An exciting art movement was taking shape in Southern California in the early 1970s. An outgrowth of minimalism, building on the idea that the world didn’t need more objects, the Light and Space movement put the viewer into the space to perceive the work and, through this perception, help create it. Among the Light and Space visionaries were UCLA-based artists James Turrell and Robert Irwin.
Elyn Zimmerman, a Philadelphia native, was a graduate student at the time, and the Light and Space movement had a profound influence, reflected in a major solo exhibition, on view in Grounds For Sculpture’s East Gallery through January 7, 2018, and in the West Gallery from February 18, 2017, through January 7, 2018. The title of the exhibit: “Elyn Zimmerman: Wind, Water, Stone.”
Zimmerman is best known for her large-scale monolithic installations in granite, marble, and limestone, situated in public spaces surrounded by reflecting pools. The transport of these massive works to the Hamilton-based sculpture gardens is, alone, a major feat, requiring cranes and forklifts and heavy lifting specialists. The exhibition is rounded out with Zimmerman’s works on paper.
The winner of the 2016 Isamu Noguchi Award — it “recognizes innovators aligned with the global-mindedness embodied in the craft of trailblazing” sculptor Noguchi — has been exhibiting drawings and photographs since earning an MFA in painting and photography from UCLA in 1972. The East Gallery focuses on her public sculptural works and the relationship of these to her archeological photography. Stone sculptures are on display in the adjacent outdoor hedge gardens. The West Gallery will further explore Zimmerman’s works on paper, juxtaposing recent photographic collages of the night sky with lush pastel drawings of clouds. In many instances, it is difficult to tell if the work is a drawing or a photograph.
“Elyn Zimmerman’s site-specific sculptures are made of the earth, in particular the stones below,” writes Grounds For Sculpture curator Tom Moran in the forward of a forthcoming book, “Elyn Zimmerman: Speaking in Stone,” published by Artist Book Foundation. To emphasize this connection, Moran has created an undulating river of crushed stone along the wall where the photographs are displayed. Moran has known Zimmerman since the 1980s, when he invited her to speak on a public art panel.
The exhibition juxtaposes her photographs made during her travels to world heritage sites, such as Machu Picchu, with her photographs of her sculpture. In true Light and Space spirit, it is about the place.
Zimmerman lives and works out of a loft on Soho’s Greene Street. When her late husband, Kirk Varnedoe, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 1988 to 2001, was alive, she had a separate studio six blocks away, on Franklin Street. After his death in 2003, while he was on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the 3,200-square-foot space that floods with natural light from five 12-foot-high windows on both the front and back, seemed enough. In addition to the living area, a third of the space is devoted to her studio. There is a workbench, tables that roll on wheels, and storage racks that go up into the 13-foot-high space.
On a recent morning, Zimmerman was alarmed by the sounds of sirens. It was only a week after the bomb exploded in nearby Chelsea.
In addition to preparing for the second part of the Grounds For Sculpture show — she is making a model of the space to figure out where to put it all — she is at work on a project for the sculpture garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art, working with an architect on the installation, as she usually does when working on large public projects. “It’s very different from doing sculpture in the studio by yourself. You’re working as part of a team and may not have total autonomy, but you can get done what you want to get done and feel satisfied. And you get to reach a wider audience.”
Her public commissions are around the continent, from New York City and Washington, D.C., to San Francisco and Vancouver, British Columbia. Closer to home, Zimmerman’s public art can be seen along the pond at the Institute for Advanced Study — a piece commemorating the institute’s 75th anniversary. Consisting of three curved granite panels 40 feet in length, it is suspended from and surrounded by groupings of powder-coated stainless steel poles of varying heights and thicknesses and appears as a sinuous bench floating amid slender trees. Each of the sculpture’s three benches is inscribed with a quotation from key figures in the institute’s history, including Albert Einstein. Visitors, among them leading scientists and scholars, are invited to stop, sit, and contemplate the surroundings.
AT&T’s corporate campus in Basking Ridge also has a large outdoor work, as does the Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick. Curator Moran, who then directed the Arts Inclusion program of the New Jersey Arts Council, worked with her on that project in 2004.
When Elyn was 10, her father, an athlete who played semi-professional baseball before he was married, moved the family to California. “He wanted to play tennis outdoors all year,” she recounts. Zimmerman’s father ran a furniture store in Philadelphia that he and a business partner moved to California. “I was so grateful, it was a wonderful place to grow up with good public schools,” she says.
At UCLA Zimmerman majored in art and perceptual psychology. She studied painting with Richard Diebenkorn and photography with Robert Heineken before joining Turrell, Irwin, and their circle of Light and Space artists.
“I was fortunate to be both an undergraduate and graduate student with this group of artists who began questioning the art object, that it is something you experience, not a thing,” Zimmerman recounts. “You didn’t have to have a permanent art object to create an experience, so they began doing exhibits in empty store fronts or in studios.
“What you’d see would be light coming in through the windows in a certain way, or sound controlled in a certain way. It’s how you perceive and experience the world. We are constantly assaulted by noise from TV, the street, and now the internet — we’re distracted and not paying attention. They wanted us to pay attention, to attend to something in a new way. It grew out of an interest in the 1950s in Zen Buddhism, meditation, and distilling things to an essence.”
She was fortunate, she says, to be there at that time, learning about art from serious artists who were articulate and well read. “They were very good professors. A lot of stuff was going on, and it was easy to participate. In school you’re already part of what’s happening; it was a good time to be there.”
Among the other groups that influenced her were the Art & Language conceptual artists in the U.K. (“you don’t need any more objects in this world, artists can express ideas with words”) and Earthwork artists Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. “In the late 1960s art world, painting was dead,” she says.
So what does a painting major do? Zimmerman went to India with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She had been making ephemeral installations that were documented in photographs, but in India she was moved by stone temples and sculptural friezes, and caves that had been hollowed out of mountains. It changed her perspective.
After three months in India, worn out from an intestinal bug, she returned to the U.S. and, by happenstance, learned about Art Park, an alternative sculpture park along the Niagara Gorge in Lewiston, New York. (Begun in summer 1974, it is now just a summer concert and theater venue; the visual arts program was phased out in the early 1990s.)
“I was lucky to get an opportunity to build my first sculpture project,” she says. She created what looked like a 150-foot channel of water made from a long slab of finely polished granite. It was well received and led to “Marabar,” a granite pool project for the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., a work that contrasts rough and smooth surfaces. “I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to create prominent work at a young age — you can’t plan these things,” she says.
In 1974 she had a photographic work in the Whitney Biennial. Kirk Varnedoe, then an art historian at Columbia, wrote about it for ARTnews. She wrote him a thank you letter and he wrote back, “but I had no idea if he was young or old, straight or gay, or single.” In 1976 she invited him to P.S. 1 in Queens, New York, where she had a piece in a show. It was the first time they met “and he was young and single and handsome.” Soon they were a couple. Zimmerman moved to New York, and they married in 1983.
Their lives together were filled with travel and scuba diving, the Metropolitan Opera, ice-skating at Wollman Rink, and reading poetry aloud. Varnedoe was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1996; chemotherapy kept the cancer from recurring until 2001. At that time he stepped down from MoMA and the Institute for Advanced Study offered him a position. “He told them he had terminal cancer, and they said they didn’t care if he came for five years or five months,” says Zimmerman.
She and Varnedoe moved to Princeton, living in a house the institute bought for them. Zimmerman commuted to her studio in New York but enjoyed dinners in the institute dining room and participating in faculty events with her husband. He died a year-and-a-half later, at age 57, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York.
Zimmerman was comforted by Varnedoe’s institute colleagues. “They were so supportive and helpful,” she says. “They packed up his office and books for me.” Varnedoe’s art book collection was donated to the institute library, and Jasper Johns, a friend, made a commemorative book plate.
During her bereavement Zimmerman bought property in Ojai, California, surrounded by boulders. North of Los Angeles and inland, with natural hot springs and mountains and rugged trails “it was a place where, even in the ’60s, you could get organic food.”
She enlisted a college friend, Frederick Fisher, architect of the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City and the Lunder Wing of the Colby College Museum of Art, to design a 2,500-square-foot steel-clad home on a steep winding road, lush with orange groves. It wound up costing more than she had expected, and after spending seven winters there she sold the property.
“It was beautiful but extravagant. On the edge of a national forest, the wildlife included mountain lions, bears, wolves, coyotes, and bobcats. Now when I go out there I stay with friends or rent a place for a few weeks.”
Among her losses is a monument she created for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — it was destroyed during the 2001 attacks. “Here I made a memorial out of a couple of tons of granite, and you think it’s not going anywhere ever, and then, something like this happens, something inconceivable, and you realize that people, things just disappear,’’ she told the New York Times in 2002.
These days she only works in stone when she has a commission. Working in stone is expensive — hauling it, fabricating it, having the tools to cut it and the manpower to work with it. Zimmerman starts by making a maquette — several of these are on view at Grounds For Sculpture — and then directs the actual stone carving.
“I’ve always been interested in drawing and painting,” she says. “Pastel is a nice medium; I like the colors and density. I like working with my hands and getting them dirty.”
Her recent series of pastels, “Heaven’s Breath,” depicting the spiritual presence in light breaking through cloud-filled skies, is what you might see if, in one of her public space pieces, you looked up. At just the right moment.
Elyn Zimmerman: Wind, Water, Stone, Grounds For Sculpture, 126 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., through January 7, 2018. $10 to $18. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.