November 2008, Interview with Alice Aycock


Alice Aycock, Project Entitled “Studies for a Town”, 1977, Wood, 3' to 10' high, diameter varies from 11' to 12 1/2',
Collection of Museum of Modern Art, NYC. Photo Museum of Modern Art, courtesy the artist and Museum of Modern Art, NYC 

Tom Butter interviews Alice Aycock
I visited the artist Alice Aycock in her spacious top-floor loft in SoHo last month. She first showed me the studio in the rear of the space, where pictures of current public projects are mounted on the wall and many other pieces are stored. Recently she has been building one public piece after the next: last year alone, she completed Strange Attractor for Kansas CityGhost Ballet for East Bank Machineworks (in Nashville, Tennessee), The Uncertainty of Ground State Fluctuations (in Clayton, Missouri), and A Little Cosmic Rhythm (at 654 Madison Avenue, New York City). She showed me pictures and models (or both) of these works.
 Then we sat down in the bright, open living space and talked at length about her ideas, work, and her ongoing illustrious career. Her black dog, Maggie, kept us company lying down and stretching in front of us. 
Tom Butter: Your piece- Project Entitled “Studies for a Town”, 1977 is included in an exhibition at MOMA-“Here is Every. Four Decades of Contemporary Art” which opened in September. (up through March 23, ’09) It is given pride of place in that show, and somehow sets the mood for the rest of the exhibition. What did you think, seeing it now? 
Alice Aycock: Project Entitled “Studies for a Town” was done over 30 years ago, and it has always been one of my favorite pieces. I went to India in January to see specifically two observatories- one was in Delhi, one was in Jaipur, and the “Studies for a Town” piece was influenced by one of these observatories…Back in the ‘70’s when I started to do research in architecture and archeology, I had seen pictures of this observatory. It has been a reference that I have never really completely exhausted. Just coincidently I decided in January of this year to finally go see the building I had thought about for 30 years. A lot of the references that I use I kind of exhaust in a way- I sort of sweep them up and allow myself to be influenced and then kind of throw them away like debris. I have always been drawn to particularly this one building. It was built in the 18th century. The design was taken from astronomical instruments developed in the West. These are large-scale architectural complexes that had to work scientifically; they had to be very precise. Science in the service of magic, so to speak. But the architecture is just extraordinary- it is all about the sky, it’s not at all about being on the earth. They are these bowls carved into the earth with interior slots and spaces. One of these Indian observatories was sliced through so you have a bird’s eye view as well as the three dimensionality. You can climb the stairs (unlike “Studies for a Town” ).  In any case I had no idea that my piece would be resurrected out of the storage basement at MOMA this fall, so it was a wonderful coincidence to see the actual building and then have my piece “re-appear”. It is really a piece of architectural sculpture. I was making a case for sculpture that could be architecture and could be experienced in a physical way, but solely for the purposes of having an aesthetic experience, not a functional one.  

TB: When it was first shown it was in a very small room, right? 
AA: Yeah it almost burst out of that room. It has been shown subsequently- the last time was 1991. All these other times, it was in a larger space, sometimes oriented at more of an angle than currently. But in my mind it was the piece, not just the space it was located in. 
TB: Right. It does manage to set a tone for the exhibition, which I found very moving. 
AA: I have said how important the early Nauman corridor pieces were to me. I like to acknowledge my sources. For me art is a conversation that artists have with other artists. There is such a thing as historical perspective. There are influences. And the discourse where one artist does something, and then another artist picks up on it, and extends it, was very important, and is still important. Being at MOMA in the context of Yvonne Rainer, and Vito (Acconci) who is close by, is very important to me.  Having it end with Matthew Barney’s piece, which I thought was really wonderful, made me very happy as well. He was someone I knew when I was teaching at Yale- he was a student there. It made it a great journey through the collection, and a re-thinking of the collection. I am very pleased. 

 Alice Aycock, Stairs (These Stairs Can Be Climbed), 1974. Wood, 13'14"l x 9'8"w x 16’h, ratio of tread to riser, 8" riser to 8 1/2",  is approximately a 43 degree slope, 1974, refurbished in 2008 at Sculpture Center, NYC. Collection of the artist.  Photo Sculpture Center, courtesy the artist and Sculpture Center

TB: Your work- Stairs (These Stairs Can Be Climbed), 1974, was also recently included in “Decoys, Complexes, and Triggers: Feminism and Land Art in the 1970s” at Sculpture Center, NYC, and an installation Sand/ Fans, 1971 was part of “Sand: Memory, Meaning, and Metaphor” at the Parrish Art Museum. What do you make of this deserved interest? 
AA: I hope these pieces are written about again in terms of the kind of discourse they were involved with. All right, so you are going to open up Minimal art. If Minimal art related to the body, and sculpture was off the pedestal human in the room, then my work extended that discourse into architectural space. I wanted to include all the emotional and psychological responses the viewer had. It’s not just a formal conversation. As I have said in the past, it’s also a conversation about the necessary structure (the way the work is set up in the situation), and the contingent event (the interaction of the viewer with the work). The work then elicits a physical and a psychological response. I hope that the showing of these works will re-establish that kind of conversation and show that there is a precedent for some of the work being done today. In the case of works done by me, and other artists, such as Mary Miss, I like to think that we opened up architecture as a place to go. We introduced the notion of the house as a reference.  

TB: In NYC, there’s something about things being real, or actual, that probably starts with Pollock, I don’t know, but I know that Judd loved Pollock, he thought about him a lot, and the idea of (determining) what’s real seems to be one of the strands you looked at then. 
AA: Yeah. There was a lot of discussion about experiential, phenomenological art, as opposed to what was then called “virtual”, the virtual space.  Now we are back into a virtual space, but one that could only have been fantasized about. I don’t think anyone could have imagined the power of the virtual back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when we were working. In one way I think art made at that time was the last gasp of the experiential. The way most people experience “life” now is with an enormous amount of the virtual, especially if they live in NYC where the media has become dominant. This is going off on a tangent, but today you just don’t think about the sun and the moon and the stars. The sensory experience that was being elevated in the ‘60’s and 70’s is now subservient to the virtual in every way, shape, and form…. whether it is the experience of the landscape or of the body. I look at that time now as containing a very romantic ideal that privileged the sensory.  

TB: By experiential you mean-“minute by minute”?

AA: Yeah but also I think there was more of a sense of history than there is now. Now I think we really live “minute-to-minute” in the virtual, but not experientially. I also know that now I design almost completely on the computer. I still need to be “in the world” (I go to the country precisely for that purpose)- I garden to have what’s missing when I’m in the city in the rest of my life. But I design using the virtual world, employing the marvelous qualities of it as well. 

Alice Aycock, Strange Attractor for Kansas City, Kansas City International Airport Long Term Parking Facility, Kansas City, Missouri, 2007. Aluminum, neon, and halogen lights; 42' high (neon) x 35’ long x 20’ wide (horns). Photo: Mike Sinclair, courtesy the artist 

TB: How about your recent public work- would you want to categorize these works either way, in terms of this polarity?

AA: The irony is that I think most people saw my early work basically through photography.  They never experienced it. When I photographed those pieces I shot them thinking of how the viewer would move through them.  It really was a mediated experience because they saw it in the photographs. Conceptual art and land art was mostly experienced through photography as well. Most people didn’t see the Lightning Fields (Walter De Maria) or the Spiral Jetty. So, there’s that irony right there, but at least it was in the land, it wasn’t just a design on the computer, a complete fantasy. The irony is that Studies for a Town will be seen by more people, given the crowds at MOMA, than will ever see my work of the last 15 years, which is scattered all over America. People will see this work only as a series of photographs for the most part. 
 But I do think there is a difference between imagining it, and doing it. Part of the difference is that there is a lot of creativity that goes into imagining it, and there is a lot of pain (laughter) that goes into making it happen. (laughs again) But then the experience of it really standing there is different than the virtual world. That experience is still important to me, but I have also, even from the very beginning, been aware of the fact that a lot of the work I loved – (I was poring over architectural history.) In order to really understand Greek architecture you have to look at reconstructions. It is not really there - it’s just ruins. A lot of the architects I really liked, such as Boullee, never really built anything. They made drawings and imagined things. I’m not saying I like one more than the other, but I do love the fantasy of creating things that may never get built. Boullee influenced an enormous amount of architecture built later. If you go down to the Municipal Building in lower Manhattan, you can just see the influence of Boullee:  these huge vaulted arches and super human openings, that are so much larger than life. I’m always torn between what one can imagine, but not get built, and what one can actually do. When you are frustrated because you don’t have the money or the support system to build something, your imagination is still there: you can still think it up, you can still draw it. 

TB: But you are building really large pieces now- is that satisfying? 
AA: Yeah, but there are lots of things I haven’t been able to do that I really want to do, and I’m frustrated, really frustrated because I have got all these new ideas, and if I had more support, I could really blow everybody out of the water! (laughter).  
TB: I’m not doubting you! 

AA: In one way I’m back and forth with liking to dream stuff up, and then getting tired of that and wanting to build things. There is also something which is weird, and self-defeating, but I do think a lot about: the world is full of things, and we have during my lifetime filled up the American landscape. We have fucked it up, with just crap. There is this notion of- “Why contribute to that?” Is one more thing going to make the difference? What has so overtaken America are the shopping malls that are just giant warehouses and the highways and the asphalt parking lots and the mindless land use, which doesn’t make a place for people. The America that I dreamed those early pieces into is a very different America. It’s different from the place Robert Smithson and De Maria dreamt up and thought about. It is a whole other place… 

Alice Aycock, Ghost Ballet for the East Bank Machineworks, Nashville, Tennessee, 2005-7. painted steel and aluminum, neon, thermoformed acrylic shapes; approximately 84' long x 110' high x 62’ deep. Photo: Gary Layda, courtesy the artist

TB: There is that disillusionment that began with Conceptual Art, I mean Huebler made that statement about objects and how there are enough of them, but as artists, we have to believe in these things, up to a point, don’t we? Don’t we have faith in these things as being transcendent, valuable, or having some level of truth in them?  
AA: We do, but that is what I mean about these visionary things that aren’t built, but just suggest possibilities, being just as important maybe as the things one does get built. I haven’t taken that on, in the way I might- I mean the vast wasteland that has become America. 
TB: I guess Smithson was working on that near the end of his life, right? 
AA: Yeah he was- he got it all. He was a boy tromping through the countryside of New Jersey, and then Jersey became just one big dump yard, but he was still there thinking about the dinosaurs, and then in the end there was this wonderful perversity to his islands of glass- saying: “I’ll go with the garbage too.” Just sort of turning it on itself…There’s this incredible denial that America has about itself, that it is still “fields of waving grain”, America the beautiful, that kind of stuff. But who knows? I have been saying, “People don’t change until they are forced to change.” As much as it may hurt all of us tremendously when the financial system topples, it could be a reason why things will change. People will be just brought to their knees. Who knows what the impact will be. But we are making these things, and we are part of this system. I did my Master’s thesis on the highway system – the view from the road. Then I built the labyrinth or the maze as a sort of a small-scale highway system- one you could get lost in… 

TB: Outdoors, right? 
AA: Yeah, and the highway system and the car has become a cancerous growth. At first it was freedom and now it has become this monster that has taken over. I ruminate on these things because all this time has passed- the Maze was done in 1972. In Studies for a Town I was thinking in a playful way: “OK, if I could create a town, what would it be like?” And this would be the beginning of it.  It is part ruin. I had been to Rome; I had seen people living in the ruins. Things get taken over, layer upon layer. Then I began to think about how could you generate a town, but it would not function; it would be a play town. I did a bunch of drawings for several different cities. They were almost something a child would cook up. I was trying to think about how to create the genesis of a place, instead of imposing something? Most towns grew organically (for example by a river), as opposed to just- “OK let’s put the tract housing here, let’s run the road, and let’s put the shopping center there.” Now it has become so overwhelming. Artists are a commodity to be bartered for and won as trophies, or they are postage stamps to be put on some public works project…People like Smithson, and others were thinking about all these things, it was running through their heads- “How can we participate in this grand design process, which is America and the environment.” It has come to a grinding halt! Just think about what was going on when Smithson was working- you had the environmental movement and the hippies…all the idealism of the time. Studies for a Town conjures all that for me, and also who I was then- a young artist, who was hot. You go up the hill, and then you go down the hill.  Thirty years later you are…(laughs) 

  Alice Aycock, The Uncertainty of Ground State Fluctuations, Clayton, Missouri, 2007. Structural and spun aluminum, fiberglass,
thermo-formed acrylic, approximately H 19’ x W 20’ x D 20’. Photo: Richard Sprengler, courtesy the artist

TB: Your work was, in part, forming its time; your work was influencing everyone. 
AA: And then how one hangs on…I didn’t have the good fortune to die young like Gordon (Matta-Clark) and Bob Smithson. (more laughter). I, of course, say that sarcastically. 
TB: Maybe you stuck around to see what was going to happen! (more laughter) 
AA: Getting back to your questions about the early work - Sand/ Fans came before everything. Later, I moved through this whole mechanical period, when I was using industrial architecture and machines and movement. In Sand/ Fans I had these big industrial fans blowing sand, and I was talking about a sort of transience- the edges of things were fluid; there was an ephemeral quality. 

TB: It was pure process. 
AA: Yeah. I like to see the fans as an early indicator of these big machines that I made later…I really loved those fan blades, and I still do. I still love propellers; I love the whirlwind image, which is like a hurricane or a big turbine. That image is still very important to me- kind of terrifying, and powerful and seductive. I see the fans as the beginning of that. I also think a lot about how you could make art out of something that is just dust-it’s thin air. After you have made all these big solid things, you just blow it apart, just say- “It’s nothing but dust.” I started out like that, and maybe I’ll end up like that. It still fascinates me to think about generating pieces that are just thin air.   

Alice Aycock, A Little Cosmic Rhythm, 654 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, 2007.
Neon, fiber optics, aluminum, 6’ x 7’4”. courtesy the artist 

TB: In 2005 MIT Press published a beautiful and extremely thorough monograph on you and your work by Robert Hobbs. How does it feel to have your work and yourself described and analyzed with such depth and intensity? 
AA: He did work a long time on the book- a long time. He and I are very close in age- a couple of weeks apart- which is nice because we went through similar things. He is a big fan of Robert Smithson. We pushed ideas around for about 7 or 8 years. He was working on other things, he would come back, we would have discussions, I would show him stuff, he would write things. I think he was trying to find a way through the material, that didn’t seem always consistent, because I would change…I even changed a lot during the time we worked together- over the 8 years. So I think some of it was trying to figure out what the story was… 

TB: So you were really collaborating with him. 
AA: Yeah. I think it was collaborative in the sense that while Robert had his own point of view, which he wouldn’t change to suit me, I think he was interested in getting it right to the degree that I said- “We have got to be factually correct, we can’t just make things up, because this is going to be the book everybody will read. We have to make sure that if we say- “this happened”, it did!” On the other had, I didn’t say- “No, you can’t say this because I disagree.”  If starting from a set of facts, this was the conclusion he reached, that’s his conclusion. There is certainly a lot of room for different conclusions, but I’m not going to tell someone- “You can’t say that.”- as long as we are factually correct.  I tend to tell different stories. You get me on one day I’ll tell it one way, you get me on another day, I’ll tell it another (laughter). But I like stories. One day I am all about dust, and the next I’m out there (thinking)- “I want to build another big piece”. I change depending on how I’m feeling. I would say the only place where we had a difference- we didn’t exactly disagree but he wanted to talk a lot about feminism. I think there is absolutely (pause, sighs) a bias, there was and still is, a bias in favor of men.  I just did not want to dwell on it. I am an artist first, and I’m to the best of my ability going to think myself out of my context.  I’m sure the work I did was in part because I’m a woman, but I was exposed to all kinds of things, and my mind will not be contained by my gender. It just won’t

TB: That’s a really interesting phrase- “think myself out of my context”. 
AA: Yeah, I was raised, for better or worse- I like to say- here goes one of my mythic stories: I would sit at the dinner table with my father, and unless you told him something he didn’t already know, or you made an argument that he considered to be curious and interesting, he wasn’t really going to talk to you. He was going to eat his dinner, because that was what he wanted to do. So you had to engage him intellectually…not because you were pretty or because you had a horrible thing happen to you at school that day, because he wasn’t interested in that.  He was interested in what kind of intellectual or political argument you could make. I was raised by some pretty tough standards.  

TB: What about your mother?  Was she also required to do that- engage him intellectually? 

AA: No, she was not.  My mother, luckily for me, and I am sure there were a lot of women of my generation raised the same way, my mother did not want me to get married. I was not raised to be somebody’s wife. My mother was not an intellectual, she had hardly ever been in a museum, and she did not read books like my father. If anything I think it used to make her angry. But she did work for a living before she married late in life. 

Photo of Alice Aycock 

TB: What did she do? 
AA: She worked for Parsons/Brinkerhoff, an engineering firm. In the end, when I look back, both sides of my family were involved in architectural settings…she was just a secretary, but she was in that world. My father was definitely in that world. He had a construction company, which he started the year I was born. It was small, and it grew to be big.  I grew up in that- I didn’t grow up dirty and greasy working out in the yard with the ironworkers (laughs). I didn’t. But they were all there, I saw people building stuff, big stuff, using big cranes, making bridges, all kinds of things, and that was just my environment.  None of that was strange to me…it wasn’t a leap; it was normal, if anything could be. 

TB: But you weren’t being raised to be a wife. 
AA: I wasn’t being raised to be a wife, but I did do that and it was a very supportive situation and I was very lucky in many ways.  

TB: Which was unusual. 

AA: I also had a grandmother who had been the intellectual center of the family, on my father’s side. I looked at this woman- she was always reading, she was painting, she was writing, she was a mathematics teacher. She was all these things. So I had very strong role models which made it seem normal to me. If my grandmother was a math teacher who taught all the boys in the family, why should I have to do stuff that just girls do? Not that I don’t like stuff that girls do!  So that’s where Robert and I had constant discussion. He wanted to talk about what kind of feminist I was. I didn’t want to talk about that. Not that I don’t know how hard it is. But if that had been what I thought about, I would never have done anything.  So you don’t think about that…   

Alice Aycock, Sand Fans

TB: You just do things… 

AA: You just do things because that what needs to get done. How incredible it is, now, young women go to school, and they have female role models. That’s made an enormous difference, I know that. There’s this knowledge pool out there that we can all take part in. It’s really about how we all get through this together. Now that science has allowed us not to be at the mercy of our biological fate. I think Robert felt because of all the feminist criticism that had gone on in recent art history that he really wanted to spend time discussing it. To me it’s really more about being a role model for younger women, and that should speak for itself. I hope so. Just like Louise Nevelson was a role-model for me. 
TB: And Louise Bourgeois too? 
AA: Yeah. 
TB: Women started to be treated as equals in rock and roll in the 70’s…it started to become the norm to have a woman musician on stage, and not necessarily to be the lead be a working musician in the band. 
Alice Aycock, Maze, 1972. Wood, 32 ' d x 6' h, Gibney Farm near New Kingston, Pennsylvania. Collection of the artist.
Photo: Silver Springs Township Police Department, courtesy the artist

AA: Yeah, a lot of things changed.  Of course there’s always the pull-back- leave it to the Republicans to always turn it on its… 

Alice Aycock, Maze, 1972. Wood, 32 ' d x 6' h, Gibney Farm near New Kingston, Pennsylvania. Collection of the artist. Photo: Silver Springs Township Police Department, courtesy the artist

TB: Yeah well that’s a nightmare…(laughter) 
AA: The nightmare scenario: “OK, if you want a woman, we’ll give you a woman. That’s where I say, yes, you have to hold the standards high. OK give me a level playing field, but then everybody has to be good, you can’t just get by on whatever you claim is your birthright. 
TB:  So that answers the question- “What did you ask him (Hobbs) not to do?” 
AA: Or, what did we tussle over, what did we discuss over and over. 

TB: Right, he doesn’t mention it in any kind of big way. 
AA:  No, he has a chapter, and we kept going over and over and over it. 
TB: In his extensive effort to interpret your work, Hobbs returns several times to imagery from a story by the great Argentinean writer Borges titled The Aleph. You mention in an interview in 1990 you would be happy if you could find a tiny rip or tear in the universe such as Borges describes in his story. Will you talk a bit about your desire to find this? 
AA:  The Aleph has a lot of meanings for me. Whenever I am asked to lecture on my work, I always tell that story. There are a lot of things about the story. It’s about Borges comparing himself to Dante. You have all these historical figures who have come before you- how do you live up to them, or beat them at their game? It is also about being young and hot and then not hot anymore, because he gets done in by this other artist/writer. And it’s about being in love.  I think the reason artists are so unstable in their relationships is that making love and making art are similar: there is this wonderful kind of flow you get between the two. It’s about the Muse or the new Muse- being in love with this woman who is his muse, as Dante was in love with Beatrice, and then losing her. About how unrequited love can make great art too (laughs)…all of that. The notion of that “tear” in the universe where he is really confronting the fact, in my mind that he will never be as brilliant as Dante (I’d have to ask Borges for sure, and I can’t anymore). Dante did make a quantum leap- he made that “tear” in the universe- that wasn’t there before- where there is a new worldview, and you are peeking in. Dante tears the curtain open, and says there is another world. I think Borges was saying to himself- “Am I ever going to be able to do that?” It is not just about the historical “filling in the blanks”, but also- “I’m just going somewhere else completely.” That finally is the thing about The Aleph that keeps bringing me back. It keeps bringing me back. The story has so many ramifications for me. The notion-“Can you do something that has “liftoff”, that doesn’t even need all of its historical buttresses?”  It is just there and you go “Whoa!” This is a whole other thing. A new paradigm. I also think about this along with the notion of unstable, unrequited love and the way desire and art work together, and have throughout history. That whole myth of the “mad artist”. Probably artists are a little “out there”. Otherwise they would be accountants.  When you just let your imagination go, it takes you all kinds of places.  I’m not just talking about visual artists. I mean how can a really good writer construct…how could Dostoyevsky, or Norman Mailer, get inside the mind of a criminal or a murderer- unless they projected themselves into those states of mind? Not just in a superficial way. You have the capacity to project yourself in an imaginative way. You know that. And to cross boundaries, to cross moral boundaries in your imagination in the real free-floating way that Dada and Surrealism can totally make associations that are completely irrational. 

Alice Aycock, Waterworks Sculpture Proposal for the Central Broward Regional Park, Broward County, Florida, 2004-8.
Aluminum and acrylic, approximately 20’ wide x 34’ long x 20’ high at highest point., Photo: Grace Kewl, courtesy the artist 

TB: Another thread Hobbs follows is the influence on you of statements made by a diagnosed schizophrenic named N.N. His poignant and compelling narratives were collected by Geza Roheim, a worker in a mental institution in Massachusetts in the late 30’s. Reading about it in Hobbs book it seems that N.N.’s language is striking in the same way Borges writes…and in the way that your language is equally striking when you apply it to the titles for your work, and the way in which you wrote about it. The power of language impresses… 
AA:  Duchamp could do that too- he did that with language. The way a word can kind of “flutter”- it is in transition, transformation even, so in one context it means one thing, and then when you begin to unhinge it, it dislocates itself. I was really interested in that for a while. I refer to it as transformational grammar. Maybe I still am. Maybe I am a little more… 

TB: grounded, or visual, or…? 
AA: Well, I think there’s “crazy” and then there’s “crazy”. You need to know when to pull back. There are lots of crazy people.  But very few of them were like “N.N.” He was a poet, it was obvious. He may have been at the mercy of his disease, but he was gifted. Unless Roheim changed his words. His dreams and fantasies came from somebody who had tremendous poetic thought.  I don’t want to over-romanticize it because for every one like N.N. or all the gifted artists who we know, there are many people who are irrevocably crazy- they are not poets, they are not artists, they just suffer. You have to be careful, or you can go over to the other side. And I don’t want to do that.
TB: Hobbs has you “consciously (using) poststructuralist theory” in your work. Can you comment on this?  

AA: I feel like, although we didn’t mean to, we opened this Pandora’s box, which has given us what we have now. (laughs) I don’t know if I would have…you know I teach, and when I ask my students- “What is this work about?”- I get them saying all the time- “Whatever you want it to be about.” 

TB: Total relativism. 
AA: Right, and I say “No, NO!” That doesn’t work! There is a problem there.  When I was talking earlier about the way language can sort of “flutter” I wasn’t meaning it could flutter everywhere! (laughs).  There is an area of meaning, or intentionality, and an artist has to be responsible, in certain degrees, to their intentionality, to what they’re doing. We have now unleashed this monster.  What this has led to is the “Hallmark Card” quality of art.  I actually think Hallmark cards does it better…(smiles)

Alice Aycock, Three-fold Manifestation II, 1987, Three elliptical steel bowl forms, each containing a skewed step formation supported by three vertical steel poles; 32' high x 12' wide x 14' deep. Permanent Collection - Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York. Photo: Jerry L. Thompson, courtesy the Artist and Storm King Art Center, NY 

TB: Yeah, but Hallmark Cards with irony, right? 
AA: Yes but you know damn well the people who are buying it are not buying it because they love the irony, they’re buying it because they understand it, it looks good. They can have it and know what they have got. Back in the day, when I was making stuff, my mother went to a museum.  She wouldn’t know what the hell she was looking at…it was kind of like-“oh, they think this is art?” We were all called elitists- I would have had to give her endless art history lectures for her to understand it. Now she could go to a museum and look at stuff and she would get it immediately. Or to the galleries, and it would be clear. “Oh yeah, I get it.” 
TB: Except for the irony, that’s a big deal, no? 

AA: Yeah, but you can pass off anything as ironic, but the point of the matter is that a lot of the people who are buying this stuff are buying it because- “well, it looks like a horse, and it looks like a girl, it looks like whatever, and hey, that looks like art, and I want it.” They are not buying it because it is ironic. I am a little concerned about the Pandora’s box that we opened and whether it can be closed. It’s like that famous statement- “I don’t know what pornography is, but I know it when I see it.” I don’t know what good art is, but I know when I see it, despite all the stuff that is out there that you really have to wade through in order to get the true ironic statement, the one that really does “bite back”. I would hate to say- “Let’s regulate everything again, but at the same time there’s a lot of stuff to wade through in order to get that kernel of true formal interest and also real perversity. 

TB: The way a piece of art can hold things in contradiction. 

AA: Yeah, and a lot of stuff just doesn’t do it, it is just there. There’s nothing one can do about it. Nor would I really try. It’s our condition.  I think opening it up to everybody- once the old boys club died, it’s a free-for-all. 

TB: So, what starting with Pop Art, or Duchamp, or who? 

AA: No I would say starting with the ‘70’s. Before that you could see the irony, the irony in Pop Art, for example. But also America loves Pop Art. Its true affinity was not to abstraction, that’s a European thing, really.  That is for those elitists, but we really love Campbell’s Soup.  And that is the prevailing paradigm, really. Pop Art. 

Alice Aycock, A Simple Network of Underground Wells and Tunnels, 1975, Merriewold West, Far Hills, New Jersey,(destroyed), Concrete, wood, earth, Approx. 28’ x 50’ x 9’ deep. Photo: Artist, courtesy the artist

TB: But because of the anti-institutional stance you all had, the art of the ‘70’s doesn’t seem to have the same collusion with the mainstream, starting out. Hobbs describes Post-Structuralism as “unlimited semiosis”- which I take as unlimited reference. What your students mean when they say- “it can mean whatever you think it means”. But the anti-institutional aspect- working outdoors in the middle of a field like you did, without tying it to an institution seems very open, but also not in collusion, not even the way Warhol was.  
AA: No, it wasn’t.  You had Carl Andre, and Haacke, talking about the status object nature of art. I agree. But I remember thinking- “Don Judd can say 1+1 equals two, and he doesn’t want to deal with any references, but when I walk down the street, I am constantly assailed by signs and meaning. Therefore I don’t want to have a meaning, which stands for all time. But at the same time, I have to introduce content, it is a constantly shifting situation. You are always being assailed by language, and memory. All the people who agreed with that opened up that Pandora’s box for all of the dog paintings, cat paintings (laughter) whatever…young girl paintings, you know who I mean… 

TB: Yeah. 

AA: (laughs again). I would love to do a show of 112 Greene St. 

TB: Oh yeah? 

AA: I have the catalog that somebody did a couple of years ago. This would be a great time too because a lot of that work was so cheap- you know what I mean? Now would be a good time to look at that and look at the artists- and what they did later. There were so many artists and performers, and so much video made. I have been thinking about that.  Picking stuff from the early years- there is a lot of work that is very relevant to what is happening now. 
TB: Anyone come to mind?  Certainly Matta-Clark has gotten a large amount of exposure. 

AA: Yeah he has, so it would be nice to see some of the other people…some of them are current:  Chris Burden did some early pieces there. Some would be people whose names you would really recognize- and the genesis of their work would be in some of the things they did then. There are some really great pieces done, and I don’t know where the artists who made them are. One of the people I admire, and admired then, is George Trakas.  He did great work. He is still making art. Some of his early work would be just great. Of course I would want to have complete control. (laughs)  

Alice Aycock, A Salutation to the Wonderful Pig of Knowledge (Oh! Great Jellyfish, Great Waterspouter… There’s a Hole in the Bucket,
and There’s a Hole in My Head..), 1984, Steel, copper, brass, aluminum, Formica, wood, plexiglass, L.E.D.s, motorized parts,
6’9” high x 9’3” wide x 11’6” deep. Collection of the artist. Photo: Fred Scruton, courtesy the artist and Michael Klein Arts, NY

TB: Why wouldn’t you, if you curated it? 
AA: Well, with some other people.  We would say- “That one, no, that one.” But not show some of the idiotic stuff. Because we did a lot of idiotic stuff. (laughs) You can complain about what is going on today but then you think- “God, did we do some dumb stuff!”  Really dumb.  Gordon has gotten a lot of attention. I loved Gordon, and he deserves it. But then it is that “die young” thing.  Some of us had to live. (laughs) 

TB: Hobbs states that “(your) overriding goal appears to be privileging openness to the point that it serves as a central theme and subject of (your) work.” Thoughts on this? 
AA: I’m not quite sure what that means, because I really do think my work is about a cluster of certain kinds of obsessions. It is not just about anything.  If you were start with Sand/ Fans and go up to the Waterworks Sculpture Proposal for the Central Broward Regional Park -the notion of the whirlpool image has continued. I’m not just open.  There are a lot of things I would not want. 

TB: He does say you have “closure” in terms of your openness. He does say your pieces are complete. I thought of “de-centered” because it seems like that is like a tear- it de-centers you. How do you like that? 

AA: Maybe. I believe my best work-work that happened every couple of years, without me “forcing it”- is about creating a sense of disequilibrium, and a moment of (she gasps)-ahh! It is closer to terror, and also the pleasure in terror. Which is hard to do for many reasons- even insurance reasons (laughs). When the work is really good, that’s what I am able to do. Along with something visual and beautiful, I hope. Something like (the piece at) Storm King- which I like a lot. It does all those things. You get that sense of  (breathes in quickly)- it isn’t scary, but it’s like- whoa!  You ask yourself-“Where would I be in that thing?”- as you approach it. That whirling motion, it is pretty neat to look at.  I also want you to feel that moment when the wave comes in and takes you under. Or you step out into empty space. I had it even today driving into the city- I almost got sideswiped. You gasp.  That’s what obsesses me, that’s what I can’t ignore. That near miss, that glance- what Neitchze called the “glance of eternity”.  I think art can do that, the art I have always liked does that. It just keeps you in the moment of saying “yes” and saying “no” – the approach/withdraw syndrome. That’s what we like about some African art, it is sheer terror- a little bit of it. The art we keep going back to over and over does that. Architecture can do that. 

Alice Aycock, The Thousand and One Nights in the Mansion of Bliss, 1983, Steel, aluminum, lights, sheet metal, Plexiglas, motorized parts, and steel mesh; approximately 30’ high x 22’ wide x 80’ deep. Installed at Protetch-McNeil Gallery, New York. Collection of the artist. Photo: Wolfgang Staehle, courtesy Protetch-McNeil Gallery, NY and the artist 

TB: What are your ambitions for your work in the future? 
AA:  I have a lot of stuff I want to do with industrial plastics. I have a bunch of ideas of things I would like to do to really push the material. I went from wood to metal. There is only so much you can make metal do, and then it just tears and rips. Certain forms, which are very hard to capture- like smoke. I would love to do it large scale, but would start off in smaller scale. The transparency, the translucency, and sense of materiality being there, and not there. On an architectural scale. There was a lot of stuff being done with glass, but glass has to be done in sheets. I think unconsciously, in architecture, beyond all the other reasons for using glass, is the sense that- “the world is so permeable, the world is cinematic, you reach out, and it is really not there.” It is just a screen, or monitor.  Some of this glass architecture mirrors that. Also there may be a certain guilt about making monuments. The glass is there and not there. Certain forms that are not hard-edged are very interesting to me. 

TB: When we talked on the phone, you thought you might like to pick out a selection of “greatest hits”. 
AA: I think the piece at Storm King- (Three-Fold Manifestation II), the piece Project for a Simple Network of Underground Wells and Tunnels, a piece called The Pig of Knowledge which nobody has seen for a long time- it was an indoor piece, I really like the Clayton piece, the one on the wall in my studio The Uncertainty of Ground State Fluctuations and The Thousand and One Nights in the Mansion of Bliss, one of the big blade machines. I just love those. I would give anything to be able to put those pieces back up. Well, I guess I’m about done…I have to go teach.  

TB: Yes. Thanks very much Alice for your time doing this. WM


Thomas Butter

Thomas Butter has been living in NYC since 1977, and showing since 1981. He is currently on the Adjunct Faculty in the Fine Arts Department at Parsons the New School for Design, and has taught at many colleges and universities on the east coast, including RISD, Harvard, Yale, Tyler, MICA, University of the Arts, and many others. website:


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