The art of turning pieces of metal into sculptures
I had noticed the metal sculpture sitting high on a plain wooden table in the back lot of the auction house. It was an appealing work of art, with its jutting angles and open holes, the rust from age giving it a nice patina.
It had obviously been done by someone with a creative mind and skilled hands, and in my mind I noted that the sculptor had done a lovely job.
I moved on to give myself enough time to look at the other items waiting to be auctioned – an oversized bird bath that could accommodate one bird’s family plus a ton of relatives, some chalkboards that looked as if they had been barely used, an empty plastic trash can, an old black pot on a stand. On a long table, I came across a box with two cast-iron muffin pans (which I wanted desperately, but during the bidding, someone else wanted them more).
Soon, I spied another small sculpture sitting on the ground, its jagged edges jutting out fiercely and haphazardly. The edges were gray and the center rusted from weather and age, giving them the appearance of a painted surface. Unlike the first piece with its smooth angles, this sculpture could hurt you.
A few steps away, two other pieces materialized. Wow, I thought. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen several metal sculptures in succession at auction. This was a very artistic offering, but among the scores of other stuff in the yard they were relatively lost – except to me.
The next two pieces had been placed near each other. One looked like a misshapen flower with long stems and metal petals extending from a flat base. It reminded me of one of those NASA space probes. Like the others, it had rusted with age. Next to it was an arrangement of bent rusted bars with a shiny silver one dissecting the center. I wasn’t sure if it was a sculpture or the remnants of some other object.
The final sculpture on the lot was a tight meshing of small gray and brown rusted bars resting at the top of a metal rod attached to a flat base. The bars formed four plates arranged in a crisscross pattern. This piece would look lovely on a tabletop.
None of the pieces were obviously top quality sculptures like a Mel Edwards or David Hammons’ – two African American artists with a sociological bent – or the many others who work in metal or found pieces. Edwards welds together tools, chains, nails, machine parts and more to create ensembles that are described as both abstract and minimalist, but bold in character.
One of Edwards’ most famous sculptures is called “Lynch Fragments,” a series of more than 200 pieces that covers three periods in the history of African Americans – from the early 1960s and civil rights protests to the early 1970s and the Vietnam War to 1978 and beyond.
Hammons began making found-art sculptures in the 1970s, using elephant dung, black hair from a barbershop, chicken bones, bottles and more as a way of showing art as unpretentious. He is also a painter, and seems to listen and dance to his own muse. As a performance art piece in the dead of a snowy winter in 1983, he sold snowballs in the heart of the East Village gallery area in New York to question the presumed value of art, among other things.
In this work, Hammons seems to have used the same type of bars as one of the auction pieces, but his work has more depth: He added copper, wire, hair, stone, fabric, and thread among the spikey spidery look of this “Untitled” sculpture, which is in the Whitney Museum of American Art collection.
The works at auction were likely some weekend hobbyist’s art project – except for the first one, perhaps – and someone in the family or the artist herself/himself felt it was time to part with it. That’s why they ended up outside in the yard where it had rained the night before.
I admire anyone who can turn an idea into something tangible with nothing more than a few objects. As I wandered among the auction offerings looking for more metal sculptures, I stumbled on several pieces of metal bars lying on the ground, five of them resembling crutches, along with flat pieces of metal. Looking at them, I got nothing; my mind could not conceive of them becoming art.
But I knew that in the right hands they could. Here’s what Edwards told a New York Times reporter in an interview last year at his foundry-turned-studio:
“‘In my world, anything might become something,’ he said. ‘And if you stand there too long,’ he added, laughing heartily, ‘you might, too.'”
At a second auction house a few hours later, I found another metal sculpture. Where the others were all angles, this one was round flat planes and open circles. It had been painted by the artist, and the auction house apparently considered it a work of quality art.
A tall upright sculpture, it had been placed inside the auction house, not outside, standing proudly in a room of modern furniture.