It was a sticky 90-degree day on the Princeton University campus — Outdoor Action students were setting up tents and tying strings to trees. The front lawn of the Princeton University Art Museum was cordoned off with chain-link fencing as a major sculptural project by the Starn brothers was getting the final touches.
One brother sat on a bistro chair, protected from the sun under a market tent-type awning, focused on his laptop. From outside the fence one could see an E-mail displaying a picture of the sculpture before him, “(Any) Body Oddly Propped,” under a blue sky with billowing clouds. The other brother was supervising the work as a videographer recorded it all. Fans had gathered to watch Doug and Mike Starn, who return Saturday, October 24, for the work’s official unveiling.
The identical twins have beards and shoulder-length hair with graying roots that frizzes in the humidity. Wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses atop their heads, gray T-shirts, and faded jeans, they look like aging rock stars. In 2010 they rocked the art world with “Big Bambu: You Can’t, You Don’t and You Won’t Stop” (the first part of the title comes from a Cheech and Chong album, and the phrase after the colon derives from a Beastie Boys refrain) on the roof of New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
More than 130 feet tall, the “habitable sculpture” had a capacity for 60 people. There was an elevated performance space, a double helix stair and labyrinth paths leading up to multiple lounging spaces 65 feet high. “Big Bambu” became the Met’s ninth most attended exhibition in the museum’s history with 3,913 visitors per day, totaling 631,000 — and an infinite number of selfies posted on Facebook.
Later exhibited internationally (54th Venice Biennale, 2011, the Museum of Modern Art in Rome, 2012, Japan’s Naoshima Museum, 2013, and Israel Museum, 2014), “Big Bambu” was “performative architecture.” Throughout its six-month run, the Starns and their crew of rock climbers continuously lashed together more than 7,000 bamboo poles. The men wore T-shirts and women wore bikini tops, working to the tunes of Michael Jackson, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix at a volume that conflicted with standards set by the Met. The workers also wanted to stay beyond closing time, and even sleep in the giant structure that was, in ways, like an amusement park adventure, albeit with magnificent views of Central Park.
Among those who climbed it were then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; the artists Martin Puryear and Francesco Clemente; and musicians Bono, Lou Reed, and Paul McCartney, who went up barefoot.
In front of the Princeton University Art Museum, the seated brother closes his laptop and packs it into a backpack, then joins his twin, who grins broadly at something the first brother says. They point upward and confer with a worker in a yellow safety vest. One brother has a camera with a big lens; the other is scrolling through his phone. One, like Spiderman, climbs to the top to inspect. Soon the bright orange ladder, yellow metal scaffolding, and birch panel shipping crates would disappear and “(Any) Body” would be open for viewing.
The newly commissioned work, weighing nearly eight tons, is constructed of six 18-foot tall vividly colored glass panels — featuring a new glass-dyeing technique pioneered in Germany — and two cast bronze forms resembling tree limbs. It was designed by the Starns specifically for the site and continues the artists’ long-standing fascination with energy systems found in nature. The glass panels were fabricated by Frank Mayer of Munich Inc., a family-run glass studio founded in 1847 that is dedicated to contemporary art and architectural glass and mosaics as well as to historic preservation.
“The medium always chooses itself, through an exploration of the concepts and the way it will be shown or where it is going to be shown,” says the Starns in an E-mail, with no specification as to whom it’s from — united they stand. “Stained glass has long been taking form for us in our minds.”
It is the second glass piece created by the artists since their first permanently installed public artwork, made for the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority in 2009. That piece, made of curved floor-to-ceiling glass walls laced with silhouettes of trees, a vintage topographic map of Manhattan, and imagery drawn from Battery Park, melded technology with urban history and cost more than $1 million.
Related to Picasso’s late sculptures, in which the artist stood two flat images together, “(Any) Body” may also be read as the walls of an outdoor stained-glass chapel propped together, inviting the visitor to walk among the panels. The enlarged arboreal images send out branches that branch yet again and again.
“It was a challenge to develop some of the techniques that could meet our vision of how these images would translate into glass,” say the Starn brothers. “We came pretty close to it. The engineering was a completely different challenge. It is complicated in several ways.”
The piece is about “the never completed act of thinking, the interconnected flow of thought,” they say.
“The Art Museum initiated this project, including committing significant monies from an endowment in our care dedicated to developing the university’s collection of campus art,” says PUAM Director James Steward. “Indeed, it grew out of our view that the Starns should be represented on our campus. After an initial campus visit, Doug and Mike fell in love with the site and put forward this idea — something that represented a departure from the materials for which they’re best known while continuing their investigation into nature and nature’s systems of energy.”
Once Doug and Mike made the proposal, Steward discussed it with alumna Shelly Malkin, Class of 1986. She and her husband, Tony Malkin, stepped up with an offer of support that would allow the commission to go forward.
The site was previously home to Picasso’s “The Head of a Woman,” removed in 2002 because of the construction of an underground expansion to McCormick Hall. It could not be returned after construction, according to Steward, due to weight and load distribution issues. “In addition, we felt it was time for it to be displayed elsewhere on campus, and the weight problem necessitated that opportunity.”
Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Big Figures” occupied the site until 2009, when it was returned to its owners following a five-year loan. “It was long our intension to occupy the site with something long term,” says Steward. “But we rather liked the idea of using the site for a time as a kind of changing outdoor gallery space while we sought the right commission.” And because of the physical challenges created by the underground building it would need to be a commission, he adds.
“The works we have shown since have been either additions to the museum’s collections, such as Doug Aitken’s video piece ‘Migration (Empire),’ or loans, such as the two Calders. We don’t actually think of the Starns’ commission as permanently sited there but rather as indefinite,” says Steward. “We prefer not to think about our collections as static in that way — though our plan is to have this commission grace our entry plaza for a long time.”
Born in Absecon, New Jersey, in 1961, Doug and Mike loved to draw as children and began collaborating in photography at age 13 through an evening class at Stockton State College. They attribute an inherited aptitude for art from their father, a co-owner of a supermarket chain who had a creative bent.
The Starn parents encouraged their children’s interest in art, taking them to the Philadelphia Museum of Art when Doug and Mike were 9. Rauschenberg’s combines and Warhol’s “Electric Chair” left a lasting impression.
At age 16 they were also influenced by punk rock, and the ideas that music and art are available to anybody who wants to take them up.
Accepted to the esteemed School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts with a shared portfolio, they experimented on separate paths but learned their best work was what they produced together and earned MFAs in 1985. In New York they gained prominence with a series of Scotch-taped and pinned-up torn photographs, seeking to explore the interruption of the pictorial plane created by the mosaic of composite bits from the entire image. That was followed by their “Attracted to Light” series, for which they became NASA artists-in-residence.
The Starns formerly worked out of a large studio in a former ice cream truck garage in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, but today their studio is based in Beacon, New York. The brothers gained international recognition at the 1987 Whitney Biennial. They established their reputation combining media such as photography — close-ups of moths, flies, and insects buzzing around a lamp in upstate New York photographed at night, printed in liquid silver emulsion on mottled, handmade Thai mulberry paper.
They don’t do everything together. Mike is married to Anne Pasternak, who in May was named director of the Brooklyn Museum. Before that, as president of Creative Time, Pasternak was responsible for bringing Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” to the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. The couple has an adult daughter. Doug’s wife is Nancy Bressler, a fine-art printer and publisher, with whom he has teenaged children.
Trees are a major theme for the brothers since their NASA days. “We want to combine the inner cosmos of the mind, bringing in neuronal imagery,” they have said. The Starns have described trees as a recording of light turned into carbon through photosynthesis — the transformation of light into dark physical matter — an architecture of inky black darkness, growing towards the source. Their stark silhouettes of intertwined branches, reminiscent of the veins and arteries of the human body, are present in “(Any) Body.”
“Trees are a hierarchal structure, a trunk leading to a limb, the limb branches off and smaller and smaller branches,” say the Starns. “But if you silhouette the tree there is no hierarchy — it becomes rhizomatic. Connections happen at any point. This is the structure of thought. You are not a fully realized and unchanging person existing in a world that is experienced the same by everyone else — we all exist within our own world, created by our own experience, and our mind’s perceptions of the outer world. The props indicate an architecture that is in the act of becoming.”
Watching them at work, one definitely gets the sense of two brothers who love to play and climb trees. “People like us — and rock climbers — we don’t fit into the dead artist thing,” Doug Starn told the New York Times in 2010 when “Big Bambu” was dismantled. “As much as (the Met) welcomed us in, there were struggles all the way through. We and the climbers are part of the piece, part of the organism. We live in the piece. We need to enjoy what we make, and we need to enjoy ourselves while we’re making it.”
Conversation with the Starn Brothers and the official unveiling of “(Any) Body Oddly Propped,” 50 McCosh Hall, Princeton University. Saturday, October 24, 4 p.m., reception at the Princeton University Art Museum follows. Free. artmuseum.princeton.edu.