A Conversation with
BY JAN RILEY
|Opposite: Double Golden Mean
Rectilinear Solid, 2007. Solid
graphite, 16 x 25.75 x 9.75 in. This
page: Homage to Malevich, 2006.
Solid graphite, 17 x 17 x 2 in.
Susan York and I began
our day at Dia:Beacon last fall with a guided tour of Michael
Heizer’s sunken sculptures. She examined the way the pieces were set
into the floor and questioned the guides about how they were
installed. York investigated each piece with intention, wanting to
see exactly how things were made and to understand why they were
made that way. York has her MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art.
The attention to detail and craft that she gives to her own works
carries over into her
examination of the works and practices of other artists. She
currently teaches sculpture at the College of Santa Fe in New
Shards, 2000. Porcelain and steel,
16 x 6 x 6.5 in.
In front of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, she began
to imagine the order in which the lines were made.
Where were they started? It became clear that some
of the wall pieces were meant to change in the making,
as the person drawing the lines was given the
challenge of either keeping them straight across the
vast distance of the wall or letting them curve to
match each other. We marveled at the passages where
the lines had to stay straight and imagined how physically
difficult it had been to draw
them. I had never
looked at LeWitt’s wall pieces in that way and found
that I was impressed with them as never before.
As our visit progressed, two things became clear:
first that York was not going to address my questions
about her work; second that it didn’t really matter.
I was watching the artist in action: she was so thoroughly
engaged in her exploration of the works that I
was witnessing an essential part of her own practice.
For want of a better term, I would say that York
was obsessed, but that misses the sense of joy, wonder,
and openness that she brought to each piece. In
her own work, this quality translates as an extreme
thoroughness in her choices of media and presentation.
Nothing is left to chance, and nothing is ignored.
Her pieces are made powerful by the control that she
exercises over them. Viewing her work, it is clear that
you are in the presence of something to be taken seriously,
as small or as simple as it appears to be. One of
York’s graphite cubes mounted to the wall (even one as
small as four by four inches) has a preternatural pull,
almost like a specific gravity all its own.
York says, “One of the keys to looking at and understanding
my work is to be able to stop, take a breath,
look quietly, and take it all in. And when one is able
to lose one’s self in that moment, merging with everything,
then subject and object vanish.” As we entered
the Agnes Martin rooms at Dia, York, who knew Martin,
spoke about how the older artist had encouraged
her to make drawings, to “do the drawings and then
connect them to your practice.”
How did you first arrive at making sculpture?
Susan York: Before Cranbrook, I made a lot of flat
works—reductive assemblages. There, I started working
with sweeping compound, the oily sawdust that
janitors use to sweep school floors. I began filling
rooms with shapes of thick, furry, dark red sweeping
compound and oxides. I was very relieved to be making
shapes that did not have to deal with gravity. I also
loved the fact that I could just sweep it all up into a
trash bag. Agnes was horrified. She asked me, “How
are you ever going to establish a market for that?”
After Rietveld, 1997. Porcelain, 5 x 5 x 5 ft.
At Cranbrook, I investigated materials for
materials’ sake. I began
using media based on what they evoked, rather than what I
wanted to use. My thesis show included two gravity-formed, amorphic
balls, one graphite-covered and the other solid aluminum.
I built a wall in the gallery and tilted it four degrees. I wanted
tilt to be felt, not necessarily seen. Large panes of sandblasted
glass were balanced against the wall to create underlying tension.
JR: You have
moved from work in porcelain, begun in the late 1990s, to sculptures
and room installations created from graphite. How did the graphite
SY: I was working with raw pigment and oxides on the floor and also
casting them into forms. I wanted to work with elemental materials,
particularly lead, because its soft, mercurial beauty is neither
solid nor immaterial. But graphite was a safer alternative,
and though it is harder,
Center of Gravity, 2005. Graphite,
20 x 15 x 14 ft. Installation at the
School of the Art Institute of Chicago; sound component by Steve Peters.
Floating Rectilinear Solid, 2007. Solid
graphite, 35.5 x 6.25 x 22.25 in.
it holds many of the same properties. I
covering different materials in graphite, but I hated that they
graphite. In the Netherlands, I made large squares of graphite on
At this point, I began experimenting with casting it.
Graphite is my baseline material: it erases my presence through
Although my hand is making the piece, it is also erasing the piece.
process and form, the drawings done in graphite are related to the
objects. They are smudged evenly and also erased and polished as
being formed. They are also blurred—my homage to myopia. Graphite
a low resonant tone. It belongs to the cello—Bach’s Six Suites for
With the graphite pieces, you can experience respite. The porcelain
held a lot more tension and evoked a fear of falling. The graphite
though, have tension for some viewers. The discrete graphite objects
also have a subtle tension held
within the geometry of each piece. This tension is magnified by the
qualities of graphite. Because of this material, these
works do not have an opaque picture plane. You can see into them. Graphite is like
looking into a pond: you see the glassy surface, and at the same
moment, you see through the water into the depths
of the pool. In some ways, the physical material of graphite recedes
and takes us all into it.
JR: I know that Constructivism and
De Stijl are important
to you. How has your understanding of those
movements influenced your work?
SY: When I was a young student, I saw a photograph
of Gerrit Rietveld’s Red Blue Chair. The reproduction
was only a few inches high, but I couldn’t stop thinking
about his work. It wasn’t until I went to the Netherlands
in 1997 that I got to see those chairs. What
appeared to be a manufactured chair was, in fact, an
artist-produced sculptural object. His works differed
in size and composition in the most subtle of possible
ways. Each chair was an individual sculpture.
In my studio practice in the Netherlands, I took one
of his chairs and made it to scale in porcelain, but laid
it out like a schematic on the floor. And, all along I drew, playing
with those forms, using value and shape to arrange them on the
paper. I was really interested in the transition that Rietveld made
by making two dimensions into three. What happens when something
flat becomes dimensional? This led to the shard pieces. I began by
making one paper-thin porcelain shard. How many would it take to
make it three-dimensional? At what moment does that occur? I made a
Early in my life as an artist, I saw the Constructivism show at the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I was dumbstruck. Again, I felt
that I had met an ancestor. I looked at a reproduction of Kazimir
Malevich’s Suprematist Painting: 8 Red Rectangles for about six
weeks before I saw that one rectangle was tilted. I had felt that
tension but had not seen it. This is very interesting to me. How do
you create tension that is viscerally felt but not necessarily seen?
After I took apart the Rietveld chair, I began making a series
examining the transition from two dimensions to three. I also began
making the graphite rooms. After the rooms, I realized that I could
build discrete objects attached to a wall but not part of an
JR: Can you explain the value of repetition in your work, both in
its structure and in your process? You told Kathleen Whitney in
Sculpture that “repetition and labor are my benchmarks. I am
transfixed by the constant circling of my hands across the graphite
gradual silvering of the surface as my hands rub across it again and
again.” Do you still agree with that?
Shard Square, Graphite Square, 2001. Graphite,
porcelain, and steel, 12 x 12 x 4 in.
|SY: Yes. Through
the same action, I completely transform, inhabit,
and then, in a sense, erase my presence from the room. While
the physical action required by my work is intense, I am mesmerized
by the movement of my body rocking back and forth as both
of my arms circle, as my hands rub the floor or the wall for hours
that turn into days. Through this process, thinking becomes
impossible. Because of the sheer physical effort required, my
brain becomes equal to the rest of my body.
When I was 20, I attended my first weekend-long Zen Buddhist
retreat, a dai-sesshin. One rises, with a group of practitioners
and a teacher, at 3 a.m. and meditates throughout the day, until
9 p.m. By doing zazen (sitting meditation) and kinhin (walking
meditation), following your breath, and staying in silence and
not making eye contact—and doing this whether you are tired
or bored or resistant or in terror, doing it no matter what—there is a release from thinking. There is also a rhythm, like
the tides, of which one becomes a part. Eventually one’s will
recedes, and one becomes a part of a larger organism—the
|structure and group practice of the sesshin,
the rhythm of breath. Within
this very prescribed structure, there is a huge
space and a freedom from decision and thinking and one’s own
will. This practice also builds concentration and stamina, which
is really good for artists. You do it. You don’t think about it—you just do it.
With the graphite rooms—and also the graphite and porcelain
objects—I have created a structure where the primary decisions
are already made. What it takes is committing and then sinking
into the rhythm of doing the same thing over and over—the act
of rubbing the wall or graphite forms over and over and over for
days, or pouring and cutting and stacking hundreds of porcelain
shards. These repeated actions create a freedom from will,
and to do them for days at a time, for me, requires attention
to breath. In this practice, there is a release from thinking and
a falling into breath that I am pulled into, like the tides of the
Jan Riley is a writer and curator who works for Knoedler Gallery
in New York.