No getting cozy; no sense propping up a window, leaning back in a chair or adjusting the lamp. There is a story to tell and snap shots to look at, but this will be over before it starts. It is two words on the sculptor Mowry Baden and his “Leisure Monuments”. The story itself, incidentally, which contains the key to the whole of Baden’s work, is selected from a spacious friendship of many years that began on a snowy night in the city of Victoria, on Vancouver Island, Canada—where Baden has lived and worked most of his life. That evening I sat in the front seat of Mowry’s station wagon with him, and I’m sure that we talked a lot, the way people do when they know they are going to be good friends. But whatever the conversation was about, what I mostly remember from that drive—and I marveled at it then, silently, to myself—was that there was no perceptible difference between the effect of Mowry’s foot on the gas pedal, and when he put his foot on the brake. Either way, we sailed uninterruptedly, in an easy high gear—the snow arcing high over the hood—through green light and red light, with all the occult satisfactions of the color blind.
And here is what I take to be the definitive story of the artist that I met that night: Mowry Baden began his career as a painter. He did well and attracted notice; there was a short review of his work in the early ’60s by Donald Judd; there was a dealer in Manhattan; Mowry sold some paintings. The owner of one of these paintings called on an afternoon to ask Mowry if he could repair a scratch it had somehow picked up. Mowry stopped by and as he held the canvas at arm’s length, inspecting it, he assured the owner that he could see exactly what the problem was. Then, with considerable pelvic coordination—Mowry had been a football player—he put his foot straight through the stretchers.
Plainly, this was more a sculptor’s—than a painter’s—way of making a point. And Mowry Baden was henceforth a sculptor. It may be, in fact, that in the mind of that sculptor the fully re-arranged, dangling canvas stretchers, willfully there in his hands, have ever since counted as Opus #1.
Now, here’s the point of the story and the key to Mowry Baden’s work. Opus #1 was not repeatable, as such. Obviously, and by definition, Baden was no longer a painter with stretchers to concuss. But the sum total of the works that he then went on to construct, in the intervening forty-some years since, have amounted to a massed phalanx of devises and installations that are set up to carry out that very same, exact deed: to fulfill a longing for reality that acts to strike off the veil. What is amazing in these devices and installations is that in them Baden figured out how to get others to do the deed themselves. If you think you would not have the pelvic mobility to put your foot directly through the wooden stretchers of life’s appearances—held at arm’s length—try one of Mowry Baden’s Hamlet machines.
Lie down, for instance, on “I Can See the Whole Room,” and you’ll regard the ceiling through a tilted plexiglass windshield, which also dimly reflects your own face and the room. Wiggle your feet several times and the bed, mounted on a broad-circumference snow saucer, snaps on its headlights—intensifying the ambient reflection in the plexiglass—and rotates a quarter turn under you. The factual sight of the ceiling is relativized by the plexiglass reflection in such a way as to make a felt and unprecedented discovery available: that vision as such maintains an adhesively tentacular grasp on its object field. This is perceived in the moment of its suspension. For the rotation of the bed causes the retinal suction cups to toss free from their grip on the ceiling, releasing the weight of your body into the bed’s attendant depth. Wiggle your feet a few more times and, with relief, it happens all over again. One dismounts the bed wondering what living would be like without clinging to the cavern walls.
Or, try “Pavilion Rock and Shell,”—a sculpture now situated in front of an athletic stadium in Victoria, Canada. The work was publicly funded, but all the same its installation got the whole town up in arms—for and against—and in the Canadian press the dispute became a topic of national discussion. Put that out of your mind and give the installation, in its several terrestrial dimensions, all the time it needs. But when you’re done walking around and through the sculpture and ready to think about it, see if you can figure out where you have just been.
Or, take the load off and try “Fickle Periptery’s” rocking chair, even if it’s true that in this case you have to row your own boat. Once seated, you’ll find your eyes fixed on a screen, preoccupied by a divergence of overlapping ceiling and lap-level reflections. Prometheus himself obliges each visitor to commit to the eventual convergence of the wayward images, and Tantalus chimes in from his corner to insist that the rocking of the chair is the only way to go. But the chair’s own momentum and glide continually set the images out of sync with each other, which motivates more rocking, each time promising the images imminent convergence and no less sending them apart again.
Or, finally, and just to be certain of your own new found powers in the face of illusion, try out “Tender Trepanation’s” revolving high-chair, of what is not there to be seen. In this devise you wear a head-set of obliquely ballasted, water-filled pipes that urges the cranium in contrary motion to the rotation of the seat as it travels along a full three hundred sixty degree conical orbit while tilting your body through multiple horizons. Then take that same body home, feeling unusual, and look up “trepanation.” It is “the act or process of perforating a skull with a surgical instrument.”
It’s implicit in what has been said so far, but the intended brevity of these comments a propos Baden’s “Leisure Monuments”—which is what he calls the sum total of what he has made—you’ll need to extract the thought on your own that the deed that made him a sculptor in that same instant obliged him to become a perceptual scientist. I suppose there are others, but he is the only artist I know who has works both in art museums and in science museums. And if I were now introducing him to you here, I would want him to tell you about some of the perceptual research that has gone into building these devises. But before I would let him get started I would need to add one more thought to avoid any misunderstanding: In spite of the hand held dangling stretchers; in spite of the disregard for red lights; in spite of the surgically drastic implications, the pushy mythological presences and the over-all urgency of the work—there is nothing cruel in any of this; Baden’s work is not Dada; no one gets tripped or bumped or frightened or stupidified; it is without the slightest Duchampian condescension to art; it is not even Minimalism; it is the research of something primitive without any trace of the savage. Its closest allies are Cézanne and Mondrian, and I guess Tatlin. Each work intends human discernment as an extreme, not as an average. I mean to say: the trepanations really are tender.