Photo courtesy Anderson Gallery
Myron Helfgott in his natural element
Myron Helfgott’s work nearly knocked me out.
It was a couple years back at the old Gallery A, downstairs, while perusing Helfgott’s ongoing assembly of mounted and scattered obituaries, mostly from the New York Times. The effect was that of a print ossuary. Here lay Ronald Reagan, Howard Baker, Aaron Spelling, John DeLorean, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer and our own Dika Newlin. The famous and the notorious, the eminent and obscure, though scattered elsewhere, were gathered in Gallery A’s lower space. And briefly, though living, me. Because while squatting under a narrow place beneath stairs, I raised up and bonked my head, saw stars and, hat flying, flattened out.
This remains one of my most vivid art experiences.
They will not suffer in like manner from tight inspections and possible concussions, who, beginning Friday evening, attend “An Inventory of My Thoughts.” The huge Helfgott retrospective runs through March 8 at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts' Anderson Gallery. And this time out, you must ascend to the third floor to experience all those lives bound up in shrouds of words and sealed in acetate.
Helfgott’s life in art and 35 years as an instructor at VCU culminated in his chairmanship of the sculpture department.
It’s appropriate that the first piece one encounters is a stylized version of Helfgott’s head titled Detail (1986), made of plywood and oil paint. A faux marble flight of stairs invites us to step right in, as if to say, “Welcome to my world.” The exhibit is spread along three floors, as though the contents of his creative brain have spilled up through the gallery.
“The Virginia Museum [of Fine Arts] had that tucked away in their sub-sub-sub basement,” Helfgott cracks. “First time I’ve seen it in 25 years.”
According to Helfgott when I interviewed him for the 2006 Theresa Pollak Prize recognition, his career followed the path of least resistance. He at first studied architecture because there was no foreign language requirement. Later, at the University of Illinois at Carbondale, he studied design, at times instructed by inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller.
“I got a university education because my father bribed me,” the Chicago native recalled, noting that the bribe was a 1953 Chevrolet coupe. “I became a sculptor because my wife bought me a set of wood carving tools. My first teaching job came about without applying for it. I landed in Richmond because I was fired from another teaching position, I had a family and needed the work.”
And like many, artists or not, who come to Richmond, Helfgott figured he’d be here maybe a couple of years. That was in 1968.
Likewise, when he enters the studio each day, he cannot predict what will happen, nor can he quite understand how.
“I live my life the way I make my work,” Helfgott says. “I start on the path, don’t know where it’s headed, I don’t know anything about it and have to wait to see how it turns out.”
His multimedia sculptures fiddle with visual and psychological perception. Some pieces speak to you, others talk to themselves, and at least one features the voice of painter Javier Tapia criticizing the piece Helfgott put him in. Orson Welles, drunk and grumbly, berates the director of a commercial.
Helfgott’s early architecture training is put to use in elaborate stage-set installations. These incorporate photography, live and recorded sound, text both appropriated and self-written, video, mechanized slide projectors, motorized drawing arms and pantographs, and a menagerie of other antic kinetic components, to produce works entertaining, conceptual, Rube Goldbergesque — and sometimes noisy.
He grew up, he recalls, “a Jewish boy in Chicago apartments,” and hadn’t lived in a house until moving to Richmond. He learned more about the pragmatic aspects of construction by taking down walls and improving his house. He narrows his eyes, leans forward to emphasize, “Craftsmanship is important – but it's also important that it not be too good or else it draws attention to itself.”
Anderson Gallery director Ashley Kistler, adds, “Myron is the original DIY artist.”
The artist observes, “I look at some of the things and I’m shocked because I couldn’t do them today. The technical things, the quality of some of the drawings.”
It’s commonplace now with computer programming to make photographs appear three dimensional, but Helfgott was doing this through physical exertion in sculpture. Doorway, on the second floor, is a reproduction of the classical façade of a Parisian elementary school created by tiling together ink jet prints, held together by a superstructure of octahedrons.
Kistler organized the show during the past two years, with Helfgott’s input, but the artist explains that art historian Howard Risatti counseled restraint. “He advised that I should step back,” Helfgott says. Some pieces were left out for the risk of redundancy and others due to space. “These things’ll go in the catalog.”
Helfgott says that in terms of art, we’re all prejudiced. Each person looks at a piece with their own set of values. Objectivity doesn't exist. That said, he has a viewer in mind. “I’m not a totalitarian. My first job is to make Harry participate,” substituting me for, well, you. “Harry’s got a lot of work to do.”
He included audio and kinetics in his pieces because of a desire to include time as an element – just like the materials the works are built of. He shakes his head, “Now, I think time is crap. I don’t care about time anymore.”
Take that, Stephen Hawking.
Given Helfgott’s obit obsession, the message is driven home that among the world’s many mysteries, one thing is certain: All things end.
The Anderson Gallery exists due to the original support of Col. Abraham Archibald Anderson (1847-1940). At what was the fledgling Richmond Professional Institute, Anderson gave $10,000 (about $1.5 million today) to convert into a gallery the stables behind the Lewis Ginter mansion. Art shows began there in 1931 and the Anderson was Richmond's only fully exhibiting space until the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts opened five years later. The Anderson Building was much added onto during the intervening years (though a freight elevator wasn't ever installed) until by the 1940s its original gallery purpose was eclipsed by that of the institution's main library. The James Branch Cabell Library opened in 1970, which allowed the Anderson to return to its intended role as an exhibition space.
Beyond student exhibitions in the spring and possibly a fall show, this will be the largest, and likely final, presentation of its kind at the Anderson. The Depot of VCUArts hosts exhibitions and the Institute for Contemporary Art is on the way. Kistler says, “I always thought of Myron’s show as the last big exhibit here.”
Helfgott chuckled. “I hope I’m still alive.”
Hang on till Friday, Myron. Then everybody can get knocked out by what's come out of your head.