“Lin Emery by Philip Palmedo: A review by G.W. Smith”

Lin Emery, Wave, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana

Lin Emery by Philip Palmedo, introduction by John Berendt

A Review by G.W. Smith via Caldaria.org, a new online forum for exploring the nexus of art, science, and the sublime.
©2013 G. W. Smith

Lin Emery (Hudson Hills Press, 2012) is, at one level, the coffee table book which every artist covets as the pinnacle of his or her career. The young artist-in-training will drool over its glossy dust-jacket, its gray cloth covers with “Lin Emery” embossed upon the front in silver (this in anticipation of generations of library shelf wear), its russet end papers, and its one-hundred and twenty-two color plates.

The majority of those plates document the series of works upon which Ms. Emery’s reputation rests: architectural-scale assemblages of polished, space-age, aluminum forms, exquisitely articulated upon precision bearings, and nodding night and day to the prevailing winds. Two or three such works might establish an artist’s reputation; but in turning the pages of this beautiful book, one is astounded to discover that Emery has executed some thirty-six major architectural commissions – for universities (four); for public buildings (six); for medical centers and religious institutions (six); and for corporations – entities which do not spend tens of thousands of dollars on a whim – no less than twenty-five.

They are to be found from Singapore to Virginia Beach, each typically standing within a dedicated, landscaped space; but even more remarkable – since a static sculpture represents, for the architect, a safer choice – is the fact that they are all (to repeat myself) kinetic; and indeed, one can claim on their evidence that Ms. Emery is the world’s foremost kinetic sculptor.

Given the great number of dramatic photographs that this body of work has made possible, the text could have been an afterthought; but author Philip Palmedo has done a masterful job of sketching out a life no less remarkable than the work which has flowed from it, and which life the sensible reviewer will do well to merely summarize with a few strategic glimpses: the young woman who, fleeing a privileged but troubled upbringing in the suburbs of New York City, wanders from university to university and from job to job in the United States, Mexico, and Europe; who, on a lark, walks into the Paris studio of Ossip Zadkine and becomes a sculptor; who plays hooky one afternoon with a traveling companion in Mexico and becomes that day his wife; who, observing water dripping onto a balanced spoon, discovers that she is not just a sculptor, but a kinetic sculptor; and who decides to make New Orleans – that surprisingly mechanical city, and the home of, among other things, the world’s oldest, continuously operating streetcar line – her own home, but who thereby exiles herself from the great metropolis of modern art.

Emery welding at the New York Sculpture Center

The last is a mere trifle, is it not? And so we attempt to close this most satisfying coffee table book – frequently the silk-lined coffin of an artistic career; but in our mind’s eye it will not stay closed, for Emery is, again, a kinetic sculptor – a master of that art form upon which we depend, without realizing it, to bear our collective psyches into the future, and which, after a gestation of one hundred years, is poised to become the next big thing.

In his role as integrator, the great artist fuses the old and the new, the known and the unknown, the past and the future – but the former can be at first difficult to discern in the work of an artist as technologically astute as Ms. Emery.

She began her career sculpting religious figures for the Catholic churches of south Louisiana, and it is a remarkable experience to come upon one of these figures, as I did recently at a festival in Des Allemands, the original German settlement up-river from New Orleans

Mounted high upon the tan brick facade of a church community center, the slim figure of St. Gertrude (still an immaculate white, though installed more than fifty years ago) looks down and to her left, her left arm also held down, but with the delicate hand open in benediction – the whole a classic gesture of reserve and self-possession; but the most striking feature of the work – classic as well, though perhaps more Romanesque than Greek in inspiration – are the lines formed and repeated by her shoulders and arms, and the folds of her garments.

We know this line; it is in our DNA. It is not the wavering path of a slug upon a rock, but the intelligent curve of a hawk sweeping down upon its prey; and Emery – coming of age at the same time as the space-embracing “gesture” of the Abstract Expressionists – would soon be inspired to impose this line upon her own abstract forms, and cast it back against the sky.

The reader of Moby-Dick emerges from it with a detailed knowledge of the how the great whales were hunted, flayed, and reduced to oil; and although he must resent the page upon page of lore regarding harpoons and flensing knives and roaring furnaces, he will enjoy a secret satisfaction, and without which the great epic loses much of its impact.

So also with an account of Emery’s work; but we have the advantage that the process is reversed: we begin with pure, reduced metal, and end up with a living work of art – and one which, in fact, sports itself among the winds.

Some caution is required, however. The contrast between the glorious, finally-completed work of art and the effort required to produce it has become something of an art historical cliche, perfected in Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy and the 20th Century Fox film adaptation thereof – and so Mr. Palmedo, laboring as well under the constraints of his format, has acknowledged this aspect of Emery’s career without dwelling upon it. The reviewer, however, has greater latitude; and this reviewer has also had the privilege of observing the workings of her two studios – the mythic decks, as it were, of the Pequod.

The home studio: a lofty, concrete-block building fronting upon Dominican Street in the Garden District. You enter with great curiosity on this, your first social visit; and as you are ushered through it and thence through the door on its opposite side, you would not be surprised to find yourself emerging into the classrooms and offices of a university physics department rather than an elegant home; for have you not just passed through its well-equipped machine shop, with lathe and band saw and drill press, welding rigs and electric tools, and swelling racks of aluminum alloy?

It is here that Lin and her assistants fabricate the forms themselves. An ungainly sheet is pulled from one of the racks and placed upon a great steel table; an elegant tilde is traced upon it and liberated from the sheet with torch or electric saw; and then three or four such tildes are warped and twisted together edge-to-edge and quickly tack-welded to create the basic three-dimensional form – as light and hollow as a kayak, and also typically pointed at both ends.

Now Lin and her crew can breathe a sigh of relief. This particular whale – although only one of many in the pod – has blossomed into three-dimensional life, and the rest of the work is pure pleasure: the completion of the tack-welding with beautiful, end-to-end seams, built up high enough in the bubbling aluminum that they can be ground down to produce sharp edges, and the grinding and polishing itself – a process of joyful concentration for Emery inasmuch as the sinuous curves which she has had in mind are as yet no more present in the rough seams than the lines of a Michelangelo or an Audubon in the work of a million less talented artists.

But we have now reached the point at which Lin’s artistry soars beyond the traditional craft of sculpture. What follows will depend upon a superb sense of atmospherics, balance, and rhythm; which is to say that Ms. Emery is a prodigy of the first order.

It begins with her carrying to the welding table a section of aluminum tubing machined within and without to cylindrical perfection – the female member of the shaft upon which this particular form will rotate. The end to be welded to the form has been cut at a precise angle – one thinks of Queequeg sharpening his harpoon; and one thinks of him again – the harpooner who alone knows where to strike – when Lin, working from a paper model, places that end of the shaft upon the precise spot which it must occupy so that the form will balance itself upon the wind.

The tack-welding is quickly accomplished; and Lin – her magic already performed – will leave its final welding and grinding and polishing to her assistants.

The Apple Street studio: a reclaimed movie theater in one of New Orleans’ decaying neighborhoods – but for Lin and her crew it has something of the status of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building.

One enters through a steel door in the boarded-up front. The steps in the foyer retain their handrails, but the mezzanine is filled with boxes of materiel, and what once must have been the concession stand has been converted to a power tool locker; and so one passes through swinging doors into the theater itself, now stripped bare of seats and screen.

A great, dim room, flanked by exposed air-conditioning ducts which pump cool air into it from a rumbling unit somewhere in its bowels. Draped figures hover in the shadows; step ladders and scaffolds stand here and there; compressed air hoses snake across the floor – and works in various stages of completion climb like strange, aluminum trees into the gloom above.

For the visitor, it is a scene as veiled and romantic as the home studio is brightly-lit and business-like – but not for Ms. Emery.

Here she must exert her engineer-mind to its utmost. A form which is not mounted with perfect balance will hang lifelessly rather than dancing in the wind; and now one understands the full scope of the task, for often one form will be articulated upon another – and these two even upon a third or fourth – before reaching the stability of the aluminum trunk.

Hence the great fascination of the assembly process. A form is passed up the scaffold and mounted upon that male shaft member (itself equipped with precision, weather-proof bearings) for which it has been destined; it is locked in place with a flush, allen-head screw; and then – with Lin watching critically from below – the entire assembly is given a spin.

Her engineer-mind might be satisfied with the result at this point – but perhaps not her artist-mind. Down comes the form, to be re-balanced through some mysterious process; back up it goes; and so on until the entire assembly cavorts with the grace and precision which Emery has pre-ordained for it.

So beautifully crafted are these works – so perfect the harmony achieved between space-age aluminum and park-like setting – that they perhaps do not call sufficient attention to themselves; and so it is no surprise that of her many installations documented in Mr. Palemdo’s book, those most appreciated are in Japan.

Lin Emery, Hana, Izumisano Municipal Hospital, Izumisano, Japan

Her two installations there both date from 1997, and both reflect her long friendship with Isamu Noguchi: the twenty-four foot tall Hana in Izumisano, a suburb of Japan’s “second city”, Osaka; and, in Osaka itself, the 36-foot tall Honoo-no-ki. The former, in response to its hospital setting, is one of her most deeply-rooted and spiritual works. The latter, an invocation of both tree and flaming sun, has been given a place of honor in front of Osaka’s main indoor arena – in part, no doubt, because Emery is one of the few artists able to reconcile that building’s spaceship-like appearance with the traditional Japanese love of nature; and it was in1998 awarded a “Grand Prize for Public Sculpture” by that city – a signal honor in a country in which the use of every square inch of public space is carefully scrutinized.

She has been honored, of course, in this country as well; and without giving prejudice to our thesis that her reputation rests secure in the hold established by her work on the American landscape – from Oxnard, California in the west, to Lawrence, Kansas in the heartland, to McLean, Virginia in the east; from Chicago in the north, to Houston in the south – one might mention her 1990 Lazlo Aranyi Award of Honor for Public Art (for the Virginia Beach installation); her 2005 Sydney Simon Sculpture Award from the National Academy of Design; and her 2004 Honorary Doctorate from Loyola University of the South.

But here the circumstance which the reviewer, as opposed to the author of the official monograph, is at liberty to acknowledge: Ms. Emery has not enjoyed wide-spread critical acclaim, nor is she represented, in a substantial way, in the collections of any of this country’s iconic museums of modern art.

I have already mentioned the tendency of Emery’s work to integrate itself into its setting; and, with Mr. Palmedo, I have also previously alluded to her self-exile from the center of critical opinion, which is of course New York – but there is a bit more to be said in regard to the latter topic.

Her exile is not absolute – she is represented by a Manhattan gallery in addition to her principal gallery in New Orleans; and indeed, the question is not so much one of exile as of frame of reference. In gratitude to the city which has made her career possible, Emery has allowed herself to be identified with New Orleans (and even revels in that identity), but with the inevitable result that she is thought of – despite the contrary testimony of her vast network of installations – as a regional artist.

As such, she is easily passed over by the critics and curators; and if there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that the long delayed triumph of kineticism – for which Emery has been a torch-bearer – will not be an art of the great city center, but of the reclaimed warehouses and movie theaters of post-industrial Brooklyn, Detroit, and New Orleans. Take heed, critic: it is from the muck of the last-named city that the splendid lotus of Ms. Emery’s oeuvre has emerged.

One must also wonder about the influence of gender. Yes, there are some celebrated female sculptors – Hepworth and Nevelson and Frink – who have worked on a monumental scale, but none of them with the technical audacity on display in Emery’s wind sculptures. That a woman has done these things makes them difficult to credit – almost as if they were the work of some Rumplestiltskin. Familiar to us, on the other hand, is the image of the visionary male artist, laboring over his creations with a never-before-seen technical facility; and so one suspects that a man with Emery’s body of work to his credit would have been placed, by now, in the near company of Michelangelo and Mondrian.

In the final analysis, however, none of these factors can fully explain the neglect of an artist of Ms. Emery’s evident genius and reach. It is, rather, a function of the strange miasma in whose grip the entire art world currently finds itself; a period in which a proud visual tradition – perhaps in response to all-devouring media – has often allowed itself to be reduced to that which can be described in a “sound bite”, or as the focus of a lurid subject matter; a time of false prophets and hollow enthusiasms, during which the person of true genius is better off outside the spotlight.

Indeed, we are at present so far off course that Mr. Palmdeo has been inspired to distinguish his book with a final, ground-breaking chapter; one written in veiled language, but which, in the genteel context of the coffee-table format, must be regarded as a bold attack upon the status quo; or, to use a better analogy – since Palmedo is, among many other things, a PhD nuclear physicist – a chapter which amounts to the scholarly equivalent of the stealthy but nonetheless quite effective neutron bomb.

Palmedo has had one overriding concern in this final chapter: to restore to Modernism some sense of trajectory, of forward direction, from which all else will follow; and this he has clearly derived from the inarguable historic role of the fine arts – at least within the Western tradition – as that art form specifically tasked with assimilating the discoveries of science and technology on behalf of a humanity eager to retain its belief in harmony, beauty, playfulness, spontaneity, spirit, stewardship, wonder, and magic – or, in short, transcendence; and in this connection we must note the status of vision as the most advanced and “intellectual” of the senses, and to which sense alone such an appeal can be meaningfully directed.

But – as Mr. Orwell has pointed out – it takes a constant effort to see that which is before our eyes. In this, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the fine arts have degenerated into anecdote. What has become of the ability of the Greeks to translate anatomical observation and mathematically-derived proportions into stirring, mythic figures; of the Gothic architects to translate their load-bearing flying buttresses into awe-inspiring interior spaces; of the great Renaissance masters to translate geometric and atmospheric perspective into vast, spiritual landscapes; of the Impressionists to translate the discoveries of nineteenth-century optical science and photography into paintings of supreme beauty?

What indeed?; for we observe in all of these art historic examples that quality singularly lacking in modern attempts to join art and technology, but which is abundantly present in the work of Ms. Emery. I refer, of course, to the above-mentioned assimilation: the modern artist either creates clumsy, cargo-cult like tributes to technology (such as the recently displayed wood-and-cardboard mockup of the Lunar Excursion Module); or, veering to the opposite extreme, places on display raw science (i.e., a Van de Graf electrostatic generator) as “art”. In cases of extreme frustration, he might even scatter slabs of black felt and loose ball bearings across the gallery floor (as I was astonished to discover at the Whitney circa 1982) – those same bearings which Emery has masterfully integrated into her wind sculptures.

The twentieth century equivalent of Impressionism was, in some sense, Constructivism. Its rallying cry was that the new technologies which had given birth to the dynamo, the automobile, and the aeroplane – in short, the machine – could be likewise endowed with proportion, harmony, and personality; and, at a deeper theoretical level, it followed the scientists in concerning itself with space – both the inner space of the atomic world, and the outer space of the cosmos – and with that phenomenon which has been, since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, its handmaiden: motion.

It is here that Palmedo has entered the fray, for he opens his critical chapter by identifying Constructivism as the seminal twentieth-century movement – and, by implication (and despite its revolutionary overtones), as that movement which has maintained the central thrust of the great Western tradition; nor would he object to its use as an art historical shorthand to refer to all those artists with similar tendencies: Brancusi, with his piston-like figures and his Bird in Space; Leger, with his cylindrical maidens; and Boccacio, with his polished bronze man gliding through Einsteinian space.

A golden age of the arts (in contrast with our own); but what is the use of a “movement” if it has no future? What, in other words, was the ultimate goal of the Constructivists and their fellow-travelers – a goal perhaps to be seized upon for inspiration in our own dispirited age?

The author of this remarkable chapter implies that it is no less than a consummated marriage between art and the machine; and he accordingly takes us in some detail – culminating with Moholy-Nagy’s orphaned Light-Space Modulator – through the early, quite serious but ultimately unrequited attempts to create motorized sculpture.

A bold thesis, indeed; and in further fidelity to it – and as a measure of the serious intent with which he has placed this chapter before us (and which chapter now speeds across the art universe like an electromagnetic pulse) – Palmedo is the first major writer on art and science of whom I am aware to place the great Alexander Calder outside the mainstream of kinetic art history, on the grounds that his mobiles are more optical than mechanical.

Yet the great series of works by Ms. Emery – gracing everywhere the American landscape – are all wind-driven (although she has experimented with motorized pieces); and so Palmedo’s focus on the electro-mechanical seems at first curious to us – until we realize the connection which he has all along intended as the final term of his equation, and one which confirms Emery’s place among the first rank of contemporary sculptors: the transcendent mechanical art of the Contructivists remains a dream, but the movement itself endures; and Ms. Emery – her polished metal forms and precision bearings engaged in a perpetual dance with space – stands at the head of its avant garde.

Two final notes: Both the editor and designer of such a monograph play critical roles, and Ms. Deborah Thompson and Mr. David Skolkin have done a fabulous job. Much credit is also due to John Berendt, who, in his otherwise gentle introduction, has helped Mr. Palmedo draw his bow by daring to suggest that Ms. Emery is not unknown amidst the busy streets and soaring towers of Manhattan.

[A few sentences from this review were previously published in the essay “From Search Engines to Saxophones: It’s the Machine, Stupid!” in On-Verge.]

Notes on the photographs (provided courtesy of Ms. Emery):

14 feet x 15 feet x 22 feet
New Orleans Museum of Art
New Orleans, LA

Lin Emery welding at the New York Sculpture Center
Newspaper photograph “The Sparks Fly”
Sun Times, May 30, 1954

Aluminum and paint,
22 feet, orbit 22 feet
(6.7m, orbit 6.7m).
Izumisano Municipal Hospital
Izumisano, Japan

G. W. Smith is an English Lit major turned systems engineer turned kinetic sculptor, and the holder of two patents in the field of electromechanical display systems. He is also the author of Aesthetic Wilderness: A Brief Personal History of the Meeting Between Art and the Machine (Birds-of-the-Air Press, 2011). He lives with his wife Dianna in New Orleans.