Born in New Jersey in 1940 and based in Brussels since 1989, Peter Downsbrough has pursued a multifaceted practice featuring books (more than 75 since 1968), films, maquettes, photographs, sound pieces, wall pieces, and “room pieces,” which he calls “minimal stage sets.” Moved outdoors, these sculptural works take on additional resonance, or perhaps become lost in translation, depending on the viewer’s vantage point. In all of his work, Downsbrough plays with minimal artistic grammar, keeping a close eye on the language that artists can call their own—visual elements and principles of design. Yet, on closer inspection, his work reveals an abstract representation of the nature of things, including the fundamental building blocks of factional viewpoints and political form.
Downsbrough first studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati and at Cooper Union in New York, then sat in on some drawing classes at the Art Students League. Unsatisfied with all of these approaches, he pursued his development independently. Over the years, he’s exhibited in numerous museums, galleries, and outdoor sites, mainly in Europe. In 2003, he was honored with a retrospective in his adopted hometown of Brussels, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts. This exhibition, curated by Marie-Thérèse Champesme, later traveled to Espace de l’Art Concret in Mouans-Sartoux, France (2003–04), and to the Muzeum Sztuki in Lódz, Poland (2004).
Robert Preece: I was quite taken by a photograph of Two Pipes (1972). It’s nostalgic, documenting an artwork and a memory with a historical-looking photograph. Could you tell me about this work at Windham College and what you think about it now in terms of your artistic development?
Peter Downsbrough: For me, it’s not only a memory, because I still do pieces in that series. In fact, I just did a Two Pipes piece for someone a few months ago. So, it’s a combination of being “old” and “new” at the same time. This aspect of the work is rather linear, on a sort of continuum, throughout my development and not really ruptured.
At the time when I made it, I was very interested in “place,” in placing something, putting something in an environment—whether interior or exterior—to “mark” that space and as an extension into time, of course. In terms of my artistic development, this work was absolutely pivotal because it developed out of a desire to rethink and change everything that I had been doing.
RP: Did you know how important Two Pipes, as well as Two Poles, would be to you at the time you were doing it?
PD: Probably not, to be honest, but I was very happy with it. I found it interesting. In terms of my earlier work, I had done Two Lines on paper, which probably as much as anything else allowed the concept to continue and fill out a bit, become a little fuller with the meanings and able to move into more spheres.
RP: How do you see Two Poles (1970) interfacing with Two Pipes? There’s more going on than a distinction between exterior and interior.
PD: I guess there is. Another thing to consider is the lines in the space. First, there were the inside ones. You can’t do the same thing with exterior lines, because it’s a different environment, a different situation. In an interior, the distance between the ceiling and the floor, which is a given, is an issue. It’s obviously not the same in every room or building. But with the exterior work, the first pipe is the standard length, 21 feet (in the U.S.) or six meters (in Belgium), while the second pipe was arbitrarily cut. And then they were planted 50 centimeters into the ground.
RP: How do you work when constructing a room piece? Do you start with letters or words that raise questions and make connections to the work and placement, or do you start with the shapes?
PD: It’s a question of the letters, the words, the content, and context; everything interacts as far as I’m concerned. People walk through, in, and around the work as they walk in and around the space. They have to be constantly aware that the nuances of things change, and that affects the meaning. So, you have to think of those things and be able to have a discussion about what it means to you. It may not mean the same thing to everyone.
The words and lines depend on the moment. Sometimes the words start something, and sometimes the lines start something, and then there’s the space. My work is systematic in the sense that I work with what some people call a restricted vocabulary. It’s reduced in one sense, but I don’t consider it restricted, and I do what I can with that. There are some pieces without words and pieces that are just words. I might be thinking first how to divide up a space. There’s also scale, which is an important attribute of the work. Things don’t need to be big. Giacometti’s figures may not be big, but they certainly take their place. There’s also Medardo Rosso, who made very small sculptures. An artwork does not need to be big to be consequential.
Everyone has their own way of working. Some day I hope to show some maquettes at a museum where I can also deal with a piece in the room and then outside of the museum. Then you’d have a relationship to scale.
RP: Could you explain the decision-making process behind how you cut words and determine the space between them?
PD: To begin with, the cutting on the letters is either vertical or horizontal. Whether the letters are moving away from each other or coming back together is always part of the ambiguity. For me, the best situation is when it’s ambiguous, caught between moving away and coming back together. It puts this on a line, a fine edge, of what is happening. For me, it’s an interesting way of activating things a bit.
RP: In an previous interview with Sarah McFadden (1:1 x temps: quantités, proportions et fuites, exhibition catalogue, Frac Bourgogne, Dijon, 2003), you commented: “It’s not by chance that things are aligned the way they are. They’re ordered in a certain way that suits certain powers that are. You have to be aware of that. You can’t necessarily change the way things are and you might not even want to, but you have to be aware of it.” Do you see yourself as political, though your work is abstract?
PD: Essentially most acts and actions are political. It depends how much you push it or point it in that direction. Society is such that it is a political being, a political animal, and it’s important to understand that and know that things are being done by various people for various reasons—and not always for nice and pleasant ones. Everyone sees things a little differently, and that goes back to how people communicate about the work and interact with each other in terms of different functions, and it raises questions on many levels—political, sociological, linguistic.
RP: Are you particularly sensitive to “chaos”?
PD: No. But I tend to be orderly and neat. I try to keep things in some kind of order, though I know that chaos is there. You can’t have one side of the coin without the other.
RP: Would you agree that you are going after, abstractly, the fundamental building blocks of “order”?
PD: As long as it doesn’t sound pretentious to agree with that, yeah. I’m trying to make some sort of order out of the chaos.
RP: So, generally speaking, your work interfaces with politics, language, and other, more abstract elements.
PD: Yes, I think it has to. Someone like Barbara Kruger is certainly involved in this sphere. Some people are more articulate and up front about it, some are more subtle. But it’s all there, and it poses other questions when you start to figure out how it functions in the work. That’s a whole other thing.
RP: How do viewers process your messaging? I’m thinking again of your comment, “They’re ordered in a certain way that suits certain powers that are. You have to be aware of that.” The statement refers to societal structures, but it is also connected to your works, even though they’re not in your face like political posters.
PD: It takes a long time. I’m finding, as I manage to persist and keep going with this absurdity, that more and more people are finding this interesting. I think it just has to do with the times. There are also quite a few young people who seem to be interested in the work.
RP: Why is that?
PD: I don’t really know. But I find it really satisfying and interesting that they are. If we say that things have been so ridiculous in the art world, as well as in other aspects of the world, for the last 20 to 25 years, maybe they are trying to find something a little different, which is nice.
RP: Do you see your work as rooted in your experiences growing up during the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggle, when you were actively questioning race and power in specific situations?
PD: Yes, but let me backtrack a bit. There was also a very real interest in architecture, music, and other things. As an adolescent, I was not unaware of museums. I had an interest in culture on one hand; but on the other hand, there were the sociopolitical things going on at the time. It wasn’t just the Vietnam War, it was also the middle of the Cold War.
RP: What led you to move to Brussels in 1989 as a mid-career artist? Was it an easy decision?
PD: It’s quite simple. I had become less and less interested in what was going on in New York. And there was more interest in my work here. So I moved. Brussels is also very central and less expensive than anywhere else—a simple, tactical decision. In the end, it was an easy decision. I knew the city a bit because I had been here in years past. Dan Graham and I used to joke about Belgium and being able to understand it, because we were both from New Jersey.
Robert Preece is a Contributing Editor for Sculpture and publisher of artdesigncafe.com.