It’s been just over 18 months since Tim Hawkinson’s phantasmagorical extravaganza of a midcareer survey came home to roost in the last truly important exhibition hosted at LACMA. Organized by the Whitney and subsequently named “Best Monographic Museum Show in New York City” by the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics, Hawkinson’s self-titled retrospective was even more impressive in its hometown configuration, compiling more than 65 of his greatest hits from the previous two decades of encyclopedic exhibits at Ace Gallery — most of which already rivaled the best monographic museum shows around in both quality and quantity of work.
From the tiny Bird skeleton made from fingernail clippings to the room-size tree-drum known as Pentecost, the work conflated the intimate and the spectacular, the formal and the conceptual, and the sublime and the ridiculous to a degree unsurpassed anywhere in contemporary art. The only piece of the puzzle missing was Hawkinson’s most epic work to date — the Überorgan, created for the cavernous Mass MoCA space in 2001, and subsequently reconfigured for Ace’s NYC showroom and for Manhattan’s Sculpture Garden as part of the Whitney’s version of the retrospective.
Though probably not the largest musical instrument in the world (that honorific is claimed by the Great Stalacpipe Organ of Luray Caverns and the Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ of Atlantic City, New Jersey, among others), the Überorgan is almost certainly the largest optical player-piano/bagpipe hybrid, and has also been suggested to be the biggest single indoor sculpture built by man. Too big for LACMA, for sure. Thankfully, after several delays, the Überorgan will be finally making its West Coast debut from March 6 through September 9 in the Entrance Hall of the Getty Museum, where its gut-rattling blasts of low-frequency melody and Brobdingnagian pneumatic biomorphisms will be sure to startle and delight locals and tourists alike.
One of the most startling aspects of the installation is the very fact that it’s occurring at the Getty, whose founder was notoriously ornery in regard to modern art. Until now, the museum’s forays into contemporary art (indeed, even 20th-century art) have been either in the canonically ambiguous realm of photography or — as with Bill Viola’s “Passions” (2003) — carefully couched as commentaries on the museum’s pre-existing antiquarian holdings. Possibly to this end, the Getty has also commissioned Hawkinson to create four new works whose animal theme dovetails with two of the museum’s summer shows — “Oudry’s Painted Menagerie” (featuring the newly restored 1749 painting of Clara the celebrity rhinoceros) and “Medieval Beasts,” both opening on May 1. But no amount of contextual jiggering is going to make the mighty Überorgan seem like a commentary on some gilded commode or Vincennes soup tureen.
And realistically speaking, the Hawkinson bestiary is basically a thematic extraction from the reservoir of new and recent works that the artist has been assembling for this show and his also-postponed solo debut at PaceWildenstein in New York, now scheduled to open on April 27. I caught up with Hawkinson in his studio as he was finishing up the structural adaptations for the Überorgan’s Getty customization. “The tube that goes from the feeder balloon to the blower is only 30 feet long, and it needs to be 130 feet, so we had to make an extra 100 feet of 5-foot-diameter net-reinforced plastic tubing,” says the ever-gangly artist as he gestures toward a suspended skein of bright-orange string webbing. “So we were making that yesterday. We cut and cable-tied this net all together, then took it to the Laundromat and dyed it, because the net on all the other bags is this color too.”
Whenever Hawkinson’s often improvisationally engineered mechanical sculptures are displayed, there’s a considerable amount of repair work and adaptive design to be accomplished. Throughout 2004 and 2005 — when his retrospective was in high gear — these maintenance duties eclipsed Hawkinson’s studio practice, and when he finally had time to work on new projects again, his life had been radically altered, not least because he had attained an entirely new plateau of art-world success. “I guess it’s typical, and you expect an artist to stall and have a mental block about getting started again, and I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t just that. It was all these other changes as well — Clare [his young daughter with painter Patty Wickman] came, and we were building and moving the studio from downtown to Altadena, and I was leaving Ace and starting to work with Pace, and I had a kind of a frozen moment when I couldn’t get anything done.”
Though nothing compared to the kind of warehouse-scaled spaces commanded by many successful L.A. artists, Hawkinson’s new studio is sleek and expansive compared to the cramped proportions of the dark garment-district garret he and Wickman occupied for the previous decade. “I was kind of adjusting to the new space, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he admits. “But, you know, in the last month [laughs], I’ve started in again. That’s what it feels like. I guess I’ve been actually working for the last year, but in the last couple of months it’s dawned on me that I have these deadlines coming up.”
In spite of the intervening dry spell, the new work is of a kind with classic Hawkinsonia — obsessively realized misunderstandings that resonate with spiritual, psychological and phenomenological depth. He shows me a predictably amazing array of works in progress for the New York show: a sensory homunculus buckskin outfit for a sensory homunculus scout, a giant woven bamboo sculpture of a Klein bottle that he’s considering mounting on a multiaxle rotational motor “like a giant three-dimensional screen saver,” a 12-foot quilted topological map of the sole of his foot, and a half-dozen more. Chances are these works won’t be seen in L.A. until his next retrospective, but the Getty works are at least as impressive.
“There’s something in the work about pattern recognition — about seeing patterns in different circumstances and reusing them. I’ve talked before about misreading visuals — misinterpreting something and then working with that. Like here” — Hawkinson indicates the fantastic Leviathon, a skeleton that reveals itself at second glance to be made from a sculpted chain of rowing human figures — “mistaking the vertebrae in a brontosaurus in the Natural History Museum in London for Polynesian kayakers. The show’s title, ‘Zoopsia,’ is a word I found that means hallucinations of animals, often when people have the DTs — pink elephants or snakes or insects. It relates to the way I work — the whole misunderstanding thing — the ‘oops’ part.”
The other “Zoopsia” entities include a life-size Bat (“The armature is made from twist ties — the membrane is Radio Shack bags that are heat-shrunk, and the fur is shredded Radio Shack bag”), an enormous Octopus, photo-collaged primarily from images of the artist’s mouth, and, of course, the Dragon. In some ways the most experimental of Hawkinson’s new works, the Dragon is a drippy, impressionistic, gestural ink drawing on a creased-brown-paper spray-foam surface. It verges on abstraction or Zen landscape drawing, and its greatest mystery is that it has no punch line, and no gizmos attached. “I had such a terrible time making the Dragon,” sighs Hawkinson. “I had started it a year ago, and it was one of the first pieces I started in the new studio — and it was just living on that wall the whole time. Peggy [Fogelman, Getty curator] really liked the Octopus, so we decided to do these four animal pieces, and the Dragon wasn’t finished yet and I had to finish it, and I was working it to death and I killed it.
“I think just the pressure of finishing it drove me to destroy it. It was just like mud. And so I did another one and I killed that one. Then there was this manic phase where it wasn’t going to be finished and I was going to put an egg piece in instead, but then I ruined the eggs because they’d turned into walnuts and so I had to make the Dragon work. So I decided to just make a couple of dragons and then cut them up and put them together, so if I didn’t like something, instead of painting over it, I’d just plaster a blank piece of paper over and paint on that. Because with an ink drawing, it has to look fresh — the more you go over it, the more it’s ruined. Then the last thing, I guess, was putting in the drips. A lot of them were just put in at the end. With a drip machine.”
Did I say no gizmos attached? Even at his most experimentally conventional, Hawkinson’s work is unavoidably idiosyncratic. Maybe the institutional-peculiarity-incarnate Getty isn’t such a surprising match after all. With his local gallery affiliations in a state of flux, this Getty thing may be the only chance for a while to see his work in the city where it was made. What better place than the castle on the hill built by the world’s richest outsider? After all, ?J. Paul liked collecting string too.
ZOOPSIA: New Works by Tim Hawkinson | ?The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center | March 6–Sep. 9, 2007