Post-War Art has produced no shortage of exceptional images, but it has, to the dismay of avid collectors, produced a shortage of works by Charles Ray. Throughout his storied 30 year career, Ray's powerful artistic output has been profoundly limited due to the artist's preference to conceptualize and calibrate his sculptures over a period of several years. As such, the emergence of a work from Ray's studio has been described as "something of an art world event." (Tom Morton, "The Shape of Things," Frieze, November-December 2007, p. 126).
A sculpture nearly 8 years in the making, the appearance of Aluminum Girl, 2003, at auction is as momentous as when it made its formal debut at the 50th Venice Biennale, Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer almost 10 years ago. The inclusion of the work in the Biennale was particularly noteworthy as it references its ancient antecedents while exploiting the materials and technical mastery of modernity. Classically inspired and painted an impossible shade of white that recalls Greco-Roman Carrara marble, the hyper-real nude is a Post-Modern interpretation of antiquity and "offers a world...romantic dreams of a new modernity." (Francesco Bonami, "I Have A Dream," in Exh. Cat., Venice, 50th Biennale de Venezia: Dreams and Conflicts: the Dictatorship of the Viewer, 2003, p. xxi).
Charles Ray's sculptures have a labyrinthine source of influences. His family once owned and operated a successful commercial art school, and Ray subsequently pursued art as a major at the University of Iowa. There he studied under Roland Brener, a disciple of the renowned sculptor, Anthony Caro, who was lauded as the most important modernist sculptor since the inimitable David Smith. Under Brener, Ray learned the crucial tenets behind a sculptor's didactic struggle with "stability and instability; balance and collapse." (Paul Schimmel, "Beside One's Self," in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, Charles Ray, 1998, p. 62). Ray's mentor instilled him with an important understanding of academic formalism: "it taught me to think sculpturally rather than to think about sculpture." (Michael Fried, "Early one Morning," Tate Etc., Spring 2005, p. 51). Ray himself recalls another extraordinary influence while he struggled to get his own sculptures to stand upright. "In college, I heard a story about Giacometti and Picasso walking down a decrepit street in Paris. Picasso, looking up at the ramshackle buildings, asked, 'How can these buildings possibly continue to stand?' 'Force of Habit,' Giacometti replied."(Charles Ray, "Thinking of Sculpture as Shaped by Space," The New York Times, October 7, 2001, p. 34). Giacometti's L'Homme Qui Chavire, 1951, in which the figure is famously caught at the moment he loses his balance, exists in a state of perpetual instability, and appears to be an existential reference to the grave concerns of sculpture. Yet for Ray, the genius of Giacometti's sculptures were not only their vertical defiance, but in Giacometti's ability to "imbue his work with the life and breath of our real world...they are alive, breathing, waiting for you to come and meet them." (Ibid, p. 34). This gravitational push/pull of the physical, coupled with the psychological, is arguably the artistic genetic origin to the seminal Aluminum Girl, which gives the impression that at any moment, she might very well step out from beneath her white coat of paint.
Charles Ray's sculptural oeuvre has long been a protagonist for critical acclaim. First appearing in the Whitney Biennial in 1989 (and in several since) and showcased in a midcareer retrospective in 1998, the allure of his works can be traced to their ability to ambitiously tackle sculptural concerns of scale, balance, mass, and illusion. His ambitious sculptural program took on seismic proportions in 1992, the year in which he produced the monumental variants of Fall '91 and the profoundly ambitious Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley, which at first glance appears provocative and profane, but was highly charged with a deeply humorous sexual impossibility. In 1993, Ray produced the verifiably hypnotic Family Romance, a sculpture composed of two parents and two young children rendered all in the same height. Unlike the store-window mannequins they resemble, they are anatomically correct. Coupled with the title of the work, the Family Romance is suggestive of inappropriate erotic currents within the family unit. The artist, however, was far more ambivalent about the psychological implications of his work, stating "it can be looked at psychologically or philosophically or personally. The interpretive nature of work is different than the work itself. The interpretation of the work isn't the key to understanding it. I'm worried about making a good sculpture. I'm not so worried about the interpretation of it." (Julie Belcove, "Charles Ray," W Magazine, November 2007, p. 349).
The creation of Aluminum Girl, therefore, was a radical departure for the artist. The zeitgeist of a new century heralded an epistemological shift in Ray's sculptural aesthetic. In one dramatic gesture, Ray indicated that "modern art is over, so I'm retrieving familiar forms and techniques to make something old new again." (Jerry Saltz, "Entropy in Venice," New York Magazine, June 19, 2009). Borrowing from Saltz's assessment, Aluminum Girl must find inspiration 500 years prior, when in 1501, a then 25-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti commenced work on his colossal masterpiece, the 17-foot-tall marble David. From a huge block of marble, Michelangelo embraced the challenge of sculpture to mimic divine creation, the Renaissance interpretation of the highest form of art. As such, David is considered a masterpiece, an ideal male form combining heroic strength and human uncertainty. Michelangelo found a sculptural image within the block of stone much as the human soul is found within the physical body. To that effect, Ray's Aluminum Girl is the David for the Post-Modern. A verifiable futuristic feminine doppelgänger unearthed from alloy rather than marble, her very existence validates what has come before, what exists now, and the possibilities of the future: "today's art is just as rich as the work of the past, and today's artists deserve as much attention as the classic and the canonized." (François Pinault in Exh. Cat., Venice, Palazzo Grassi, Where are We Going? Selections from the François Pinault Collection, 2006, p. 56).
Aluminum Girl began as a life-cast of artist and long-time friend, Jennifer Pastor. Calm and meditative, Aluminum Girl evolved under the hands of its creator through a deliberate and obsessive exploration of medium. Originally conceived in wood, plaster and then synthetic fiberglass, Ray ultimately arrived at aluminum for its soft malleable appearance. It engages Ray's fascination of integrating realism and abstraction in Classic Greek sculpture, and the end result is a sculpture that broke away from the pedestal from which she is now entirely independent. In contrast to the mannequins from the 1990s, Ray himself noted that he "struggled to bring the specificity of the subject's identity back into the work, to bring the stylization I initially employed to move beyond portraiture back into the task of representing the figure. In negotiating this balance, it slowly became clear that the surface of a figurative sculpture could become a manifold where sculptural events reacted and interrelated." (Exh. Cat., São Paulo, Bienal de São Paulo: In the Name of the Artists, American Contemporary Art from the Astrup Fearnley Collection, 2011, p. 34). Further, the invisible forces that manipulate the perception and experience of the spectator are at the heart of Ray's oeuvre with most works dependent on a duality: "with the passing of time, they frequently reveal themselves to be something other than the way they appear at first glance." (Ibid., p. 25).
For Ray, color and surface are meticulously considered. Aluminum Girl is a visual apotheosis of the artist's frank assessment that "in contemporary art, surface is an expression of anxiety, and no one is as anxious about surface as I am." (Artist as interviewed by Robert Storr, "Anxious Spaces," Art in America, November 1998, p. 144). Painstaking measures were taken to achieve an other-worldly like surface, one that is part bravura and part braggadocio. The effect however is mesmerizing: "complexity of form and quiet artistry, in Aluminum Girl, the quiet artistry prevails." (Exh. Cat., Venice, Palazzo Grassi, Where are We Going? Selections from the François Pinault Collection, 2006, Milan, p. 56). Attention to detail recalls the sculptural output of Jeff Koons whose Celebration series is marked by impossibly pristine stainless steel surfaces. It is telling that Koons, as curator of Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection, selected Aluminum Girl for inclusion in the show where he claimed, "I tried to choose iconic pieces and was intuitively trying to listen to works that seemed to have a really strong voice, works that really have a desire to try and present themselves." (Jeff Koons as interviewed by Lisa Phillips in: Exh. Cat., New York, The New Museum, Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection, New York, 2010, p. 9).
Charles Ray uniquely defies pre-existing art historical categorization. There is a strong urge to align him somehow, "since the birth of the avant-garde, in the mid-nineteenth century, Art History has been considered mainly in formal ways: what led to what, who begat whom." (Jerry Saltz, "Charles Ray," New York Magazine, June 15-22, 2009, p. 139). We could assess that Ray's ability to breathe improbable life into his pneumatic Aluminum Girl, is akin to a Post-Modern Pygmalion. Conceptually and materially conceived in milky layers, Aluminum Girl is a verifiable façade where weighty fragility and engaging aloofness collide. The surface begs for touch, but the distant gaze of the girl removes her from our space and time and evidences that Ray's sculptures are undeniably complex and challenge the assumptions of "what we think we know, and what is, and between what we expect and what we get." (Tom Morton, "The Shape of Things," Frieze, November-December 2007, p. 122).
Aluminum and paint
62 1/2 x 18 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. 158.8 x 47 x 29.2 cm.
Exh. Cat., Venice, 50th Biennale de Venezia: Dreams and Conflicts: the Dictatorship of the Viewer, 2003, p. 51, illustrated in color (another example)
Exh. Cat., Athens, DESTE Foundation, Monument to Now: The Dakis Joannou Collection, 2004, p. 335, illustrated in color (another example)
Exh. Cat., Venice, Palazzo Grassi, "Where Are We Going?": Selections from the François Pinault Collection, 2006, p. 54, illustrated in color and illustrated in color on the front cover (detail, another example)
Exh. Cat., Oslo, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Charles Ray - Black & White, 2006 (another example)
Exh. Cat., New York, New Museum, Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection Curated by Jeff Koons, 2010, p. 103, illustrated in color (another example)
Peter Schjeldahl, "Big Time: 'Skin Fruit' at the New Museum", The New Yorker, March 15, 2010, p. 78, illustrated in color (as installed at the New Museum, another example)
Exh. Cat., São Paulo, Bienal de São Paulo: In the Name of the Artists, American Contemporary Art from the Astrup Fearnley Collection, 2011, p. 34, illustrated in color (detail) and illustrated in color on the back cover (detail, another example)
Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2003