In the Studio with Carol Bove, The Sculptor Who Bends Steel as if It Were Plastic
"Here's a good purse hanger," said the artist Carol Bove on a recent morning in Brooklyn, resting her hand fondly on the handle of an industrial hydraulic press. She still wasn't sure of its intended use, but she’s found it to be especially handy as both a handbag tree and for coercing giant tubes of steel to her artistic will.
A sculptor who specializes in "big, heavy, but fragile" works, as she described them, Bove was born in Geneva—it was announced this week that she will represent Switzerland in next year's Venice Biennale–but she grew up primarily in Berkeley, California, a culture that has long informed her work. But in the last 10 years, another place has affected her art: Bove was one of the first of the wave of artists to move to Red Hook, a somewhat removed part of Brooklyn that's since become home to an Ikea, a Fairway, and spaces like Pioneer Works, but was better known as a yard for feral, wild dogs when Bove was first getting settled. (There wasn't a grocery store for miles.)
Not that she minded. It only meant more room to spread, which she's done consistently over the last decade, from her nearby home to a handful of indoor and outdoor studios. Her latest addition—the vaulted former glass fabrication factory we stood in that morning—has enough space not just for the comparatively tiny hydraulic press, but for Bove’s tallest and largest works to date: combinations of found, manipulated, and fabricated steel that clock in at up to 1,500 pounds, and which have since been transported to two of David Zwirner’s galleries in Chelsea for "Polka Dots," her show opening on Saturday.
These new assemblages, which she's dubbed "collage sculptures," are without question Bove's most ambitious works yet, putting her in the realm of heavyweight, overwhelmingly male sculptor forebears like John Chamberlain. Previously, she’d been working almost exclusively with found objects like paperbacks, driftwood, and peacock feather, which she’d then reframe with brass and steel—"tasteful" installations that, around a year and a half ago, Bove decided had arrived at a point of diminishing returns.
"I was sick of them," Bove said of her past constructions, some of which were at the center of a much raved about 2013 installation at MoMA. "I wanted to see something that's actually kind of garish and tacky, and the stuff I was doing was tending much more toward this kind of romantic, elegant set of registers. I wanted to open it up."
That started with a few orders to the old school paint supplier she prefers to work with—she felt her work needed a jolt of color not naturally occurring in found detritus—and a few less trips to the waterfront. Up until that point, she'd been sourcing much of her materials from the flotsam that washes up onto the neighborhood's waterfront, a process that could only take her so far. ("An I-beam isn’t going to just wash up," she said.) So instead of heading to the shore, she drove her pickup truck repeatedly to her favorite metal scrap yard in New Jersey, where there’s a bountiful selection of tortured-looking, rusting pieces she can only imagine "something horrible" has happened to. In her mind, a twisted remnant of a cement mixer is a perfect starting point.
Although they're now supersized, found objects are still an important part of Bove's practice. She works with three types of steel: there are also the tubes she manipulates with the hydraulic press, and fabricated pieces that she outsources the production of, like the highly polished circles in her new crop of sculptures—the titular polka dots.
Thanks to a massive gantry on the ceiling of Bove's new studio, of which she is particularly fond, assembly hasn't proven overly difficult, even if squeezing the pieces together requires several tons of force. But the newfound scale has only raised the height of another hurdle she's been trying to clear for years: how to best represent her decidedly three-dimensional work in a two-dimensional format.
"A lot of what I do is create a context," Bove said. Many of her works, she added, don't even make sense on their own—and all, of course, are eventually rendered flat. "When people see pictures, which is probably 95% of the time, you see [a work] one way and it fixes your idea about what it is," she said. "But that’s maybe not the work. You can walk around it, and it changes as you do."
When digital photography and airbrushing culture began to become popular, Bove thought of this conundrum as a "terrible crisis." But she's since found ways to work around it, producing a 2010 book, Carol Bove Manuals 2010, that operated like a massive instruction manual of sorts: a stack of printer paper with inventories of each work and guidelines to installing them (not unlike the ones typically presented to museums). The catalog for "Polka Dots," also designed with Joseph Logan, is similarly inventive. It presents glossy, finalized install shots of the works, devoid of context or scale, while also giving a glimpse at the process behind their construction (documented by the photographer Andreas Laszlo Konrath).
The images were taken on the third floor of Bove's office/studio building that she’'s occupied for 10 years. She's since given it up in what seems to be an example of downsizing counter to her narrative. The floor below, though, remains fully inhabited: It holds Bove's offices, filing cabinets, libraries, archives of a poet whose work she's helping to preserve, and a timeline spanning a full wall, charting the work of Harry Smith, an eccentric polymath whose oeuvre Bove is in the process of co-curating for an upcoming exhibition at the Whitney Museum. That morning, she seemed very much at home, lounging as she drank tea out of a "Game of Thrones" mug, but Bove is also eagerly looking forward to renovating the new stone-faced studio, which has gone from simply a space large enough to lay out her Zwirner show to scale to a playground for her newly expanded imagination. In fact, she just signed a 10-year lease, marking a renewed commitment not only to the neighborhood, but also to working on a more monumental level.
"With all that space up there," she said, gesturing to the vaulted ceiling above, anything otherwise would be "just wasteful."