Just about everything Bruce Beasley has sculpted over the last 60 years circles around one fundamental question: How can an unmoving object—made of enduring materials such as cast iron, aluminum, bronze, stainless steel, granite, acrylic polymer resin, and maple—seem to be in the shape it takes only momentarily, either having recently come to rest in its current position or standing poised on the cusp of a sudden next movement upwards, downwards, sideways, or in more than one direction all at once? Beasley’s search for this unique experience—within the inanimate materials he shapes, as well as within viewers—was recently on display in his major retrospective of indoor and public-scaled works at Grounds For Sculpture in New Jersey. To see his works across media and dimensions, from the 1960s to the “Aurai”series made with VR technology in response to the pandemic, is to understand Beasley’s mastery of that charged moment in which we experience the present as a slice of time, motion, and gesture in the process of becoming.
In all of Beasley’s work, there is a sense of physical and expressive resistance, restraint, and freedom. While his sculptures eschew direct politics and narrative, the artist himself has lived a life engaged in advocacy and the political matters of his West Oakland community. With democracy under assault, and the idea of freedom bandied about as if it were nothing more than an excuse to oppress others, it’s vital to recognize and indeed experience all forms of nuanced resistance and release, even those that do not wear a story or their politics on their sleeves. Beasley’s sculptures since the 1960s are just such forms of metaphoric resistance: their visual accessibility and their implied sense of an event about to unfold elicit interactions that are empowering, enlightening, and animated by insights that heighten our awareness of our surroundings while also connecting viewers from all walks of life to something bigger and more moving than any one of us—freedom that comes with responsibilities, with the logic and poetry of restraint.
The tension between stillness and motion, between resistance and release, that Beasley discovers in incipient form is present from his earliest works. These were made from segments and shards of cast-iron pipes and plumbing that he found in an Oakland scrap yard and welded together to form pedestal-scale compositions, whose reconfigured wholeness crackles against the fractured physicality of their individual components. The smooth, curved surfaces of each piece of cracked conduit are interrupted by sharp, jagged natural breaks to create numerous nooks and crannies, all of which allows Beasley to orchestrate complex, ongoing interactions between light and shadow, iron and air, substance and silhouette. The drama of such works is participatory, multiplying and intensifying as the viewer moves around the forms. Shifting perceptions mirror the dynamism of Beasley’s compositional decisions. Shapes and voids seem to have forged an uneasy alliance—a fleeting agreement between and among discarded accidents of form, which look as if they might change their mind, potentially arrange themselves in another configuration, splinter into disparate factions, or fall back into the random pile of scrap metal from whence they came.
Although Beasley’s found-object sculptures share their piecemeal compositional structure with California Assemblage, they reject the narrative impulse that drives the most well-known works of that movement, by such artists as Edward Kienholz, Bruce Conner, and Wallace Berman. Instead, Beasley’s early works throw their lot in with the evocative power of Modernist abstraction, preferring, like many works by Jay DeFeo, Ed Bereal, Melvin Edwards, and Noah Purifoy, to forgo storytelling in favor of less literary—and more mysterious—ways of making meaning.
The suggestion of impending movement gets focused and intensified in the cast aluminum, bronze, iron, and sterling silver pieces that Beasley made from roughly the early to the late 1960s. Works from this series seem balanced more precariously than earlier sculptures—often on a single point—and reach further out into space, their spindly extensions drawing the eye along craggy silhouettes while eliciting, in the mind, images of mandibles and machine parts, exoskeletons and antennae, sci-fi creatures and fossils, real and otherwise. These associations are always open-ended, revealing more about the mindsets, experiences, and inklings of individual viewers than anything intrinsic to the sculptures. And no matter how clever, imaginative, or brilliantly inventive your description of any of these pieces may be (“Look, it’s Icarus, having just bicycle-kicked the winning goal”), you never feel as if your verbal interpretation does anything more than capture a small fraction of the mysteriousness embodied by these cast-metal works.
Most important, each of these works looks as if it’s a three-dimensional rendition of a still from a stop-action animation, its “character” or “protagonist” momentarily suspended between a “before” and an “after”—positions we see in the mind’s eye because of how the “limbs” and “appendages” of the abstract sculptures are composed. To make these works, Beasley broke apart bits and pieces of Styrofoam packing material, then pinned or glued them together into the compositions he wanted, fastening and re-fastening parts until a composite shape struck him as “right.” This “lost-Styrofoam” process gave him more room to maneuver; the lightness of the material allows for greater movement through space, letting the sculptures defy gravity more effectively and suggestively. Rather than inviting us to anthropomorphize everything around us, these works get us to extend our sympathies to what we usually think of as inanimate stuff.
Imagine what it’s like to identify with a rock or an outcropping, a waterfall or a broken piece of machinery, a prosthetic joint or a piece of armor, a three-dimensional bit of calligraphy or a whirling dervish of a dancing glyph. That gives an idea of how Beasley’s works make otherness—the newly encountered, attractive and stimulating—not a quality to be shunned or disparaged, but, on the contrary, the whole point of art. Via the manner in which his work invites participatory, physical experiences in those who engage with it, in Beasley’s hands, part of art’s cultural job is to expand, extend, and transform perception, to link intimacy and inclusiveness in ways not often imagined—much less realized.
The sweeping, even explosive, upward and outward movement of the medium-size cast pieces gets pulled inward, as if centripetally, in Beasley’s subsequent 1970s series of translucent acrylic polymer resin sculptures. These glistening, crystal-clear forms range in size from two or three feet on a side; the largest work, Apolymon, is nine by 15 by six feet and permanently installed in the California State Capitol. These acrylic works required Beasley to invent a process and the customized machinery to cast large acrylic shapes without bubbles, cloudiness, or other imperfections, a feat that even DuPont scientists had been unable to figure out. Beasley not only succeeded, his process has been applied to make the enormous tanks in public aquariums all over the globe, as well as the deep-sea submersibles called bathyspheres used by scientists and NASA to explore the deepest reaches of the sea.
Whatever practical benefits coincidentally came out of this discovery, Beasley’s acrylic sculptures were driven by his desire to explore transparency aesthetically, to make a three-dimensional form that holds and allows us to witness light as shape and to see through it—to behold, simultaneously, the object’s frontal surfaces, interior spaces, rear surfaces, and whatever might be behind it: sky, foliage, architecture, or other people. In a sense, Beasley’s cast acrylic pieces did for sculpture what Claude Monet’s mural-scale depictions of water lilies did for painting. The shape-shifting multiplicity of perspectives made physical by Monet’s paintings takes three-dimensional form in Beasley’s acrylic works. They dissolve the animated, often acrobatic motions of his early welded works into more unified, less aggressive, less angularly extreme forms. It is as if the taut, barely contained energy stored in the part-by-part sculptures has been melted into softer geometries, with rounded edges and gentle curves replacing the jutting extensions and gravity-defying components of his lost-Styrofoam pieces.
Many of Beasley’s acrylic sculptures put me in mind of miniature glaciers, made from unimaginably pure water or a mysterious gas from another planet, one that freezes into a solid without first turning into a liquid. The overall effect is of exceptionally fluid movement distilled and intensified, concentrated in a split second that lets viewers glimpse its current state while simultaneously intuiting (both visually and cognitively) that any moment of perception is fleeting—gone in an instant as the ambient light shifts or one moves around the sculpture.
Never a single-issue, single-medium, or single-style artist, Beasley has also worked in aluminum, steel, stainless steel, and maple. From 1974 to 1986, his non-acrylic works consisted of numerous polygons, both regular and irregular, intersecting subtly at nuanced edges. These faceted (Vanguard, 1980, Stanford University) and cubic works (Foray II, 1994, Hood Museum, Dartmouth College) situated in collections all over the world are stable and stolid, but never static; they are composed, yet open-ended. The capacity to imbue large, angled or arched, often public-sized sculptures with the sense of in-process re-arrangeability is no mean feat. And it goes to the heart of Beasley’s art: the conviction that his works are not testaments to his genius or authority or the result of some preconceived vision, but, on the contrary, simply clusters of shape that surprised and delighted him in the studio—discoveries that he stumbled upon as he investigated and experimented with bits and pieces of cast iron, scraps of Styrofoam, or careful triangles, rectangles, pentagons, and other polygons conceived in digital space and executed in metals from bronze to aluminum to stainless steel. The variously angled planes of these pieces recall origami, but rather than charming us because they suggest geometric versions of recognizable animals, Beasley’s abstract forms fascinate us because we cannot say what they are even though they speak expressively to us.
In the late 1980s, Beasley began to feel that his modular approach to making sculptures had run its course. As his facility had increased, the sense of delighted surprise arose with less and less frequency. So, he turned away from arranging planar components in open structures and began working with polyhedrons: volumetric forms that are, in a sense, three-dimensional versions of the polygons that had been his working vocabulary. The shift required more complex modeling. Rather than stacking the polyhedrons atop and alongside one another, like a kid playing with building blocks, he wanted to make works in which the individual components intersected with one another, merging their forms into a naturally interpenetrating geological, rather than architectural, structure. To play with and alter this type of work would have required Beasley to make dozens, if not scores of maquettes for each potential sculpture, each consisting of carefully cut cardboard components intersecting at different angles and merging to different degrees. When his innumerable experiments with actual models could not keep pace with the speed of his imagination, he once again turned to the most advanced technology available and began composing his works on computers with 3D CAD programming.
The imaging software allowed him to study hundreds, if not thousands, of variations—to see how seemingly minuscule changes in angles and points of connection affected the whole. The technology also allowed him to undo ideas that hit a dead end, to move back in time and save, reuse, and/or reconfigure exciting fragments and accidents in ways not possible with cut cardboard. The large works from 1987 to 2004, made in Cor-ten steel, bronze, and granite, combine the ad-hoc, improvisatory quality of Beasley’s early welded works with the abstract, even alien elegance of his modular constructions to form fascinating geometric wholes greater than the sum of their parts.
Over the last 17 years, Beasley has continued to work outside his comfort zone, seeking surprises in the studio so that he might pass along that thrill of discovery to viewers. When he had mined hard edges and began to consider the concept of movement in earnest, Beasley again used CAD technology to design sculptures composed of large intersecting disks. Pneumonic and rounded, these elegant shapes—thicker at their centers than at the edges—look like the bodies of classic, cartoon spaceships; each one could be the love child of a disk and a sphere. The flatness of the former melds with the curve of the latter to create convex forms that Beasley then commingles to draw the eye into interwoven orbits. Collectively titled Disc Cantatas, some float on bodies of water, while others are earth-bound; one such sculpture was selected to represent the U.S. and featured at the entrance to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Beasley felt that however organic these disks were, they did not adequately capture motion. His subsequent “Rondo” sculptures are made of large stainless-steel rings of various circumferences. The least volumetric of his works, these ingeniously simple, interconnected circles of metal—and the negative spaces of open air they frame—enliven surrounding space. Although you know that each sculpture consists of a collection of singular, discrete rings artfully arranged and welded, the eye links those rings into one serpentine, loop-de-loop roller-coaster ride—you can’t help but feel that it’s continuous, despite knowing that it’s not. The shifting velocities and multidirectional movements generated by Beasley’s disks and rings do what his sculptures have always done: make a discrete moment fuller and richer, more stimulating and tension riddled than it would be if his works weren’t a part of it.
When Beasley was getting started as a sculptor, he dreamed of two things, both of which he thought were impossible—making sculpture in a gravity-free space and making it gestural, like a painted, spontaneous stroke but in obdurate materials. Those dreams have come true in his most recent works. This investigation began with the “Coriolis” series, pedestal-scale forms that Beasley created by using computer modeling to generate spinning, twisting knots that fascinated him. These were then extruded through one of the earliest, largest 3D printers, which Beasley helped to design. The forms were finally scaled up and cast in bronze and stainless steel for the “Torqueri” sculptures, life- to-public-size tendrils whose polygonal “trails” articulate form so sinuous and graceful that they seem to be animated and able to propel themselves howsoever they choose. Since 2018, Beasley has taken these two series one step further. Working in the space of virtual reality, with Pangolin Editions in England, he is living his student dream. Wearing VR head gear, Beasley makes roomfuls of spontaneous gestural shapes. A computer captures his hand gestures, and the best of these are saved, combined, and altered by Beasley, run through advanced 3D-printing programs, and then sent to foundries, which bring them into lived, haptic space as the most recent “Aurai” collages-on-canvas and “Aeolis” sculptures. Here, Beasley lets us experience wonders at once physical and out of this world.