Chicago: In September of 2013 I sat down with the legendary Stephen Kaltenbach on the occasion of his exhibition at Bert Green Fine Art in Chicago to talk about his role in the history of conceptual art, his drastic 25-year recess from the art world, and his ideas about the nature of art. Kaltenbach’s work ranges from discrete objects, anonymous magazine ads, and mysterious time capsules to figurative sculpture, regionalist art, and shaping life narratives through various personae.
Stephen Kaltenbach, Art Works (Sidewalk Plaque), 1968/2010 (Dates are based when each one is cast always with 1968 as the first date), Bronze, Edition 37/100, 5 x 8 x 1/2”; Courtesy of the artist and Bert Green Fine Art, Chicago
Erik Wenzel: You've participated in a lot of historically significant exhibitions. The one in particular that sticks out to me is When Attitudes Become Form(1969) with Harald Szeemann, a show that's become quite legendary. I wonder what it was like to be involved. What was your experience as someone who participated first hand? Did you have a feeling that it was major at the time?
Stephen Kaltenbach: This was really the first show that I really remember. I wasn't that impressed, mostly because I didn't realize how important it was to me then that I be included in it. I didn’t ask them if I could go over. I didn't ask them at all about how it went or whether they followed my instructions.
[In 2013] there was a re-hang in Venice [When Attitudes Become Form Bern/1969-Venice/2013 Fondazione Prada]. They had letters that I wrote to Harald and he wrote back. So there's some correspondence that gives a little view into that time. What I was like then.
EW: I was staying with a friend of mine in Switzerland who has a quite extensive library, including a copy of the catalogue. It’s constructed as a binder much like a file or financial report; it’s a conceptual work in itself. Each artist has an entry, something they did especially for the catalogue. Yours is “A Short Article on Art Expression.” The piece consists of statements and questions about art. What I was attracted to about the piece was the way you are mapping out how art works. Do you still believe those axioms? Has anything changed?
SK: Do you have a specific one?
EW: “There are three factors which determine the nature of any perception. The object perceived, the environment in which the perception takes place and the person experiencing the perception.”
SK: That was intended to be a mini manifesto. I was thinking about condensing my ideas until there was just the bones of the thought. After this I did the micro manifestos, which were the ads in Artforum, which were just two or three words. This was with the same idea in mind that I could possibly communicate something more clearly with fewer words.
Artist's Canvas to be arranged by Collector (Modern Draperies), 1967, Artist's canvas, 3 x 12 ft; Courtesy of the artist
EW: Is this a process that continues: to continually define and redefine your position?
SK: No, but I do write about art a lot of the time. I write about my own work. People ask me for different written things.
They just finished this show in London, it was a one-day show that was based on what I call my Modern Draperies, which is manipulated fabric [Modern Draperies, South London Gallery, September 14, 2013]. They used a piece of artist canvas that duplicated one of the ones I did. [These are pieces of fabric that are laid out on the floor forming waves and curves, variably bunched up and spread out. They are not meant to be interacted with by the viewer, but they are meant to change.]
When I was in the garage show of Leo Castelli’s downtown space [9 at Leo Castelli, December 4–28, 1968] I assigned him to rearrange the piece every day. And he didn't. But he arranged it once. And he did a beautiful thing with it.
EW: Maybe that was part of it. He thought, “Oh I've made it so nice…”
SK: “…Maybe I can't get it better than that.” I was happy with what he did. Very happy, actually. I was glad he kept it the way it was.
EW: How do you feel about pieces that get recreated or remade? There are pieces, for example in the show at Bert Green Fine Art  where there was a long period of time before they were realized.
SK: If I'm asked to do a specific piece I'm happy to do it. I used to do all the labor when I was a student. Now I don't do any of the labor if possible and so it's easy to give instructions. I think some of these pieces have sort of slipped backwards into Modern Art. They're not really contemporary art any more. So I think it's fitting they be seen.
Unless somebody owns them—and finally the Los Angeles County Museum of Art owns one—they're not made in any permanent way. So if there's an opportunity to show one again, I like to see it again and I try it on a different scale.
EW: I think that's an interesting, practical approach. It seems like often critics or historians take the approach that if it's remade it's something different. A recreation. Or that changes it forever.
SK: Or, “Don't I have new ideas?”
EW: It can get into philosophical territory. What is its status if it's completely recreated out of new material?
SK: Well this all changes once they're owned by a museum or collector. If the Raised Floor—which is the piece LACMA owns—if someone wanted to build that piece for a show in Europe some place or wherever, they would simply contact the museum because they own it and they have the directions on how to build it. They have the drawing. So I wouldn't repeat that piece again.
Stephen Kaltenbach, Shadow Wall, I , 1970-present, Graphite on paper; Courtesy of the artist and Bert Green Fine Art, Chicago
EW: So as it moves through time it gets fixed in different ways?
SK: Really the only way, in my mind, it gets fixed is if somebody owns it. As long as I own it, I feel very happy to do whatever I want to with it. Which so far hasn't been too much.
EW: The topic of works that get planned out and realized or not reminds me of a quote from Francis Alÿs: “The best ideas tend to become stories without the need to become products.”
When you started with the proposal drawings was it out of practicality? Were you thinking, “I can't do this right now but I want to somehow manifest the idea”?
SK: That's exactly how it started. But very quickly I began to do drawings that were either impossible or seemed impossible to me at the time. And suddenly they took on this different character that I really liked which was kind of an extravagant conceptual perimeter. It opened up all kinds of things.
In the last couple decades I’ve done this project Drawings for Nuclear Bombs. The world would retarget all their nuclear missiles to explode in the sky, far enough from the Earth where it wouldn't hurt. I made a font out of nuclear explosions; it's quite a nice looking font. One piece, Blasted Luna Seas (2004), was targeting the moon with two ovals during the first quarter so it looked like a happy face. So not only would those not happen, it would be a very bad idea if they did.
Stephen Kaltenbach, Caput, 1970 - Present, Graphite on Paper; Courtesy of the artist and Bert Green Fine Art, Chicago
EW: Looking at the drawing with the skull (Caput, 1970–present) or the tilted wall (Shadow Wall, I, 1970–present) it's clear it's not just a practical drawing, it becomes a quite nicely rendered visual object.
SK: Yeah, I like to take time with them. It's fun.
EW: So back to When Attitudes Become Form—there was a very strong local reaction. But you said you never actually travelled to Bern? You just sent the work.
SK: Right. And then I got a catalogue.
EW: Did any of the responses to the show reach you or have an effect on you?
SK: No, I was already on to the next thing. I didn't have time. That was a period of four and a half years where I didn’t really have enough time to do the things I really wanted to do. And reducing them to concept drawings was a good way to handle it because I didn’t have time or money.
EW: This leads to your move, or withdrawal. Was that heavy schedule something that contributed to you deciding to leave New York?
SK: Only in the sense that I wanted to truncate my career at a certain point and move it out of New York and out of the public eye. I had two reasons for that. One: I felt that the work I had done would become clearer if I wasn’t constantly producing new stuff. And the second reason was that I had intended these works to all operate as a manifesto. So it really helped to not be there personally. I could then just observe how people responded to it at times. I felt I had a very positive response.
Although there was a whole body of work I did called "Causal Art" where I was attempting to actually influence other artists and what they did either by something I did or something I said. And that was very unpopular. I Also realized it was unquantifiable. There’s no way to tell. I was first clued into it when I was at a painter friend’s studio and he was working on just evolving his style a little bit, his technical approach. He was a very technical artist. And so we were kicking around ideas about that. I had a lot of good ideas about how he could do things and he already had thought of them all.
I was also doing these art actions I call "Life Dramas." I decided to become the persona of another artist. The first one I thought of was a tragedy. It was a painter who was skillful to some extent but had no idea what fine art could be. And so he was making decorative things. It was intended to be shown with the art gallery that was part of the furniture gallery in Lord & Taylor in New York. So I met with the director of the gallery and she said, “Sure bring in your paintings.”
EW: You met with the director in the persona of this artist not as Stephen Kaltenbach?
SK: Right. Although, I was equivocal about it at that time. I felt that if I got the show and I was able to get a bunch of my artist friends from SoHo and the School of Visual Arts, and my students to come, I’d probably just go ahead and use my name and not take on the persona of a bad painter.
[The director ultimately declined to show the work]
The second piece I did was a sculptor who I gave the name Clyde Dillon [read ArtSlant's 2010 interview with Dillon here]. I bought a costume for him to wear, a suit and hat and a fake mustache. He also didn’t really understand the potential of Modern Art, but he had a pretty good sensibility about form and so on. I was sort of designing it to fit what I felt I was, but I wasn’t really expressing. He did these pieces that were weak because they depended a lot on lustrous finishes, things like that. He did a series of small abstract bronzes that were shown on marble or quartz. He spent some time looking for a gallery but he couldn’t get a career going. He continued when I moved to California. I felt like he wasn’t exposed in New York so I could do that. He finally began to show after the turn of the century in Los Angeles.
EW: The turn of 2000?
SK: Yeah. His stuff in my mind got better and better [laughs]. I mentioned that to my son and he said, “You mean it’s getting more and more like yours, Dad. You can just put your name on them now, there’s no difference.”
I am now in the process of making these pieces I refer to as “Dumb Objects” and I’m ripping off Clyde Dillon completely. It’s just shameless.
The only available photograph of Clyde Dillon
EW: How does he feel about that? Does he know?
SK: He doesn’t care. He’s glad to have somebody else give him some substance.
The last piece I decided to do which I decided is what really made leaving New York OK with me… I decided to stop my career but continue doing conceptual work. But not show it. Do it in private. I did have a conceptual show when I first got to California, but it was work I’d done in New York that was already known about. Then I stopped showing.
After that what I wanted to do was create a regional artist and so I went back to school basically by designing my classes to pressure me to do figurative sculpture and portrait painting.
EW: That’s in your role as a teacher of art?
SK: That’s in my role as Stephen Kaltenbach, Regional Artist, Professor. I had shows in local museums, in galleries and so on. And so I did actually develop quite a regional reputation that was pretty much ignored by the avant-garde.
EW: It’s like the article I found online that opened with something like, “Regional artist Stephen Kaltenbach discovered by cosmopolitan art world.”
SK: That’s funny. I also thought that after I’d done the best that I could with my regional art for 25 years that I would just move back into conceptual.
EW: But during that time you were also doing conceptual work, just not for the public.
SK: Yeah, so I had tons of work. But nobody was interested. In fact there is still a great deal of imbalance between the interest shown in my work now and the interest shown to my work that I had done back then. I believe that’s a temporary thing to some degree. I’m not saying that they’re wrong. I think that it’s pretty common for creatives. I think mostly of physicists and mathematicians who do a big part of their work when they’re young, usually in their twenties. You could say that about Duchamp. He just poured out a glut of work and then backed out. I knew about Duchamp and I was aware of the fact that what I was doing related closely to what he had done.
EW: And so for you, this process of withdrawing from the art world was always a part of your work?
SK: Part of my work, yeah. It was a “Life Drama.” Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer has written about me. When she was interviewing me for the article in Artforum she really wanted me to say that I’d dropped out of the art world as a political act and I really didn’t at all. It was totally not. I think finally when we were done with the interview she was left with the impression that it was a little bit that. It was all the English she was putting on everything I said because she really wanted it to be that. And that was partly because my dear friend Lee Lozano was such a political person. A tremendous artist but also a very political person who did some of the most goofy things—amazing. [Kaltenbach and Lozano also made collaborative artworks]
Stephen Kaltenbach, Time to Cast Away Stones, 1998, 9x7x68 ft, Concrete composite, Sacramento Convention Center, Sacramento, California.
EW: So for you was it entirely an artistic gesture or were there also personal reasons like ambivalence toward the art world in New York?
SK: Not at all. There were personal things though. I was offered a job that I could support myself with so I didn’t have to be selling art. I was kicking around the Life Drama pieces and I wanted to do a big one. I got an offer to work at the University of California at Sacramento and I realized I could live on my income and I could do anything I wanted. I felt suddenly free to just move into that and do a long-term project where I would gradually build a reputation and also hone my ability to do certain things.
I really wasn’t interested in an intrinsic sense, but I was very interested in seeing what would happen to my work if I became good at these things. I became fairly good at figure sculpture when I was at my best. When I wasn’t I was only average and that includes some pretty bad examples. But I did do some nice pieces.
EW: Do you compartmentalize these different practices and then they are all under a larger body of life’s work?
SK: In my public attitude, they’re definitely compartmentalized. In my private life as an artist there’s 100 percent feedback going between them. I’ve had conceptual ideas that came from Clyde Dillon and came from ¿Es qué? which is my painter persona. I gave him a name. SK is my initials, but it’s also, “What’s that?” in Spanish. And because it’s a question I get to have an upside down question mark on the front my name and one right side up in back, which really appeals to me.
Stephen Kaltenbach, Humilis, 1970 - Present, Burnished Steel, unknown contents; Courtesy of the artist and Bert Green Fine Art
EW: It’s all real art. But is some of the art more real? For example are the Time Capsules maybe the real Stephen Kaltenbach work and then the figurative sculptures are the Stephen Kaltenbach, Regionalist Artist?
SK: Right, I understand what you’re saying. Some of the regional art was more interesting to me because it had the added cache of being under the radar. It was part of a big project that I knew would eventually become known because I knew that art writers love that stuff. I knew that it wouldn’t just disappear. I felt that I could work on it and not have anybody know about it until later. It was really a postponed revelation. As I said, I decided to come back after 25 years.
EW: So, how does one “Become a legend” as you instructed?
SK: Well, part of being legendary is having there be some question about what’s true. What you’ve done and when you did it. After obscuring the time that I did things for a while, I’ve recently gone into the opposite phase. I always try to think of what the opposite would be of what I was doing. You know the word “exegetical?” It’s when you build a picture out of a number of clues. It’s based on scholarship, but it’s not based on information. I’ve decided to do work I refer to as “densification” which is work that fits in between the changes that happened in my work if I’d been moving slower.
EW: So you’re returning and filling in?
SK: Yeah, filling in the gaps. I’m being open about it, but I think it’ll confuse things nicely.
EW: What I think is really interesting about your approach is that usually with these kinds of practices, like Lehrer-Graiwer was hoping, it would be a political gesture. Or there’s a story, like you had a negative experience and turned your back on the art world and the statement is, “I don’t want this commercialism.” There’s eccentricity involved, but you’re very straightforward and down to earth: “No, I just wanted to do this.” I find that also very interesting because artists are often taught, “You can do anything in art” but really it’s anything you want as long as it becomes an object in some sense and you get known for it in a certain way.
SK: Yeah, I mean that’s the conventional wisdom, and really I have to admit to believing that it would be a hitch in my career. And I was right about that. The other people I was working with in New York in SoHo at the time own three houses: one in Amsterdam, one in London, and one in Iowa. Their income is a lot higher than mine. But I did feel that it was likely when things worked their way out and I was no longer part of the picture, that what I had done would be beneficial and interesting to people. I really thought it would be. We’ll see how right I was about that.
EW: Was it scary for you to do that? Were you worried, “What if this is a big mistake?”
SK: No. You know, for one thing, when I saw my work after meeting Bruce Nauman, my work went from just a single developing direction and just spread out in a lot of directions that didn’t look like they were really done by the same artist. But I could see the underpinnings. It was easy once you really looked at everything to see how the same person could have done that as that and so on. I began to notice artists who I like who did the same thing their whole life—like Morris Graves or Malcolm Green have little variation clear up to somebody like Picasso who didn’t feel stuck at all. He did one thing when he felt like it, and when it was time to do another, he did that. And he was very successful at that. It helps to be good.
EW: Yeah, but your work is more diffused because with Picasso it was still painting, drawing, or sculpture. And you’re pushing those points on the constellation further apart. I think that’s an interesting direction to go. But that makes it more difficult.
SK: There’s a delay.
EW: So where did you get all this confidence? You weren’t worried about leaving New York or going off the grid.
SK: My mom and dad told me from the age of one that the drawings I did were great. I didn’t realize they were being good parents and encouraging their kid until I was in grammar school. I looked back at those things and realized, “Oh they’re actually not that good.” I sort of knew too much to do good kid art. I began understanding perspective and atmospheric perspective when I was pretty young. I’ve been an artist all my life. When I was in second grade, my teacher on the last day of school got the attention of the whole class and said, “When there’s a person who’s going to be a great artist… [laughs] …it only makes sense to give them paper and paint to work with.” So she gave me a set of watercolors and a tablet of watercolor paper. I remember walking home that day. I usually took an hour to get home, that day I got home in twenty minutes. I was so excited.
I knew about Renaissance art primarily. So I told myself, “I’m gonna paint Jesus. I’m gonna do a big painting of Jesus.”
EW: Do you think having a start like that is how artists end up with a very reductive conceptual practice? In terms of your personal timeline, you’re doing perspective and doing a lot of things people don’t discover until much later. You said, “I was always an artist.” Do you think you go on the path of figuring out art at a different pace than other people?
SK: It’s possible, but I think it still goes back to confidence. Even once I realized they were just being good parents, I still thought they were right whether they knew it or not.
Stephen Kaltenbach, Open Before My Retrospective at MOCA in LA, 1970 - present, Steel and unknown contents (time capsule); Courtesy of the artist
EW: Finally, I wanted to ask about the Time Capsules. I know you don’t reveal the contents, but could you speak generally about them?
SK: I made a commitment early on not to reveal anything about the contents or even if there was content. But then after I’d been married for 25 years, my wife cornered me on our anniversary dinner and said, “You know you’ve never told me what’s in the Time Capsules.” And I said, “OK we have been married for 25 years, so I’ll tell you one.” And I told her and she said, “Is that all it is?!” So she just talked me out of telling her any of the other ones.
A lot of my Artforum ads are actually announcements for Time Capsules and what was going on in them. But I made no specific connection, except there’s a connection in time. It felt like a good way to reveal what I was doing in retrospect but wouldn’t be visible as it was happening. One piece I can talk about because it’s obvious is when I did Barbara Rose’s capsule. It said, “Barbara Rose: Please open this capsule when in your opinion I’ve achieved national prominence as an artist.” And when I was doing that capsule I was doing an ad in Arforum that said, “Build a reputation.”
EW: Did she open it yet?
SK: She lost it.
ArtSlant would like to thanks Stephen Kaltenbach for his assistance in making this interview possible