An Interview with Harry Bouras
Leo Segedin | 1962 | Print this essay
One of the artists who is exploring the newly evolving possibilities of "assemblages" - a catch-all category including any work made of junk, scrap and any other materials not ordinarily assumed to be "pure" enough to be art - is Harry Bouras, a young Chicago artist who, in the last two years, has emerged as a leader in this new approach. Included in the Museum of Modern Art's "Art of Assemblage" exhibit and the William Seitz book of the same name, Harry Bouras is not only a leading practitioner of this new art, but an articulate spokesman for it as well. Here are some observations he made as we sat and talked in his home one night.
SEGEDIN: For many years, obviously, the tradition of painting has included primarily paint as its dominant material. In the last few years there seems to be developing a concern with materials, many of which are not ordinarily considered to be artists' materials. For example, your use of steel, machine forms and similar materials. How did this particular change in attitude toward materials come about?
BOURAS: The answer's in two parts. The first is just in the nature of our history. The history of painting since David, since the beginning of the 19th Century, has been the emergence of paint as a material. The look of the material is not hidden. David sanded his canvasses (took the surface off); it was not permissible in the mainstream of painting to show the paint on the canvas unless it was some kind of bravura brushwork, then it was acceptable. A little was accepted in fashionable portraiture. Rubens, for instance, was not respected at all because of his brushwork. The wholly finished representational canvas was the important thing. Material itself is new to art, or the look of the stuff that makes the painting is new to art, and the steel and ' the concrete and the junk and the paper and all kind of refuse is a fairly logical consequence of this emergence of the material. Also, it's been accelerated recently, and that's what's drawing all the attention to it. I suppose if it finally emerged into this junk kind of thing, maybe 150 years from now it would seem much more reasonable. Why has it been accelerated? That's the second part of the question and this is what I feel is the answer: The New York School of Painting, Abstract Expressionistic School or whatever, gained its initial impetus attempting to avoid or get out from underneath the shadow of Picasso who had done everything, and Picasso, in his greatness, vitiated the future of art for young artists. He'd done so much. Thus the New York school. Thus abstract painting which Picasso is notably remiss in. Well, now, young painters like myself, Chamberlain, Stankiewicz, Jasper Johns, and others who are working in these strange materials, and have revived these materials, foreign or waste materials, are living under the shadow of the enormous success of the New York school which is now as strongly cannoned and as formal as any school that's ever existed in the United States. And we come out from underneath the shadow as they came out from Picasso's shadow in the direction of materials. This is a two-fold direction. Ellsworth Kelly and the large pure hard-edge abstractionists are the other people who have grown out of protests (slow protests) from the New York school.
SEGEDIN: In other words you feel that the kind of work that you and other people working in the same type of forms that you are, is a step beyond the New York Abstract Expressionistic School, is part of a main tradition which has developed.
BOURAS: Not beyond, away from. I think of the history of art as a process of differentiation.
SEGEDIN: It's not a straight-line growth.
BOURAS: There is the theory of Giambattista Vico that Joyce uses in Finnegans Wake and
uses throughout Ulysses, which refers to the cyclic nature of creativity and the cyclic nature of
politics, for instance. One of his examples is that you can have an enormously benevolent form
of government, whatever that form of government is, and let's say that it is a democracy. The
second or third or fourth generation, in order to differentiate itself from its predecessors or from
its fathers, will necessarily, out of this cyclicism, be revolutionary, and modified in order to
differentiate themselves from their parents, and I feel it's very much the same in painting. If the
great movement that exists and is now canonized and enshrined is impressionism, then there is
going to be neo-impressionism. There is going to be Syntheticism or there's going to be some
variant, if only for reasons of differentiation.
SEGEDIN: One of the characteristics of your work is the apparent absence of color. Do you feel that the great emphasis on color which has been very important since before the turn of the century is also becoming part of a tradition that is no longer as valid as it once was? What happens to color now?
BOURAS: Color is an extremely personal thing. I think there are painters who are born competent, like yourself, in terms of color and I think there are other painters who are not. Very often I have been asked why I don't do things that are more colorful. And there are two answers that occur to me. The first thing is that I'm not a colorist. I have no great feeling for color. It never is the thing that holds a painting's meaning or significance for me. I never feel it in the color. The second thing is that my work, from the time I first started making collages up until the present work, has tended gradually to be more and more sculptural, and as I think back now, the early collages were sculptural things. I was working in a sculptural way with them or they look like that to me now. And I think that perhaps I may have been a sculptor in the area of painting and consequently the structure and the materials and the balances, above and beyond the organization, the offplane axis, for instance, are far more important to me than the colors because of this sculptural feeling.
SEGEDIN: Do you think this is a general tendency in art in your time, or is it iust a personal characteristic?
BOURAS: I think that it's this; the newest paintings of de Kooning's have an awful lot of pink and a lot of pale blues. I think if this becomes an important period in de Kooning's work, that there will be a slight wave in the peerage, that's including Tworkov and Kline - so true of Kline, but Tworkov and Resnick and Rothko, etc. There'll be a noticeable move in that direction towards the very soft and bright colors - not the vibrant color, but the soft, more pastel look, and I think that will be the move in the peerage and you'll see a counter reaction and I'm going back to the Vico thing. I think that if it goes light now, the next generation will be darker and then the generation after that, if the preceding generation is fortunate enough to be enshrined, will be light again.
SEGEDIN: Let me ask you this. Why the emphasis on the particular kinds of materials you are using? Why machine forms, why steel and why those particular juxtapositions of forms which you use? Do they have a special historical or artistic significance?
BOURAS: Well, I don't use them because it's a consequence of the emergence of materials. That's definite. But it's a natural predilection in my work, and also in the way I respond to such material. I think that steel and that lead and concrete and junk is, first of all, beautiful unto itself. It's beautiful just as the found object. The very beauty of the material itself, the age of the material, the hostility of the gentleness of the material, the remnants of color, the remnants of its bright past, all lend it a certain poetry that evokes me to save it and ' use it and to remodel it by juxtaposing it with parts of itself, to remodel it or fabricate it so that it ends up as something that is significant in a humanistic tradition rather than in a mechanical tradition. What man does, what painting is, is the bending of the raw material of color in some pigment form floated in something else - It could be oil, could be water color, could be pastel, bending this to the will of a man. That is the great humanistic act involved in painting. He may choose to will it to take the shape of an apple, which is all very well. It was very good in the 19th Century, but there have been so many apples, and so little else where one looks for other things to do, and abstraction has freed us to look at the materials - at lines and volumes for their own sake. So in steel, instead of using the found object and putting it up there, though it's perfectly beautiful, instead of doing that, you bend it in this humanistic tradition that I mentioned before, to a human will, and it becomes more beautiful for the bending. Because if an artist remains in the domain of the found object, and I was certainly very tempted by it for a long time, he soon finds out that, for example, every weather-beaten door in the world has him beat, and the weather-beaten door has very little to do with the nature of man. It has to do with the nature of nature, but not much to do with man, so the artist's will and the artist's intellect, and as much of his life as he can gather at the time of creation should be imposed upon the activity of making his art, thus on the final product of his art.
SEGEDIN: Do you feel that any of the people working with similar kinds of material have in their work a certain amount of satire or sort of implicit social criticism, a kind of negative reaction to many of the characteristics of the society in which they find themselves?
BOURAS: Yes, I think there is an irony in the material to begin with. I mean, for instance, I go to a junkyard. I'll go with another sculptor or a painter; and looking at all this old material is iust like I can imagine Daubigny in the forest of Fountainbleau. He's going around and he finds a new scene, a copse or something and he comes back and he tells Diaz and he tells the other painters he's found this wonderful thing, this great thing. Well, this wonderful thing is the yard to us. As the copse that Daubigny found inspired in him this rapport with nature because it was nature, so does going to the junkyard imply satire, because there you see the conclusion of last year's new. There you see the bedsteads, the brake linings, the babies' potties and the hair dryers and the thousands of other items that comment on us. When you look at the hairdryer, for instance, you see the woman with her head in it, and you see her aspirations and her thoughts about her hair, and somehow this small comment on a single person becomes, through the multiplicity of the objects around, a comment on all men. Because of this, satire is very much present and you're tempted always to use it. I think, though, that if you look at the work of Chamberlain and if you look at the work of Stankiewicz, vou find that it's much more pure, and I feel that this is true of my own work. It's much more pure; it doesn't depend so much upon these elements of satire. If it's satire, it is so in a traditional manner, a painterly manner, rather than letting the objects function as the instillers of the satire.
SEGEDIN: You've touched on a point which is one of the issues I wanted to bring up before. The general accusation against much of this so-called "machine" art and metal art that it is non-humanistic. The conventional idea of humanism has to do with some kind of imagery and you were talking about it from a slightly different point of view. Is the start of your work related in any way to a perceptual image or an idea about something outside of the work?
BOURAS: Almost always. Most of my work falls into three categories. The first two are the large categories. The third one is the small one. The first is the category of landscape, and this exists in the area of steel and in collage, not so much in the concrete. They are usually cutaways of land masses where you look at the roots and the stones and all of the hidden things that are under the green field, and way up in the horizon of the picture may be the field. Second category is the human figure. I do a lot of things that are interiors and exteriors of human figures. I remember in Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead, Mailer says in one section that he goes to the battlefield and sees the dead soldiers; they're lying on the ground and some of them - he describes one in particular that has been wounded in the stomach, been shot in the stomach, and his intestines have come out and he says they come out and open like a flower. Well, this is a grisly subject, but intestines can open like a flower and Mailer says the captain who sees it, in spite of the horror of the subject reacts esthetically to the beauty of these intestines. Well, so do I to the steel tubing, the little nuts and bolts and the small sheets of steel that wrap around other sheets of steel, the organic pieces that suggest kidneys and lungs - so do I find this a beautifully intense relationship, a very human relationship. Something that is well worth painting is the interior of the body and I think that you get a foreshadowing of this interior, this sense of the beauty in the ugly or the base or the grisly material. You get a foreshadowing of it in Mailer and I think it is very much realized in a lot of work today. The third category is the abstract category, and it's the smallest of all. The concretes, which are surface paintings and have to do with the way the Hydrocal behaves on the surface, are abstractions mostly, and that's all.
SEGEDIN: One question you raised is the esthetic aspect of the internal forms of the body. Most people respond to these internal forms as something not especially esthetic; the organic has an unpleasant connotation for most people. Do you feel any of this when you work with it yourself?
BOURAS: Oh no, I feel ... well, you know, a kind of interesting thing about all of this . . . do you know the woodcuts of Vesalius? These woodcuts show the body open and flayed and it shows them up. They're a little dated now, but people look at them and think of them as objects of art. I mean the beauty of the body flayed and opened up and the muscles hanging free and the flesh out in beautiful patterns, people can accept that, and probably they can because they feel that it has a kind of 15th or 16th Century naiveté about it because it does sort of smack of that, and it's a little stylized, so the historicity makes it acceptable. But I feel that in time all of the viscera that are being shown today will be just as acceptable, will be considered just as beautiful as soon as people adjust to the idea, and it seems to me quite reasonable that the insides of the body are as beautiful as the outsides of their body. And as for the majority of people agreeing with that now, if they did agree with it, I would worry. You know, part of the artist's life is to be in the vanguard. I am very vehement on this point. An artist spends eight hours a day with his work and doing his work, and if he is at all an artist of integrity he pushes this to the limits of his expression. He constantly wants to move and change and go further. Well, this means that he is definitely going to go way ahead visually, ahead of people who spend perhaps an hour a week involved in any kind of serious visual association. Consequently, he's going to be ahead of them. This explains the lapse between the artist's work and the public which has always existed.
SEGEDIN: Harry, since I've been here, I've seen a large number of your new graphics. You told me you've done about forty of them in three months. I've seen I don't know how many sculptural pieces recently done, several paintings similar to the calligraphy; and you've also told me of a number of your other activities in which you're involved. How, in heaven's name, do you find time to do them?
BOURAS: It's not that I find time. I'm so grateful to be able to do it. I'd like to end, maybe on this note. One thing I'll say in conclusion is that I feel that any man who has work to do - work that he feels he should do, work that he feels is important, or at least beautiful or good, is a blessed man and a very fortunate animal. Each day I get up and go down to my studio and I can spend the day there working I'm fortunate. If I were a religious man, or better yet - the closest I come to feel the need for religion is out of a feeling of gratitude and the desire to have somebody to thank for a good fortune. The fear implicit in most religions has never affected me at all. But this need to thank is really getting to me. I might end up in a monastery someplace just trying to thank somebody. But I don't think I'd do it, because I'd have to stop work. The reason I work so hard is because I'm able to work hard. Perhaps if I were compelled to, I wouldn't do it' But as it is now, I'm full of gratitude for the time and for what ability I have. The only way I can express this gratitude is by using that time and the ability constantly.