A Conversation: B. Wurtz
An afternoon with B. Wurtz is one filled with ruminations on art and life, the relationships between the everyday and the uneventful and your choice between a cheese or hummus sandwich. Wurtz himself is a welcoming spirit with an ever-present eye for the details that make up the world around us. Looking at his work, Wurtz’s meditative hand and delicate nature are overwhelmingly apparent. I can’t help but believe that only Wurtz could have the diligent restraint to caress plastic bags, tin foil pans and other materials that “service/serve us” into objects that challenge the conventions of art history while acting as mirrors to this space/place that we occupy. Sitting with Wurtz at his home in the lower eastside, surrounded by his work, we had a conversation. – Arthur Peña, Dallas Contributor
B. Wurtz | Untitled, 2009, Plastic bags, acrylic paint, string, canvas, 75 x 90 x 1 ½, inches. Photo courtesy of Metro Pictures.
Arthur Peña: Are you taking on notions of sculpture, painting or art making in your work? Would you say that the work is in reaction to things you saw that are steeped in art history?
B. Wurtz: The answer is somewhere in between. I’ve always been interested in playing around with what art is: what is a sculpture, what is a painting, what is a photograph? Yes, I was consciously trying to mess with categorization. But the dominate idea that was going on was that I was doing something that interested me. I would never claim to be naïve about art history or attempt to forget art history. I would never want to do that. But what’s great about doing what one’s interested in is that you sidestep that in a certain sense. I just made what I wanted to make. Afterwards it can be looked at by other people or me and something interesting could come out of it. The basic reason why I make work is just to try it and see what happens.
B. Wurtz, Untitled, 1993, Plastic film canister, wood canvas, stretcher frame, plastic bags and wire, 25 ¼ x 18 x ¾ inches. Photo courtesy of Metro Pictures.
AP: I get an overwhelming sense of generosity from your work that I think comes from the directness in which you handle the material. But your work also screams don’t touch me. When I go to the museum I always get in trouble. I see a Calder and I start blowing on it.
BW: (Laughs) I do it to but you’re not supposed to do that. That’s not technically touching.
AP: Right. And when I see your work I want to do the same thing. But at the same time that it’s reaching out to me, I feel like I have to be careful around them.
BW: I really like that you have that reaction. That’s partly what I’m attempting to do with such ordinary things that most people would not even look twice at or things that would end up in the garbage. I attempt to arrange those things in a very serious way and I think that’s part of what’s telling you not to touch it. I want to make you really look at those things and I don’t ever deny that my work has humor to it but it’s also very serious as well. You know, life is serious and this is all stuff from our life.
AP: Earlier, we were discussing Daniel Buren. So much of his work is about taking art to the streets, out of clean spaces. It’s interesting that your work is so much about taking stuff from the streets and putting it into those places.
BW: Right. What an interesting comparison. I think what he did is great and I think it’s just another way of working. I’m not one of those people who don’t like Buren because I don’t do what he does. But I am kind of doing the opposite. It’s sort of funny.
AP: His work is steeped in addressing the museum, the white cube and the institution. Do you think your work does that?
BW: I think I’m addressing that from the other side. I’m playing around with the conventions of art and its presentation. To take these really ordinary objects and make these really formal sculptures and wall pieces. My work has a lot to do with formalism and then to further present those things in a more conventional way of showing art. At least in our modern world, which is like you said, the white cube, the museum, the gallery. I just feel like it’s a foil because of what they’re made of. It almost becomes a question of, “why couldn’t this be art?” That question I think is part of the reason why I like presenting it in that way.
AP: Your painted tin foil containers really threw me for a loop. Those address sculpture and painting in the most one to one way as well as geometric abstraction. They were very shocking to me. I first saw images of those around the holidays. I’m trying to find corn for family dinners and I see those foil containers and I think B. Wurtz. And I’m in the middle of a grocery store! How did those works come about?
B. Wurtz, Untitled (pan paintings), 2002, Acrylic paint on aluminum, 20 1/2 x 12 3/4 x 3 1/4 inches. Photos courtesy of Metro Pictures.
B. Wurtz | Untitled (pan paintings), 1993/2002, Acrylic paint on aluminum. Photos courtesy of Metro Pictures.
BW: I think the way that you described it is exactly what I was trying to do with those pieces. It was absolutely about what is a painting and the blur between sculpture and painting, a painting as an object and the convention of showing a painting on a wall. I also got this totally ordinary object to use…
AP: Well, ordinary but specific to a task and functional.
BW: Well most of my objects are functional.
AP: But those are paintings that could actually be used. You want to make a turkey and you have one of those paintings, put the turkey in the painting and you’ll have a cooked turkey.
BW: (Laughs) Or you make the painting after you cooked the turkey.
AP: They totally have a function outside of being a commodity object. They can be used.
BW: And also they have those amazing designs. Somebody took the time to figure out those patterns and they’re all different. The other thing that I really enjoyed about making those works was that there were so few steps. Often what I do is take these found things and then the task is to deal with them formally which can take a really long time. Changing things; this doesn’t work, I try this and that. It can be a really long process. With those pieces there was something so fun about just getting the pan and then choosing the colors and applying them. And I love the fact that the pattern had been chosen by someone else, someone anonymous, which is even better.
B. Wurtz, Untitled (pan paintings), 1993/2002, Acrylic paint on aluminum. Photo courtesy of Metro Pictures.
AP: What are the conventions that define a painting for you?
BW: I don’t call myself a painter. But I don’t say that I’m not a painter either. I generally like the term sculptor only because it’s more forgiving and inclusive. When I think of painting I don’t generally make paintings with stretcher bars, canvas and paint. For me it becomes about something being on the wall. By something being the wall, it automatically refers to painting. That’s where I play around with the conventions of painting.
AP: So even in painting, there is still this directness in your work, this idea of a one to one. For you the wall opens up the conversation of painting.
BW: If it’s on the wall it automatically relates to painting for me. It’s also interesting that I would be more apt to apply color to something that goes on the wall more so than my free standing sculptures which over the years I generally found that they are much more resistant to taking color that I add. It somehow seems wrong. In the sculptures, I generally deal with color that exists in the objects I use. For me, it has worked better to apply color to the things that go on the wall. I think that’s because they relate to what we’re talking about, the conventions of painting.
AP: Your notebook paintings challenge conventions as well. When I first saw them I laughed, then thought “huh?”, then laughed again. Afterwards, I thought, “Of course it’s ok that B did that. Of course that is a painting.”
BW: It’s great that you saw that because that’s the way I thought of them. They are related to the pans in that when I first saw the notebooks, I was attracted to them because they came in nice colors and I was attracted to them just as objects. Also, the fact that when you open them there is nothing inside and that is interesting to me philosophically. But then back to what we’re saying about painting. I thought those could just be monochrome paintings. They are not totally monochrome because they have metal and the structure I made that supports them but generally I thought of them as little monochrome paintings.
Installation shot, Metro Pictures, B. Wurtz | Notebook, 1980, Wood, notebook, string, 18.75 x 22 x .5 inches, each. Photo courtesy of Contemporary Art Daily.
AP: Since most of your pieces are untitled, the details in your work become heightened and they become a way of describing your work. “What Wurtz piece?” “You know, the one with the hanger that’s twisted like this.” I sometimes find myself performing your pieces in order to describe them. That’s what the untitled opens up.
BW: Right, because you’ve paid enough attention to the work to remember how to describe it. Yes, once in a while a title will sort of happen naturally but generally they are not titled. Part of what I like about that is that it’s not guiding anyone how to react to it. The work is just there for people to look at and get whatever they want to out of it, go as far as they want to with it. Or not. I’m not going to change the world. Artists are not going to change the world even though some people think artists are supposed to change the world. But If I can reach a certain amount of people and they can respond to my work I’m really happy about that.
AP: What do you think the responsibility of an artist is?
BW: I think it is to themselves and to make the work that they somehow need to make. That can be a gift to all the rest of us. I’m not saying that I love all art because I don’t. Some of it I think is really bad or mediocre which might even be worse. But that’s ok. I love to make the work but it’s also not always easy. Sometimes it’s really difficult to figure out how to solve a problem and it’s not always simple for people looking at it but that's part of the fun. It makes us use our brains and it operates on this funny level that is part way between philosophy and the sensation of looking. There is clearly a need for it or it wouldn’t exist. And in a way it is very easy to think that we could all just be fine without art. It’s sort of a silly pursuit but it’s obviously not.
B. Wurtz currently lives and works in New York City. Wurtz has shown nationally and internationally and has most recently shown at White Flags Projects in Saint Louis, MO. In 2011 Metro Pictures opened “B. Wurtz: Works, 1970-2011.” Wurtz is currently preparing for his upcoming solo show at Metro Pictures that will open next month.
Arthur Peña is an artist and professor currently living and working in Dallas, TX.