HOUSTON — Donald Judd, as a student of art history and philosophy at Columbia University, did not call himself a sculptor. He liked to say he was a maker of specific objects. An innovator and inadvertent trendsetter, he used prefabricated materials to produce box-like forms constructed by others, giving rise to what has become commonplace: outsourcing. Richard Serra’s signature materials are lead and Cor-Ten steel; he is known for exploiting the latter’s behavior properties to impose his architectural sculptures in a landscape. Carl Andre has said he wanted his pared-down work “close to zero.”
Judd admired Lee Bontecou, who worked without assistants. In 1965, he wrote that Bontecou’s art, neither painting nor sculpture, “asserts its own existence, form and power. It becomes an object in its own right.” Is that sculpture’s objective? And what might that mean? With what art historical reference points might a contemporary sculptor engage? Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, Julio González, Louise Bourgeois, or David Hammons; the handmade, fabricated, or found? These divisions seem too neat, too designed for a textbook, especially as all of these artists made signature works. Is a signature style a necessary hallmark of sculpture and the “specific object,” or has it become a limitation? What are the other terms besides “specific objects” that should be considered?
My recent studio visit with Jillian Conrad prompted these questions. Sculptors from Jeff Koons to Nari Ward to Sarah Sze can be seen as entangled with a particular lineage, even a hybrid one. This sense of an art historical connection is not so apparent with Conrad’s divergent bodies of work and one-off pieces, her integration of things she’s made with detritus and things found in nature. Contrary to many of her contemporaries, she has created a number of one-off pieces, such as “a stick or a sleep” (2020) and “Rootball” (2022), whose power would become diluted if more than one work in this vein existed.
Also contrary to many contemporary sculptors — who seem to be afflicted with what I call the “Marfa Syndrome,” a desire for permanence — is Conrad’s approach to the tension between material form and time passing. Philosophically speaking, she is more aligned with Heraclitus, who believed that everything is constantly changing, than with Plato, who believed in the existence of ideal forms. What does it mean to reject the celebrated models of timelessness we encounter in museums and remotes places — such as the island of Videy in Iceland, where Serra erected “Áfangar” (Standing Stones, 1990), a site-specific installation of nine pairs of basalt columns reaching up to 13 feet tall that will outlast us all? What does it mean to subvert this aesthetic representation of “empire thinking”?
In works like Serra’s, nature is not part of the equation, except as a place to occupy and even subjugate. Many familiar aesthetic guideposts seemed largely irrelevant when I began thinking about Conrad’s work, which was both unsettling and reassuring — a real and rare pleasure. It made me realize that I was looking at things that were unlike other specific objects in the expanded field of sculpture.
What comes after specific objects? One needs to think about Judd’s original use of the term “object” since it seems to be about outsourcing and using manufactured products. Instead of objects, what about “things”? Jillian Conrad is a maker of specific things that underscore in expansive ways the particulars of their identity.
Conrad’s specific thing “a stick or a sleep” is ostensibly a 21-foot-long sculpture composed of branches of pomegranate wood, hackberry, crepe myrtle, and oak, joined to form a single linear form, which is suspended from the ceiling by brass rings attached to nylon. She has applied different pigments, including blue and yellow, in a few discrete areas.
I first saw an image of “a stick or a sleep” on the internet shortly after Conrad and I met, and we began corresponding about the Museum of Mummies in Guanajuato, Mexico; the Paracelsian occultist Robert Fludd; the relationship between art and magic (Conrad has taught classes on it at the University of Houston); An Inventory of Losses and other writings by Judith Schalansky; César Aira’s novels; Robert Creeley’s poetry; and Thomas Nozkowski’s art. More importantly, I was perplexed by what I saw, which made me keep looking.
All of our exchanges related to Conrad’s artwork, but I can’t say how exactly, particularly since I don’t want to be reductive or literal. I know that she studied philosophy, the history of math, and Ancient Greek at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and she originally wanted to be an architect. After college, she researched the architecture of intentional communities around the world, traveling widely. In her mid-20s, she edited Eco-Villages & Sustainable Communities: Models for 21st Century Living (1996), published by the Findhorn Foundation, which, according to its website, is a “Community […] guided by three simple practices: Inner Listening, Co-creation with the intelligence of nature, and Work as love in action.” When she was around 30 she entered graduate school to pursue her MFA.
A disturbance is embedded in the experience of seeing “a stick or a sleep.” The tree branch that Conrad has suspended cannot possibly be 21 feet long. A branch of that length and circumference could not support its own weight. Only by walking around the work are its subtly different and distinct sections apparent. From a distance it looks like a single branch that somehow grew to be more than 20 feet.
At some point, Conrad asked me: “Did you know that the term ‘tree branch’ refers to the living part of a tree, while ‘stick’ refers to a branch that has dropped to the ground?” What does it mean to take fallen branches from different kinds of trees, join them together, and suspend the result in the air? By using joinery to connect the sections, she draws a line in space. Suspended in the air, its shadow becomes another line.
Paul Klee famously said, “A drawing is simply a line going for a walk.” One might also think of a drawing as the record of a fluid line moving across a flat surface. From a distance, a group of Conrad’s works on paper look like drawings made with incredibly straight lines, but that is not the case. Begun in 2014, and now consisting of four series (three of which are ongoing), she uses pencil lead, glue, and paper to construct what appears to be a drawing, but is technically a very shallow sculptural relief.
Richard Serra said, “Drawing is a verb.” In his “Verb List” (1967), he began with these directives: “to roll, to crease, to fold, to store […].” I was reminded of Serra’s list when Conrad wrote to me about the pencil lead drawings:
Building erecting constructing. These are verbs I’m thinking through all the time in my sculptures and works on paper. […] I think of these pencil lead pieces as very thin sculptures, barely yet resolutely dimensional.
Serra folded, creased, crumpled, and twisted sheets of lead. It is a pliable material. Conrad does something different: she accepts the rigidity of the pencil lead and uses it to make “very thin sculptures.” The inspirations come from a wide range of sources, beginning with her interest in architecture. In the series Sites and Settlements (2014-16), are we looking at an aerial view of an archaeological site or a portion of an architectural facade? Isn’t Conrad’s work ecologically minded in the sense that she is working with the given, rather than trying to manipulate it into something monumental and permanent? What does she attain in the dance she initiates between the strict linearity of the pencil leads and the forms and textures of the drawing?
As Conrad wrote to me, the works in her series Diamonds (2019-ongoing) “were inspired by mountains and roads on the Navajo reservation near Farmington, New Mexico, where I was born. They also remind me of Navajo sand paintings I grew up with.” Again, Conrad is disengaging from permanence and the imposition of one’s will, as taken up by sculptors from Michelangelo to Serra, and all that this history implies.
Made of a rootball, brass rods, string, putty, and bread, “Rootball” (2022) seems to directly announce that disengagement. Conrad did not buy or fabricate the rootball; she found it and added the brass rods, putty, and bread, which changed the context, but not the thing itself.
In her work, chance and choice coexist. Is the rootball a pedestal and the rods that branch out of it the sculpture? If so, why is the piece lying on its side? The configuration of rods reminds me of an old television antenna. The putty visible at the joints underscores the presence of the artist’s hand. Is “Rootball” a receiver translating what it picks up from the cosmos? Is its resistance to familiar categories part of its meaning? With this one-off piece, it seems to me that Conrad is trying to expand our understanding of sculpture.