San Francisco State University
Mexico City College
National University (Mexico)
High along one wall of Richard Van Buren’s studio in Perry, Maine, is a narrow band of windows that crop the view of tthe trees outside into an abstract frieze. The scene and the format call to mind a Chinese scroll paintinghe trees outside into an abstract frieze. The scene and the format call to mind a Chinese scroll painting.
High along one wall of Richard Van Buren’s studio in Perry, Maine, is a narrow band of windows that crop the view of the trees outside into an abstract frieze. The scene and the format call to mind a Chinese scroll painting.
“I spend a lot of time looking at those trees,” says the artist. “The movement of the trees—movement is very important to me.” Van Buren moved permanently from New York City to Perry—a small town on Cobscook Bay near the Canadian border—in 2001, having spent summers there for thirty years. Since then, he has been creating intricate, biomorphic sculptures in thermoplastic, a medium that allows him to exploit his interest in expressing movement in form and finish. Baroque in sensibility, the sculptures comprise a range of fluid gestures. They writhe, undulate, and roil; they meander, tempt, and beckon. Many are wall reliefs, others are displayed more traditionally on pedestals or directly on the floor. All project dramatically into space. Studded with seashells and painted in iridescent colors, they look like no sculptures you have seen before. They appear to be a new hybrid species—part man-made, part organic. “Natural, unnatural, it’s all nature,” says Van Buren, dismissing any division between the two. “I consider humans as one part of nature. We’re nature, the shell is nature also…Whether I paint it and put it into sculpture—a human context—it’s still natural….It’s about the responsibility of accepting that you are part of nature and wising up.”
A prominent member of the New York art scene since the mid-1960s, Van Buren has long explored the convergence of the artificial and the organic in his work. For decades, before the toxicity of the medium forced him to give it up, he worked with cast fiberglass, infusing the transparent resin with materials such as graphite, charcoal, and ground glass to merge color with form. His early geometric work was included in the seminal exhibition Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in 1966, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he exhibited in many important galleries and museum exhibitions, including Bykert Gallery, run by Klaus Kertiss, and at Paula Cooper.
The past few years working in Perry have proved to be some of the most productive of his career.
“Initially the idea of moving here full-time felt like I was giving up something in terms of the art world,” he says, “but the reality is that it has reversed itself. It’s been a real surprise and a real plus.”
In 2011, he had well-received shows at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, at Aucocisco Gallery in Portland, and at Gary Snyder Gallery in New York—his first in the city in a decade—and currently has several large-scale commissions underway.
“Now,” he says, “I can’t be away for too long. Three days, and then it feels like you’re paying dues.”
Van Buren was born in Syracuse, New York in 1937, and moved to Los Angeles when he was two years old. He grew up in Hollywood, where his step-father was a film producer, and playing on the studio sets “seemed normal to me.” He especially remembers being on the set of an early science fiction film surrounded by giant boulders constructed from papier-mâche. This was his first exposure to “the idea of synthetic reality, the idea that something can look like something that it wasn’t.”
After high school and serving two years in the Navy, he spent a year in Mexico City taking courses in philosophy and art at the National University and Mexico City College. Returning to the States, he enrolled in San Francisco State University as an art major, graduating in 1964. While still a student, he exhibited at the influential Dilexi Gallery in San Francisco, run by Jim Newman, where fellow artists included Ron Nagle, Franz Kline, H.C. Westermann, Ed Moses, and Robert Morris.
In 1964, Van Buren relocated to New York and became acquainted with Lynda Benglais, Eva Hesse, Alan Saret, and other process-oriented sculptors. There he also met his future wife, the choreographer Batya Zamir, one of the innovators of aerial dance. The two share a similar artistic sensibility in the importance they place on movement in their art, and over the years they have collaborated many times.
Photographs of Batya performing reveal her graceful athleticism, viewed in this light the recent sculpture Batya Red—which projects a gravity-defying sixty inches from the wall—can be seen as a tour de force ode to the artist’s wife. At once aggressive and sensual, fantastical and real, beautiful and garish, Richard Van Buren’s new sculptures push past established aesthetic boundaries and announce new terrain. (SM)