Number 235T, 2023. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: © Leonardo Drew, Courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

Controlled Explosions: A Conversation with Leonardo Drew

Leonardo Drew’s massive wall-bound tableaux, objects, and installations engage the cyclical nature of existence. Made to resemble the detritus of everyday life, his abstract, emotionally charged compositions possess a metaphorical weight, transcending time and place to approach the infinite through the discarded and finite. Ranging from the intense drama of heavy, encrusted ruins to the ethereal language of paper casts, Drew’s labor-intensive practice can be described as a journey toward enlightenment, full of reprises and returns as well as new beginnings.

He has likened Number 235T, his new commission for the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, to a universe made up of “planetary” elements surrounded by smaller objects that, together, create an interconnected corridor of curiosity. Another new installation, Number 360, on view at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, explodes his negotiations with the ideological and aesthetic parameters of the grid through a controlled storm of destruction and creation. Drew has been choreographing such numbered catastrophes for some time now, challenging our understanding of a safe and stable world, placing us within a cosmic cycle of decay and regeneration. To confront this work, installed in YSP’s Chapel, is to feel a sudden unease at the wreckage, apparent evidence of something gone horribly wrong, followed by a sense of wonder. 

Number 360, 2023. Wood, paint, and sand, installation view. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, Courtesy the artist, Goodman Gallery, and Galerie Lelong & Co.

Rajesh Punj: Your new sculpture for the Chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park alters everything about the formalities of the space. 
Leonardo Drew: It’s so over the top. On my initial visit, I didn’t realize that I was going to be hijacked into an exhibition, especially because outdoor sculpture wasn’t something I did until fairly recently. YSP ended up introducing the Chapel as a possibility. It was an incredible surprise. The sculpture park is full of heavyweights—all of the artists that I admire are there; I think at the time there was an Ai Weiwei work outside. They have such a fantastic program, and you don’t say no to that. So, I understood the gravitas of the place and the park, and from there it became a love affair. 

The Chapel is a sacred space. When I took on the Madison Square Park project a few years ago, the Flatiron and Empire State Buildings framed my proposal and fine-tuned the work. Seeing the Chapel after Madison Square Park made me aware that you need to consider these things. The chapel space is something that you approach with reverence, but you also need to rise to the occasion, spiritually and holistically. A sculpture in the center of the space gave me some idea of what to do and what not to do. 

The monster that I created has been through a number of iterations. It started out in New York back in 2019. The explosion was originally influenced by my explorations in China, where I was working on the site of a foundry for many years with artist students, which was incredible. China is the Wild West, and the kind of work that I ended up creating there reflected the trade-off I had with the artisans. There was an explosion of color all of a sudden. Working in wood now, glazed porcelain had such a presence. It was a really interesting moment for me, because the Chinese craftsmen were intent on making gigantic vases, and I started out smashing everything that I was working on. They would assume that it was all for the garbage and would try to throw things out; and I would say, “No, no, this isn’t for the trash, I am creating material.” When I finally finished one of the pieces, they were trying to figure out exactly what I was doing, which was difficult to explain. The works were totally abstract, and I could see they had to arrive at a way of understanding this, but it didn’t take them long. 

So, there were many iterations of the very same piece: at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, in New Haven, Connecticut, and last year in Basel, Switzerland, where it took over. You wouldn’t know it is all the same piece, but it is, and there are many parts to the different iterations. Each presentation is completely different, and each time, I’m thinking about upping it a notch in terms of what can occur with the elements that I have available and the lack of color. The work in the chapel is the most recent version.

Number 360, 2023. Wood, paint, and sand, installation view. Photo: © Jonty Wilde, Courtesy the artist, Goodman Gallery, and Galerie Lelong & Co.

RP: I am interested in the kind of decision-making required for a work like this. Can you explain the process of manipulating the elements while managing the space?
LD: I’m sure I scared the hell out of Clare Lilley, who was just taking over at the time from the previous director. You have to try to follow how I think and go about things, and at the same time, you have to comprehend my understanding of how to realize things—and you can’t teach that. I think they were all scratching their heads when I described how I wanted to do something, and how I thought it could be realized. I remember that our initial concepts involved stick figures to introduce scale to the work. I would say, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine,” and “This is what we’re going to need to do; it’s an engineering feat, but we can do it.” I’ve been making sculptures all my life, but it’s hard to teach non-artists about realizing a work based on its surroundings. 

It becomes a poetic exercise, a way of creating in space, and of sculpting by realizing the magnitude in front of you, sensing what the space is telling you, and then coming up with something that speaks to the space, while being respectful of the gravitas of the situation. Then you add all of those things up, and you come away with the explosion in the center of the space. It seems to be in total opposition to the spiritual realization of the space, and because of its history, it requires a balancing act. I have to have the elements meet—the negatives and the positives, the infinite and the infinitesimal—for all these things to become possible on a greater scale, and once you understand that you are able to balance opposing ideas, then there is so much that happens. 

RP: You initially destroy much of what fuels your inventiveness; you must spend a huge amount of time on breaking everything up in order to create something from the carnage. What is this process like?
LD: There’s a secret when it comes to the ego, and of how you amass so much. Artists will give their signature to something, affirming “This is what I do,” and then they bow to it. I tend to see nothing as sacred in the studio, so anything at any moment can be taken apart. There have been collectors who’ve left pieces that they’ve paid for in my studio while deciding what to do with them; since they’re still with me, I see it as an opportunity, involving an approach that allows me to loosen things up. This is to say that you can consider creating something without deciding if it is complete or not, going against the idea that with it complete you can’t touch it. If I have it in front of me, I will likely want to take it apart. Nothing stops me from dismantling and reassembling it to arrive at the next iteration. 

Usually, I have seven works rotating in the studio, and they influence each other. There’s always a language between previous works and new works, and you try to create a dialogue, or it can be that one work needs all of your attention at a certain moment. This means whatever you’re working on, you can take from that for another work. You have to understand that the next iteration is the most important work, that whatever came before includes its own possibilities for a future work—in effect, the work continues to grow for its next iteration.

Number 235T, 2023. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: © Leonardo Drew, Courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

RP: That must make things incredibly interesting. 
LD: With that in mind, if you look at the explosion, the materials take on a new meaning. I have an absolute disrespect for the finalization of a work. The only way that a work exists as one version of itself is if the piece is taken away from me so I can’t touch it anymore.

RP: You recently installed a new commission at the Amon Carter Museum in a more conventional space. What different kinds of decisions did you have to make there?
LD: Number 235T relates to works at the Crystal Bridges Museum, Facebook, and the Harvey Milk terminal at the San Francisco airport. Again, those are all works made up of previous configurations, that, for me, appear as the hieroglyphics of an evolving language. It’s like “bop bop bop.” The first of them, for a federal building in Houston, was titled Number 123 (2014) after Jackson Pollock. With so many different elements, the Amon Carter work takes on a completely different appearance to the work in the Chapel. 

Number 235T, 2023. Mixed media, detail of installation. Photo: © Leonardo Drew, Courtesy the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

RP: So, these different ideas employ very different energies. 
LD: Yes. In the Chapel, you are suddenly crowded out by the installation; it requires that you face it to be able to be in dialogue with it. There’s no way of getting around it. When you walk around it, you feel the weight of this thing on top of you; and from the balcony, it is inescapable. The Amon Carter work approaches space in a different way, possibly more conventionally. It’s just a matter of understanding the dialogue between the body and the space, and as an equation, you can create the art in between that. 

Number 360 is on view in the Chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park through October 29, 2023. Number 235T, a new commission at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, is on view through June 2024.