Art In Conversation
Meg Webster with Julie Reiss
“It all sort of makes a nice line from one thing to the next to the next. Almost without trying to make it happen, artist projects begin to go from one to the next to the next.”
New York CityJudd Foundation
Two Walls 1984/2022
March 25 – May 31, 2022
Meg Webster’s concerns for the natural world have defined her career as an artist. She creates sculptures made of salt, earth, sand, grass, and other natural materials, and large-scale installations that provide an opportunity for interacting with nature and better understanding its processes. During the installation of her current exhibition at the Judd Foundation, she sat down with Julie Reiss to discuss the shifting meaning of her artworks, their dialogue with minimalism, and their timeliness.
Julie Reiss (Rail): When you came out of Yale in 1983, you had your first exhibition here at the Judd Foundation.
Meg Webster: Yes.
Rail: These are the same two pieces that you showed then. In 1983, what did the use of organic materials mean, and what does it mean now? I’m thinking about how the signification of a lot of this may have changed.
Webster: It’s interesting, isn’t it? When Judd—Don—asked me to do this after he’d seen I’d made several earth pieces at Yale, I moved one to a friend's house, and invited him to come and see it. It was a thin wall, a seven-foot circle, about chest high. It got very thin at the top and was called Cookie. And that’s what encouraged him to invite me to do something here. And at first, I was going to fill the whole space with salt, because it was an anti-nuclear devastation piece. But I was afraid it wasn’t strong enough in the space and didn’t communicate the meaning I wanted. I had made an enclosure at Yale, my last thesis show. I made clay bricks and piled them into a piece not unlike this, where you walk down a passage and you had two feet facing one another. So, this notion that we’re countering nuclear war and also presenting—the early bed pieces were like that—presenting a sort of notion of mating. This is all about mating, people meeting, going through this passage and seeing one another, and then going into the symbolic womb-like shape.
Rail: When I look at this one, what jumps to mind is Richard Serra’s Circuit (1972). And then I think about how when that is translated, so that the walls are earth instead of Cor-Ten steel, it makes me more aware of the huge role materials play in the Serra work. Circuit has become very familiar at this point. I don’t necessarily think about its industrial materials, until I see a similar form in an organic material. It’s hard not to read your sculpture as a critique of his. And I wonder if that critique was built into it?
Webster: I don’t think so. I think it was adding, I was adding this natural material setting to fairly concrete, you know, derivations of Judd and Serra and all that, trying to make it more physically present to the body.
Rail: That’s interesting, because we think about the phenomenological experience of encountering minimalist objects, and walking through or around them, and making choices. But when the sculptures are made out of natural material, there’s an added layer of meaning about how we are interacting with nature. I think that the phenomenological aspects of making objects that are on this scale—so that people can feel surrounded by them and enter into and spend as much time in them as they want—with these types of materials is a powerful thing right now. I feel like there’s still a surprise in seeing your work.
Webster: Really? Wow.
Rail: Because it raises a lot of questions at a moment where we’re grappling with the fallout of the split between humans and nature, and trying to reconnect people to the natural world. If it isn’t a critique of industrial materials, what is your hope for how people will interact with these materials?
Webster: I want them to feel the material directly and to also understand how it’s made and to enjoy its dialogue with some of the minimalist or abstract work. There’s abstraction in it.
Rail: When you were at Yale, were you already using organic materials?
Webster: I got into it slowly, actually. One of the girls in front of me in class did several installations that were just about ground. I had shaped sand. I’d done these very precise, soft sand shapes, and that’s the first thing I did. But then I included some other things, the grass mound on the other side of the wall. So that’s when I—well, I wouldn’t say it’s when I started. It was more active than that. I was bringing in the soil mound, that’s the one that became the very thin-walled sculpture that Judd saw. It all sort of makes a nice line from one thing to the next to the next. I think, almost without trying to make it happen, artist projects begin to go from one to the next to the next.
Rail: You’re manipulating the natural materials. It’s not the wild, and yet it offers us an interesting relationship to that natural world. How does nature intersect with a garden, how does the garden intersect with culture? These three things—nature is over here and an anthropocentric culture is over there, and maybe the garden and molding things out of these materials lies somewhere in between?
Webster: It’s frustrating because it feels a little bit like a conceit. I mean, they generally work, they affect you as nature and material. I think that how we live on the earth, how we make families and cities, community, intersect with nature, and how we leave, how we foster nature within that—it’s a fascinating thing. I was in a show in Denmark, and there was a wonderful piece showing all the natural life that has come back to Chernobyl. Wonderful piece. I mean, it’s just fascinating. Here’s this dead land, but nature has come back. And the other idea, too, is when they stopped cutting the parks because there was a money problem, all the creatures came back. So, I’m also very interested in how. I don’t think my work makes people change how they relate to nature. I don’t know that I’ve thought that through. Maybe I’d like to know more about that.
Rail: I think that’s always a question: what is the takeaway? How do you gauge it? And in the beginning, I had naïvely thought that these were answerable questions. Like if I just had the right metrics, I’d be able to figure it out. I don’t worry about it that much anymore. Because you just don’t know whether the smell of the hay is going to evoke something in somebody or just suddenly feeling surrounded by the dampness of compressed soil might evoke something in somebody that, a year from now, makes them do a different action than they might have.
Webster: I don’t know if that works.
Rail: You’ll never know. But I think it’s just about putting it out there. In 2013, when you had your Pool (1998) in the Dark Optimism show at MoMA PS1, Hyperallergic interviewed some people who were at one of the opening parties. Reactions to Pool ranged from statements like “I don’t know what this is doing here. It’s just water. It’s not art, why aren’t there more fish?” to thoughtful comments about your use of PVC pipe, and how did that go with the water, and what did it mean to have this pool inside? The range of responses was really interesting.
Webster: That’s interesting, very. I hadn’t seen that.
Rail: When I saw Pool, I remember just being thrilled that there was water running because it was very loud, the pipe was high and the water really splashed down into the pool. And I also remember being a little bit upset at the visible plastic that helped contain the pool, and being aware of this odd mix of nature and industry and the increasing impossibility of an untouched little beautiful pool with fish in it. Robert Smithson said you can’t return to the pastoral, that shouldn’t be the goal, we need to coexist, humans and nature, industry and nature. Others have said we need to try to roll things back. I felt that a lot of those issues were there, just in that one piece. I wonder what you think about that. Is the goal to try to roll things back?
Webster: I don't know. That's a very interesting question. Maybe one of the biggest. Or maybe not one of the biggest ones, certainly one of the most difficult to answer. I mean, I don’t know that we can roll things back. But we can play with the edges of what that means. Whether or not somebody understands the PVC of—PVC, I use PVC in all my works, you know, there was a piece at Brooklyn Museum that had a piece of rubber and detritus. As I said, back at that show, in college, you know, I really did and do care for people, wanting them to love things and take care of things. So maybe I’m just peeking around the edges, bringing it in from Richard Serra.
Rail: I was thinking about Richard Serra’s verb list, which I thought of as everything you could do to a piece of metal, and I went back to look at it because I thought, “Oh, we need to maybe add some new verbs for your practice.” But it was interesting, because there were already things on the list like “of nature” and “to collect” and “to gather.” That thread is there…
Webster: I love that list.
Rail: This term I’m teaching two classes on art and environment. I just gave the students an assignment to pick two works in the Storm King Indicators exhibition and write about them. And so many of them chose your work—
Webster: The solar piece? They did such a beautiful job building that, and then the plants just went nuts.
Rail: They’re still there, right? Didn’t they plant them around after the exhibition closed?
Webster: I should probably try to do another piece like that somewhere where it’s both systems, the plants and the solar, and not just a sort of stuck-in-the-middle of the field thing. Have it integrated with some kind of a community.
Rail: Your work on Governors Island is somewhat in the same vein, right? You’re working with GrowNYC?
Webster: They took some of the plants. It was more like a way to figure out how to grow these native plants from seed. You have to put them in the refrigerator for a certain length of time. It’s called stratification. They have to see what happens in nature, I guess. And it’s a wonderful experience actually doing the planting. I didn’t work as much with GrowNYC people. I just adored their gardens, so, so wild. They’re just so busy, so I didn’t work much with them. But then the bee people got very excited about taking the plants because they’re all pollinator plants. It really, really went to a good place, which is close to the GrowNYC place. Governors Island is really a beautiful place. Kind of a little jewel out there in the middle of the water.
Rail: When these works are installed here at the Judd Foundation, are they going to require any particular kind of tending?
Webster: They’re done.
Rail: Do the materials come from a specific source?
Webster: No. Just Home Depot and an urban plant company.
Rail: Have you done work where the source of the particular greenery or the particular moss was important?
Webster: I think I’ve played with that thought of knowing where it comes from and particularly where it goes now. I was happy someone took the moss from the Governors Island mound and planted it in their yard.
Rail: What’s going to help it stand up?
Webster: The soil is compressed. It’s like the rammed earth walls they build houses out of.
Rail: It’s evocative of early architecture and homesteading and sod houses. And the hay brings up visions of agricultural plots, which is interesting especially here in the city. There’s so little that connects people to the natural world, or even to the agriculture that sustains the city. So I think anytime people can come here and have these encounters, this is a positive thing.
Webster: It’s true. It’s true.
Rail: I love that these are going to be accessible to people to feel close to those smells and textures.
Webster: And still walk into a minimal work, within the history of minimalism or whatever. Maybe it’s not minimal. It’s from that language but yet, it’s still … it’d be interesting for you to tell me what it is. [Laughter]
Rail: For me, having come into art history with minimalist sculpture already being a sort of bedrock, I immediately recognize what forms your pieces are referring to, and then I think about this translation out of industrial materials into organic materials, and what that meant in 1983. A lot of people initially found Richard Serra sculptures intimidating and unfriendly and hard to find your way out of. At that time, for some people, your works might have signified an anti-machismo stance, and now they might mean something different, because we’re in such an urgent environmental moment. There’s a different language for talking about that now than there was in 1983.
Webster: Right. We were, I was thinking about nuclear war and killing people, and destroying the world with nuclear power.
Rail: And of course, that’s suddenly terrifyingly timely.
Webster: It just shows you how close destruction is. How madmen can get somewhere.
Rail: I think one of the beautiful things about taking a temporary work and remaking it many years later, is you can revisit it and say, “How has the conversation shifted since the first time these works were made?” You can talk about those same objects in a different way. And I think the qualities of these objects—the enclosure, the safety of them, the gentleness of them, their anti-monumentality—are going to resonate right now in a different way than they did in 1983.
Webster: I think you’re right.
Rail: Normally, I don’t think about curling up in a Richard Serra. [Laughs] So, it’s very different.
Webster: It is very different. But it definitely is speaking to, I mean, I’m speaking to him.
Rail: I understand it is not so much a critique, but a dialogue. And also, we’re at a moment where we’re talking a lot about raw materials, their sources, and the power that they have to speak for themselves. It’s not simply how we use and manipulate them. With these two pieces, you’re letting these materials say what they can do. That soil can be compressed, it can become a wall that holds together. And hay is very lightweight, and you can build it up and it can hold its form. So, we’re also looking at the presentation of materials. But we’re looking at a presentation of natural materials and particularly at this moment, it’s important to have that.
Webster: Exactly. And the material is alive in a way. I mean, all material, everything, is alive. And I think that that needs to be thought of and expressed in some way more than even this can do. You were mentioning something that made me think about—it was the movie that won the Oscar two years back about the octopus?
Rail: My Octopus Teacher, I loved My Octopus Teacher!
Webster: But the idea is that we’re eating these—these are creatures, creatures with families, and lobsters they mate for life, I mean, why are we eating them? Because we need to eat, but the plant-based world, that food world is really taking over. There’s a lot going on, of course we’re still taking living creatures and consuming them but they’re just not animals, they’re plants. But that’s such an interesting thing about how to position yourself as gently as possible in the world.
Rail: I love that idea and I think that really comes through in your sculpture. In My Octopus Teacher the human makes such an effort to form a connection with this creature and a relationship seems to develop between the two of them. That effort to reach out and communicate with something that is not another human relates to the caregiving, caring, caretaking that’s been a major theme in your work. I think it goes to that same search for connection. But you’re not from any kind of farm area, are you? Did you grow up in a very urban setting?
Webster: I grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire and then Virginia. It wasn’t particularly urban. But it wasn’t particularly rural. I don’t think I’ve addressed myself to those thoughts of urban versus agriculture but came to it from behind. Although I love gardening, I really think we should have gardens on every little corner and in all the corporate parks and schools. There should be nature and farms all together in that. But then I was reminded that the two don’t go together. The supporting complex ecology and agriculture don’t necessarily go together because all the creatures eat the same things we do. The bunnies have to be kept out of the patch if you want to have anything to eat.
Rail: Your piece in Storm King, the Indicators: Artists on Climate Change exhibition—am I remembering right, that part of the point of it was to show how you could grow things more efficiently, possibly using less land?
Webster: It was about using, it’s about being able to grow—there’s a guy in Massachusetts that did it first I think—putting gardens under solar panels. But the notion that you can do both and you could do it in a very large way—so that’s what it was about, doing both. But no one ever called me and said, “Hey, let’s do a bigger project.” It didn’t go anywhere. Although I think that is something one would have to generate, probably. I don’t know what it would look like. It’s a very architectural problem. Agriculture architecture problem.
Rail: The relationship between agriculture and nature is problematic, because in order to make farmland and grow things, you often have to cut down trees. There’s a push and pull there, so the idea of being able to use less land for agriculture is good. It leaves more habitats alone for creatures to live in trees.
Webster: Exactly. You can do a project that has all of the agriculture and energy generation and forests and habitat, and we basically do everything.
Rail: If you could do anything next, do you have any thoughts on some way that all of these things could be brought together?
Webster: Do it! I mean, it depends on what you want it to look like. There’s a backyard at Dia that I’ve been thinking about doing everything in.
Rail: That would be a great place to do something in.
Webster: Because they would, they could sustain it. I could leave it there.
Rail: They could tend it and take care of it.
Webster: Make a garden of everything.
Rail: I think it’s a great idea.
Webster: How you call out the quantities and placement, the architecture of it, the arrangement of it, the landscaping of it, the soil. Also, this notion of landscape and nature and habitation and how you live in nature is very interesting.
Rail: I think that the open-endedness in your exhibition is going to be very effective in terms of helping people make those kinds of connections. There is a kind of, I don’t want to say ambiguity, because it’s very physical and solid and very much there, but the takeaway is something that people have to feel for themselves. And maybe this is the most effective way to go, to incorporate a certain amount of ambiguity.
Webster: There’s a lot of things working. That’s so interesting, this notion that there isn’t one line, there’s several lines of experience, that you do something and you reflect on it, then you do something next. Because there’s something underneath that makes you want to do it. And there’s something that happens when you’ve done it. I mean, it’s amazing to see this long a period—thirty-nine years, my god. It’s like yesterday. Wow.
Rail: The day I saw your show, I Want You to Care More at Paula Cooper in 2016, I had been going around to different shows in Chelsea. And when I walked into yours, I remember how much I loved it and what a relief I felt to walk in there and see green welcoming things. There was that moss bed. It was just the right height and scale. I could imagine what it felt like if I could just lie down. And then there was the one that sort of reached out and embraced you and it was so friendly. You could go in there, and take a breath. I think there was a salt mound there also.
Webster: There was a salt mound, we did make a salt mound.
Rail: Was this show the first time that you had shown plants as part of an artwork?
Webster: No, I had done an early piece that came right after this piece. I made Hollow (1985), in the Nassau County Museum, it was an earthen wall, and a long passage down into the fields. And I put plants inside, this is the first time I took them out inside. So that was right before I did the work Glen (1988) at the Walker for the show Landscape is Metaphor where I made a wall. And then Jake Ewert recently built a version of the piece at an art fair in Geneva that was another circular planted wall.
Rail: It’s funny, but for me, the grow room at Paula Cooper was kind of unsettling, because there was a sort of purpley-pink mylar. And I didn’t want to see it. I only wanted to see the green things.
Webster: The viewers loved it! They took pictures of it because it was so warp-y.
Rail: It was very cool that the plants were actually growing in the gallery. It made me think of when Robert Morris participated in the 1969 exhibition Spaces at MoMA, where artists came in and made things on site. His work was kind of a cruciform with little pine trees planted in it that gave you the illusion that you were looking across a much bigger space than you were because the trees descended in height. And the room had to be misted to keep the plants alive. At that time, the idea that something would be growing and have to be watered at the Museum of Modern Art was considered kind of shocking. As time has gone on, as with the surprise of seeing your work growing in the gallery, I think there’s still this feeling of “Wow, that’s actually real. I can smell that.” It still has that element of wonderful disruption.
Webster: It did what I wanted it to do. It wasn’t an intention. But I think that led to that show. Now, what’s next? If I was going to be given this new space to do, I might build the space with salt, like I was before, you know, we’re still in dangerous land, or something. I don’t know. I have to think it through. But that’s a good, good exercise. What would you do in this space now? At this moment?
Rail: I think that’s a very good question. And that salt that you put down in 1983, filling in the whole space, might resonate differently now.
Webster: I made a cone of salt at the Venice Biennale that’s now in the Guggenheim collection, sort of a famous piece, I made it a number of times. All these works don’t have the same political response or comment that that amount of hardened salt would have had back then, but I don’t know that it would now even. I’m not sure. I don’t know how you deal with what’s happening now. It’s just mind blowing. You can only touch aspects of it. You can’t answer. There is no cure. People should live X, Y, and Z. You can’t make people or encourage people … and then you have something like COVID come along, or you have something like Trump come along. Putin. And how do you rationalize—you can’t. It’s impossible.
Rail: We need more collective experiences, and COVID was awful for that, because it was everything but collective. It was like the anti-collective. Collective things are good, people coming together is good. And gardening is one of those things. Coming together and making places like this where people can meet are good steps. How big will this one be inside? A one-person place?
Webster: No, it’s a two-person place. It’s a little bit smaller than what you’re seeing there. I think.
Rail: How do you end up making the walls thin?
Webster: You cut the bales and rip it and retie them, and then stack them and tie them all together good and solid, and then fill it in with hay to make it smooth.
Rail: Was that process something that took a lot of trial and error to make something that was—
Webster: I don’t know, I think I just sort of did it. I guess I knew that I needed to cover the strings and make the thing smooth-ish. So I just figured it out as we went along.
Rail: You were making these works by hand at a time when a lot of the artists in and around you were absolutely not making things by hand. Is that something that you thought of as a stance?
Webster: It was just what I wanted to do. It came out of the Yale work with the clay brick piece. And there was a mound too, that didn’t work. I reformed it into a slipped mound, actually, the Slipped Cone with Flat Top (1983) is in the Panza Collection. He installed it and it has never come down. Which is nice to have a piece that stays. His buying a lot of work was really great for me.
Rail: Yes. I can imagine. Are all of your other works sort of ephemeral?
Webster: The Nassau County piece is no longer there. I don’t know, have I ever made a piece that’s just there? That’s always permanently there? I think the impermanence of them is important too, then you can go in and do something and make it impermanent, and let it be impermanent. I made some seats out of black wax and we formed them into two facing seats like this type that are in bronze. I mean, I think I’ve done other bronze-type things, if I remember right. But these are all questions I need to think about. Would I want something like the pool at PS1 to be permanent somewhere? It doesn’t make as much sense.
Rail: It would take a lot of fish.
Webster: Yes, a lot of fish. [Laughter] I’m curious about what you think about other things. What else interests you out there now?
Rail: I’m interested in the redefinition of what it means to be an artist. A lot of the work about environmental issues that I like is collaborative and interdisciplinary. It’s interesting to see the role that art can play to help shift the cultural conversation, and the way that artists can find this backdoor entrance, working across lanes. And they do it in so many different ways. There’s something that’s going to reach somebody. I’m interested in the pushback artists can give.
I think your work has a lot of pushback because of the connection it tries to nurture between people and organic materials. And because of the pride of place that it gives to the materials so that they can speak for themselves. At the same time there is an aesthetic appeal, you want to go up to it, it’s inviting. That was my experience with your 2016 show. It was inviting. I felt good in there, it was comforting. That’s a gift to give to people, especially now.
Webster: That’s good to know. That’s good to hear. It’s very good to hear. Because there is that aspect of it. I mean, it’s concrete and spatial, geometric, but I also want people to go into the object. It’s interesting to think about is there another stage, is there another? I don’t know. I don’t want to define materials.
Rail: We tend to think about everything being a raw material, as if it doesn’t have value until we’ve made it into something, or turned it into some other form. There’s something unadulterated about these materials here. I think that’s an important part of your work.
Webster: There’s something very primal.