State of the Art: Robert Gray

STATE OF THE ART 
ROBERT GRAY

Art Is Work

1. Abstract Summer

During the summer of 1968, eleven abstract sculptors descended upon the quiet mill town of Proctor for the Vermont International Sculptors Symposium, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Vermont Council on the Arts, and the Symposion Europaischer Bildhauer.

The Vermont Marble Company, where my father worked for most of his short life, provided about five acres of land as a public studio and offered the visiting artists their choice of marble blocks weighing as much as 12 tons. The sculptors were Yasuo Mizui (Japan), Fritz Hertlauer and Karl Prantl (Austria), Janez Lenassi (Yugoslavia), Herbert Brauman and Erich Reischke (Germany), Barna Von Sartory (Hungary), and Phillip Pavia, Minoru Niizuma, Paul Aschenbach, and Kenneth Campbell (United States).

A year later, I worked during my college summer vacation in the marble mill’s Finishing Shop, a long factory building directly across the yard from where the monolithic sculptures were still on exhibition. At the far end of the shop, a less celebrated group of international artists–Italian stone carvers and sculptors who turned out marble angels, Madonnas, saints, and elaborate headstones with elegant proficiency–were working, as they had been for decades, generations.

The abstract intruders had been gone for nearly a year, but the factory artists still scoffed at what had been left behind. I heard them grumble about those wild men, a demon squad of long-haired strangers armed with pneumatic chisels and hammers, boundless energy and crazed imaginations.

Thieves.

Pretenders.

Con artists.

Hippies.

A lot of words were tossed around that summer. The Italians complained that the “artists” (air quotes hadn’t been invented yet, and these guys wouldn’t have used them anyway, but if ever there was a good reason to…) had hammered and drilled and carved and chipped and chiseled and hacked away at their blocks until there was nothing left but rubble. They pointed out an immense horseshoe and a stack of unfinished blocks and slabs. They scoffed at holes drilled into the center of a block or chaotic scalloping along the surface. They puzzled over the smoothing of rough edges or the edging of smooth surfaces.

“They fuck up good stone, and for what?” the sculptors demanded. “Nothing came out of those blocks for them. Nothing! They attack marble like thieves trying to break down a door.” Speculation had it that the marble held back its secrets from these charlatans. They said since I was the college kid, I should explain this craziness. I couldn’t. I liked the abstract blocks, but I had no language for what I could see.

Ironically, in the Summer 1969 issue of Art Journal, Robert Rieff criticized the Symposium artists for their generally conservative approach: “Although the sculptors had absolute freedom, the venture was not sparked by a radical spirit.” My co-workers at the mill would have disputed that theory. They were not at a loss for words to describe what they saw. “Radical” would have been the nicest.

2. World’s Largest Marble Exhibit

Once there was a marble industry in Proctor, but now there is the Vermont Marble Museum, which bills itself as the “World’s Largest Marble Exhibit.” Located in the otherwise abandoned building where I worked briefly more than four decades ago, the museum includes a small chapel, a hall of presidential busts, historical/geological displays, and a showroom featuring models of a marble kitchen and bathroom.

I still visit once or twice a year, an odd pilgrimage I don’t quite understand myself. After paying my admission fee I enter, often in the wake of bus tourists or families so bored with their vacations that even a trip to this place seems like a good idea.

Upon entering, the first thing I hear is a familiar, stern, and authoritative male voice drift from the small movie theater, where a grainy, 20-minute history of the Vermont Marble Company replays on an endless loop. I’ve seen the film dozens of times, but I always watch again as Man triumphs over Stone, emptying the earth of its bounty. No mention is made of Mother Nature’s revenge, however, since by now most of the workers in that movie are back underground, their graves marked by the same stone they extracted for so many years.

After the movie, I walk down a short corridor that leads to an exhibition room where The Story of Marble–from the pre-Cambrian period to contemporary times–is depicted on the walls, offering a neatly synthesized lesson in text, illustrations, and blown-up photographs of grim, gaunt, and ghoulish marble men at work.

“Contemporary times” is a fiction, of course, because the marble industry in this area essentially vanished in 1976 when the Vermont Marble Company was sold to a Swiss company, Pluess-Stauffer A.G., now OMYA A.G., which is a purveyor of what might be called powdered marble in the form of calcium carbonates.

Think toothpaste. Think Tums.

I move along quickly to my favorite room, which is low-ceilinged but as big as a gymnasium. It contains marble samples from all over the planet and used to be a sales showroom. The slabs are displayed vertically, like an art exhibition, and bathed in natural light streaming through banks of factory windows.

Walking the narrow aisles, I move from one slab to the next as if each were a separate canvas: Highland Danby, Verde Antique, Regal White Danby, Westland Green Veined Cream, Pico Green, Westland Cippolino, Neshobe Gray Clouded, Champlain Black, Light Cloud, Mariposa Danby, Royal Antique, Striped Brocadillo, Best Light Cloud, Verdoso, Plateau Danby, Olivo.

God’s abstract period.

Standing before a slab of Best Light Cloud, I see my reflection in the highly polished surface. Mill workers once polished marble here to a smooth, honed finish (220 grit), with little or no gloss. For a true polished finish, an 800 grit polishing head was employed for the final abrasive step because, well, sometimes a little abrasion is necessary to smooth things out.

I move in closer, press my hand against the stone to feel an ancient, subterranean chill. Then I withdraw, just a bit, and study the surface with such intense concentration that I can see flecks of crystals glimmer in the subtly changing light. I take another step back and the crystals became delicate veins of soft color.

If I were thinking like a scientist, I’d consider the fact that the colors, veining, clouds, mottling, and shadings in marble are caused by extraneous substances introduced in minute quantities during formation. The movement of the earth’s crust caused the wavelike configuration of the veining. Those veins are cracks or sedimentary layers that have been filled by minerals to become permanent characteristics as a result of metamorphism.

At least that’s what they tell me at the museum

There is a cool purity to marble, despite the flaws that are its essential nature. If that purity comes from metamorphism–adjusting to circumstances–then lessons can be learned there, too.

The astonishing beauty of marble is a product of death, which makes the stone’s ubiquitous presence in cemeteries more than just symbolic. The museum tells me that calcite marbles are almost pure calcium carbonate rocks; recrystalized limestone of marine and mostly organic origin. Champlain Black, for example, is essentially a calcite marble and mainly organic in origin, with abundant fossils.

I sit on a bench and watch sunlight alter stone.

“Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave,” Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden. “I love better to see stones in place.”

I think about my father as a young man, and the other guys who worked in this mill and in the quarries, always dwarfed by stone, like the men in those ancient drawings of the slaves who built the pyramids.

Thoreau again: “Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East, to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them, who were above such trifling.”

Thoreau didn’t understand.

I do.

“As for the Pyramids,” he wrote, “there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.”

I believe that these guys, my father and most of the others I knew, would have cut stone for the pyramids if they’d been ordered to do so.

Just another job.

Punch in. Punch out.

Have a few beers. Bitch about it.

Do it again tomorrow.

3. Ghosts in Gray Mirrors

At 240,000 square feet, Dia: Beacon, a former Nabisco box-printing plant nestled on the banks of the Hudson River about 60 miles north of New York City, is one of the largest museums in the world devoted to contemporary art.

As the son and grandson of marble mill workers, I’ve observed with vested interest the evolution in recent decades of New England’s abandoned factory buildings into boutique malls, craft co-ops, condominiums, artists’ studios, museums, and galleries. The changes seem at once natural and unnatural, as if dinosaurs had survived and were learning to speak, but were still dinosaurs–out of their place, out of their time.

Several years ago, I visited Dia: Beacon–just another factory, another dead mill town, but something happened that day. A ghost story of sorts.

Walking through the museum, it was hard not to think of the old, mostly abandoned marble mill buildings in Proctor, to consider again the polished slabs in the “Marbles of the World” room, and their shadowy reflections of the person standing before them.

Me.

You.

What do we see?

I wandered past Dan Flavin’s fluorescent-light works without pausing–not uninterested and, I hope, not a philistine, but also not fully engaged. I moved through galleries featuring Hanne Darboven’s epic history collage Kulturgeschite, 1880-1985 and Andy Warhol’s visual echo series of paintings titled Shadows.

I was restless, still moving. What was I looking for?

Just looking, I might have said in a store.

Just looking.

As I crossed over to the other side of the building, I barely glanced at Walter De Maria’s The Equal Area Series–polished stainless-steel geometric circles and squares laid out on the hallway floors. Through other rooms–more geometry in Blinky Palermo’s acrylic panels, a whiter shade of pale in Robert Ryman’s white-paint panels, and time standing still in On Kawara’s Today Series.

Just looking.

Back to the hall with the De Maria, then through a door and down a brief hall, I finally found what I was looking for, though I didn’t know this yet.

It was an installation by Gerhard Richter. The guide pamphlet informed me this piece was titled Six Gray Mirrors (Sechs graue Spiegel). These were versions of the artist’s gray paintings, some of which had been included in the Richter retrospective I saw in 2002 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

For his Dia installation, Richter had placed the six glass mirrors, cantilevered about twenty-nine inches from the wall, in a white room. There was one at either end. Two other pairs faced one another along the walls, though they do not quite face off. The mirrors were slightly angled, so that, as I stood in front of them, each offered a slightly different reflection. In one I saw myself, or rather a gray, shadowy reflection. Behind me I saw the occasional passing specter of a museum visitor. In another mirror, tilted upward, I saw me again, but suddenly my attention was deflected to the factory windows above, which provided the only light for this room.

Those windows changed everything.

I’d been moving aimlessly through the museum until then, interested but restless as a fly–landing and leaving, landing and leaving. Now I had arrived. I could feel it, but I didn’t know what that feeling meant.

Ghosts.

When I walked into the Richter room, I carried some of the baggage I’d acquired from the earlier MOMA retrospective. I expected the Richter cool, the Richter detachment, the Richter intelligence. And at first I saw precisely what I expected to see and might have moved on.

But, for some reason, I stayed and moved slowly from one gray mirror to the next. No one else was in the room at first, and then I saw the reflection of a man in a wheelchair as he rolled by, followed by an elderly couple. Some kids dashed through, using the room as a passageway to somewhere else, not even pausing to look around. I heard their voices fade, hushed because of where they were, yet bursting with energy at the frayed seams of their best behavior.

Nobody remained long. Soon I was alone again, standing before a gray mirror that tilted upward slightly. The factory windows above heightened my sense of time suspended because they no longer seemed to open upon the world I’d left behind when I entered this museum. Their glow was ethereal, a little disturbing.

Ghosts.

Ghosts did join me in the room: ghosts of marble workers over decades, over centuries; ghosts in mills and quarries, standing near gang saws or beside marble blocks as big as their company houses. This factory in Beacon, NY echoesd that mill in Vermont; gray mirrors by a German artist reflecting my ancestors.

Be careful. Art is dangerous.

4. The Marble Man

There’s a dream I’ve had more than once, another spectral reflection. In the dream, I stand alone in the dark kitchen of a house I don’t recognize. Moonlight beams through a small window above the sink. I take a glass from the cupboard and turn on the tap. As the glass fills, I grope in a space over the sink for a switch to the fluorescent bulb.

During the moment before the light glows, when it flickers as if gasping for breath, I think I see somebody near the kitchen table. The light comes on, but there are only the four kitchen chairs and the black marble tabletop. I turn the light off, lean back against the sink, and wait for my eyes to adjust to the change.

Yes, something or someone is definitely there, sitting at the table. I can’t risk the slightest movement. I can’t even speak, though my mouth instinctively forms an unspoken, one-word question:

Dad?

The figure at the table looks up slowly, then turns toward me.

My father wasn’t a tall man, but still gave the impression of bulk because of his full shoulders and chest. In the dream, he is dressed in the same dark green work clothes dredged in white/gray dust that he wore during all those years with the marble company.

He is a stone man, at once ordinary and monumental, as if Rodin had imagined him but George Segal had sculpted him. His steel-toed work boots are coated with mud; even his face has a blue-gray tint. He sits rigid and upright, his hands planted firmly on his thighs. He seems to be looking straight at me, though his eyes are shadows, like the eyeholes carved in marble statues.

He nods.

I nod back, but cannot meet his stare for long and glance away.

When I look one more time, my old man has vanished again.

5. Art is Work

You always bring something to the art that reaches you, that knocks you on your ass. What I had brought to that Gerhard Richter installation at Dia: Beacon was a working class upbringing, a father and grandfather who worked in marble quarries and mills, and a job I had for a couple of summers in the Finishing Shop. Decades later, as I stood before the gray slab mirror that reflected ghosts, I also brought that connection I always make with the “Marbles of the World” exhibit in Proctor–a personal context that at once transcends the art experience and is its essence.

I’m no art critic. I barely know what I like. But I always bring my desperate need to make a connection between art, life, and work. In Richter’s Six Six Gray Mirrors, the reflections are limitless, mirror upon mirror: reflections of the people and physical attributes of the room itself; reflections of the past, Richter’s and my own; reflections of dead workers in a Vermont marble mill; reflections upon the reflections that I see as well as the ones I imagine.

The Richter mirrors are as gray as my name, as mist that clouds memory, as the shadows reflected.

I sometimes wonder if all those mill workers would resent the transformation of these cluttered, noisy, dark places (the clean and incandescent banks of factory windows that illuminate these museums were opaque with dust and grime not so long ago) where they spent their lives into bright, quiet, nearly empty spaces where art resides?

Is it sacrilege?

No.

Is it a tribute to their hard labor?

Definitely not.

It is, ultimately something entirely different. The mill workers still haunt these spaces, but only when we force them to because of our own memories or expectations. Factory buildings are not shrines or cathedrals. They are not battlefields. They are “place” and place is organic as well as spectral. In these old places, people worked, made friends as well as enemies, watched the clock, kept an eye out for the boss, tried not to get hurt, hoped to just get by. Good days or bad, they had to be here.

Instead of a museum or condo development, maybe they’d have preferred another fate for all those marble mills and box-printing plants. Something along the lines of “let the son of a bitch burn to the ground.”

Maybe not.

The ghosts? They just shrug and get back to work.

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Robert Gray works as an editor and weekly columnist at Shelf Awareness, which publishes two newsletters–one for general readers and one for people in the book business. He launched his book blog, Fresh Eyes Now, in 2004. Gray has written for numerous publications, including Tin House, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazinePublishers Weekly andCimarron Review. From 1992 until 2006, he was a bookseller and buyer at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt. He has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College and lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y..

More from Robert Gray:

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