Raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the projects, Leonardo Drew has become one of today’s most prominent artists. Among the major international institutions that collect his work are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Hirshhorn Museum. Most recently, he unveiled City in the Grass, a monumental commission for Madison Square Park in New York City, which remains on view through December 15, 2019. An eponymously titled solo show at his New York gallery, Galerie Lelong & Co., is on view through August 2. The following conversation took place in Madison Square Park.
Daniel Kunitz: How did you approach the Madison Square Park commission?
Leonardo Drew: I’ve seen others come up against this situation and I’ve seen some successes, but in the end it is always about the magnificence of this park—you need to address that. At first I said, “What if we did this sort of gigantic tree, to work off the trees that are in the park?” But it would have been an exploding monstrosity that would have decapitated someone, because I don’t know anything about sculpting outside. Wind, weather—all these things can affect the movement of the piece. In the end, it took the kids who play in front of my studio to give me the catalyst to realize that maybe I should look at it the way they’re seeing it. When they play outside the door of the studio, they can see inside. I work on the floor, and when I work on the floor, these things that eventually go up on the wall look like cityscapes. So, I thought why not address it as if I were Gulliver and this was Lilliput? See it from the kids’ point of view. I decided to take it to the ground.
At that point, we knew it would be an undulating city in the grass, and the word carpet kept coming up. I’d been trying to work color into my language for about four or five years now, and then I started doing these back-and-forths to China, working with porcelain, and that started to overlap with how I wanted to approach this. That’s where you get the Persian rug aspect.
DK: What about the palette? It’s not quite what you’d see in a Persian rug.
LD: That’s the trick to all this. As you’re creating, you’re taking from life and it has to find its way through you, and then you have to give it back. I don’t use found objects for that very same reason, because a found object already has life in it. I want the thing to live, to go through me and come out the other end. People sometimes think I work with found objects, but that is not the case: each element is created in the studio. They go through the rigors and the pains…it’s like I become the weather and take these things to the next place. A lot of times in the studio, rather than use something found, I will mimic something found.
DK: How did you approach the challenge of siting City in the Grass in a public park?
LD: I needed to address the fact that I’m taking on the center of the park at the peak time: summer. Usually with a sculpture, you can’t climb it. I said, “Why not give it over to the public completely?” The viewer should be complicit in making it, be able to realize themselves in the work. If they know how I see the work, if I give them titles, then they grab onto that title and assume that’s what it’s about. My philosophy is that you as the viewer should be allowed to find yourself in the work. Here I took that one step further by allowing the public physically to collaborate in making the piece. That means when you walk on this thing, climb on it, and abuse it, hopefully we’ll get wear and tear, and take it to its next self.
DK: Were you working on this commission at the same time as the pieces for the show at Galerie Lelong?
LD: Yeah, and about five other things. Usually I have about seven things going. The studio is not large, but I’m able to juggle, and the pieces assist one another. The Madison Square Park piece came before the large colored wall piece that’s in the gallery, and the second borrowed from this one.
DK: What are the materials used in the towers?
LD: They’re all different. When I visited Cuba, people were living in these magnificent buildings that are falling apart because nobody has the ability to repair them. The salt water is just eating away at these magnificent structures. I thought that these people are, in effect, living inside my work, and there’s got to be a way to mimic that. So, it’s just a matter of breaking down those elements—though it took years to figure that out. Each one of these towers is part of those experiments with different materials, which I began working on last September.
DK: Did you sketch City in the Grass first?
LD: No, I don’t do drawings, I have to feel it. I made studies for the folks who had to bend the metal and stuff like that, and I had to figure out a gigantic paint-by-numbers for the carpet designs. The most painful aspect of this was that the computer couldn’t read a Persian rug—it was too much information. So I literally had to go and draw all the information, and then we put that into a computer so we could laser cut the design armature.
DK: And then you put sand on top?
LD: Exactly. The carpet is a mixture of sand and latex paint.
DK: Aside from the kids outside your studio, were there other influences in making City in the Grass?
LD: Oz, from The Wizard of Oz, was the initial one, and Metropolis. I’m a huge cinema fan, so a lot of those things will find their way into my work.
DK: Is this your first foray into figuration as a mature artist?
LD: When you say figuration…
DK: It is fairly figurative.
LD: I’m open to what you say; I just want to know how far I’ve dropped! No, honestly, there are no rules at this point in my art life. It’s funny, when you start out as an art student, there are always these rules—which things are gimmicks, which are overly didactic—and it’s interesting how, as you move through life, you get rid of that baggage. Early on the baggage was that I was too facile, I was using my talent as a crutch. My beginning was illustration, comic books and stuff like that. DC and Marvel Comics were trying to get me to work with them back in ’76 and ’77, and I started exhibiting when I was like 13. As a child you’re using your facility, then I challenged it, and I ended up becoming abstract. You develop a rule book, saying these are things that you don’t do if you want substantial, weighty work: the prettified surface has to be gotten rid of, so all the things you do well you now have to 86, because there’s something more substantial underneath that prettified surface. I found it. But once you’ve found it, you’re able to pull back and say, “Now I’m mature enough, spiritually and otherwise, that I can bring these elements back in and truthfully work them so that they’re more meaningful.” So, color is now being reintroduced. What you’re seeing also are the shapes of things minimally abstracted.
DK: How do you begin a piece?
LD: If you have seven things that you’re working on, seven crying babies that are all needy of your time, they do sort of assist each other—you can borrow from one to help another.
DK: So one thing leads to another?
LD: Yes. If you look at the large, colored wall piece in the gallery, Number 215, the patterns and colors come from the Madison Square Park piece. All in all, the work does, and will, bring you to the next place. The undulating city—that form was already apparent in my other work, but it took the kids in the doorway to see it.
I also allowed all the safety regulations of a public work to play a part. For instance, you can’t have the cityscape, the wood blocks, out in the middle of the park where people can trip on them, but if they’re like steps leading up to something, then it’s okay. Some artists might find those regulations intrusive, but my mind works differently.
DK: Was it refreshing for you to have the public interact with the work?
LD: No. Do you mean that in a gallery people can’t touch the work? My work has always been user friendly, tactile. When I did the cotton works back in ’92, people were always picking at it (picking cotton—that’s another story), but people can’t help pulling at it. That has always been an aspect of my work: it’s not just a gravitational pull that draws you in, it’s the materiality. People always want to touch these things. It’s like looking at a Van Gogh painting: people want to see if it’s still wet. City in the Grass is my full-blown time to allow the public to be a participant and interact with the work.
DK: So it’s actually a natural evolution of your work.
LD: Absolutely. You’re being put to the test, and this is the perfect opportunity, in the center of the park during the summer. People are going to do their thing—they’re New Yorkers—so you absolutely don’t need somebody out here saying, “Yes, you can play on that.” Like white on rice, they’re going to be on that piece.
DK: I get the sense that you really like the physical aspect of what you do.
LD: Yeah, it’s like weightlifting, I end up with a body cut like a slave. I’m a slave master and slave rolled into one. It is blood, sweat, and tears. And, at 58, I’m surprised that I’m able to keep up with the work, because the sheer physical demands are really monstrous.
DK: Let’s go back to China. What got you interested in porcelain?
LD: Well, I was on a sojourn. I started out in Peru, studying the Nazca lines—there are all these cradles of civilization, places of mystery and spirituality. I’ve always addressed those things in my work, but now I have to put myself physically in those places. China was the next phase of that. I was four years back and forth and was very seriously thinking of taking on a studio space there, but I pretty much had a studio anyway. I was in a rural area, a farm really—we’re not talking Shanghai or Hong Kong—among real people, feeding you real things, and anything they feed you, you’re going to eat. So yes, I have eaten dog. What I usually do is plant myself in a place and then physically start moving around—walking, not riding a bike or in a car, trying to explore a 10-to-15-mile radius. Porcelain just seemed logical, because of all my questions concerning how I wanted to re-address color. But we’re not talking the colors I was using as a kid when I was painting: these are colors that are part of an alchemy.
I was working with artisans who are serious about that craft, so serious they didn’t know how to diverge from what they know. I had to introduce them to possibilities because I was bastardizing their artform. They were making these giant vases. I was saying, “What would happen if we smash this and put it in the kiln?” And they’d be like, “It’s just going to melt and it’s going to be garbage.” I said, “Break that shit and put it in the kiln!” They put it in there and it came out all stuck together, and I said, “Perfect!” That meant I didn’t have to go and glue all those parts by hand, which I did have to do for the big wall piece at Galerie Lelong.
DK: So, you got into color through a spiritual avenue?
LD: Absolutely. But my whole journey has been that way. Finding myself there and working with spiritually like-minded people allowed me to work on a whole other level and also to re-address how I go about doing things. Now, in terms of how I see, things are wide open—and it has everything to do with that experience. Four years of China will change just about anybody.
DK: When did you come back?
LD: In March. All the works that I produced were shown in Hong Kong, during Art Basel. Next stop: going back to Peru.
DK: Why didn’t you end up becoming a comic book illustrator?
LD: When those guys came at me, DC and Marvel Comics, I’d already seen Jackson Pollock, so I knew there was something else beyond that prettified surface. But even today I look at graphic novels—I don’t read them, even though I imagine they’re well written, it’s just that I don’t have the time—but I go and I buy a lot of them, I look at the images, and I still admire the facility. And if I showed you some of the stuff I did as a kid, you’d be like, “Oh, it’s right in there.” There’s a reason why they wanted me. But—and let’s not call it levels, because that makes it seem like there’s a hierarchy—but on my journey I needed to look beyond that prettified surface, underneath all that loveliness. Jackson Pollock made that easy, and then the Picasso show came to The Met in 1980, and that blew the lid off. I was like, “This is where I need to park it,” so I went off to school.
DK: That was so ballsy of you, to give up certain income…
LD: And I was living in the projects, too. But it’s funny you say that—it’s true, I guess. I have to say that those kinds of decisions have put me in funny predicaments, sometimes not the best predicaments. I could have parked it doing cotton works or rust works—and you’ll see artists doing that, sticking with what has worked in the past—but for me it just seemed illogical. If you’re going to live a life, then attempt to live it at its fullest. If you can keep questioning, you keep growing, but you’ll always find yourself in a predicament, because people want a signature style and that’s where you fall into problems. Surprisingly, I’ve never gone belly-up, but with the decisions I made, I should have. Even today, people will say, “Do you have any of the paper works or the rust works?” I don’t do those anymore, but as I get older I realize I have to own those works. When I say own, I mean that they should continue to inform what I do. Still, in order to have a sharper arc to my trajectory, I need to let things go, literally say, “I’m not going to do that anymore; I’m not going to do any more drawing, no more painting, those things are crutches, no more cotton or whatever.” I did that, and guess what? The work still had emotional weight, because once you find your voice, that’s just what it’s going to be. You’re still getting results, but you’re not necessarily taking the methods along with you. If you give me a challenge, I will chase after that bone. It’s been that way all through my art life. In the studio, always address the thing that you don’t know, don’t park it, don’t allow yourself to say, “This is my signature, this is how you should see me.” No, there’s a gigantic world out there. It’s always the challenge of the unknown.