I started using tin foil because it was there. I had a roll of it in my “workshop,” which might also be called the heater room, or the passage to the mail slot, or under the front stairs.
One summer a few years ago, I went to an art camp in the mountains above Palm Springs . At night, I wandered around the still-life studio making stuff from stuff I found. When I got home, I found some sandpaper, which, in its standard 11 x 9 format, seemed suitable to use to make “drawings.”
Along the way, without noticing that I was using it, I also made a drawing that included a small slab of slightly rumpled tin foil. From it, I hung a slightly soiled, rumpled cleaning rag. It was the first piece I ever made that I thought expressed how I felt at that moment: depressed.
About five years later, I was again looking around for something to make stuff with, and all I could find was a roll of tin foil. I should probably call it “aluminum foil,” but tin foil is the term I grew up with; for example, I still think of the refrigerator as the ice box, even though I think my family always had an electric one.
My first foil piece was just a few feet of it, crumpled up. It seemed like an interesting jumble.
The complications reminded me of the crushed auto parts of John Chamberlain, who, Wikipedia just told me, began playing with aluminum foil in the late sixties.
Jeff Hopkins, teaching last year at CCNY, “gave each student a roll of aluminum foil and a randomly assigned word with simple instructions: create a foil sculpture to represent the word. Words included Strength, Family, Power, and Conflict.” He also took his class to Chamberlain’s show at the Guggenheim, where they noticed that the artist had “worked in foil as means of figuring out ideas for larger sculptures.”
Last summer, four of Chamberlain’s huge, colored, twisted foil knots were deployed on the terrace of the Seagram Building.
Emily Nathan, visiting Chamberlain’s studio on Shelter Island in 2011, noticed “aluminum maquettes—crinkled twists of colored foil that had never left his studio until 2006, when some of them were used as models for large-scale sculptures.”
The Gagosian press release on the Seagram show: “Up to fifteen feet in height, the works on view are constructed from silver, green, or copper-colored industrial aluminum, which has been looped and flexed into whimsical, biomorphic forms. From the mid–1970s, Chamberlain began fashioning miniature sculptures from household aluminum foil. In 2007, he began successfully transposing these miniatures into durable materials on a grand scale, but without sacrificing any of the lightness, directness, and spontaneity of the initial foils. Although he used materials other than his signature ‘art supply’ of discarded metal car parts, these sculptures consistently reflect his lifelong concern with what he described as ‘fit.’ The intricately tangled and woven parts ultimately resolve themselves in balanced, cohesive structures.”
My first point of reference, however, was not Chamberlain, but Richard Serra. I had interviewed him for Newsweek in the spring of 1968, when he was exploring the many ways you could take action on materials—fold, cut, bend….
He had already found the big steel plates that are used to cover street-work holes, but he had not yet done much with them, except lean them against each other.
My impulse was that foil would allow me to act antipodally to Serra. My pieces would be fragile, thin, and light; ephemeral; complexly inflected; personal, (shaped by my own fingers); quick & easy; indoor; shiny, cheap….
(One thing I like about foil is its contradictory nature: it looks precious, but it’s cheap; it looks substantial, but it’s flimsy; it looks perfect, in its originally smooth, tight coils, but it becomes a mess of bends and bumps and wrinkles.)
One early piece of Serra’s I admired was the lead-splatter (Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift, 1969) commissioned by Jasper Johns, now owned by SFMOMA: into the angle formed by wall and floor, Serra splattered molten lead, literally throwing it from a ladle; after filling up that angle—and after the material had cooled—he pulled it from the wall, and threw a new splatter, pulled it out, and so on.
I laid foil into an angle between wall and floor and pressed it to conform.
I also tried to get foil to stand on edge, the way Serra deploys Cor-Ten steel to tilt in fabulous arcs. Of course, my foil would not stand up…unless it was twisted and wrinkled a bit.
But if it was twisted, it would also pile up…into mountains.
So my next point of reference was the “scholar’s rock,” the mini-mountain so prized by the Chinese, in particular.
There is a modern version of one, Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rock (2005), on the north terrace of the de Young Museum’s sculpture garden: it is a big rock that that been coated in “silver.”
My tangles of foil, it turned out, shared certain basic principles with scholars’ rocks:
A subliminal influence, perhaps, was Warhol: The walls and lally columns of Warhol’s dismal, industrial loft became the Factory after being silvered (with foil and paint) by Billy Name, whose silvered apartment Warhol had admired.
Silver, Warhol thought, was the future (astronauts) and the past (the silver screen), and narcissism. (I hung out there for a few days, while writing about Warhol’s films in The Nation in January 1965.)
They also caught the light in interesting ways. They seemed to be substantial and complicated. Some arrangements worked, some didn’t.
Other points of reference: Richard Tuttle’s early throw-aways—dyed but unstretched canvas, tacked to the wall; James Lee Byars’s paper man rolled out in the street in front of MoMA; Alan Saret’s clumps of barbed wire; Carl Andre’s copper/steel-tile rugs….
And, ultimately, Pollock: he rejected the disjunct brushstroke for the continuous pour, which he could weave into an infinite skein; my roll of foil is less than infinite, but it is continuous; it ravels, circumvents, conforms, omits…
Pollock’s web, at its best, grasped lots of air; at its worst, it congealed and clotted. My twists and turns, at best, add up into a complication of surface; at worst, they’re just a jumble.
One of my first self-imposed strictures was to use an entire roll of foil for a given piece. Fortunately, foil is conveniently sold in rolls of 25, 50, and 75 square feet.
I am eager to try a heavy duty, 18-inch-wide, 1,000-square-foot off-brand roll you can get on Amazon for $55.42.
And, of course, colored foil as well.
Besides jumbles, I tried form-fitting, pressing the foil around an object. I made what I thought of as a death mask of myself. It looked so sad, I tried another with a big grin and came up with a pair that looked like “tragedy & comedy.”
I also tried a self-torso, which has an embarrassingly large paunch.
And a clenched fist. And a peace sign. And a middle finger.
I consider Rodin the godfather of the tactile surfaces of these pieces.
And, in terms of molding on the body, George Segal, who sometimes used foil as an armature, and sometimes used it to protect his model from the plaster. At least once, he lined a shelf with blue metallic foil.
Also, Bruce Nauman, who pressed parts of his body into various media and whose 1966 Collection of Various Flexible Materials Separated by Layers of Grease with Holes the Size of My Waist and Wrists, used (a sheet of) aluminum foil, plastic sheet, foam rubber, felt, and grease.
(I feel closer to the glitziness of Jeff Koons than I’d like to. Rudolf Stingel’s foil walls, on which viewers can “write” and attach things, seems a little too easy: http://bit.ly/150Hei0)
These references—or influences—actually come late into the process. I begin with a manipulation, with the foil itself. Then I check to see if “art history” might confirm the direction I’ve found, might suggest that my form is viable.
I’ve done one pop-up exhibition so far, in James Turrell’s skyspace in the de Young’ Museum’s sculpture garden: One morning, I simply built a scholar’s rock on the floor of Turrell’s empty stupa. I don’t know how long it lasted—it was gone when I checked by at 5 p.m., but that morning at least one group of viewers, sixth graders from Sacramento on a field trip, thought it was cool.