By Elisabeth Sussman, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
Ted Larsen is infatuated with scrap metal, pieces that are combined and shaped to produce a larger form. Invoking ingots, Larsen re-imagines discarded metal as a material that can be a fragment, a malleable, shapeable thing, like clay or fabric — materials that can be worked on in pieces, used and re-used, gathered and stitched or pressed together. Metal, in his terms, can be a readymade, reconfigured as wished. If you look closely at Larsen’s works, you will see that their surfaces are patchworks of metal elements, scraps pieced together, not randomly, but in a systematic pattern and according to a particular geometry.
Take, for instance, Bumper (2007), a small object built up of multiple planes, a box with a forward-protruding front plane. Each plane here has been covered with a patch of reclaimed steel. The piece is divided in half by color, exactly symmetrical with one a shade between sky blue and aqua and the other, white. Larsen has written that the salvage material he uses comes from cars, architectural elements or industrial equipment, which he rough cuts on site and takes back to the studio in large sheets. He then uses machines to cut the large sheets down into parts and then the fragments are attached using silicone to a marine plywood substructure he has built.
In the case of Bumper, Larsen fashioned a generic shape vaguely reminiscent of the back or front of the exterior of a car. The steel surfaces are slightly marked up and the silicone that attaches the steel to the substructure outlines and delineates the planes. Not only does the shape of Bumper evoke the form of classic automobiles but the colors, aqua and the white, also denote a kind of period specificity and the slightly abraded quality of the surface speaks to the condition of this steel as re-claimed.
Because both sculptures are pieced-together constructions that recall ordinary things in the world and because both are built of parts of cheap, easily manipulated industrial materials, the great ancestor of Bumper, it occurs to me, is Picasso’s Guitar of 1914. It is odd that something so remote in time should seem so pertinent. But Bumper does have an important affinity to the older work and reaches back to it over nearly one hundred years that have seen the major development of a sculptural practice largely dominated by monumental and reductive abstraction that, as a result, has de-emphasized intimate scale and humble materials. The apotheosis of this tendency was clearly evident to all the visitors who walked through Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the summer of 2007. Towering, curving and slanting forms of patinated steel plates dwarfed the visitors who wandered through the labyrinthine shapes. By calling attention to the similarities between Larsen’s work and Guitar, an icon of modern sculpture made so long ago, I am suggesting an affinity between the two that erases the long history of monumental abstraction between them.
Both the early modern sculpture of Picasso and the more recent work of Larsen are modest in scale, wall-hung and constructed of inexpensive materials, and both refer to common, human activity. Bumper is not a replica of a car part, but a generic recollection of a common, ordinary shape. “One aspect of my work,” Larsen has written, “is the attempt to create an object which reintroduces the human element into the reductive form.”
The “human element” of Bumper, like Guitar, is surely that it is identifiable or referential to something common to experience, a quality that is emphasized by their piece-by-piece construction. Immersion in Ted Larsen’s recent work yields a landscape of similarly intimate, constructed objects that uncannily recall — in their shapes, but also significantly in their color — something once seen and experienced in the world. Deep in our visual memories are the sense impressions made by the scratched Formica counters in old diners, for instance, or the rusting metal sign on some roadside building glimpsed from a moving car. Larsen never settles on a specific reference to such things, but his sculpture allows us to make our own connections.
Aqua, for instance, is a construction that seems to recall a stack of Styrofoam boxes used for take-out food. Their well-worn aqua color is reclaimed, just like the steel Larsen uses. He allows color to have an important role, never feeling that he must precisely relate a hue to a function, rather allowing for a playful relation to shape. Witness the odd hues of the dancing little boxes he titles Chicklets, and the mottled yellow and red surfaces of Mashed. Unobtrusively entering our visual field (unlike the vast curving steel planes of Serra), recalling simple objects of our common culture, Larsen’s sculpture conjures memories of passing through the world.
Elisabeth Sussman is Curator and Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art. A former Rockefeller and Getty Research Institute fellow, Sussman won first prize from the International Art Critics Association for best monographic exhibition for an Eva Hesse retrospective in 2001-02 and her catalog for a Diane Arbus exhibition won the 2004 Infinity Award for Publication from the International Center of Photography.