Chalice,1995. Aluminum, granite, and steel, 128 x 50 x 36 in.

A Resonant Alchemy: An Interview with John Van Alstine

John Van Alstine is widely known for works that combine stone, steel, and found objects (sometimes industrial in origin and sometimes natural or manmade forms cast in bronze). The work is abstract yet allegorical, exhibiting an ongoing narrative that is carried forward by the artist’s alchemical combination of forms and materials. He began his career as a stone sculptor, emulating Brancusi, Arp, and Moore. But he soon became interested in Noguchi’s use of rough-hewn rocks and in the Postminimalist strategies of Richard Serra and Jackie Ferrara, among others. In the 1970s, he began assembling stones, taken straight from the quarry, with added wood and steel elements.

His later works continue to juxtapose stone and steel, but in the context of the inherent imagery of found objects that suggest human industry and labor as well as the history and fate of the environment and the landscape. Tether (Boys’ Toys) (1995) is a key work that includes a huge airplane fuel tank that floats at the end of a chain above a large round stone and an anchor. The assemblage suggests a vessel or a missile and brings to mind both the constructive and the destructive, the comic and the apocalyptic aspects of “boys’ toys.” Van Alstine’s formal language includes tools, vessels, voyages, and ram’s horns, always in combination with the dichotomy of stone and metal that forms the basis of his artistic vocabulary. As Nick Capasso has noted, his works “also establish places of contemplation, about humanity’s many physical, cultural, and spiritual relationships with the land and our planetary home.”

Glenn Harper: Your work seems to start with stone, even though you’ve used it most often in conjunction with metal.

John Van Alstine: Stone is central to my work, although I do most of the hands-on work with metal. My first stone works were carved, but it didn’t take long for the idea of smoothing out the stone, trying to make it into something that it wasn’t (the Arp or Brancusi influence), to give way to the ideas of Noguchi and other influences, such as Japanese gardens, where stone is accepted, even championed for what is. I grew up in upstate New York and spent a lot of time in New England. I vividly remember the rough split-granite fence posts, sidewalks, and outcroppings of granite. But like many sculptors of my generation, I was influenced by David Smith. So, ultimately the work is a confluence of different materials and approaches—the duality of an Eastern acceptance of stone and a 20th-century industrial American “can do” attitude toward metal.

GH: What led you to assemblage as a method?

JVA: I realized that I wanted to work larger, so I started using multiple stones and then introduced wood elements. I began using stone as an additive element rather than carving it in the traditional subtractive way. Some of the pieces incorporated found curbstones that were pinned together. The drilling channels in the rough stone gave the work a “quarry graphic,” adding a visual cadence, and revealed a history of how the material was extracted from the ground. Also, because of their cylindrical nature, the channels suggested a logical way to connect the stone via solid round bars that, in the early sculpture, appeared as large staples.

Then I eliminated the wood and started taking greater advantage of the structural capabilities of the materials, creating systems of interlocking steel bar to control and to hold the stone. For instance, in Boundary (1976) the granite is literally “bound” by the steel in such a way that the four stones rest on their edges with an opening underneath. To assemble the work, the stones are propped up and the formed steel rod is wrapped around them, then the blocks are kicked out, and the whole piece settles into a bound position. I felt that I was creating “realistic” sculpture because of the real energy involved. In other pieces, such as Crimp (1976) and Torque I (1976), the weight of the stone applies the energy to “crimp” or “torque” the bars together and actually provides the glue that holds the works together. I wanted the works to be a static energy event. People have referred to these as my “mousetrap” pieces, because they have that sort of energy.

GH: You make arm gestures when you describe the steel system that holds those pieces together—were you thinking figurally, as in arms holding the stone, when you made the pieces?

JVA: A little bit, yeah. I was showing the slides somewhere, and one person commented that the fitting together of the steel forms reminded him of the Elks Club handshake.

GH: The relation of your work to landscape seems to have a lot to do with human effort rather than a “pure” landscape: it’s not Frederick Church, it’s the farmer or laborer at work in the landscape.

JVA: I do respond to the idea of the farmer taking a plow and cutting lines in the field. But I’m even more interested in the tools used and in their functional and conceptual relationship to the landscape. In 1976, I moved to Laramie, Wyoming—until then I had lived in the East, where the landscape is generally obscured by vegetation. The Western landscape was stripped bare, revealing the geology and conveying vast amounts of information about its formation and history. Considering that stone was my primary material, all of this had a profound impact. There was an empowering sense of scale—the overwhelming amount of sedimentary stone, created by millions of years of layering. Sparked by Jackie Ferrara’s 1970s stacked plywood pieces and the way they were informed by the layers in that material, I started building works that incorporated stacked Colorado flagstone to echo or reiterate the nature of the material and how it came into existence. The more I worked on this series the more I realized how much a fundamental human activity stacking is; it is a common, universal form of “sculpture.” We stack to store, to move, to count, to take inventory, to build, etc. I began to notice all kinds and ways, different shapes and forms, with lumber, firewood, stone, hay, many types of architecture, etc. I started putting spacer bars in between the stacked stones, to create a visual tension and to increase the volume, and also so you could get your fingers in and out as you stack them. They aren’t just round straight bars, they make a little “u,” so that they can’t roll off (though they give the feeling that they could).

GH: Tripod with Umbilical (1982) is a work that marked a shift, a breakthrough: the steel isn’t just structural, it’s a graphic line trailing off into the air.

JVA: I had moved to Washington, DC, late in 1980, and the Tripod piece was like my flag going up to say, “I’m beginning to break away.” The “umbilical” or squiggly steel bar was a sort of lifeline back to where I had been and forward to something else.

In the Clear (1982) combined this continuing need to break away with a timely discovery of a supply of crushed I-beams, pipes, and tubes, found in a subway construction yard just outside the city. The piece incorporates a physical suggestion of vegetation and in one way it’s a landscape reference, “in a clearing,” but at the same time it’s about “breaking clear” from that self-imposed restriction of only making structurally driven work.

GH: The found objects in the more recent works are ultimately as much landscape, urban landscape, as the pieces that reflect the West.

JVA: The industrial and marine salvage landscape in Jersey City, where I moved in 1983, had a major impact on my work, both as a source of found objects, such as anchors, chain, buoys, and cleats, and as a place with unique and compelling characteristics.

The calming characteristic of marine salvage yards, which are transitional zones from the intensity of the city to the serenity of the sea, has inspired many works. Tether (Boys’ Toys) (1995), for example, uses a 1,500-pound anchor to hold aloft a large piece of animated welded chain and a wafting torpedo form. It generates a passive, almost weightless feeling of being viewed from underwater. When I was working on it, I was reminded of the magic I felt as a kid when I first saw farmers’ mailboxes along a county road floating atop welded chain. The fact that the piece simultaneously conveys a sense of “folksy” and “marine urban” attracted me. The floating cigar/missile/penis form seemed to demand that it reference “boys’ toys.”

I’ve made several works that use large ocean buoys found in these yards; in fact one is titled Buoy (1995). It’s occurred to me that the act of making art is like dropping buoys as you bob along in your “stream” of creativity, leaving floating reminders of where you’ve been.

GH: A lot of the found objects seem to have to do with working, with effort or fabrication.

JVA: Many of my works incorporate anvils, either real or cast. Anvils have a shape suggestive of a boat or vessel, which implies journey—an implication that interests me. But as a metal worker, it’s the place where I physically and conceptually forge things together. It’s almost like an altar. Also, the anvil is the quintessential heavy object, and to get it up in the air creates a wonderful sense of tension.

I use references to tillers, both in the sense of the agricultural implement and tiller as a navigational device. The idea of an instrument that aids one in carrying out decisions, to chart a course, is significant. It’s a metaphor for the very thing that distinguishes us from other beings on the planet.

GH: There are other seagoing references, especially vessels.

JVA: The ship or vessel is a common and perhaps universal metaphor for passage. Many of the found objects that I was attracted to suggest boat forms. Actually, the vessels in my work started out first as containers, influenced by my background as a potter. I put myself through graduate school working as a production potter, and playing off the idea of a functional vessel is in my vocabulary. The works in the Chalice series, for example, start with the suggestion of function, but because of their scale (6–13 feet), unusual combination of materials, and unnerving positioning of elements, they move beyond function and transform all the elements, including the open-ended aluminum aeronautical fuselage, into something akin to spirited “cups of life.”

GH: In the Chalice series, did you polish the aluminum to get the color?

JVA: Sort of. I took a belt sander and worked through the applied paint, revealing different layers of color and, in some places, sanding down to the aluminum. In a way, it’s a lot like my drawings, where I add color, building up layers of pastel and charcoal, and then go back with an eraser, digging through to reveal some of what’s underneath.

GH: How do you plan the sculptures? Do you select the materials first or match the materials to an idea?

JVA: I seldom work from a predetermined plan or drawing. I have a big reservoir of found objects: stone, steel, and other nonmetallic objects. When I travel, I try to collect interesting things that I think someday, somehow might inspire a piece. In the studio I do a lot of experimenting, like an alchemist putting stuff together until something happens. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t; you keep at it until you feel like you’ve got something. I use a fishing analogy: you work hard to get a “keeper,” sometimes you have to “throw it back.” The fun part is bringing disparate elements together and never quite knowing where it’s going to lead. Usually the piece reveals itself as it’s developing, in terms of what the title might be or ultimately what it is.

 There is a figural aspect to your work in that (except for the large public pieces) it’s at your scale, you are in the middle of it putting it together. But there are also more explicit references to the figure.

JVA: For a long time I really didn’t want to acknowledge the figure, but I came to the point where it was a conscious aspect of the work. Reconsidering Sisyphus (1992), for example, is, in a way, a self-portrait—I’m out there literally pushing stone around, aiming for this very elusive place, and once there, I start over again, with no real “end.” For the artist, the creative experience is not a goal, one never just reaches the “top” and says “I’m done.”

Some more recent pieces refer to movement of the figure, particularly the Juggler and the Pique à Terre series. Pique à terre is a term from classical French ballet for a pose with one toe touching the ground, the other foot firmly planted, and a sweeping arm gesture. Once you are aware of the title, when you see the piece the connection is clear. I am in a sense choreographing these works, getting a heavy weight off the ground and making it dance—taking what is often seen as a negative, the fact that stone is damn heavy and a big hassle to move around, and turning it into a positive.

GH: For the large public pieces, there is also a found-object quality in the stone. Are you actually cutting a piece to match a maquette?

JVA: Landing large commissions can be really tough for me. I present a scale model, but there is no way that I want to go out and try to chip a large stone into that exact shape. It would never have the sense of spontaneity or freshness that I feel my work demands. So I’m always making qualifications, saying, “This is the spirit of the work, and we will find a stone that will convey those same movements and characteristics, but it’s not going to be exactly the same—hopefully it will be better!” The trick is to get the client or committee to trust you and feel comfortable with this way of working; sometimes that’s hard.

GH: Your public works have their own distinct imagery, they don’t just use the smaller works as a template. How did that develop?

JVA: I had a chance to spend time in England and visited many standing stone sites. It got me thinking much larger, thinking about placing stones in a way that would track larger landscape forms or the movement of the earth and ultimately create works with a more meaningful connection to their site or setting. Trough (1982), my first large-scale public piece, in Billings, Montana, consists of two large slabs of granite held in perpetual suspension by two interlocking linear steel elements. In addition to being the climax of my early “tension” pieces in terms of scale and raw power, the physically charged negative space created between these very large “arrested” stones was designed to echo the main geological formation in the area, an impressive trough cut through the high plains by the Yellowstone River.

Other public art pieces were influenced in part by sites out West, like the Anasazi sun dagger, as well as Meso-American pyramids and observatories. Solstice Calendar (1986), built for Austin College in Sherman, Texas, has two large, 22-foot-high columns of stone connected near the top with a four-inch diameter stainless steel rod. The work is aligned north/south so that on the summer solstice, light from the noon sun (which is then at its highest) passes through the columns and creates a shadow which aligns with the solstice bar on a third, low horizontal stone element. Each day that follows, the noon sun is a bit lower, creating a shadow a little further down the horizontal stone. It reaches the equinox marker on or around March 20, continuing until it arrives at the winter solstice bar, where it reverses course and returns to complete the cycle. I was working in Jersey City at the time, and my studio happened to have one western window, the only window, and when the sun would set every day I would get a beam of light that would slowly work its way around the room until the solstice and then come back.

GH: Recently, you’ve included animal horns and other organic forms. What led you to natural forms?

JVA: The introduction of organic forms, animal horns, and other nautilus-like shapes is really a spin-off from the arc that I’ve used a lot, a pure geometric shape that is an ideal link between disparate materials. I’ve been looking for ways to expand that idea. Currently I live in the Adirondack Mountains where hunting is a big part of the history and culture. You see a lot of mounted trophy heads—taxidermy is big; in a way, it’s a local form of sculpture. I find many of the horns very exciting from a purely formal perspective. Plus, they add all kinds of interesting symbolism and associations. Once they’re cast in bronze, you can weld them and use them as you would any metal element.

GH: Your use of color has changed from the stone and steel works to pieces with applied color to the combination of bronze and stone.

JVA: The stone in the early stacked pieces is Colorado flagstone; it’s a kind of neutral “pukey” pink in color. You’d stack it on the truck, and it would scrape and take its own marks of use, creating an interesting patina and revealing its history. Because the stones were all flat and rectilinear, the marks began to appear like writing on a tablet, in a way describing what they were and where they had been. That weird color was wonderful, because I wanted the viewer to focus on the stone’s volume, its weight, its history, its geological layering, not on how pretty it was. I’ve always been put off by stones that seem too “pretty” or polished and look like plastic. They attract attention for the wrong reason and seem too sweet. They hurt my “aesthetic” teeth.

In some later pieces, I added color to the stone, thinning enamel and letting it soak in. This was influenced partly by living in the West, where I came across stones that seemed unreal because of their crazy shades of gold or yellow. By slightly tinting the stones in the sculpture, I was able to tap into a similar sense of mystery, getting to the point where most people didn’t know if the color was real or altered.

GH: How does that sense of color relate to the more recent pieces with additive color?

JVA: The addition of color on pieces such as Drastic Measures (1984–87) or Luna (1985), and others done around the same time, came as a spin-off of my work with pastel drawings. At that time, I was using mostly gray granite and steel, which can be very monochromatic, and I got to a point where I felt I needed more color excitement. The early painted works were more like stoneware glazes—muted, very earthy, very low-key colors, influenced by my work as a potter.

GH: In some of the more recent pieces, like Column II (1999), there is a lot of color.

JVA: Yes, I guess that’s my recent reaction to late winter in the Adirondacks; it seems mostly gray up there then. I started experimenting with color again, with very flat enamels, first applying different and distinct color on each of the geometric elements of a work, and staining the stone. By the end of that series (there were five columns), I began blending the colors, rubbing through them with solvents to reveal some of the layers underneath. To mute things a bit I added dark sprays, working the surface like my drawings. I guess working through the cycle I ended up near, but not quite, where I started. This happens a lot with my work, it’s one way it grows. I push out in a new direction, reaching a point of being uncomfortable and then cycle back, hopefully not to the exact spot, stay there for a while, then launch out again.

GH: When did you start working in bronze?

JVA: Somewhere around 1988 or 1989. There were a couple of reasons: maintenance of outdoor works, and I wanted to reuse some of the particularly interesting found objects in several different pieces. I work with a foundry in Brooklyn that does sand casting, and that is great for me, because 99 percent of my pieces are unique. The fact that I am not usually interested in editions makes sand casting efficient and reasonably economical. I take parts that need to be cast to the foundry and retrieve their bronze counterparts just the way they come out of the sand. I like the rips, tears, and textures that occur during the casting process. I approach them like new found objects, accepting and incorporating their new information into the piece. Once back in my studio, the bronze is fit with the stone, and I do whatever welding or pinning that is needed, then the patina is applied. Casting both expands what I can do with the objects and introduces fresh important new information to the mix.

GH: Your work has a suggestive rather than a linear relationship with the mythologies and the histories and landscapes that you refer to. Do you think that comes from the additive way that you work?

JVA: I think so. As I’m putting objects together I try to be very mindful of their individual associations, their past histories, and ultimately what they will communicate when combined. Sometimes when working, a mythological reference or interesting notion about the landscape will suggest itself which provides a vehicle for comment or communication. I guess the trick is to be open to those suggestions when they arise. Like most artists, I’m looking for common truths or conditions that not only speak to me but make sense and connect to a broader audience.

GH: All your work, not just the large public art, has an epic quality—suggesting the sweep of human history, a larger language or scope. Is that an outgrowth of a conscious choice to look in the long view, the large scale?

JVA: Yes, in my mind, significant sculpture or art strives to reveal universals, rather than being navel-oriented. I’m interested in making statements or raising questions that generate discussions on broad, universal topics, uncovering truths that resonate and echo.

This interview is adapted from a longer discussion that appears in Bones of the Earth, Spirit of the Land: The Sculpture of John Van Alstine, published this year by Editions ARIEL, an imprint of Grayson Publishing, Suite 505, 1700 17th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20009; 202-387-8500. Price: $24.95.