Carol Bove’s Mild-Contact Heavy Metallic Faces Down the Met
“I didn’t want you to be politely on the pedestals,” Carol Bove told me last summer.
The sculptor tiptoed around a pile of shredded, tangled steel pipes that lay on the floor of her studio in far south Brooklyn. She had reopened her workshop after a pandemic, and art and industry equipment was everywhere. Forklifts and carriers. Welding masks and protective suits. But there was also, rather incongruously, a shadow of a bygone century: a huge plaster replica of a Beaux Arts sculpture plinth, a complete copy of the empty one on the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The crumpled tubes would be part of one of Bove’s biggest projects, for the museum’s second contract for new outdoor sculptures. Last week, after a six-month delay caused by Covid, the completed work was driven downtown and positioned at 1000 Fifth Avenue.
There are four of them: abstract compositions made of high-torque and sand-blasted steel, each about 3 meters high, fastened with burnished aluminum discs and placed on either side of the curved staircase of the Met. They will be here until November, and they actually sit on their pedestals with a pleasant impertinence: pushed a little too far forward, a tick too precariously balanced, a smidgen too big.
When viewed from Fifth Avenue, they seem like a quartet of performers – and if you shot down the street on an electric CitiBike like me last week, they almost seem to be dancing as you walk past the four front blocks of the museum, as illustrated in a zoetrope. They have an unexpected lightness that contradicts the steel and the crunch and squeeze of their manufacture.
I went there on my bike to watch the installation process. The day before, two of the sculptures had been positioned north of the museum entrance. A third lay prone near Fifth Avenue and hung in a metal arm for safe transport, while the last sat near the south fountain of the esplanade. Two technicians on Bove’s team removed a shiny aluminum disc from a separate box and began screwing it to the larger steel element.
Shortly after noon, the sculpture began to fly with hardly a sound: the crane operator lifted it 30 feet in the air and led the 3,000-pound growl made of steel to his colleagues standing on the facade. The Met employees raised their smartphones like at a rock concert or a papal mass. It all took less than two minutes.
The artist seemed satisfied; A smile was easy to see under both of their masks. “You’re kind of invisible at times and very assertive in others,” said Bove. “They’re starting a new pattern with the pattern around them, you know?”
Bove (pronounced bo-VAY), who turns 50 this year, became known at the beginning of the last decade for delicate, nuanced sculptures that came with a sideways glance at the tradition of modernity. In the Museum of Modern Art, she showed silver curtains and cell phones made of shells and peacock feathers. On the High Line, which was still undeveloped at the time, she placed large flourishes made of white powder-coated steel in the wild grass. And when she turned to jumbo-bent steel in 2014, she continued to emphasize the surprising lightness of metal through careful positioning and flat, smooth surfaces that made her sculptures look almost like digital renderings.
Her attention to the surroundings of a sculpture and her back and forth between physical and digital forms made her a logical decision to face the Met’s long neoclassical facade. “So much of their early practice, and now too, has been about querying display modes,” Met curator Shanay Jhaveri explained as we watched Bove’s crew prepare to hoist Sculpture # 3. We were curious to see how she would react to an empty pedestal, an unoccupied niche. “
In the first few months of 2020, Jhaveri and the artist exchanged images of sculptures from the Met’s collection as well as old abstract animations from filmmakers such as Oskar Fischinger, a pioneer of hand-drawn motion graphics in the 20s and 30s, and Jordan Belson, the spiritually oriented films about Starbursts and mandalas turned. They were trying to imagine how a sculpture could have “a sense of implicit movement,” said Jhaveri.
The museum’s Beaux Arts facade also led Bove to delve into design and culture from the last gilded era. One inspiration was Art Deco jewelry with its mix of natural and mechanical motifs. Including “We’re in the Money”, the big Busby Berkeley number on “Gold Diggers of 1933”, whose grandiose choirs worship the almighty dollar while carrying oversized coins in their arms.
What turned out to be a game of opposites or a theme and variations. The main components of the four sculptures are the crumpled steel pipes, whose sandblasted, matt gray finish can remind you in places of unpressed trousers. They are welded together into metallic strands, wrap themselves up and then double up again into a shape that hardly suggests anything statuesque.
As is usual with Bove, these shredded steel shapes are not planned in advance on paper or in a model. Instead, they emerge from high-performance improvisation that is closer to drawing than classic hammer-and-chisel sculpture. She and her crew bent the metal once with elbow grease; Now she has a special hydraulic press, the piston of which turns the standard pipes into unexpected shapes. “It’s totally improvised and reacts to what the material wants to do,” she told me in her studio last summer when I was investigating the press. “It’s not quite my will.”
These works are abstract, although Bove noted, “The first one I did isn’t that good at not being a character. It looks like ‘The Thinker’. “But these monumental sculptures come together in a significantly different way than those by Rodin and other sculptors around 1900, who would start with a clay figure and then duplicate it on a larger scale with a pantograph. Or as Wangechi Mutu, the first artist commissioned to occupy the facade of the Met: Her bronze caryatids, here from autumn 2019 to summer 2020, began their lives as plasticine models that were 3-D scanned and digitally enlarged.
Bove’s start-big, piling-additive method is closer to someone like Mark di Suvero, who welds true-to-scale steel beams into abstract totems. When I told Bove that I had recently been to Storm King this summer, she chose Di Suvero as her model to figure out the shape of a colossal sculpture while you work. “One of the things that is so nice about his job is that you feel like this invention is happening to that extent. You need a lot of strength for that. That’s what happens with these too – it takes a lot of strength, a lot of mechanisms to actually make these difficult things easy. “
On the top and bottom of each metal body are two perfect discs that are polished to shine. When the sculptures’ crumpled steel records weeks of physical labor, the disks ordered from a Washington foundry appear as flawless and generic as a digital rendering. (Even during a pandemic, you can have anything shipped.) They’re “perverted generic,” says Bove. “It can be a cosmic entity, or it can just be like a machine, a gear. And making them so symmetrical suggests both. “
The panes also reflect the little-noticed medallion portraits of artists – Dürer, Velázquez, Raphael and the boys – in the spandrels of the three arches of the Met façade. On each of the four sculptures, the panes point in a different direction, and that gives the suite a nice rhythm – that Busby Berkeley-Fanning action – as you walk past the museum through the thinning traffic of Fifth Avenue.
They also offer unexpected reflections of the building, the street, and even the cooperatives across the way. As the shape of the project became clearer, Bove commissioned engineers with digital models to record the daily rise and fall of the sun – to understand what the glossy finish would look like at different hours, but she also said, “Because there were concerns, that they would go blind to the neighbors. “(Relief for the co-op boards: There’s nothing to worry about!)
Resolutely abstract, these sculptures have a bizarre title, which alludes to a narrative: “The séances don’t help”, simply reproduced, in the case of a sentence, as if they were spoken. I ask her: don’t help because the dead don’t answer, or don’t help because there is no life after this?
“It brings in the idea of how we deal with the past,” she replied. “It’s either a materialist who is disgusted or a spiritualist who is frustrated.” Like any universal museum, she suggests, the Met is a cemetery. The facade enlivens old Europe for industrial America. Forgotten artists have been in camp for a century. Yes, literally – there are things like the mummies in the Egyptian wing!
How then does a living artist speak authentically in this house of the dead? “In the tradition of Western architecture,” replied Bove, “certain elements are often left to future architects. For example in a church. Every great architecture has parts to fill for the next generation. “
“But there were breaks in tradition; There is a break in modernity. And I think this “- she points to one of her statues, soon to take her rude place -” must address not only the deep story, but this pause as well. “
Until November on the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, metmuseum.org.