With the upcoming fall 2012 release of Leedy: The Documentary, a chronicle of the artist’s life and work, along with two recent career retrospectives—Jim Leedy: Continuum at the Dolphin Gallery in Kansas City and Jim Leedy: Ceramics at Anderson O’Brien Fine Art in Omaha—Associate Art Editor Kara Rooney sat down with the legendary Abstract Expressionist sculptor in his Kansas City studio to talk about Zen Buddhism, clay, and the rough-and-tumble Ab-Ex crowd of 1950s era New York.
Kara Rooney (Rail): You grew up surrounded by the clay deposits and brick mills of rural Virginia. How did this setting affect or shape your work?
Jim Leedy: I was born in Kentucky in 1930 but I didn’t live there for very long. We soon moved to Virginia where we lived on the outskirts of the city near a clay deposit. I had always played with clay even before we left Kentucky; it was a part of me. In fact my mother told me a story after I was grown. She said, “Jimmy, I know why you love clay so much. When you were in my belly, I craved dirt. And I had a lump of clay in the pantry. And every day I would go in there and eat a little bit of clay.” Obviously, she had a mineral deficiency, one that was not uncommon at that time, but the point being that clay was always a part of my life. I grew up playing with it and not thinking of it as something important. I would make toys and architectural things. I got to know the people at the brickyard and they would let me fire them in these large beehive kilns fueled with coal. At the time, I didn’t know what a profound effect this would have on me in the future, but from the very beginning of my life I did know that I was an artist. And that’s strange because there was very little art around.
Rail: Is that what drove you to go to New York?
Leedy: Well, my parents had several kids which, as you can imagine, was financially stressful, so there was no way I was going to ask them to send me to college. I chose the draft knowing that if I got through that, that I would have the G.I. Bill. So I gambled. And I got myself stuck right in the middle of the war in Korea.
Rail: And you were a military photographer there.
Leedy: Yes, I was what you would call a military photographer, or a military journalist. It was a good job, only thing was that it was a dangerous job.
When I came back from the war I went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia. I took ceramics there, where I received my B.F.A in two and a half years by taking an accelerated curriculum. I was in a hurry. I was also very hungry and I knew the place to go from there was New York City. So I applied to Columbia University and got accepted with a scholarship to study art history at the post-graduate level.
But the most important part of my New York experience was not at Columbia University. After school I would run from 189th Street to the Village to hang out with De Kooning and Pollock and Kline. At first I just started going where they were going, which, in those days was the Cedar Tavern. They had a deal with the owner of the bar where they could eat and drink for free in exchange for their work. (That guy had the greatest collection; he must have made a fortune.) So I’d hang out and sit and listen to them argue and talk.
But I’d never met De Kooning. And he was the one whose work had influenced me the most—at that time, this was around 1953, he was just coming into his own. So one night, I walked down the street and found another bar, about a block and a half from the Cedar Tavern. It was empty except for a girl in the back that I thought I knew. After talking with her for a while, I was suddenly hauled off of my stool and ended up rolling around on the floor with someone; he was strong, but not a tall guy, so I finally pinned him down and said, “Man, what’s your problem?” Before he could say anything, his buddies came over from a booth in the back and pulled him off of me, sitting him back down. I went back over to the girl and she asked, “Do you know who you were just fighting? He’s a famous painter; his name is Bill de Kooning.” And I thought, the one artist who I wanted to meet, and I’ll never meet him now. So I sat a little longer talking to her, and I heard him get up and come over. This time he perched on the stool next to me. I could feel his eyes burning into the side of my face but I wouldn’t look around. Finally he tapped me and said, “Kid, do you know who I am?” And I said, “Yeah, I know who you are.” Well, at that point, he just pulled me off of my bar stool and dragged me over to the booth of guys for a drink. And that’s how I got to know Bill de Kooning.
A few years after that, I decided I was going to get a teaching position and received a scholarship to study as a teaching fellow with Buckminster Fuller. He was at Southern Illinois University then and quickly establishing himself as one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. This was right about the time that he was developing the geodesic dome (in the ’50s) and he would take his students out and look for every kind of material they could use—plywood, paper boxes, etc.—and he’d make geodesic domes all over campus.
Rail: That must have been a very different conversation than the Abstract Expressionist ones you were having in New York.
Leedy: Yes. But, you know, I wasn’t tied to Abstract Expressionism. It was just the popular thing at the time. Before I went to New York I painted very realistically. I already had an established amount of work; I had made a lot of ceramic things, utilitarian things, but in New York I analyzed myself through the conversations I’d had hanging out with the Ab-Ex crowd. I didn’t want to be what they were—I couldn’t be a painter like De Kooning, nor did I want to be (though I love his work best of all). So I got some clay and started maneuvering the material around. The results of those experiments are now considered the first Abstract Expressionist clay pieces ever made.
Rail: So, if you weren’t tied to Abstract Expressionism, which tenets of the movement were you interested in applying to your work? How did these interactions shape your vision of what art (and ceramics) could be?
Leedy: It was more the attitude, the philosophy of Abstract Expressionism, as opposed to one singular person that I was interested in. One thing that was very much in the air at the time was this idea of following the natural material—it was all about the material. I think that had the biggest influence on me. So when I started making my clay things, I wanted the pieces to still look like clay. I didn’t want to make clay that looked like flesh, though I knew it could. Just like I didn’t want paint to look like flesh, though I knew it could, and I’d done that. I wanted paint to look like paint and clay to look like clay, in the end. But I had to start somewhere and, having already made a lot of utilitarian things, the natural starting point seemed to be to make pots that were not utilitarian.
Rail: You’ve noted before that seeing female surrealist Méret Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea cup was the spark that generated a different way of seeing—of transforming the possibility of ceramics beyond its rudimentary designation as functional or craft and into the realm of high art. Can you comment on this?
Leedy: The person who probably had the largest influence on me was someone I never met, and that was Oppenheim. I saw her fur-lined cup, saucer, and spoons in an art history class and they simply blew me away. I thought, you can’t drink out of that cup, the only thing you can do is see it, look at it for what it is; essentially, it is not a cup anymore. So when I started making my objects, I wanted them to just be clay; I used the subject matter of a cup or the subject matter of a plate or a vessel of some kind, but distorted them to a point where they were not useable. When prompted as to their functionality I’d say you’re right, you can’t eat out of it with your mouth, but you can look at it and eat with your mind. You’ve got to feed your mind as well as your stomach, and that’s what this work was doing. It was making you think.
They weren’t ceramics anymore, they were high art. And that was the major thing that my colleagues like Peter Voulkos and my buddy Rudy Autio, and Don Reitz, and I later discovered. That was our major breakthrough: raising utilitarian objects to the level of art objects.
Rail: Let’s talk more specifically about the ceramic work for which you’re most well known. You began by experimenting with raku, the Japanese low-fire process, in the early 1950s. What was it about this method of firing that allowed you to work with clay differently?
Leedy: The immediacy, the immediacy. When you make something out of clay, you have to wait until it dries, then you’ve got to fire it, take it out of the kiln, put a glaze (or glazes) on it and put it back in the kiln and fire it again until finally, you have an end product. The thing about raku—I didn’t even know the word raku back then—was its immediacy. I fired early pieces in a pit, in anything that would hold heat, and then dumped them in leaves and things like that.
When I was in Korea during the war, I had leave into Japan where I was able to partake in a formal tea ceremony. Since I was a guest they gave me this little cup that was very special (all raku things are special but this was a unique, five hundred year-old piece—one could tell because looking at the surface was like looking into the universe). This experience taught me two things: it taught me how precious an object could be, even if it had a function, and, how wonderful it could be visually, by way of accident. That’s what I was after. I brought that information back with me and it had a great impact on my work. I made things that looked utilitarian, but like Oppenheim, I wanted them to be purely aesthetic objects.
Rail: Those aspects of immediacy that you found in the raku firing process, coupled with the technique’s emphasis on the accident, also aligned with some of the philosophies of Abstract Expressionism that you were talking about in New York.
Leedy: Yes. It lined up perfectly with those conversations. It was Abstract Expressionist ceramics, there’s no doubt about it.
Rail: When did you meet Peter Voulkos and how did this relationship evolve? What was its significance in terms of both of your careers?
Leedy: It was about 1959 or 1960 when I took an associate professor position in sculpture at the University of Montana–Missoula, where Peter Voulkos was teaching, even though he had another faculty position at Berkeley at the same time. Right away, he and I became very close friends: we immediately saw a similarity in each other’s work and philosophies. In fact, Pete had been in New York at the same time I was, but we had never crossed paths. He was a very, very well-known potter. His pots were utilitarian, but they were so big that you couldn’t use them in a utilitarian way. In a sense, he was doing the same thing I was doing, but he was making his objects so large that they were useless. He had originally come across the vessels that inspired his work in books of Asian and ancient European ceramics; he told me once: “You know, Jim, I didn’t know that they weren’t big, so I just made them big.” In fact, he made them like three feet tall. This just blew everybody’s mind in the ceramics world. But both of us were breaking ground. Of course, there were other people interested in this as well. In California there was a man by the name of John Mason who caught on to what Voulkos was doing and I think he out-Voulkos-ed Voulkos in many ways. And then there was a whole California contingent of clay artists who created a kind of funky movement around these ideas; Ken Price, for one, was part of that. Anyway, it sort of became a California movement for which Pete was the leader, of course.
Rail: Did his experiments with scale affect your work? I’m thinking of the totems that were to come later, or the stacking elements that you were starting to experiment with.
Leedy: You know, not consciously, but I think subconsciously. His sense of scale showed all of us that you could make ceramics really large. Now neither one of us, nor any of our colleagues, were revolutionary in our way of thinking about clay. We thought about it differently, yes, but we were not the first. Look at what ancient cultures have done with clay. They built monuments out of clay; they built whole buildings out of clay. It’s a material that’s been used creatively for centuries. So in a way, this was nothing new.
Rail: While most famous for your Ab-Ex ceramic work, you’ve also always self-identified as a painter and a colorist. Can you speak about how this process differs (or doesn’t differ) from the act of making sculptural works?
Leedy: Yes, I’m known as a colorist, that’s true. I’m very much interested in color; even when there’s not much color in my work, there is still color. Black is a wonderful color, for example. Black is all colors and all colors can emanate from black: blue, red, green, purple, etc. I love color because it’s natural. Color is powerful. I think there are real reasons, if we look to nature and so on and so forth, for that. People know beauty. So I don’t think that my work and work that deals with material—pure color, pure form, whatever—is really terribly revolutionary.
In all mediums, material is material. I don’t distinguish between them. My approach to working is always in the appreciation of the material I’m working with or on. I want my work to look like what it is. I’m not making paintings, though I do, but that’s not the real purpose. Their purpose is to look like paint. That does go back to my New York experience, I think, and my academic studies of Asian culture and art history.
Rail: In what way does it relate to those studies?
Leedy: I believe one should follow the natural way of the Taoists. Lao-Tzu. Don’t try to make a stream go over a mountain, let it follow its natural path, let it do what it wants to do. It’s the essence of nature, the natural way. I knew about wanting material to be true to itself long before I met De Kooning and the Ab-Ex crowd. Yes, these conversations during the ’50s and late ’40s, in New York, had a large impact on my own philosophy but my art history studies were also very important to me as a visual artist.
Rail: Is it an accurate assessment to say that the primacy of the gesture, in the way that you apply physical force to a sculpture or color to a painting, is the way you approach working with clay—in that it’s very much about this primordial kind of drive to make, to repurpose?
Leedy: Yes, exactly.
Rail: There is a physical quality that lends your clay sculptures and the ceramic pieces a primitive presence, almost like earthen, fossilized forms that have been dug up from some ancient civilization. Do you relate to your work as aesthetic excavations and if so, how?
Leedy: Yes, I do. I love the fact that the work looks like it was dug up out of the ground. I want to see how close one can get to nature through art; because nature is the greatest teacher. Again, I go back to Lao Tzu; don’t try to make a stream go over the mountain. I think that’s a pretty powerful philosophy. I fell in love with that. And my color, my interest in color, is the same as my interest in form. I want it to be pure. I want the roots of what it is to be evident.
Rail: The platters seem to play a significant role in your overall oeuvre, as a form that straddles the world of two and three dimensions, painting and sculpture. Can you elaborate on this? Do they have an elevated importance for you because of their ability to move between both worlds?
Leedy: You know, I never thought of it that way but that’s a wonderful way to think of it, because when I’m working, I’m just working. But I know that what I’m doing is based on years and years of trial and error and comparison and growth. When I move from one material to another, like from painting to a vessel or a platter, it’s no different. The difference, maybe, is that a painting is on a flat surface. Years ago I became frustrated with that and I would tear holes through the painting or burn holes through the backside because I wanted the canvas to be a part of the work.
Rail: Well, some of your shaped canvases predate Stella’s by almost a decade, correct?
Leedy: Absolutely. Or by more, yes. I’m always questioning. I’m always searching through the material in my work, and so the relationship between my paintings and my platters and my sculptural pieces is just a natural moving back and forth. Now, with a painting on a piece of canvas, I’m working with the end product; when it’s finished and the painting is satisfied, when my mind is satisfied, I can let it go. Not true with a platter. There’s still another very important step, that is, that the work is going to go through the firing process. I have to be cognizant of the fact that when I put a glaze here, that color may end up reading differently once it’s fired.
Rail: So there’s more of a preparatory thought process that goes into the clay works that doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the painting?
Leedy: Yes, and I love that difference. It’s why I’ve never stopped painting even though I’ve been involved with clay for so many years. I told some students of mine years ago, when they asked how one becomes famous, that I don’t know how you become famous, but I can tell you how you become immortal: make something out of clay, fire it, go in the backyard, dig a hole, and put it in the ground.
Rail: On the subject of teaching, you joined the Kansas City Art Institute sculpture department in 1966, quickly becoming one of the more innovative forces on staff.
Leedy: At that time, the KCAI was an island in the middle of the city. Few people in Kansas City knew it was there; it was more famous outside of the city than within it, with students attending classes there from around the world. That’s one of the things that pushed me to start a gallery outside of the Institute. At the time, there was no venue for students or faculty to show their work. So I went over to the Westport neighborhood, which was really run down in those days, and rented a building on Main Street. I got the entire building for $500 a month, honestly. I cleaned it up and re-finished it and converted the space into a gallery to show the work of my students and colleagues. While I traveled repeatedly between Westport and the Art Institute, I kept noticing another area of the city. It was also run down, but there were these warehouses already in place so I started negotiating with the banks and eventually bought a little building in the neighborhood. I put three studios upstairs and rented them out to artists.
Rail: And that was the founding of the Crossroads Arts District.
Leedy: Yes it was.
Rail: That was in 1980. About how many galleries are in the area now?
Leedy: I’m told there are something like 90.
Rail: You’ve produced a large series of work that deals with your experiences as a military photographer in the Korean War. It seems as though Abstract Expressionism was one extremely important platform from which you would generate future work, but one that was also compounded by these very intense experiences you had as a young man. Can you speak more about this time in your life and the impact it had on your work?
Leedy: Well, first of all, I do have to give a great deal of credit to New York City. I was there at the height of this major evolution, this explosion of pure discovery of material. Truth to material. That didn’t start in New York, but with the migration of people from Europe into the country it became a base for it to happen. That was an important part of my background, but in a way, it’s a minor part.
For example, I had nightmares for many years about one major experience from Korea. One nice spring day, during a time when the combat had let up, we were all dirty so I got some buddies of mine to go down to a river nearby for a swim. It wasn’t a fast streaming river, but slow moving, so that it almost created a lake. It looked so good that I jumped right into it with all of my clothes on and swam out into the calm surface. (You could see your own reflection in it; it was that calm.) I was marveling at how good and cold it felt when all of a sudden, I saw through my reflection into the bottom of the river, and it was filled with rotting corpses and skeletons. Apparently the Chinese and North Koreans would throw bodies into the river to dispose of their dead. It was like I was in a soup, a soup of dead, rotting people, and of course I got out of there as fast as I could. If I could have walked on the river I would have. I never got that image out of my mind.
At first, it didn’t bother me that much because there were so many other things that I had experienced during the war there, but as years went by, I started having nightmares about that scene—that I’d be drafted all over again and sent back to Korea. The visions became very bad toward the middle part of the ’80s and into a better part of the ’90s. It got to where I couldn’t paint or make anything that didn’t have skulls or bones in it. Consciously, I knew I was working through the memories. In 1996, I received a grant from the Grand Arts Foundation. I used the grant to make a massive wall of skulls and bones titled “The Earth Lies Screaming” (2000), which was exhibited in conjunction with a larger show of my work, titled War, at Grand Arts’s space in Kansas City. I designed it as a sort of a visual history of humans killing humans. But I couldn’t be completely negative; I still had a sense of hope in me that we might survive at the end of this thing, so I sculpted these geese climbing out of the dirt as if to imply that spiritually, we might yet survive.
That was really a seminal piece for me. It had nothing to do with Abstract Expressionism; it had to do with life experience, war experience. We make monuments to war, but we make them pretty. There is no truth in that. In that same year, for example, I re-produced a sculpture of the Nike in exactly the shape it exists in the Louvre in France. I gathered the measurements and cast it precisely to scale, but in bones and skulls. So there she is, with her wings flowing and so on, but the whole figure is made up of skeletal imagery. What I was saying with this work, and with the wall, is that these are our images of victory; these are the joys of war, not some pretty monument. Those pieces emancipated me, cleansed me. I don’t like to make work about skulls and bones anymore. I never even think of doing them these days.
Rail: So what are you interested in making work about currently?
Leedy: I’m phenomenally interested in outer space, the universe, the cosmos. I’m almost possessed by it. A lot of my work, in fact, is situated as if I’m floating through the cosmos. Again, it goes back to this idea of truth to material, or a discovery of material, because that’s what connects us all. The cosmos are the materials that you and I are made of, and so, presently in my life that’s the basis of my work. It’s about a truth to the cosmos as well as being part of a constant state of change and evolvement. I don’t think I’ve ever made two pieces that are the same. Even when I made utilitarian cups, I wanted them to be slightly different from each other. I wanted them to have a utilitarian purpose, but a personal quality as well, and I think the greatest pottery of all time has that. You look at other cultures and you look at our own great potters, and each piece of their work is a unique object.
Rail: And that interest in the evolutionary character of change explains the, at times extreme dichotomies present in your work: these visual themes of fragmentation, discontinuity, and chaos versus the natural principles of growth and expansion. At first they appear antithetical to each other but if you look at religions such as Taoism or Zen Buddhism, which, as you’ve said, have had a profound influence on your artistic output, it is the continuous presence of the other/the opposite that allows the inverse entity to exist. Hope where there is death; regrowth where there is destruction.
Leedy: Exactly. That’s a good observation because it’s so true. There is hope in the new work.
Rail: I think that’s something that critics and art historians have a hard time reconciling—the dichotomies that are often present in an artist’s work. But if change is the commitment and the visualization of that commitment resides in this pureness of material, then it all makes sense; it is all interconnected.
Leedy: Yes. Change and experimentation is what we’re all about. It’s what I’m about. As individuals, we’re in a constant state of flux. I want to be a part of this constantly evolving process.
Rail: Part of a system that’s open rather than closed.
Leedy: Absolutely. I think that if I closed myself off to a style or limited myself to one material that I’d be close to the end of my career as an artist. I’d probably want to sell insurance or something because it wouldn’t be fun anymore. Keeping an open mind, always, that’s the key. For once you close your mind, you are dead.