Willard Boepple’s sculptures flirt with the viewer. Maybe it’s the topsy-turvy flutes and cylinders that seem to grow from a so-called bookshelf or the playful twists of shadow that fall from a tower that cause these objects in Boepple’s live/work space in SoHo to radiate a sense of teasing vitality. The compositional spontaneity conjures plant life and music to the mind. Then again, the very same sculptures are borrowed—at least distantly—from functional objects such as stepladders, and thus echo architecture and industry. Visual associations arise from the suggestion of trumpets and antennas, scrolls of light and debris, but are never satisfied as metaphors. In this way, Boepple’s work taunts the mind into a heightened contemplation of what existing feels like, and delivers perhaps the most effective experience of engaging with abstract art. What is it like to have a body? What is the relationship between a being and its environment?
This July, Boepple will exhibit a monoprint series at Lori Bookstein Fine Art based on his resin sculptures. The monoprints came about when Boepple met the master printer Kip Gresham in Cambridge, England over ten years ago. Additionally, a monograph of Boepple’s work will be published this fall.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
The critic David Cohen has written on your work as a reaction to Plato. How is your work a response to Plato’s notion of forms?
I look to the world of objects for my sculpture, objects made for people to use. Objects designed by people for people to use imply the figure, they have to do with the hand, arm or leg. The height of a chair has all to do with the body’s proportions, a step ladder has to do with how we behave in gravity and the distance between the ankle and knee. A handle has all to do with the length and reach of the arm and hand. This vocabulary of forms really interests me. It’s part of our landscape, we grow up with it, it’s our visual environment—everything around us that is made that isn’t natural comes out of the measures, needs, demands, tastes, inclinations, uses of the body. I think we know much more about that visual world than we realize. There is so much knowledge that is not rationalized or indexed. But when the handle is too low or the step is too shallow . . . what is it about what’s right and what isn’t? What is it about a window that’s a little too high? It looks wrong. We feel it right off the bat. We don’t necessarily articulate it or understand why, but we feel it. We have this accumulated vocabulary of proportions and shapes and sizes. I’m interested in that as source material for abstract sculpture making. I don’t work from the figure directly at all, but I’m very interested in what it’s like to be in the world as a human being, as bodies.
An abstract sculpture has the gift and burden of being in the world without explanation. A painting hangs on the wall and we read it as art whether we like it or not, whether we know what it is or not, we know it’s art. It’s rectangular usually, it hangs on the wall, it has a light on it—oh, it’s art. An abstract sculpture plopped on the floor or on the table—what the heck is that? I’m really interested in the resonance we create with a sculpture that makes us notice it or respond to it emotionally or somehow see something in it that it generates.
Is there a relationship in your sculpture to architecture?
Yes, but my work isn’t functional. I don’t make functional things.
I’m interested in the process by which you find these forms and shape them into an abstract sculpture. How much does the process start in the mind or how much does in start in the physical making of it, which is a Platonic question too.
Process evolves and varies. I work intuitively and in response to certain material stuff, the fact of what’s in front of me, whatever it is. I’m a constructor, I tend to work additively building things rather than chipping away. In the context of the vocabulary of form I described, I will typically begin the sculpture with some kind of construct or object as a starting off point. Step ladders, for example were kind of the beginning of this thinking really. I worked in the early days more out of constructivism and cubist collage. The step ladder really was the beginning. I was looking for a way to make vertical abstract sculpture that didn’t read as figure. You take a pole and stick it in the ground and we read a figure immediately. It’s our ego, our self-centered nature as an animal. So how to make something abstract and vertical that did not do that? Did not simply fight the figure-ness of verticality always? That was the problem I was chewing on and I came upon the step ladder as a form that is both absolutely vertical—it’s meant to get you up—and yet does not read as a figure. It reads much more architecturally and functionally. The late ’70s, early ’80s, I made a series of them, which began this exploration and it was from then that I moved into other objects. More furniture-y. Book shelves, room structures, and the like. With the ladder sculptures, I would actually build the wooden ladders as the beginning proposition and start responding to that, very intuitively, very directly. Let’s take out all the steps. Let’s turn it upside-down. Let’s turn it inside-out. Let’s see where we can go with this thing. Somehow make it speak, make it come alive. Mysterious process, but very much the way I work in the studio.
Plato also proposed a series of dualities: mind/body, good/bad, abstract/material. Is your tendency to move away from function and representation a rebuttal to Platonic dualities?
The first one for me is alive/not-alive. I can’t say that I ever consciously work against some ideal or toward some idea. The idea such as it is begins with that beginning object notion. Let’s see if we can make a sculpture out of this or the idea of this door handle or footstool, a half-open window. It’s like I’m looking for an idea, something new in the world. Looking for signs of life. When the thing comes alive—that mystery of all mysteries—is when you’re dealing with something, is when something starts to happen.
There are two rules in art. The first is it needs to be alive. The second is it has to be good. But the first rule is first, because without that live-ness it can’t be good. Very often the live thing leads to horror—oh my god, what a mess and what have I done and what am I thinking? But when you generate those sorts of reactions in yourself or anyone else, something is cooking, something is happening.
What are signs of life in art?
What are signs of love? I don’t know. Therein lies the center of the mystery. What is it? We just know it when it happens. We know it when we feel it. But what is life is the question you’re asking. I hope and I think that art when it is wonderful and it is great, teaches us about that live-ness. It is about that quality of vividness of two people being together and responding to each other.
So an indication of live-ness is when some sort of exchange develops between an object and a consciousness?
Exchange sounds a little clinical. Some form of communication is at work. When we talk about music . . . music for some reason is very easy for us to talk about in our culture. I think because we don’t doubt that it’s art. We argue and have taste and have standards of good and bad, but you never question what it is. Yet, when you think about it, it is entirely abstract. Music is entirely, internally relational. It’s about sounds juxtaposed to each other in some kind of rhythm. It moves us or doesn’t. We don’t see that way. We’re not as visually comfortable. We want to know what something represents.
Your work has been described as musical, which adds a synaesthesiac quality.
I think more key at least in my ambition for my work is the relational . . . one bit relates to another. The logic that it creates. That’s what it’s about. Thick and thin. High and low. Long and short. Oblique and acute. Therein lies the magic of music.
Has music influenced your work?
I listen to a lot of Bach, but I like a wide-range of music . . . Bob Dylan. I played the cello badly as a kid. My parents are musicians. My mother is a pianist. I grew up around music.
I’m always curious—what do abstract artists get up to as kids? I mean, what were your creative inclinations growing up?
I always wanted to be an artist. I don’t know where that came from or why. When I was young—maybe 12 or 13—I got to know Richard Diebenkorn who was a neighbor and friend of my family. He was very encouraging to me. I used to muck around in my basement where I painted and did stuff. Whenever he came by, he always wanted to have a look and see. Where, this came from, I have no idea. I went to Skowhegan young. I was too young really, but it was a wild adventure. I continued to paint badly through college.
When you were 37, you were hospitalized with a severe case of Guillain-Barre syndrome, and though you recovered, you continue to live with legs that are paralyzed below the knee and limited function of your arms below the elbow. Have these circumstances influenced how you make art?
I have no answer really. Changing the way you work changes your work and inevitably my physical situation has altered my work. That said, I cannot see or say how. I was just starting with the stepladder sculptures—I showed some at Acquavella in 1981 just before I got ill. When I was able to get back to work, I picked up where I left off with them. A lot of people have asked, “Were you making stepladders because you were learning how to walk and climb?”—the metaphor was irresistible. But I started work on the step ladders beforehand. It was not a response to the illness.
I was in the hospital so damn long I had assistants come in and worked verbally because I couldn’t move. Getting back to work was a gift. Illness is so boring. You lie there like a dead fish and well-meaning people look down on you and kind of shout at you because they think you’re deaf and they are asking about your body all the time. Boring. Healing was so slow, incremental. A news flash would go down the hospital hallway that I moved my eyes or moved my shoulder. So when I had some former students (from the Boston Museum School) come in with balsa wood and a glue gun, I could think about making a little something. It was life saving.
How does your upcoming monoprint show at Lori Bookstein fine art relate to your sculpture? How did your making monoprints come about?
My wife and I lived in England for three years beginning in 2001 and I didn’t have a proper sculpture studio, so I thought I’d try out some new media for me. I met the printmaker Kip Gresham—I’d never made a print in my life—and told him I was interested in trying to make some prints that related to my resin sculptures. The resin is translucent in these pieces—you can see into them, through layers of color that live in the light. For the first few sessions, we took shapes right out of the sculpture and used them as templates then filled them, built them up with color.