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Art In Conversation

Tom Doyle with Phong Bui

On a sunny Saturday late morning this Spring, Rail Publisher Phong Bui paid a visit to the sculptor Tom Doyle’s home/studio in Roxbury, Conneticut, where he has lived with his wife Jane since 1992.

Tom Doyle, <i>Innishkeen</i> (2003).  6’4”h. x 8’5”w. x 10’10”l.  sasafras, oak, cherry.
Tom Doyle, Innishkeen (2003). 6’4”h. x 8’5”w. x 10’10”l. sasafras, oak, cherry.

Phong Bui (Rail): The last time that I saw your work was when you and Lawrence Fane had each selected the other’s work for the two one-man show at Kouros gallery in 1999. I thought of it as a refreshing concept, because in Fane’s work, there seemed to be an interplay between mechanical and organic form. Whereas among your pieces, especially the biggest one, “Knocknarea,” which stood tripodically erect, took up the entire lobby of the gallery, evoking a greater sense of rupture in their spatial balance because they are viscerally made. However different they may appear to be, both Fane and you share a great respect for forms that are made by hand . . .

Tom Doyle: That was and is the common concern for both of our works. And the idea of us doing a show together was to suggest our differences and similarities at the same time. I just like the fact that we each could pick the other’s work without making a big fuss about it.

Rail: Right. Fane’s is invested, in engineering and scientific ideas that derive from as far back as the Renaissance while yours is more identified with Abstract Expressionist space and perhaps dance movement . . .

Doyle: Yeah. That seems like a fair description.

Rail: Where did you grow up and what was your first experience in making sculpture?

Doyle: I grew up in a very small town called Jerry City in northwestern Ohio, and while I was in grade school, I worked at a blacksmith’s shop, where I would make all the toys for the rest of the kids in town. I just admired the way the blacksmith worked. His name was Chet Frankfarther. He was like an inventor: if he needed a tool, he made it. Later, in High School in Medina Ohio, I played football and my coach taught a mechanical arts class where everyone else was making lamps. I was whittling and carving all sorts of different things. He said to me, “This is wonderful, Tom; someday you’ll be a great sculptor.” That was the first time I heard the word “sculpture” in that context. He also gave me books on mythology which had all of those wonderful illustrations of Greek and Roman sculptures. So I thought, That’s a great idea; I think I’ll be a sculptor. Meanwhile, the Second World War was going on, and I wanted to join the army in order to get out of town. After being in the army on the GI bill I went to Miami University in Ohio to play football. But, thinking back, while I was playing football in the army, with some of the guys who had played for the Chicago Bears—they were real pros—I’d sort of gotten out of the idea of being an athlete. After a year I transferred to Ohio State University where I met and studied with both Roy [Lichtenstein] and Stanley [Twardowicz], which solidified my early desire to be a sculptor.

Rail: So they were your mentors.

Doyle: Roy in particular. He rented me a room in his house and I used to watch him work. He didn’t get tenure, so he was home all the time. It was like having an apprenticeship.

Rail: What sort of work were you doing then?

Doyle: I was doing primitive carvings—because I was a primitive. I did one of Adam and Eve that looks like [Fernand] Legér-esque form, but I wasn’t thinking of Legér, I was thinking of it being realism. (laughter) There’s another one I did of a figure in cherry wood, which I put in the Ohio State Fair, and won second prize. [Roy Lichtenstein won first prize,] so that was really a nice start, right? (laughs) I remember Roy’s Indian Sculptures that were built from packing crates—that was always in the back of my mind.

Rail: Serious beginning... Were you aware of Brancusi at the time?

Doyle: Yeah, but I was really more interested in Henry Moore. His work was more figurative, which is something I was more involved in at that time. My work evolved from carving, which is putting space into mass—then mass into space—or—putting air into form. In other words, when you’re carving, instead of being centripetal or centrifugal, I was more interested in the possibility of expansion. When I eventually saw the paintings of de Kooning and Pollock I thought of their monumental structure and all-over sense of composition, especially with Kline. His calligraphic gestures reminded me of bridges which I loved as a kid. I mean bridges are real structure and there’s no 90 degree angles in most of them. Everything moves differently. Also, working with wood there are different wieghts—oak being heavy as opposed to cherry or sasafras, which are lighter, so I can use them to counterbalance each other in space.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Rail: The general presumption of sculptors of the previous and your generation is that sculpture derived from painting. I have in mind Chuck Ginnever and Mark di Suvero. But whereas with Ginnever’s work, it seemed to be gesturally leaning towards Pollock, both di Suvero and you share the strong affinity with Kline. However, there are two aspects in Kline’s paintings: one is architectural and monumental, which makes sense. With di Suvero’s use of urban found objects and materials that he salvaged from abandoned buildings around the city, such as beam, railroad tires, logs, his work is compelled to be more, I would say, environmental. On the other hand, Kline’s non-figural and infinite scale appeals to your interest in the sensuality of form and surface, and above all, the human scale.

Doyle: Yeah. Human scale is important to me, was and is. Even with the early work like the deck pieces, because the idea was that you could walk around them. [Similar to Al Kresch’s paintings, which is about walking,] I like the idea that you see the sculpture with your feet. It’s a kind of kinesthetic thing, not just a visual thing that you look at. Also there’s no front or back or anything. You just have to walk around in order to see the whole thing.

Rail: When you came to New York in 1957 did you get to know artists like James Rosati, George Spaventa, William King, Gabriel Kohn...

Doyle: I was never that close with Rosati or Spaventa, but Gabe Kohn was a terrific sculptor. His work was so important to me both in terms of material and form. So was Bill King. (He was teaching the kids at Brooklyn Museum Art School, but he quit and gave me that job which I did for a while.) His work was closer to me because I was still figurative then —but his work was built and not carved so that it eventually led me to abstraction. Anyway, I visited Gabe Kohn’s studio a couple times, and he always played down the idea of how people would say all kinds of misleading things about his work, comparing them to cabinetry and so on, which was not his thing. I work very hard to get all my joints to fit together, so I understand how great his are. Even details like that count because that’s what holds the form. I think he’s a terribly neglected sculptor, don’t you?

Rail: I do. I feel the same way of Raoul Hague, who also worked in wood and had an amazingly restrained feeling of form. But as for Kohn, in spite of the fact that he had adopted carpentry vocabulary of doweling, laminating and joining in relation to his constructionist-based aesthetic . . .

Doyle: It’s almost architectonic. Most of us were trying to open things up, with this new spatial idea. That’s the reason why I was and still am not able to relate to David Smith’s work, because they’re mostly frontal. Smith opened up space, but it was in a painterly sense. They’re mostly frontal, which is similar to paintings’ two dimensional entity.

Rail: When and how did you meet Franz Kline?

Doyle: I first met Franz in the fall of 1957 at the first party I went to with Stanley, who was sort of courting Betty Parson at the time, and it was there that I also met Saul Steinberg, Theodore Stamos, and Tony Smith. Pollock wasn’t there because it wasn’t Tuesday (he only came into town on Tuesday to see his shrink). It was a big party and we all drank, and Stanley had a Jeep station wagon with a mattress in the back, so we, I, Franz and a few others all got in the back of it to go to the Cedar. Franz was the greatest talker. I mean ... he really never talked all that much about art directly, but it was always around and everything was somehow about art. He talked about football, baseball, he talked about jazz and Wagner, he talked about Pennsylvania and where he’d grown up in coal mining territory, everything, but it was always about art. It was very Joycean, kind of stream-of-consciousness. It was just marvelous and poetic.

Rail: What happened next?

Doyle: My mother had cancer, so I went back to Ohio in ‘58 to take care of her. And while I was there, I did three or four pieces, and one of them I consider to be my first one that expands out into space.

"Stillman." 1958. Found wood. 36"H x 26"W x 32"L. Collection of the artist.

Rail: You mean “Stillman”?

Doyle: Yeah, I’ve always considered that piece as my breakthrough work. At any rate, in the same year after my mother passed away. I had little money, but I’d somehow managed to do a lot of work. I was included in a group show New Forms-New Media at the Martha Jackson gallery. Bill Giles did a wooden elevator; [Claes] Oldenburg did the poster for the show. John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, and Jasper Johns were hanging next to Jean Arp, Alberto Burri, Yves Klein. Both Lawrence Alloway and Allan Kaprow wrote essays for the catalogue. That was a real important event because it revolved what was going on in New York after Abstract Expressionism. It wasn’t denying Abstract Expressionism, but it was going away from it, doing something new by focusing on and being innovative with new materials. Martha Jackson even let assistants who worked for her in the gallery put up shows together in the spring, and it was so popular that they did it again in the fall. (Time magazine June 20, 1960)

Rail: She was definitely unique, partly because she had studied with Hans Hofmann before opening her gallery in 1953.

Doyle: Yeah, she even invited Allan (Kaprow) to fill the courtyard of the gallery with used tires. It was an amazing show.

Rail: Given the excitement of a lot of people doing different things, did all of that have an effect on your work?

Doyle: Yes and no. Things tend to happen by chance for me. What happened was, I was building a loft for Ornette Coleman, and Bill Giles’ girlfriend Anna Moreska (this was long before he was married to Lee Bontecou) who was working at [Leo] Castelli’s gallery at the time. Once Ivan Karp said to her, “Do you know of a wood sculptor?” And Annie responded, “You mean you don’t know about Tom Doyle? He’s the greatest wood sculptor around.” So he called me up. He said he would come, and he did. He said my work was like Marks and Chuck Ginnever’s—who I didn’t know at the time. Then later he came with Leo Castelli. And Leo got me into the show at Cornell University, where Chuck Ginnever was getting his MFA. So I met Chuck and Peter Forakis and eventually got to know Mark (di Suvero) right after his accident. Actually Chuck and I went to visit Mark while he was in the hospital and we helped him put up his first show. In those days everybody was helping each other; it was a real community. All of our works have some overlapping of similarity, but each of us has our own character. It wasn’t like some definite idea, but things were in the air. It’s like, Picasso and Braque didn’t sit down and say, tomorrow, we’re going to invent Cubism.

Rail: And neither of them read Theory of Relativity, nor did they cross paths with Einstein. Except for Juan Gris...

Doyle: Well, just like Pop Art. Roy is doing this and Warhol is doing that; the same thing can be said of Abstract Expressionism and what happened with the development of sculpture coming after. I mean young sculptors of my generation saw their paintings and wanted to express them in real space.

Rail: What were your feelings toward the emergence of reductive form and conceptual content that led to Primary Structure show that Kynaston McShine curated at the Jewish Museum in 1966 in which your work was included?

Doyle: You know, I was friends with Sol [Lewitt] and Bob [Ryman] ...we all lived on or around the Bowery then and there was that whole thing going on with what Lucy Lippard called the Bowery Boys. We all got together and used to see each other a lot. I wasn’t really part of it, but I wasn’t out of it either. It wasn’t the same kind of thing, it wasn’t that doctrinaire.

Rail: Could you also describe how your works were changed, if at all, by your experience of being in Germany?

Doyle: A group of collectors and Museum directors fom Switzerland and Germany were in New York. Al Held brought Arnhold Rutlinger from Basel to my studio and he offered me a show there. I was working with Blue Stone slabs held together with epoxy. The joints were stronger than the stone, so transporting them would be difficult. Arnhold Scheidt said I could use one of his buildings in Kettwig as there was similar stone there. Eva [Hesse], my wife at the time, was worried about going back to Germany, but I said it would be a wonderful time to work free of the New York scene and to develop new ideas. You don’t have to worry about people looking over your shoulder. I had always wanted to work with iron and wood together, and once I got there I found I had the use of all the steel and welders I wanted, so I never worked in stone there. Rutlinger didn’t like this work, but Harald Szeemann did, so I had a show in Bern with an all star cast.

Rail: It’s fair enough.

Doyle: That’s right. It was just a period of experimentation. When Eva started doing sculpture I felt very happy for her because with her paintings there was always an anxiety-ridden feeling, and that was very hard for her.

Rail: It’s true. Her paintings never quite had the kind of fluidity as her drawings did, but they certainly were intense.

Doyle: Well, the last few reliefs gave signs of what she would do in her sculptures.

Rail: Definitely.

Doyle: While we were in Germany I’d started laminating Masonite. I would wet Masonite with hot water, and then let that set. Then it gets soaked and then you bend it and put glue between it and let it cure, and then it stays that way because of the lamination, like the way plywood is made. It’s the first time I had something cast in Dusseldorf. I thought I could do it in aluminum, because if I did it in bronze it would be too heavy. There was this German sculptor who knew a great deal about casting. He and I went to different art dealers and they weren’t interested in paying for the production so we took it to a factory and these guys cast it. Then when they brought it out it was fantastic! Wunderbar. I really liked it and I was saying all the wonderful German words I knew. I shook all their hands; it was a productive time.

Rail: Did that experience carry through in the proceeding work that you did once you came back to New York?

Doyle: Yeah. I did “Laverne” which was made out of a thrown-away hand truck. “Over Owl’s Creek” is basically a floor piece made out of plywood for my first show at Dwan. “Over Owl’s Creek” later was included in the Primary Structure show at the Jewish Museum in 1967, then again at L.A. County Museum’s American Sculpture of the Sixties, also in 1967, and at the Philadelphia Museum in 1968 where the show traveled.

Rail: When did the tripodic structure occur in your work?

Doyle: From the very beginning. I was always involved with how to make something stand in space and sustain itself with just three legs. Besides its being symbolic, because of all the magical things about three such as the trinity, on a practical level, three will stand anywhere; four has to be level. When I did the first piece “Stillman,” I knew that was it.

Rail: You can certainly see that it was nailed, glued added in parts which altogether create this precarious and spontaneous structure.

Doyle: You know, the base is an off-balance base. It’s still a denial of base. That’s really the last piece I did with a base, but if it’s standing on three it can stand anywhere.

Rail: That’s when it moved from a base or pedestal, therefore the scale changes.

Doyle: Yeah. The whole idea of a base to me and artists of my generation was too much associated with the past like monument or equestrian statues and so on. We just wanted to do something else.

Rail: Were you friendly with Sydney [Geist], who, in addition of being a sculptor himself, wrote an important monograph on Brancusi scholar and...

Doyle: Yeah, Sydney wrote about my work in his pamphlet Scrap. I think I told him that I wanted my work to be not like a figure or a landscape but rather I wanted my work to be more of a place like Stonehenge. It’s not architecture, but a spiritual place.And it was very incredible because when I found out that Stonehenge was made of bluestone, and I was using bluestone, it was kind of spooky, a very interesting connection.

Rail: But it doesn’t have to be site-specific, which was what process and earth artists were trying to get to.

Doyle: No, you could put them down anywhere, you could move them around. In 1977 I built a piece at The Nassau County Museum that projected out over a cliff in front of the Museum, which was site specific.

Rail: I wonder if you think often of dance in reference to your work.

Doyle: I love to dance, and I really feel connected with dance because it is connected to the whole flow of the movement while maintaining a certain balance. I really am interested in how a bridge is built and the movement of dance. I like structure but I also love free movement. I mean the structure is very important: how to make it come together as one form. It’s an organic process. That’s why I say I don’t draw. I usually have no idea what that piece is going to look like. I do have an idea of what kind of weight or the size I want, but I have no idea what it’s going to look like, I really don’t have a clue. Somehow after some trials and errors it all works out in the end because I know the weights of what I work with. I pick up and handle each piece of wood. I carve the trees with my chainsaw mill and I am in essence making my own found objects. They become my palette in a way..

Rail: Were you at all friendly with that the group of artists who were showing at Park Place Gallery who were interested in mathematics, cutting-edge engineering and architecture as well as electronic music and minimal art?

Doyle: When I’d just gotten back from Germany, Frosty Meyers and Tony Magar came over to visit my studio. I was aware of what they were doing but I was always a little more independent. I just have kind of kinesthetic ideas about space and weight and form. Some years earlier, the two artists who came to my studio and thought what I was doing was exciting were Al Held and George Sugarman. I was just painting my sculpture with color and George was just starting to use color in his work at the same time, so the two of them were talking about the work for a long time and I was just sort of there. (laughs)

Rail: Well, Al could definitely talk.

Doyle: Yeah, right. So could George. They used to argue all the time.

Rail: Was there a particular dealer who responded to your work during that period?

Doyle: Yeah. Allan Stone came to my studio, and as a result, I had a few shows at his gallery. I eventually got him to show Eva as well.

Rail: What was your relationship with Philip Pavia?

Doyle: I never had anything to do with him. But he did a lot; he really held The Club together. The Club was great. There was a whole ritual where you’d go to the Cedar Tavern, have a few drinks, then go to The Club, then there’d be all this discussion, and then there’d be a party afterward. We’d go to the Five Spot and listen to Monk or Coltrane.

Rail: How did you feel about Robert Morris and Donald Judd, who wrote a great deal, and have different ideas about new forms in sculpture?

Doyle: What they were doing didn’t affect me at all, partly because I really didn’t care about the politics of what was going on in the art world. I read Judd’s writings and I got what he was trying to advocate—to me Judd was a real critic, because he would say: This is what my friends are doing and this is what I’m doing, this is good or this is bad and it was all judged on his criteria. Besides he was an artist.

Rail: And his writings were just as good as his sculptures.

Doyle: Yeah. I always thought his writings had a great kind of Gertrude Stein- esque quality: this is this, this is this.

Rail: The repetition.

Doyle: Right, but in a very kind of matter-of-fact way.

Rail: So did you get along with Judd okay?

Doyle: When I was doing a piece for the government we ran into him in Washington D. C.; so Jane and I had a drink with him. He said, “I hate trees” And I said, What? How can you hate trees? I love trees, I mean my whole life is making sculpture out of trees. I mean I do everything in sculpture except plant the goddamn tree. I cut the tree down, I cut it up, I do it all. But you know what is interesting is when we went to Marfa later, there’s not a single tree in sight.

Rail: That makes a lot of sense.

Doyle: I must admit, I really liked his work much more at Marfa than at any other place. It was so metaphysical, almost, the aluminum things almost dissolved like they were made of ice. The way they reflected and absorbed the light, it was really very beautiful, really marvelous. Also the Chamberlains, they were the best Chamberlains I’ve ever seen.

Rail: That’s a sculptor who shares the same interest in calligraphic gesture as you, but his work is more akin to de Kooning, whereas yours is closer to Kline. What do you think of Chamberlain’s recent work in the last two decades?

Doyle: I always say that John used to work with Fords and Chevys and now he works with Maseratis and Rolls Royces.

Rail: The form doesn’t hold the same kind of physicality and aggression.

Doyle: Well, just like most artists when they were younger you feel the push pull, full of tension and everything about it is marvelous and strong. But when they get older, their work gets simpler, even in some cases sweeter.

Rail: Without losing the rigor like the late Matisse, de Kooning, Louise Bourgoise...

Doyle: Yeah. Anyway, when John Chamberlain and I were both showing at Martha Jackson’s, we were down in the cellar soldering a sculpture together, and he opens up his toolbox and he’s got pot. So we smoked some, then got in his Volkswagon van, and we were driving down Park Avenue past some fancy hotel and there were all these people surrounding some celebrity, and John said, I’d like to be that famous. And I said, I want to be famous enough to forget about being famous. (laughter)

Rail: Is there a reason why you have been so reluctant to show your work for so long?

Doyle: Well. A while ago I told a dealer that, “You know, I felt like a girl who quit the whorehouse when she found out the others were getting paid...I mean I only did it for love.”


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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