While visiting a temple dedicated to Minerva Medica in Rome a couple of years ago, the artist Keith Edmier spotted a beehive, and decided to have a closer look. “This is so stupid,” he told me recently, “but I was really obsessed with this thing. I took it off, and I got stung like hell.” He carried it back to where he was staying. “I thought I could bring it back on the plane with me,” he said, laughing. “When I had it in my hotel room it was still spawning bees.”
It was late April when I visited Edmier in his studio on the top floor of a building near Penn Station and he was preparing for his current show at Petzel gallery. His space was filled with stuff, but it did not, alas, feature the beehive, which didn’t make the trip back with him to New York. Books and papers were scattered across tables, and one wall had print outs of photos of First Ladies, orchids, and pregnant celebrities like Demi Moore and Cindy Crawford.
One table was filled with sculptural portraits made out of all sorts of different materials. “This is probably my favorite thing in the studio, this accumulation of life casts,” Edmier said excitedly. He pointed out a few of them. “This is Grace Kelly, there’s Farah”—that would be Farrah Fawcett, with whom he collaborated on a project that had them making sculptures of each other—“there’s a project I was going to do with Alicia Silverstone. This is me as a kid.” That last one was a full head, amber colored, and quite creepy.
What was the story with the Barack Obama face?
“I got hit really hard when the recession happened, and I was really questioning,” Edmier said. “The whole art world, I’m surprised at how quickly it rebounded. There was a moment when, ‘It’s over.’ I mean, I started thinking that maybe we’re going to be heading into the Great Depression again. I started thinking about American philanthropy and the Rockefellers.
“I realized that there wasn’t a life cast done of an American president since Abraham Lincoln,” Edmier continued. He had quite a bit of experience making casts, having worked in a dental lab in high school and then in the film industry after college. “In the movie business we had to do this a lot, where we’d cast actors,” he said. They would use alginate for the actors, the stuff that dentists use when making molds, but back in Lincoln’s time, sitters had to endure having plaster all over their faces.
“What if I could just get permission to cast Obama’s life mask?” Edmier recalled thinking at the time. “And then we hire American artists and they make plaster casts and it could be in everybody’s home?” He imagined it as a sort of fundraising project. “I actually tried to propose it,” he said. “It didn’t go anywhere.”
Edmier’s relentless desire to experiment means that it’s not an especially unusual thing for some of his more fanciful ideas to hit brick walls, but when they do come to fruition—as they have so fruitfully in his Petzel show—his artworks buzz with humor, pathos, uncanny energy, and allusions to history, literature, and popular culture. He is one of those rare artists whose ideas are so multifarious and generally out-there that one sometimes feels a bit embarrassed by the rigid strictures of the art world—the regularly scheduled solo shows, the production of salable objects—in which he is forced to operate. His sculptures include his mother pregnant with him and a meticulous reconstruction of the interiors of his childhood home in suburban Illinois, which the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has acquired.
The range of references in Edmier’s Petzel show, which is titled “Regeneratrix” and which runs through June 20, are so deeply layered that it seems silly to try to outline them all here (there’s a press release for that), but one might say that the exhibition is about the state of becoming, the moment that inspiration strikes or that something new begins to exist—impregnation, in short.
On limestone Edmier has made a lithograph of Cindy Crawford posing for W while pregnant in 1999, with one of her arms replaced by one of Demi Moore’s from her own pregnant cover photo for Vanity Fair in 1991. In a print from the 1860s by Martin Johnson Heade that he borrowed from a private collector, two Brazilian hummingbirds, those expert pollinators, almost join beaks. Using dental acrylic, Edmier has cast, in pale pink and white, species of orchids that were created—spliced together—to honor First Ladies. He has also included a print of the original Crawford photo by Michael Thompson. (By an odd coincidence—and everything in Edmier’s oeuvre is connected by odd coincidences—Thompson once used the building that now houses Petzel as his studio.)
All of this leads back, more or less, to a lunch with Sir Norman Rosenthal, the gadabout curator who formerly led London’s Royal Academy. “I was kind of stuck with ideas and sometimes when I’m at that point I ask people around me, ‘What should I look into?’” Edmier said. “He brought up this guy Cesare Ripa [1560–1622]. He was also a cook and a butler for one of the cardinals in Rome. He was almost like an outsider-artist type, probably a little bit nuts. He wrote this sprawling Iconologia—an encyclopedia for artists, writers, playwrights [about] how to visualize things like virtues and vices. He said, ‘Look into this. If you can’t make art about this I don’t know what to tell you.’”
Hulking binders with photocopies of Ripa pages now reside in Edmier’s studio, though one figure among their pages especially caught his eye, the Medici Venus, or Aphrodite as the Greek’s called her. Moore and Crawford are his—and our—Venuses.
“I’ve got to keep the show regenerating, and giving birth to it,” Edmier said, recalling his thinking as he planned the show. “So I looked into Aphrodite’s lovers and one of them was Hermes. The first thing that comes up in a Google search is the luxury brand. I don’t know how exactly, but very quickly this connected me with Grace Kelly. They have the Birkin bag but also the Kelly bag. I didn’t know much about her. I didn’t know anything about handbags when I started.” Eventually he decided to cast a Kelly bag out of glass. “I liked the idea of this almost becoming a surrogate womb,” he said, “and obviously she kind of represents an American goddess and princess.” The story that the Kelly bag caught on after the princess used it to shield her pregnant belly, he said, is unfortunately not true.
It’s also important to note here that, in Greek mythology, Aphrodite was born after Cronus sliced off the testicles of his father Uranus. (Long story.) They fell into the sea, foamed up, and created the goddess of beauty. “That’s another running theme,” Edmier said. “I wanted something to fall from the sky. I’ll get to that.” That ended up being a replica of the lightning cap that rests on the Washington Monument—it appears to have broken through a pane of glass in Petzel’s skylight.
During our visit, as his stories proliferated and as each thread of information led ingeniously, improbably into the next, I kept staring at a modestly sized classical bust that was a dead ringer for Al Gore.
A while back, Edmier explained, he had been in the running to do a bust of Gore for the U.S. Senate building, since the vice president, under the Constitution, is the president of the body. This was actually long after Gore had left office. “I think Al didn’t want to deal with it or whatever,” he said. “He’s been blowing off this thing for years.” (Gore’s office did not response to a request for comment.)
Tipped off to the project by the artist Bunny Burson, whose husband had worked for Gore, Edmier was one of three finalists, and wanted to make the bust from a digital scan using Tennessee marble—paying tribute to Gore’s home state, of course, but also celebrating the material that is used on the floor of the Capitol and Grand Central Station.
“I wrote this whole proposal,” Edmier said. “I had to go meet with him in Washington.” The staff at the Capitol was concerned that he didn’t have enough experience with figurative sculpture—traditional artisans are typically tapped for the job. “They said, ‘We want to see an example of what you can do.’ This was like two weeks before. So I very quickly made this portrait that’s in plaster from photos. I was under time pressure and stuff. There were things that weren’t right, I knew, but I had to show these people something.”
Edmier arrived in D.C. “They bring me in and, it’s Al Gore! We just started chatting.” He talked about a sculpture he had done of two of his grandfather, who were veterans, and other works. “They’re all kind of impressed,” he said. “He’s really into this whole Tennessee marble thing.”
And then he mentioned he had made a sample: “I said, ‘This is just a very rough sketch, and obviously this whole thing is about a dialogue, but the Capitol asked me to make this maquette.’ And he goes, ‘Well yeah, let me see it.’ I bring this out and it’s this little miniature thing, and he’s looking at it. And he’s silent.
“He goes, ‘I don’t know. It’s just…not…me.’ I go, ‘Do you have anything specific?’ And he goes, ‘I don’t even have words to say. The nose is all wrong. The hair is all wrong.’ And he walks out on me. His chief of staff starts crying. And then I had to spend the rest of the day in these meetings [with Capitol staff]. I’m still lugging around this thing.”
Later they met up at the Senate, Edmier said, where they strolled along the portrait busts (one of the other finalists had done Spiro Agnew’s), and Gore told stories about the men along the way. Eventually they made it to the President’s office. “I’m in there with him,” he said. “It’s got Nixon’s desk from Watergate, for some reason, that was in the Oval Office…It’s got Joe Biden’s family photographs, and Al’s kind of going through the drawers and getting kind of teary-eyed about the presidency and everything and telling a couple of stories about that. We left that room, and he said, ‘It was really great to meet you, Keith.’ He shook my hand, and that was the end.”
The job, Edmier said, ended up going to the guy who did Spiro Agnew’s bust.
“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.