Number 197 (detail), 2017.

Making Chaos Legible: A Conversation with Leonardo Drew

Leonardo Drew’s newest and largest work to date, Number 197 (on view through October 29), activates and energizes the atrium of the de Young Museum in San Francisco with an orchestrated arrangement of wall-mounted sculptural elements. Claudia Schmuckli, the de Young’s curator-in-charge of contemporary art and programming, invited Drew to create the first in a continuing series of site-specific installations designed to respond to the museum’s landmark architecture. Drew uses a variety of off-the-shelf materials–wood, cardboard, paint, paper, plastic, rope, and string–combining them with occasional found objects such as branches or tree trunks. In his studio, he subjects these elements to labor-intensive manipulations that mimic natural processes, giving the illusion that they have burned, rotted, or rusted.

Number 197 is a good example of what Drew calls “making chaos legible.” It reads like music or text, moving right to left in mostly straight horizontal lines that progress down the walls from ceiling to floor, accented with textural elements and occasional bits of color, broken up with jagged black sticks and chunks erupting from the corners.

Drew, who was born in Tallahassee, Florida, and grew up in the housing projects of Bridgeport, Connecticut, now lives and works in Brooklyn and internationally. He attended Parsons School of Design and received a BFA from the Cooper Union in 1985. He considers his works as a continuum, with new projects feeding off those that came before. Like many of his works from the early 1990s on, Number 197, which harks back to Number 123 (2007), employs the grid as an organizing principle while also subverting it. Drew has had solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and Artpace in San Antonio, Texas. His mid-career survey, “Existed: Leonardo Drew,” also curated by Schmuckli, premiered at the Blaffer Art Gallery of the University of Houston in 2009 and traveled nationally.

Number 159, 2012. Wood and aluminum, 114 x 186 x 71 in.

Jane Ingram Allen: Number 197 was commissioned by the de Young Museum, but what was its inspiration? Why do you number your works rather than giving them titles?

Leonardo Drew: As far as inspiration, I work pretty much around the clock in the studio, 18 to 20 hours a day sometimes, and it’s an ongoing process–one work feeds the next. It’s a symbiotic relationship with what is occurring in my life at certain times and how that is translated into what I do in the studio. My life is the studio, but traveling and seeing constitute revelations– like jazz music, or music in general. I am developing a cuneiform, and the parts are a microcosm of possibilities. The elements come together to create tone, with a resonance between tones, like key notes in music.

JIA What do you want people to get from your work, particularly from Number 197

LD: I don’t think one can exist without the other–viewer and artist. There’s complicity between them. I want people to read the work and experience it. I would love to be a fly on the wall and hear what people are saying when they look at my work. You are not giving them anything but the actual work, and sometimes it becomes a black hole that they have to work their way out of. A photograph just won’t do it. There’s nothing like standing in front of the work. It’s like standing in front of the Grand Canyon, as opposed to looking at a picture of it. There should be a spiritual connection between the viewer and the work, which happens only when standing before the actual work. What the viewer should come away with, I hope, is a version of what I went through to create it. 

JIA How did you react to the huge lobby at the de Young Museum? Was the space challenging or intimidating? 

LD: Yes, I can do big. This is probably my largest piece, but for me, small would actually be more of a challenge. Making something grandiose, large scale, involving the whole body, for me, is like an exorcism. I have to get it out. The three walls impressed me–a perfect three-point perspective, a demand to use all three walls. An artist and a museum working together like this always has to be coordinated, and you have to consider all parts of the triangle–museum, public, artist–and give them all equal consideration. That being said, the artist needs to feel affirmed; he needs to be allowed to realize his dream in full, and the museum, in effect, has to get out of the way. The given is that they understand the history and the impact of art. They can’t take the paintbrush out of your hand. The artist needs to give a rounded and full experience and get to the truth about the work; it’s important to stay centered.

Number 186, 2016. Wood, paint, screws, metal, and Conté crayon, 180 x 109 x 25 in.

JIA Did you see the space before coming for a week to do the installation? 

LD: It was not necessary to see the space beforehand. Oddly enough, in this respect, I can get a sense of the space through photographs and measurements. It made perfect sense to do all three walls. At first, the museum thought only of using the center wall. For some years, they had a Gerhard Richter painting there, but I knew it had to be all three walls. I had no inclination to spare the other walls because of expense or damage or anything like that. I wanted to take on the whole thing. I said, “What if you activated the space and gave the public something they could wrap their heads around and that, in effect, would wrap around them?” 

JIA How do you relate to materials? What kinds of materials compose Number 197? Are there recycled objects or parts from nature? 

LD: I am not a found object artist. I create material in the studio, and it is absolutely necessary for me to go through this process. The work echoes the natural. We are connected to nature, not separate from it. We are all lived in and weathered. I do not distance myself from this process. I become the weather. It is important to understand the layering, the history, and the nature of nature. There is the illusion of decay and burning, but it’s all done in the studio. Going through the whole process is important to my work. For example, in the cotton wall piece I did some years ago, I went through the whole process of cutting it, layering it, stacking it, and making the cotton cubes. About 10 years later, I saw my whole sculpture sitting in a cotton field outside of Atlanta. There was a machine that did everything without having to go through all the work that I had done in the studio. But I have a need to create the work with my hands. 

JIA Black, white, and neutrals dominate your work. How important is color to you? 

LD: Color is definitely there. I have been drawing and painting all my life. My first exhibition, at age 13, consisted of drawings and paintings. After 1982, I decided to find another way. In order to find my voice, I needed to tie my hands–no more drawing, no more painting. Color had been a big part of how I saw things. Jackson Pollock was an important influence. Now color has returned. I have been working with porcelain in China, and color is an important part of the history of that art. I have been traveling to different provinces, studying with different masters. I am trying to get past my failures with the material. I want to create something substantial with porcelain, that says something about this part of my journey. I feel there is something there, and I want to realize it. When I go back to China, I will start to put together all the things I have learned (and what they have learned from me). I have to live this out. 

JIA Could you talk about your working process and how you put together the de Young installation? Did you use parts from other works? 

LD: The way of realizing something like this is through improvisation, like improvised jazz. You start off with one note and then go from there. It is a complex process, but in the end, it has a structure. You have anchors that are like planets and then stars and solar systems surrounding those planets. You have to think more cosmically, and you fall into a rhythm to develop the overall. I don’t feel like any one piece is sacred. This work is actually made up of other works that have been taken apart, expanded, and changed. I cannibalize parts from other works to create new work. Anything is possible; doors are continuously opening, and possibilities are always there. It pulls me along–sometimes it’s a rough ride. It is a way of realizing things. I have to test it, feel it, create it.

Number 185, 2016. Wood, paint, pastel, and screws, 121 x 134 x 30 in.

JIA You create via trial and error? 

LD: Yes, it’s making sense of chaos. It could be unreadable chaos, but I make sense of chaos. I think of it as making chaos legible. There is a book coming out that I created and designed using my notes, writings, and sketches. In this monograph, you will be able to see, by way of photos, how things are developed in the studio. The books that are available on-line are very expensive, so I wanted to do a inexpensive version. I will give the public a cookbook that will allow them to create their own Leonardo. 

JIA Looking at your de Young installation, I see the many parts, as well as the whole. I really like the area that resembles an explosion coming from the corner. The almost violent eruptions of black elements against the white walls give off lots of spontaneous energy. 

LD: I almost didn’t create that part. It’s like an improvisation, flying by the seat of your pants. I asked myself, “Okay, what has to happen now?” Trying to figure it out was where that explosion came from. It almost didn’t get done. 

JIAWhat do you see as the relationship of your work to sculpture? Why do you usually work in wall relief? 

LD: My works are indeed sculpture, but sculptures that evolved from painting. It’s sculpture that understands two-dimensional composition, but is fully realized in three dimensions. Pollock was a key influence; he made sense out of chaos. Other influences would be Richard Serra for understanding how the body accents and affects scale. I leave no stones unturned, and I use every material–porcelain, cotton, paper, wood. Change is a constant. All the works are merging and progressing. For example, you can see how Number 8 and Number 14 add up to Number 43

Number 197, 2017. Wood, mixed media, paper, and paint, view of installation at the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

JIA What are you doing next? 

LD: Going back to China to continue my work with porcelain. The book is also coming out this year. In the summer of 2018 or 2019, I will be doing a public art piece for Madison Square Park in New York City. This will be a monster project in the middle of the park in the middle of the city. I am thinking that rather than doing the obvious monumental sculpture, like what has been done before, I would like the viewer to be the giant, like a giant looking down on a city in the grass.

Jane Ingram Allen is an artist, curator, and art writer who lives in California.

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Studio Break-In: Leonardo Drew from Sima Familant on Vimeo.