EXPANDED BIOGRAPHICAL NARRATIVE (The following was compiled by Tim Kane, an independent arts writer, art critic and curator, from of a series of interviews with the artist in late 2012.)
John Van Alstine (b. 1952), American sculptor living and working in Wells, NY in the Adirondack region of New York State best known for stone and metal abstract sculptures exhibiting exceptional balance and poise. The works are often multi level with references to the figure, classical, nautical, celestial and western mythological themes. On the most basic level, his work is about the marriage of natural with the human made. Stone is used as an assemblage method the way a welder uses steel, rather than in the traditional manner of subtraction.
In contrast to the timelessness of stone, the found-object metal is very time-specific ―20th century industrial. Structural characteristics in Van Alstine’s sculptures are employed to physically connect or suspend the stone elements. The strength of the metal allows “choreographing” and “floating” of the earthbound stone.
During the span of his more than
35 year career his central theme has been the exploration of motion and balance
through the natural forces of gravity and inertia in monumental, large scale
and smaller works located in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and
Van Alstine has won numerous awards, fellowships, grants and citations from the Pollack-Krasner Foundation, Gottlieb Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, the Yaddo Fellowship, the Louis C. Tiffany Foundation, New Jersey Council of the Arts and most recently the Merit Award in Beijing for his construction of a large-scale public sculpture in the Olympic Park Garden. He is recognized as a leading artist of his generation emerging from the tradition of David Smith, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Kenneth Snelson and Mark diSuvero.
Van Alstine’s works are in many major museums, institutions, public and private collections including the Baltimore Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Corcoran Gallery of Art Washington D.C., Dallas Museum of Art, Denver Museum of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., Museum of Fine Arts Houston, National Museum of American Art, Newark Museum, Newark, NJ and the Phillips Collection Washington D.C. Overseas his work is in the collections of Tsinghua University Museum Garden Beijing, Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Beijing Olympic Park Collection 2008, and in the U.S. Department of State “Art in Embassies” collections in Bolivia, Chile, Jamaica and Nepal.
Since 1970s, his sculpture has been reviewed in several publications such as the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, USA Today, New York Times, Art in America, Art Forum, Art News and Sculpture Magazine. “John Van Alstine has created an ambitious body of remarkably interrelated outdoor and indoor sculptures, site-specific installations, public art projects and drawings. His prolific and consistently engaging output, ranging in size from small and delicate to vast and monumental, has earned the artist a reputation as one of America’s most important sculptors of the late 20th” and 21st century, according to Nick Capasso, curator of DeCordova Museum near Boston.
In 2000, Grayson Publishing Co.
published a mid-career survey entitled “Bones of the Earth,
Spirit of the Land” connecting Van Alstine’s sculptures,
drawings, photographs and large-scale works to the landscape in the Western
In spring of 2019 a new, 280 page hardcover book American Vistas: The Complete Works of John Van Alstine with be released by The Artist Book Foundation, MASS MoCa, North Adams MA. Foreword and central essay by Howard N Fox, former Curator at LA County Museum and Hirshhorn Museum, Introduction by Tom Moran, chief curator and artistic director at Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton, NJ, and contributing essays and interviews by Tim Kane, New York arts writer and critic.
Born in upstate
It was there that the western
landscape had a substantial influence on his visual vernacular. Geological
formations and the sheer scale of the jagged cliffs, rugged slopes and vast
spaces imbued his art with layering and stacking elements that would define his
early career. It was there when Howard Fox,
curator of Hirshhorn Museum and
Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, DC , discovered Van Alstine’s sculptures and included three
in the “Brute” Sculpture section of the 1979 “Directions” exhibition,
a major survey of U.S. contemporary art in Washington D.C. At the same time, a
sculpture was selected to represent
Early Work -
During his first year as an
undergraduate Van Alstine’s interests shifted from athletics to the arts.
He enrolled in several art classes and found that he had an interest and
aptitude for sculpture - especially in steel. Two of his very first works “Flight” and “Cellist” both 1971
demonstrate this. In 1972 looking for a more serious and diverse art program
Van Alstine transferred to the B.F.A. program at Kent State University in
Ohio where he was introduced to stone carving, glass blowing and
ceramics. It was here van Alstine created his first stone sculptures “Gaea” (1973), “Kiss”
Form” (1973) which were heavily influenced by the work of Arp, Brancusi and Henry Moore. The following year “Vertical Series I”
(1974), and “Vertical Series II
” (1974) were juried into the Cleveland Museum’s
annual “May Show”
where he exhibited side by side with his professors from
It was during this period that he also seriously explored glass blowing and production pottery working four summers, 1973-76 in Kennebunkport, Maine at the Good Earth Pottery making functional vessels. The sense of being “commercial viability” by successfully selling his production wares furthered his confidence that living from the sales of his work was possible - which since 1986 he has done.
Accepting a graduate fellowship at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY in 1974, Van Alstine initially continued work on modestly scaled carved marbles such as “Wedge 1” (1975). That year a nearly completed works fell and crashed into multiple pieces and prompted Van Alstine to re-assemble the larger fragments into a new work “Falling Stone” (1975). This ironically became a pivotal piece and set in motion the framework of preciously poised and balanced stones that would developed into a signature career style.
Looking to increase scale Van Alstine began using larger, roughly hewn granite curb blocks and assembling them; “Stone Assemblage I” (1975) and “Stone Assemblage II” (1975). These were the artist’s first works to use stone as a found object. The stones were not “carved” in the traditional subtractive process, but rather inserted directly into the sculpture the way a welder used steel. In that same year to further increase scale wood beams were introduced. Works like “Untitled (bent pins)” (1975) and “Gate” (1975) resulted.
The ground breaking sculptures that followed were stripped down to stone and metal rods and were streamlined and sinewy. “Untitled (3 curved stones)” (1976),”Nature of Stone I” (1976), and “Boundary” (1976) used the intrinsic structural strength of steel to cradle the heavy stone elements in positions of arrested motion. There was a sense of Buckminster Fuller’s tensegrity and were informed by other sculptors working at the time like Kenneth Snelson and Richard Serra where real forces and tensions were an integral part of the artistic statement. Works like “Nature of Stone II” (1976) and “Torque I” (1977) employed the interlocking forged steel rods to trace the gravitational energy and was used it as the “glue” to hold the sculpture together. This series received national attention when they were cu rated by Howard N. Fox into the “Brute Sculpture” section of 1979 Hirshhorn Museum’s “Directions” showcasing the most vital current trends in American Art.
After receiving an MFA from Cornell Van Alstine joined the faculty at the University of Wyoming, Laramie where in addition to teaching sculpture and drawing he aggressively continued studio production. The vast western landscape with its geology ripped bare exposing what Van Alstine later called the “bones of the earth” had profound and direct influence. Granite gave way to the use of local layered, sedimentary stone formed millions of years ago as a result of settling ocean bottom. Van Alstine wrote “There was a different and empowering sense of scale—I was taken by the towering buttes and unbelievable natural arches which ultimately let to Stone Pile, Totem and Arch series. I was struck by the overwhelming amount of sedimentary stone, created by millions of years of layering. “Sparked by Jackie Ferrara’s 1970s stacked plywood pieces and the way they were informed by the layers in that material, I started building works that incorporated stacked Colorado flagstone to echo or reiterate the nature of the material and how it came into existence. Coupling the "interlocking” steel bar vocabulary that I had developed with massive stacked columns, I created structural systems that were not held together by welds, but rather by the controlled and channeled gravitational energy of the tremendous stone piles. In theory the higher the stack, the greater the energy and the stronger the "glue" which held them together. Works in the series, “Stone Pile 2” (1978) “Stone Pile 3” (1978) were left open on the top suggesting the pile could continue indefinitely, recalling and paying homage to Brancusi's Endless Column and like earlier works such as “Crimp” (1976) and “Torque I”, (1977) the title was both a noun and a verb, indicating that the sculpture was as much an action as a object.”
The powerful influence of natural arch formations in the landscape combined with the structural focus of his “arrested motion - static energy event” sculptures, let to a series focusing on this self-supporting architectural element - the arch. “Stone Arch 1” (1979) and a larger “Stone Arch 6” (1980) used large stacks of sedimentary stone held in place by an interlocked steel rod frame which graphically traced and focused the tremendous weight into compact “energy nodes”. The concept was extended in works like “Stone Arch 3” (1979), “Prop 3” (1979), and “Prop 4” (1980) where heavy slabs were set on end precariously tilted against each other using interlocked steel rods set on the floor to keep the “system” from collapsing.
Move back East
In 1980, Van Alstine moved back
east to the
Van Alstine continued to teach
Transitions: A Return
While Van Alstine maintained an
active exhibition schedule in
An infusion of Color and Animalistic forms
For Van Alstine, living in a remote area where winters are long and snowfall can be extensive while the autumn is colorful and wildlife is abundant, a strong accent of color made its way into his objects as did a series relating to taxidermy - the first inclusion of life-like representational elements in his oeuvre. Cast in bronze, deer heads and ram’s horn were connected to stone forming figurative abstractions merged with mythological themes in “Acteon” (1998) and “Almathea” (2001). Over time, color, such as a vibrant mossy green, became more prevalent in the taxidermy series, including “Horn Hammer” (1998).
Using various patinas, and triggered by his pastel drawings of the time, Van Alstine’s move towards color was more extensive, while he transitioned away from animalistic references to his more established idiom of metal and stone in abstract terms. “Acciaccato I”, “Acciaccato II” and “Cambre IV” (all 2004) are brimming with cobalt blue, fire-engine red and gold. Painted directly on the surfaces of the metal and stone in an unusual manner, the colors add a shimmering quality not previously found in his sculptures. Their form maintained his signature theme of balance and motion through semi-circles, jagged rock, and curvaceous planes. The use of negative space was also enhanced.
His active outdoor life in the
Towards the Heavens - large scale and broad reaching
Beginning in 1986 while
continuing to work on human scale work in his studio, Van Alstine embarked on
the first in a series of “Celestial” works where he combined the
character of large-scale contemporary sculpture with the tradition and function
of humankind’s oldest scientific instrument - the calendar. Inspired by his travels to
Responding to a specific site in
As far back as his first carved marble work “Gaea” (1973) and then again the 1980s, with pieces such as “Tripod with Umbilical”, the figure emerges subtly in Van Alstine’s work. However by 1998 with the solo exhibition “Acknowledging the Figure” at the Burke Gallery on State University at Plattsburgh , NY campus, Van Alstine address the figure as an important aspect of his work. In the exhibition catalogue essay, he writes “Scale of the human body is critical in how understand and relate to all things -landscape, architecture, and certainly sculpture. Although very few if any of my works are considered traditionally figurative, there are many ways that the idea of the human figure is influential.” “Odalisque I” (1989), “Pique a Terre VI” (1997) “Doryphorus” (2000), “Fleche III” (2005), “Red Hips Hula” (2007) are prime examples of Van Alstine reoccurring use of figurative references within his traditional idioms.
The Sisyphean Circle Series is another important appearance of the figure in the sculptor’s work. Begun in 1992, Van Alstine merged the Greek myth, with its circularly references to never ending toil, with the familiar circles, inclines, wedges, arcs found in his other sculptures. The result is a continuing look at the cycles of life, movement towards accomplishments and the ongoing human endeavor. “The graphic power of stone seemingly suspended at the center of the steel circle turns already an beautiful work into an allegorical treatment of labor, whose existence is its own reward,” wrote reviewer Jonathon Goodman in Sculpture Magazine July/August edition in 2006 in a review of his solo exhibition at the Nohra Haime Gallery in New York which included works “Sisyphean Circle I, II, III”. This on going series of over a hundred works has many notable examples; "Sisyphean Circle (Beijing Series XV-red pillow)” (2008) "Sisyphean Circle (Beijing V)” (2008) "Sisyphean Circle LVI” (2011) are just a few.
In the Juggler Series, the multi layered idea of figure and portrait/self-portrait are also central. “Often during the process of creating work I quite literally become a juggler, balancing and keeping afloat many heavy elements such as anvils, large chunks of stone, pieces of bronze, etc.” Van Alstine stated in his “Bones of the Earth” interview. The finished sculptures in this series possess a whirling and teetering character which dramatically showcases objects frozen in mid air. It is especially impressive when the work reaches the height of 10 -12 feet as in “Juggler I” (1994). This same drama and sense of precariousness are also present in the pedestal scaled pieces such as “Juggler XIII”, 2001 and “Juggler XVIII” (2002) and the very recent “Juggler (red ara)” (2012). The notion of juggling evokes the likes of jesters and circus clowns. This series, in addition to being a reflection of the artist, also conveys a more universal portrait, suggesting a broader realm reminding that we all are jugglers on our own stage, keeping all aspects of our lives - family, career, finances, friends, fun, etc., up, floating and vital.
The sculptures in the Funambulist series (fūnis
rope + ambulāre to walk) directly reference the figure. The title
suggests "rope walker", a concept reinforced by the sculpture's
dynamic, horizontal "balanced baton" and poised positioning of its
overall shapes. Works like "Funambulist IV (stretch)"
(2007) and “Funambulist VII” (2010) suggests
physical balance, agility and daring and bring to mind a circus performer. The term Funambulist also and perhaps more poignantly, refers to metal agility. In a large scale
commission for Michigan State University in
In 2012, the exhibit “Arrested Motion, Perilous Balance” at the Opalka Gallery, Sage College in Albany, New York highlighted his use of motion and balance through the figure. The connection between human movement, the figure and his materials of stone and metal was further reinforced when the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company inspired by the sculpture choreographed a performance among them in the gallery.
Tools - extension of the artist’s hands
Van Alstine’s interest in tools and their expressive potential is also connects with the figure. In an ongoing series he focuses on tools, implements and instruments. In an interview with Glenn Harper, editor of Sculpture Magazine he states “I see tools as extensions as artists hands and important allies. I’m drawn to their raw, efficient beauty of form dictated by function. “Implement XXVIII,” (1996) and “Phalanx” (1992) suggesting a tool and fingers, are two noteworthy pieces from the series.
“Many of my works incorporate anvils, either real or cast. Anvils have the shape suggestive of a boat or vessel which implies journey which interests me. But further, as a metal worker, the anvil is the place where I physically and conceptually forge things together; in a sense there is an art spirit that comes off the anvil. It‘s almost like an altar. I've titled many of these pieces Ara, which is Latin for altar. Also, for me the anvil is the quintessential heavy object, and to get it up in the air creates a wonderful sense of tension.”, Van Alstine commented in “Bones of the Earth”. Such works “ARA I”, “Juggler XII” (2001), Juggler XIX (Mohawk)” 2002 illustrate this.
In works like Tiller I 1994 or “Tiller II”, 1994 and “Tiller VII” 2004, Van Alstine uses references to tillers, both in the sense of the agricultural implement and tiller as a navigational devise. “The idea that the tiller on a ship is an instrument that aids one in carrying out decisions, to chart a course, is significant. It can be seen as a metaphor for the very thing that distinguishes us from other beings on the planet and provides a wonderful creative vehicle” he wrote in “Bones of the Earth”.
The scale or balance beam as a tool/ideal provides another creative vehicle for Van Alstine, in part because much of his work is concerned with physical balance. “Astraea's Beam” (1991), incorporates the concept of Astraea the Greek goddess associated with the scales of justice. The sculpture’s un-natural positioning of the “beam” (heavy stone up - light stone down) addresses the question of the equality in our contemporary judicial system. Other works such as “Charting the Course” 1990 or Beam IV” (1992) exhibit formal precariousness and balance that makes them structurally and visually compelling - characteristic signatures of the all artist’s work.
Landscape - a continuing influence
While the figurative has grown importance in recent years, the landscape - starting early in his career when the western landscape had a profound impact - continues to play a key part in Van Alstine’s work directly and indirectly. Whether an overt metaphor for sculptures like “Round Mountain Landscape” (2001) and “Sacandaga River Landscape III” (2012) interpreting his immediate topological surroundings in the Adirondacks or conceptual references in the Rockslide series from mid-1980s through 1990s, “Rockslide I” (1984) and “Rockslide II” (1985), “Rockslide 97” (1997) the natural environment is a central theme underlying his body of work.
Sometimes overlooked, another facet of Van Alstine’s art providing an understanding of his process are drawings. From early on, drawings have been a creative outlet and not studies but informal, more spontaneous forms of expression. Van Alstine likens drawing to working with clay; like a clay sculpture his drawings are shaped not drawn in traditional manor. ”In contrast to the typically long and drawn out creation of one sculpture, I am attracted to drawing precisely because it is very immediate and tactile. It also affords an important opportunity to experiment and be expressive with color… pastel has opened me up to the power of color,” said Van Alstine an interview from the book “Bones of the Earth/ Spirit of the Land” with Glenn Harper of Sculpture magazine.
Van Alstine’s early drawings, were tight and functional, often used as “blueprints” for the system based, arrested energy sculpture of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Like the sculpture that followed, the drawings soon became more loose and lyrical. By 1982-3 black and white charcoal drawings like “Totem with Spike” (1982) and “Arch with Spikes” 1983 were in keeping with the aggressively expressive 3-dimentional works of that time; “Cronus” (1982), “4th Beast of Daniel” (1983), and the unpainted version of “Drastic Measures” (1984). Slowly and timidly color began to creep into the drawings “Arch 84” (1984), “Blue Flower” (1985) and soon gave way to full blown, forceful use of pastel evidenced in works like “Rockslide 85” (1985), “Totem 85” (1985) which ultimately let to introduction of color into the sculpture of that period - works like “Naltar” (1985) and “Stone Torch” (1985). The combination of aggressive color and the vessels concept in drawings like “River on Fire” (1988) and “Passage” (1988) paved the way for works such as “Luna” (1986), the painted version of “Drastic Measures” (1987) and “Portals and Passages I” (1988).
Van Alstine’s works on paper have continued to evolve, sometime foreshadowing changes in his sculpture such as in drawings like “Twister (red)” (1991), “Ara (red sphere)” (1992), and GreenHorn-Ara” (1998). At other times the drawings parallel and act as 2 dimensional interpretations of the 3-D work as in “Sidewinder” (1989), “Implement XIII” (1993), and “Cambre 2” (2004). In his collaborative 2011 “Tempered by Memory” 35’ high memorial sculpture build for the City of Saratoga Springs, New York, USA, using salvaged steel from the fallen World Trade Center in NYC, Van Alstine executed a number of drawings based on the 3-D models he build for the project. As all of Van Alstine’s drawings, this compelling series, though done in support of the project, stand alone as thoughtful, powerful and provocative works.
Easel Photographs (1977-81)
Created when Van Alstine was in the western US, the “Easel Landscape Series'” was a site-specific installation project designed to question and examine the accepted convention of frame as “signal” or “sanctioning” device for art. The series takes clues from many sources, including the "on site" plein air paintings of Claude Monet such as the "Haystack" or "Cathedral" series, and surrealist Rene Magritte in paintings like The Promenades of Euclid where he cleverly presents the viewer with the curious image of a painted canvas on an easel simultaneously in front of a window while acting as a window.
"Van Alstine’s photos deal with multiple issues germane to the intersection of photography and landscape", Nicholas Capasso curator at the DeCordova Museum wrote in Bones of the Earth; Spirit of the Land, “Their multiple nested frames (easel, photograph, paper mat, and frame) play tricks with perspective cues and collapse or telescope perceived distances, calling into how the eye and mind perceptually process the landscape via photography.”
The photographs, created before
the days of "Photoshop" and easy digital photo manipulation, were
shot with a medium format camera. Exhibited at
The work was also exhibited at the Henri Gallery, Washington DC in 1980 and was reviewed by Paul Richard of the Washington Post.
Notable Works Large Scale Public Works