you think about art?
ALLAN WEXLER: Absurd thinking relates to the way I work as an artist. I do not problem solve: I play with irritations, accidents, and things we don’t really understand. These are my materials, and I use them to explore the other side of function. I’m asking myself, “Where is the softer side of architecture—poetics, spirituality, and metaphysics?” When I am working I sit on the edge of the conscious and the unconscious; fine art and applied art.
It’s hard to pin down where the rational ends and the irrational begins when fine art and architecture cross paths in your work. You’ve made up business cards to explain this when people at cocktail parties ask, “What do you do?” Will you read us one?
I am not uptight about whether I’m labeled an artist or an architect—it’s the ideas that are critical. I was responding to the question, “What kind of work do you do?” Cocktail party response card #11 reads: “I was exposed to contemporary art at Rhode Island School of Design in the ‘60s. Andy Warhol’s initials, AW, were the same as mine. This coincidence was too amazing to ignore. I wanted to become the Andy Warhol of architecture.” As a student, I approached work as artists do, flipping things around, ricocheting from the functional to the abstract, the absurd to the rational, the conventional to the unconventional.
Can you give a specific example of that?
Hat/Roof is a good example. Water is a precious commodity and the peaked roof hat collects water and funnels it into a bucket worn on my back. I was inspired by an NPR news report at the time about Cubans escaping in small boats. It described how refugees facing life and death constructed a funnel out of a piece of plastic to catch drops of rainwater. In Hat/Roof I become the architecture, and that makes the piece humorous and absurd—but it conveys a serious message. It says, Take inspiration from architecture’s primary building blocks: water, gravity—the laws of physics—and translate them into shelter to meet human needs.
Your senior architecture project appears to draw more from a subversive impulse than from traditional fine art and architecture.
I attended RISD in the ‘60s when pushing authority was in the air. I pushed back when a professor assigned a design problem for an alternative school in Maine for troubled kids. He wanted the expected—but before drawing plans for a dormitory structure on the grounds of the school, I first interviewed the students. They felt isolated and bored! So I created a mobile campus that utilized Howard Johnson Motor Lodges as dormitories: It would have travelled across the US allowing kids to take courses across the country. I did this because I believed that architecture could change education. But to do that required thinking about more than modular structures. This was irrational thinking, to be sure, but thinking that encouraged educational alternatives. I ruffled feathers in that class, but looking back, I think the work I made at school was strong.
Your explorations of the rational/absurd began early—they’re evident in a series of small buildings that you discuss in the first chapter of your book, Abstractions. How do they reflect the way you evolved your process?
Process is critical to making art. It’s like taking a ride to an unknown place. How will this piece of wood look with that piece? What do the materials want to do? For the series of small buildings I arbitrarily devised a rational system within which to work: specific tools, specific amounts of time—tight restrictions that resulted in unexpected results. For example, I created a miniature lumber yard of two-by-fours and plywoodI working from a stream of consciousness kind of way, allowing one day to each creation. Each small building was different, and each one was a surprise.
Why do you put such enormous limits on yourself?
The irony is that a rational system of restraints allows extremes to develop. Every artist knows the tyranny of the blank canvas, the blank page. I saw how Sol LeWitt’s exquisite wall drawings came out of mathematical restrictions he gave himself. When I work with self-imposed rational structures, I am always amazed at what evolves. You can’t make this stuff up! If you can think of it beforehand it already exists. For me these limitations are tools to breaking through preconceptions. These small buildings were made like quick sketches on paper. When everything but one element is constant, the situation triggers the unconventional. That can make an enormous and refreshing difference.
Who, besides Sol Lewitt, influenced you?
John Cage’s writing and music; Rauschenberg’s early, conceptual pieces, and Marcel Duchamp. Just as Duchamp de-functionalized the functional object- a urinal, for example —to create an unexpected result, my works often put a spotlight on functional common objects, turning everyday mundane tasks into theater.
In some of my works I re-functionalize the artwork. Can a painting of a chair also have the function of a chair? Can I sit on my painting?
Working from the mathematical to the expressive to the absurd must exercise both sides of the brain.
Yes, and I try to exhaust myself physically when I work. I work spontaneously, like a Sumi painter. I don’t stop; I have to move forward or the thinking brain kicks in and all’s lost. I work from my subconscious irrational side. It is a meditation on making. Things reveal themselves as I work in the third dimension.
But I sense that beyond your desire to tap both irrational and rational sides of consciousness, you’re searching for something more fundamental. In the Landscape chapter of your book, for example, you ask where nature ends and architecture begins.
I am searching for the vibrant dialectic between opposite things. Ice can feel hot to the confused nerves in our skin. There’s a vibration between two poles. I am drawn to gradations between things. There’s earth, wind and fire over here, and mathematical structure over there. Where does one blend into the other? Where does the earth become the floor and the sky above our ceiling?
Where then does nature become architecture?
Someone walking in the hot sun seeks relief in the shade of a tree. The decision to walk beneath the tree is architecture. A detail from the work Reframing Nature, on the cover of my book, reflects this nature-into-architecture question. I choose a crooked tree trunk growing near my Long Island studio. Its shape illustrated its growing conditions in the windy and sunless deep woods. Its shape kept it from functioning as lumber. I intervened, cutting slits, and then inserting wood wedges into its curves to straighten it. I “technologized” nature.
You similarly explore the invisible—elements of gravity, stability, and movement – as the underpinnings of architecture. Can you describe how you accomplish this?What does it take to float a plane—raise a platform off the ground towards the heavens? Pratt Desk is an outdoor public artwork at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It consists of a horizontal plane “floating” besides a chair—a simple desk complicated by its scaffolding, my mechanism to subvert gravity. The desk and chair are bright red, the scaffolding soft gray aluminum. It’s similar to Japanese Bunraku puppetry where the puppeteer is dressed in black: Your eyes see the puppets and your mind blocks out the puppeteers. Pratt Desk’s visual and conceptual elements play Bunraku-like hide-and-seek with one another. The desk seems to magically defy gravity. It’s the kind of work that ignites a spark between what we see and what we don’t. Between simple things and things that are, actually, quite complex.
Another work, Slanting Table and Re-Slanting China, relates to your performance piece, Coffee Seeks Its Own Level in which you explore gravity in terms of human nature. How are these works connected?
In Slanting Table and Re-Slanting China I created an indoor hill by placing wedges under a table’s legs, an absurd dining situation that caused food to roll off plates and water to spill from cups. I corrected the situation by re-slanting the china. I’m drawing a line between stability and instability.
Coffee Seeks its Own Level deals with similar issues on a human level. This performance piece questions how four people sitting at a table drinking hot coffee can feel equal. I choreograph the situation: all four cups are connected by vinyl surgical tubing. If one cup is lifted before the others, gravity forces the coffee downwards, into the lowest cup, and it overflows into the saucer. Participants must therefore coordinate their movements and drink at the same time, so the work becomes less about drinking coffee, and more about orchestrating community and empathy.
Yet for all this talk of absurdity many of your works—such as Crate House, for instance, featured in the “Private Space” chapter of your book—deal with pragmatic issues of personal space.
I use the word absurd to describe what is difficult to describe—the act of creating. Crate house is a variation on Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond; a meditation on isolation and privacy. A tool I often use is to take apart our daily lives, to look at the fragments of how and where we live. The crates reduce our belongings to the barest minimum—a pillow, dish, flashlight, ketchup— for the solitary resident in the 1990s. They can be read as objects in a museum diorama—a looking at the present historically—or as privacy, isolation, and survival kits.
This isolation theme brings your Prison Project to mind.
You’re right. This project was commissioned to be installed in Eastern State Penitentiary, a spectacular, defunct early 19th-century prison in Philadelphia. I am conflating being a prisoner in a cell with being an artist in retreat. I made the work in my basement studio that in my mind I transformed into a cell. I did not leave. Food was brought to me and I rarely saw daylight. The cell contained the functional objects needed but lacked many of the comforts one wishes for. I set about making myself comfortable through the small niceties of daily living, and limited my materials to what was original to the cell, or repurposed from the contents of the brown lunch bags that I had delivered each day. The work was then installed in the prison cell, where I changed the cell door lock to be on the inside of the cell- the difference between being a prisoner and an artist in the studio.
So you once again set restrictions on yourself as you did when making the small buildings.
Yes, I made paint from different colors of coffee—black to light with cream; and primary colors from mustard, grape jelly, and ketchup. Sheets of toilet paper laminated with milk became working canvas; coke cans held the “paint”. I made a paintbrush from a piece of the broomstick and a lock of my hair. I made a color wheel by mixing ketchup, mustard and grape jelly to create green, orange, and purple. This retreat became a closed system in which I used functional objects to make non-functional works of art. I was interested in the question, “What do you use when you have nothing?”
That is but another —living —example of how you physically occupy that space between art and architecture. In your recent works on board you do the same in a spiritual and metaphysical way, mutating gravity into human gravitas. Why did you do them?
This landscape series represents my search for our first acts on earth. They explore subterranean excavations that represent humanity’s need to go underground; to be alone and to be safe. We dig a hole to create a void and shelter. We move earth up and over to create positive forms. They’re titled Breaking Ground, and each one begins as a sculptural plaster landscape with paper props. The landscape assumes new meaning when I photograph and print the images in small sections, and then glue them to wood and board, adding hand drawing. I am searching for the beginnings of habitations, for remnants of the history of architecture that disappeared long ago. The works feel spiritual and I try not to talk about them – like with ancient creation stories they are difficult to talk about without destroying the mystery.
These works seem to ask, “Where does architecture become spiritual and the spiritual become architecture?”
Yes, it is about how the physical is transcended.
You have said, “I want to be architecture”. What do you mean by that?
I’ve done a number of works where I mold the shape of my body into a wall. How can my body and architecture conjoin? Where does my clothing end and architecture begin? I want to connect my skin and the sheetrock. I want to become my work. Perhaps, like Pygmalion, I want the inanimate to come alive or conversely I want to become my artwork.
All your explorations coalesce in the public art projects you’ve done in collaboration with your wife, Ellen. How does the work Two Too-Large Tables in Hudson River Park prove the practical potential of your absurd thinking?
We set out to create a public project where people would interact in unexpected ways. The two artworks are elevated planes- one at table-top height and one at roof height. Thirteen chairs are embedded in the two planes, creating a community table and a shelter. So the two floating planes are absurd, but as they are at the specific heights of 30 inches and 7 feet – they alternate between working table and rooftop. People sitting in the chairs become one with its architecture. People sitting at the table, or sitting beneath the roof, experience one another and the river view differently. They are interconnected within each form, but they interact from different perspectives.
You’re known to be an inspirational teacher. What do you want your students to come away with?
I want them to feel like magicians. I want them to recognize the opportunities they have been given to create spaces that enhance the lives of those interacting with the work. I also want them to provoke, challenge, and innovate in ways that both soothe the senses and create a sense of awe.
And finally, what does this new book represent to you?
The book is a portable art exhibition. A retrospective of my first 45 years of experiments. The book is my body and my mind on paper. It’s a diary revealing how and why I think the way I do. The book offers a roadmap to new ways of making, and, in the end, I hope it inspires.