Williams College Museum of Art 1988
limestone, wood, and steel
24′ x 11′ x 5′
Collection of Williams College Museum of Art
A hand-operated grinding mechanism is clamped to one of the Ionic columns of the Rotunda. The grinder rests on a large block of limestone supported by a wood frame. A steel extension arm connects the grinder to a 24′ tall, tapered pointer, which is anchored to the center of the floor and rises into the dome. When the surface of the stone is ground, the action propels the pointer, magnifying the movements into the space of the dome.
In this rectangular room a central skylight floods the contained space with light. A funnel mounted directly under the skylight captures the light before it can diffuse into the room, and channels it into a sealed 5-gallon steel drum.
Deus Ex Machina
By W. Rod Faulds, Acting Director
Jeffrey Schiff’s installation for the Williams College Museum of Art, Deus Ex Machina, consists of two site-specific sculptures for adjoining galleries on the Museum’s top floor. Both galleries are on the central axis that runs through this floor of the Museum: the Aaron Gallery is a rectangular room dominated by its central skylight; the rotunda or Faison Gallery is a symmetrical octagon in the form of a classical temple with a 30-foot-high domed ceiling supported by eight Ionic columns. The rotunda is the original museum structure, built as the College’s first library in 1847.
On first viewing, the two sculptures may seem to have little in common. In the Aaron Gallery Schiff has created a form resembling a funnel which encloses the skylight, containing and metaphorically channeling its light into a closed steel drum. In the rotunda a tall pointed pole anchored at the center of the floor rises into the dome. The pointer is also connected to a grinding mechanism which is attached, in turn, to of the rotunda’s columns. The grinding mechanism rests on a large stone block supported by a wood frame. When the artist grinds the surface of the stone, the grinding action also moves the pointer which probes the space of the dome above.
In spite of their formal differences, both sculptures perform visual and phenomenal actions which are simultaneously in opposition and in harmony with one another. The work in the Aaron Gallery takes the diffuse light of the skylight and directs it downward in a specific container. Schiff explains that “light is given freely and relentlessly-without discrimination or mercy. This piece involves the attempt to transform this ethereal substance from above into something collectable and transmutable as a material substance on earth.” The sculpture in the rotunda takes a specific human action-the circular grinding of a stone-and directs the result of this action upwards to the symbolically infinite space of the rotunda’s dome. In Schiff’s words, “I am addressing the rotunda as a classical temple, commenting on the cultural orientation of classicism. Classicism attempts to resolve basic universal oppositions: earth/heaven; chaos/order; the finite realities of material existence/the speculative possibilities of the spirit and the imagination. It does so through the creation from chaotic, earthly materials of structures that embody abstract, universal laws. The laws that are at work in the heavens are manifested in the forms of the classical temple-the circular plan, the Ionic columns, and the hemispherical dome. The enterprise of classicism is based on this interaction of the experience of our bodies in the mud with our capacity for imagination, speculation, and spiritual aspiration.
“I am ‘occupying’ the site of the temple to expose and interpret these relationships, My sculpture operates in its context in the same way as does the bridge in Heidegger’s quotation:
The bridge swings over the stream with ease and power. It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge.
In this way the sculpture reinterprets and reactivates its site. It restores the classical temple from a somnolent, historicist anachronism to an actively functioning temple. In this temple human labor probes the heavens. The direct experience of labor-of the body under stress, of materials in friction-is directly linked to human projections on universal order.”
Far more than a formal exercise in opposition, this installation by Schiff continues his evolution as an environmental artist and introduces new strategies, elements, and meaning that the artist has used previously only in discrete sculptural objects.
Schiff first gained recognition for his environmental installations at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston, (1979); the Stux Gallery, Boston; and other sites in southern New England. At the ICA Schiff created a space within a space by rubbing graphite powder into the gallery walls, floor, and ceiling wherever these parts of the permanent structure overlapped the imaginary space Schiff was imposing. Thus the sculpture was a subset of its architectural setting, an image entirely dependent on its site, yet opposing it. The artist described himself as “a setter, assessing the topography of a place (both physical and cultural) and building accordingly a structure inseparable from its context. This interactive relationship to site is analogous to any succession of cultures, such as the Roman occupation of Etruscan sites or the Italian Baroque transformation of pagan temple ruins into Christian churches.” In subsequent works in which Schiff built rather than drew spaces into sites, it is the interaction between the site and his addition that is the focus of the work.
After a trip to Japan in 1985, Schiff completed High Mesa, an installation for the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. In addition to “recasting the gallery in terms of landscape components,” the installation combined reverences to traditional Japanese floor-oriented domestic architecture with Schiff’s notion of an idealized habitat for an artist. Each of the dwelling’s architectural features provided an artistic/psychological function: “the entry, a means of elevating from the natural state to that of artifice; the hearth, a place to transform materials; the bed/platform, a setting from which to contemplate the world outside oneself; and the well at the precipice, a more terrifying place where one can plumb one’s own depths.”
Such layering of meaning and form plays an important role in both the artist’s site-conditioned works and his independent sculptures. Since 1984 Schiff has created a group of sculptures that join abstract blocks of granite with functionally suggestive concrete forms such as handles, as in Possession (Iron) (1985) and Possession (Dam) (1985). The artist’s granite and concrete works also reflect an Asian influence-that of Chinese ceremonial bronze vessels, which were prized by the Chinese during the Bronze Age because of their importance in ritual ceremonies. Schiff’s granite and concrete sculptures and the installations at WCMA also reflect a form of ceremony-a ceremony of physical/mechanical work.
Schiff communicates the ceremonial nature of work though his use of industrial materials, moving mechanical parts that can perform a task, and shapes (most often handles) that suggest utility. In one sculpture, Opening Up (1987), the artist grinds and enlarges a hole in a slab of concrete by moving a cylindrical handle in a slow and methodical movement around the inside of the hole. His deliberate and painstaking method and the depth of his engagement are ritualistic and meditative, and they recall a time when physical work was more truly experienced and valued. This view of labor also relates to other forms of Eastern thought and religion-the karma of work, for instance, which is one philosophy of Buddhism that promotes reverent and steadfast work as a path to enlightenment.
Jeffrey Schiff demonstrates his reverence for work in the very manner his installation and objects are made. The works are meticulously crafted by the artist and by the fabricators he engages. When asked about his selection of craftsmen, the artist related his experience with the metal fabricator in California he employed to make Vat, 1987. Midway through their interview, the craftsman began correctly completing the artist’s sentences, and he was hired on the spot.
Schiff’s use of metal and other industrial materials and the form of his new work relates to the Italian Arte Póvera (poor art) artists, who since the late 1960s have used new and cast-off industrial materials to make an art in opposition to the slickness of “high-tech” commodities of the late 20th century. While Arte Póvera artists assign to their use of industrial materials looser, more expansive meanings than Schiff, his work is perhaps more readable as a result of his layering of specific points of reference and suggested psychological meanings. A group of works from 1987 and 1988 that include padlocks illustrate this point. Each of the works joins two or more distinct materials through the use of a padlock. The padlocks not only lock the materials together “to produce certain physical and emotional responses,” but also invite us to consider the results of releasing the lock and thereby discern the meaning of each form and material individually. The padlock works characterize Schiff’s work of the past two years: “the overt references are industrial/mechanical, but the undercurrent is psychological.”
Finally, Schiff’s projects for outdoor public spaces provide insight into his motivation and intentions. Recently the artist has been engaged in the design and supervision of public environmental projects for Charlestown, Massachusetts, and Baltimore, Maryland. In both cases the artist, while creating communal spaces in urban environments that involve automobile and pedestrian traffic, “is attempting to construe our mundane, functional activities as more meaningful actsÐÐto allow the act of crossing a street in Baltimore or meeting someone in central Charlestown to be seen as an enduring, archetypal act.”
Jeffrey Schiff combines a sense of social responsibility with a clear aesthetic program. Whether he is making temporary environmental sculptures for gallery spaces or permanent structures for public spaces, Schiff reflects many of the sensibilities for which other artist must rely on the expertise of architects and landscape architects. His desire to make his art accessible and human without compromising aesthetic integrity or sacrificing spiritual intensity places him among other American artists of the late twentieth century who share a sensitivity to place and perception and an interest in communicating a wide range of social, political, and psychological concerns.
Quotations in the essay were taken from conversations with Jeffrey Schiff and letters from him to the author dated July 8, 1988 and July 13, 1988.
ARTFORUM SEPTEMBER 1989
by Patricia Phillips
Jeffrey Schiff’s installation occupied two dramatically contrasting adjacent rooms in the museum. The first site is a characterless rectangular room subtly illuminated by a skylight. The other gallery is a spectacular octagonal space articulated by an inner circle of Ionic columns supporting a central dome. The two components of Deus Ex Machina, 1988, share tough, industrial formal and material vocabularies, but possess different spatial dynamics. Through their juxtaposition, Schiff explores the relationship of the two structures and the phenomenological experience of architectural space.
In the rectangular gallery, Schiff constructed a metal funnel –– an inverted pyramid. At its tapered based, it connected to a narrow pipe that ran into a sealed cylindrical vat. Built to the dimensions of and suspended just beneath the skylight, the metal chamber seemed to engulf the room’s natural light, with the exception of a precise sliver that glowed near the ceiling to mark the perimeter of the skylight. This monumental apparatus made comic reference to its apparent task of directing light into the small container placed on the gallery floor. The funnel was a heroic instrument of work for an entirely mysterious process.
Compared with this dark space, the rotunda of the museum seemed brilliantly open and illuminated. In this classical room Schiff created a more accessible –– but no less ludicrous –– machine. A thick piece of stone resting on a base of criss-crossed wooden slabs was ever-so-slowly reduced to powder by a metal grinding disc. The grinding mechanism was secured with metal collars to one of the columns; attached to the same device was a tall, thin pole that tentatively wavered and wandered in the evocative, celestial space of the deep-blue, 30-foot hemispherical ceiling. The ponderous movement of the grinding wheel was activated only occasionally by the artist or museum staff; its episodic, arbitrary use was an ironic foil to the efficient logic and calculated results of the machine.
Schiff’s simple and elegant tools are utterly absurd; they accomplish no necessary task, expedite no tedious job, hasten no painstaking process. Their quiet and heavy presence satisfies no functional agenda. But they enlarge a puzzling and wonderful awareness of the space they inhabit and probe, as well as the light they contain or focus. These improbable mechanisms concretize for a few, precious moments the ethereal, intangible characteristics of time and space, and the ritualistic, meditative dimensions of the most prosaic tasks and events.
Our culture’s enduring infatuation with the machine has been compromised by unexpected consequences and unrequited expectations. Schiff’s benign and poetic instruments suggest some possible reconciliation with the new imagery and applications of technology. These objects seem simultaneously made, found, and spontaneously generated. They capture some essence of the machine as an object and symbol capable of distilling the excitement of uninhibited invention and the intellectual challenge of mechanical refinement.
ART IN AMERICA FEBRUARY 1989
Jeffrey Schiff at the Williams College Museum of Art
by Ken Johnson
Fashionable thinking these days sees technology as one of the primary tools by which the dominant culture shapes mass consciousness to suit the purposes of capitalism. Certainly, the hi-tech pseudo-gadgets of Ashley Bickerton and the consumer-goods tableaux of Haim Steinbach have been interpreted this way. Lending itself less readily to socio-political polemic, however, is a romantically inclined attitude that discovers in machinery possibilities of poetic, psychological and mystical metaphor. Alice Aycock and Jon Kessler are two who use technology this way. Jeffrey Schiff, an installation sculptor who has based the first decade of his career in Boston, is another.
Schiff’s most recent project, called Deus Ex Machina, was here presented in two parts, occupying adjoining rooms. In one smallish, dimly lit chamber, a large inverted pyramid made of heavy, bolted sheet steel hung just below a broad skylight so that light spilled out near the ceiling around the base of the pyramid. From the apex of the pyramid, near the floor, there projected a pipe which jogged sideways a few feet before entering a covered, industrial five-gallon bucket. At first, the impact of the whole piece seemed abstract and minimalistic. The mass of the pyramid filled the space powerfully, and the overflowing light was beautifully luminous. But it was also quickly evident that the piece is intended as a fantastic device: a funnel that collects light, condenses it and stores it in liquid form.
In the other room of this exhibition Schiff reversed the up-to-down direction and the immaterial-to-material transformation implicit in the first piece. Here, he placed a round grindstone, equipped with stainless steel handles, flat on a large sandstone block. Although is potentially functional –– stone powder around it attested to its utility –– it was anchored by a series of hinged steel beams attached on one side to a column (part of the room’s architecture) and on the other to a tall, spearlike pole. This pole was fixed by a universal joint to the floor and pointed into the dark blue, domed ceiling high overhead. Thus, were the stone to be ground, the end of the pole would trace invisible patterns in the air, a cosmic stylus writing on the night sky.
As the title of the piece suggests, a theology of sorts is at work in these mechanical conversions of the cosmic to the terrestrial and vice versa. It’s not an orthodox theology but one, like that of alchemy, which conflates technological, psychological and metaphysical processes. Also like the alchemists, Schiff attempts (or pretends to attempt) something scientifically naïve and succeeds instead in producing something symbolically resonant –– machines that metaphorically heal the schizoid Western psyche by connecting higher and lower orders of consciousness. One piece sublimates the physical energy of the body (the labor of grinding) into a spiritual, abstract act of articulation; the other converts a symbol of spiritual or intellectual energy –– light –– into “liquid” fuel, which, stored in its dark container, might be thought of as an emblem of libido.
Not only is Schiff’s sculpture handsome, impressively well made and poetically as well as philosophically evocative, its also humorous –– like the inventions of Rube Goldberg. The mechanisms in this show have a sly, deadpan awareness of their own absurdity that produces an intriguing tension between the sublime and the ridiculous.
THE CHRONICAL OF HIGHER EDUCATION, December 14, 1988
At Williams College, 2 Sculptures That Try to Bridge the ‘Terrifying Gap’ Between Aspiration and Reality
by Lawrence Biemiller
The simpler of the two sculptures Jeffrey Schiff has created for the Williams College Museum of Art is a giant funnel that hangs a few inches beneath a skylight in a small gallery. The funnel, made of metal and sized to fit the rectangular skylight exactly, narrows to feed a pipe about 2 feet above the floor. The pipe angles sharply to one side, emptying into a sealed metal bucket.
The funnel and the few inches of daylight visible above it dominate the gallery, which is compact enough the intruding form can cause apprehension – even claustrophobia – among viewers. “This is a small room dominated by a skylight,” says Mr. Schiff. “So this piece is all about a room dominated by light, containing light.”
Mr. Schiff, an assistant processor of sculpture and drawing at Wesleyan University, says he creates many of his sculptures “specifically in response to spaces.” Those creations “can’t exist properly anywhere else,” he says.
“I’m operating with sculpture in a way analogous to what Heidegger said about a bridge – it not only joins the river’s banks but brings them into being as banks,” Mr. Schiff says. “Much of the work I do is based on that principle. The addition is in a different language from that of the site, but it clarifies the relationships or the meaning of the place.
“It may be pushing it to say my work is symbiotic,” he adds, “but it acknowledges that context has an enormous amount to do with how you perceive a phenomenon.”
Mr. Schiff’s other piece here enjoys a far more dramatic context – an octagonal gallery, two stories high, that is ringed inside by eight Ionic columns and is topped by a shallow, midnight-blue dome. The temple-like room, designed by Thomas Tefft in 1846, was built to hold the college library.
Here Mr. Schiff has constructed a machine as elegant as it is uncomplicated. Waist-high metal bands around one of the massive columns support a jointed metal arm that reaches toward the center of the room. Two-thirds of the way along the arm is a round grindstone fitted with a pair of handles. The grindstone waits on a block of limestone supported by timbers the size of railroad ties.
The end of the jointed arm attaches to a slender pointer that rises toward the dome from a universal joint in the floor. The machine’s function is elementary: When someone is grinding down the block, the pointer amplifies the grindstone’s constricted movements into broad, graceful sweeps across the midnight blue of the dome.
This, too, is a piece “that has to be seen as it interacts with its architectural contest.” Says Mr. Schiff. “It’s an expression of a human activity, grinding a stone – grunt work. It extends that basic expression of our physical state upward into the dome of the temple.”
Mr. Schiff warns that his is skeptical about attempts to describe his sculptures in conversation or in writing. “My explanation is not necessarily the only one,” he says. He agrees, he says, with the French painter Marcel Duchamp, who maintained that the viewer’s participation is what completes a work of art.
Nevertheless, Mr. Schiff speaks persuasively about his machine. “It’s an expression of what I think a classical temple is: the embodiment of the relationship between our aspirations – the lives of our imaginations – and the physical facts of our lives, where are that we are bogged down, physically stuck here.” Mr. Schiff says the “terrifying trap” between aspiration and reality “may well be the general cause of human despair.”
The two sculptures together are called “Deus Ex Machina” Mr. Schiff says they “ended up being a lot alike but in some ways opposite.” Both involve movement along a vertical axis – the one funneling light downward and the other amplifying a human labor upward. And both involve what Mr. Schiff calls “the implication of an activity: – the funnel collects and the machine in the rotunda grinds. Mr. Schiff says he is not worried, in the case of the rotunda piece, whether museum visitors actually see it in use – it’s enough, he says, that visitors see limestone dust on the gallery floor and understand that “the mechanism could be worked and has been worked.”
“Deus Ex Machina” was commissioned by the museum with a “new works” grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. The commission came after the New York gallery that sells his work put Mr. Schiff in touch with W. Rod Faulds, who is now the museum’s acting director.
“I came and saw the gallery, and I was really excited,” says Mr. Schiff. “It was wide open what the room would be and what would be the nature of the installation.:” Mr. Schiff persuaded Mr. Faulds and others at Williams to let him work in both the small gallery and the adjoining rotunda. “After all,” Mr. Schiff asks, “how often does an artist get a chance to make a ice in a Greek temple?”
Mr. Schiff’s interest in architecture is an important part of his work as a sculptor, he says, adding that he once considered becoming an architect himself. “But architecture was very boring then – all glass boxes,” he says. As a student at Brown University, he continues, he intended either to paint or to go into politics. H e was painting in what he calls a “very reductive” style at the time.
“I took a sculpture course in which I got nowhere but I became very interested in conceptual art,” he says. He joined a group created to discuss conceptual issues and filled notebooks with “conceptual schemes that were really impossible to execute, but were also really exciting.” But it was, finally, an “assignment to do a piece about two dimensions” that proved crucial.
“Everyone came in with drawings,” Mr. Schiff remembers. “I did a piece of paper held to the wall by strings that were attached to the wall and parallel to it. The paper couldn’t fall because there were no aerodynamics to allow it. It was a self-discovered vocabulary. After that I felt I could actualize concepts – I could work with forces like gravity and tension, and with materials.
“I started noticing an affinity for ordinary, industrial things,” Mr. Schiff says. “Now I don’t look at a grain elevator or apiece of machinery without sensing an affinity. It’s a representation of something I feel psychologically, and it supplies a method.”
In his office at Wesleyan is a sculpture that Mr. Schiff says was “the progenitor of the things I’m doing now.” Called “Carted Block, Blocked Cart,” it is a stone block on a metal cart – or so it appears at first. In fact, the block passes through what should be the bed of the cart and rests on the floor.
“Some images just pushed their way into my head and demanded to be realized,” Mr. Schiff says. The piece he adds, “has a quality I like of not being instantly recognizable as a work of art.”
“I took about a year to figure out how to make the piece. I had to figure out how much it should weight, how big the stone should be, what sort of wheels it should have. One doesn’t end up making the piece exactly as it existed as a mental image – there’s a kind of birthing process involved in reifying the idea.” That process, he adds, provides “a justification for actually making the object, instead of just thinking about it.
His office contains another early piece, a grinding mechanism less elaborate than the one he created for Williams. “It has no apparent function other than the laborious act itself,” Mr. Schiff says. “Bu the kind of time it implies – the kind of time necessary to grind the piece down – is a very different kind of time. The piece has a built-in life span that is much longer than our own.
“I became aware of art at a time when idealism was at an unusual high,” says Mr. Schiff, who is 36. “In those days, one could simply explore ideas and become part of a cultural mainstream, and such crass considerations as economics didn’t enter into it.”
Later, he says, “I spent a lot of time wishing I could be released from this bondage and do something sensible. I didn’t like poverty especially in the 70’s. But art is about seeing and transforming perceptions, and there’s a point when that becomes all-pervasive. When I walk around, the whole world is speaking to me – detail after detail.
“I believe the greatest function of this whole activity of being an artist and teaching art is to resist the atrophy that is natural and virtually inevitable without some activity that resists it – sensate atrophy, emotional atrophy, and conceptual atrophy. I hope my students find the means to see relationship in the world – the qualities of things and materials, the concepts embodied in the world – and to begin to interact with them. I want all these things that had been dead to them to come alive.”