Sculptor Bryan Hunt made a splash in the art world of the late 1970s and early ’80s, with his bold “airships,” sleek, dirigible-shaped constructions in wood and metal that jut out from the wall or floor. At the time, they seemed a wry comment on Minimalist sculpture, and put a fresh spin on the sleek modernist forms of Arp and Brancusi. Not long after, the Indiana-born artist confounded some critics, but gained new admirers, when he introduced a series of highly textured and impossibly fluid waterfalls rendered in bronze.
Over the years, Hunt has continued to explore and refine his work in both of these series. In 2006, New York City’s Department of Parks & Recreation installed a 21-foot-tall “airship,” at Coenties Slip Park in Lower Manhattan. Following the success of that work, the same organization, in collaboration with the Fund for Park Avenue Sculpture Committee, invited Hunt to present an exhibition of 10 monumental outdoor sculptures this fall along the Park Avenue mall, between 51 Street and 59 Street. With works from 1977 to 2006, the show constitutes a retrospective of the artist’s “waterfalls” series. Illuminated at night, the exhibition is free and open to the public through November.
A.i.A.’s David Ebony caught up with the artist at the exhibition’s opening reception, where the following conversation ensued.
DAVID EBONY Compared with some of the other recent public sculpture installations along Park Avenue, yours is quite ambitious. What made you focus on the “waterfalls,” and how did the project come about?
BRYAN HUNT The Fund for Park Avenue asked me to propose an exhibition. I felt that the “waterfalls” sort of mimicked the energy of the location with all the traffic—pedestrians, cars and trucks. The sculptures have similar rushing movements: turns, eddies, stops and starts—fluid in time and synchronicity.
I had a choice of several locations, but immediately wanted to site my work on Park Avenue between 57th Street and 52nd Street. It’s one of the most historic, iconic and vibrant areas of midtown Manhattan. I would say it was ambitious to build the wood-beam bases and platforms that weigh thousands of pounds, and have cranes, riggers and flatbed trucks ready to install the sculptures and to have Park Avenue traffic rerouted.
The selection of sculpture was also a big challenge—to find the most economical way to maximize an amazing opportunity. Seven of the 10 sculptures came from my property in Wainscott, Long Island. They are the artist proofs from the edition; when casting sculptures I usually make an edition of 3 with one A/P. So I have lived with these pieces outdoors for years, and have seen them in all seasons; they are like family. I did borrow the largest piece, Crossing, and the two most recent works, Flume l and Flume ll, were just cast at the foundry.
EBONY What were some of the logistical challenges of the project? It seems that the reflective qualities of the material make the lighting along the street extraordinarily important. The sculptures are rather subtle and nuanced compared with other outdoor works we’ve seen on Park Avenue in recent years, and so the placement must have been key. Were you thinking of the surrounding buildings? How did you decide what should go where?
HUNT Some of the challenges were inherent to the sculptures; they are not so gigantic or brightly colored or cartoonishly entertaining as some of the previous works on the Avenue. They ask more of the viewer—hopefully—to make the time and to navigate the walk. The placement of the work came from walking the course a number of times, then photographing the medians and buildings. I made drawings of the area’s street grid, then made little scale models of the sculptures and platforms. It became like a chess game, moving the pieces around to find the best site and sequence.
I definitely considered the surrounding structures; these are not ordinary buildings. There is Mies’s Seagram Building Plaza and Bunshaft’s Lever House and the classic Racquet and Tennis Club nearby, just to name a few. What so happily surprised me was that the buildings did not eat up the sculptures. The organic nature of the sculptures, and the gestural mark-making, help separate and distinguish the forms from the squared off, hard edges of the architecture. At night I think they really resonate: the lighting separates them even more from the buildings and adds drama and gravitas.
EBONY Water is such an incongruous subject for bronze sculpture. Part of the appeal of the work for me is the way you have transformed liquid into solid. This occurs figuratively and literally, in the sense of molten metal transformed into bronze, and figuratively, in terms of the fluid properties of water being rendered in sculptural form.
HUNT In the 1970s, I was looking for ways to break the rules of Minimalism. I set out to make imagist sculptures that would cross reference archetypes and symbols. I came to the water imagery after building a large-scale model of the Hoover Dam. In liberating the dam from the canyon, I felt an urge to appropriate the shape of a lake. As one thing led to another, I made a group of bronze lakes, then waterfalls.
The early waterfalls became surrogates for standing figures, performing basic tasks-step, shift or twist. I made the sculptures with plaster at first. After working on small clay studies I would build a steel armature, then lie it down horizontally and pour the liquid plaster over the steel. In each pour I was looking for the dynamic characteristics of massive amounts of water falling over a cliff. The splashes and veils would harden and I would stand it up and carve into it with an adze. With this tool I could shape the sculpture and make chip marks in the plaster that look as if they are falling down the face of the cascade. I would go back and forth until the sculpture was unified in its transitions, flow and balance, as if the waterfall had taken on its own autonomy.
In the ’80s, the falls were more anthropomorphic and referenced a dichotomy between classical art forms and expressionism, as in Charioteer and Daphne ll. Is Daphne a waterfall in the form of a figure or a figure in a fluid state of metamorphosis? Or both? Crossing is self explanatory. In this piece, two waterfalls are impossibly—and rather contradictorily—intersecting and creating an animated, soaring form.
EBONY The sculptures also seem contradictory for being totally artificial objects that reference nature and natural phenomenon. How do you reconcile these differences?
HUNT It’s more than reconciliation. I look for the conversation between them. One sculpture leads into another, thus finding new ways to inform the things to come. The “airships” started out in the ’70s as recognizable dirigibles or zeppelins; they were more or less lightweight models of the enormous flying ships. They perform as sculptures floating above your head and defining the space above and around. The airships then became pure abstraction, existing in an orbital zone. In some ways, the ships were my guide—a way to un-clutter all issues of earthly concern.
The more recent airships convey a certain undulating movement that gives them a more organic or creature-like presence. A new group is called “fusiforms,” which means simply tapering at both ends—serpents, fish and whales are defined this way. The most recent sculptures on Park Avenue, Flume l and Flume ll [both 2006], are in front of the spacious Seagram Building Plaza. I made them with wet clay over a steel armature then cast them in a bright aluminum. There is so much texture and motion that they seem to glow from within instead of shine; they also reverse their flow as if existing in a kind of möbius strip. Seen together on Park Avenue, they are in concert and seem to do a dance.