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A detail of an aluminum sculpture by Charles Ray called Untitled (Tractor), dated 2003

Charles Ray, Untitled (Tractor), 2003 (detail)

Charles Ray, Untitled (Tractor), 2003 (detail)

“I think of this sculpture as a tractor in heaven. I would like to rename it Philosophical Object.”

—Charles Ray

A cast aluminum sculpture by Charles Ray, called Untitled (Tractor), dated 2003.

Charles Ray

Untitled (Tractor), 2003
Cast aluminum
62 1/4 x 109 1/2 x 53 3/4 inches (158.1 x 278.1 x 136.5 cm)
Edition 1 of 3, 1 AP

Untitled (Tractor) (2003) is a key work in the oeuvre of renowned American artist Charles Ray. This large-scale sculpture, one of which is on view in the artist’s current retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, proved transformative for Ray, transcending its physical form to become an exercise in psychic reflection. The present work is the first edition of Untitled (Tractor), with further examples in the collections of the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo and Glenstone museum, Potomac. 

Based in Los Angeles, Charles Ray (b. 1953) is best known for enigmatic sculptures in which he alters and reforms familiar objects. Probing the boundaries of sculpture, Ray explores the relationship between its internal and external spaces, creating works with uniquely modern resonances that nevertheless evoke the long traditions of the medium.

An archival photograph of a tractor

The original tractor on which the work is based

The original tractor on which the work is based

“I found a broken-down tractor in a backyard in the San Fernando Valley. It had blown a rod in 1961 … and there it sat for some forty years until I bought it for five hundred dollars and towed it back to my studio.”

—Charles Ray

A process image from the making of Untitled (Tractor)

A process image from the making of Untitled (Tractor)

A process image from the making of Untitled (Tractor)

Here, the artist presents an intricately detailed, life-size tractor cast in aluminum. With a team of assistants, Ray dismantled the vehicle piece by piece and hand-sculpted its thousands of parts, assigning different assistants to the tractor’s various elements so that the final sculpture would not appear to be the work of a single individual. Noticing how, once assembled, the aesthetic differences between the various handmade parts became barely perceptible, Ray decided to cast each one in aluminum and reassemble the tractor with the resulting pieces.

 

“Initially, Ray had wanted to base a piece on a jungle gym, which he considers a child’s entrée into society—and therefore, our first ‘civic space’—but, frustrated with its progress, he drove out to see a broken-down tractor that a friend told him kids played on. Ray, too, had played on a tractor as a child.”

—Julie L. Belcove, W Magazine

A process image from the making of Untitled (Tractor)

A process image from the making of Untitled (Tractor)

A process image from the making of Untitled (Tractor)

“The sculpture transformed from a jungle gym into a transparent philosophical object.… Like a philosopher’s stone, you can look upon it and meditate. Our culture is so in tune with assembled objects—cars, airplanes.… The whole is so strong, that at first you don’t see the hands that were at play in making it.”

—Charles Ray

A detail of an aluminum sculpture by Charles Ray called Untitled (Tractor), dated 2003

Charles Ray, Untitled (Tractor), 2003 (detail)

Charles Ray, Untitled (Tractor), 2003 (detail)

A detail of an aluminum sculpture by Charles Ray called Untitled (Tractor), dated 2003

Charles Ray, Untitled (Tractor), 2003 (detail)

Charles Ray, Untitled (Tractor), 2003 (detail)

A detail of an aluminum sculpture by Charles Ray called Untitled (Tractor), dated 2003

Charles Ray, Untitled (Tractor), 2003 (detail)

Charles Ray, Untitled (Tractor), 2003 (detail)

“The whole slowly gives way to a mind-boggling assemblage of individuated parts. Many of the parts are actually hidden from view within the tractor’s body, and one could interpret this as evidence of Ray’s madness, or merely his faith in the process. Both are probably true. Ask him, and he will say a person viewing the tractor can actually sense the existence of the unseen parts.”

—Michael Ned Holte, Art Review

Installation view of Untitled (Tractor) at the metropolitan museum of art, in New York

Installation view, Charles Ray: Figure Ground, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Charlie Rubin for The New York Times

Installation view, Charles Ray: Figure Ground, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Charlie Rubin for The New York Times

An installation view in the Pinault Collection at Palazzo Grassi in Venice dated 2006.

Installation view, Pinault Collection, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 2006. Photo by Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Installation view, Pinault Collection, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 2006. Photo by Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“Ray since 1990 has made sculptures rooted in everyday American culture, with extremely finished surfaces.… Unlike [Jeff] Koons, Ray has channeled his Americana through a profound engagement with the whole history of Western sculpture, from archaic Greek statuary to the bronzes of Rodin and the welded steel of David Smith and Anthony Caro. Classical and modern, universal and particular, grand and everyday, his reclining nudes or wrecked cars appear to slide through time itself.”

—Jason Farago, The New York Times

A detail from the work titled Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Train by Jeff Koons, dated 1986

Jeff Koons, Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Train, 1986 (detail)

Jeff Koons, Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Train, 1986 (detail)

A sculpture by David Smith, titled Cubi XXIII, dated 1964

David Smith, Cubi XXIII, 1964

David Smith, Cubi XXIII, 1964

A sculpture by Anthony Caro, titled Stainless Piece A-S (B0632), dated 1979–1980

Anthony Caro, Stainless Piece A-S (B0632), 1979–1980

Anthony Caro, Stainless Piece A-S (B0632), 1979–1980

A sculpture by Charles Ray, titled Unpainted Sculpture, dated 1997

Charles Ray, Unpainted Sculpture, 1997

Charles Ray, Unpainted Sculpture, 1997

“The meaning of the [tractor] sculpture is not only inherent in what is visible but it is in the relationships of the parts to the whole, both those that are seen and those that are unseen. No detail is too small to have been of artistic interest to Ray.”

—Brinda Kumar, curator. Watch the video walkthrough of Charles Ray: Figure Ground at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

 
A sculpture by Charles Ray, titled Father Figure, dated 2007

Charles Ray, Father Figure, 2007

Charles Ray, Father Figure, 2007

Following the completion of Untitled (Tractor), the artist revisited this motif. Seeing that Ray was unable to move past this monumentally scaled project that had occupied so much of his time and mental energy, his friend, the artist Kiki Smith, gave him a small toy tractor as a gesture of support. From that model, Ray created Father Figure (2007)—an even larger iteration of a tractor, fabricated from stainless steel to resemble an outsize toy.

An edition of Charles Ray, called Untitled (tractor), dated 2003-05 is in the permanent collection of the Astrup Fearnely Museum of Modern Art, Oslo

An example of Charles Ray's Untitled (tractor) is in the permanent collection of the Astrup Fearnely Museum of Modern Art, Oslo

An example of Charles Ray's Untitled (tractor) is in the permanent collection of the Astrup Fearnely Museum of Modern Art, Oslo

“An object has to have authority.… I see my work as a relationship of parts.”

—Charles Ray

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