Interviewsand Articles


Small Matters: Reflections on the Art of Tony May

by Richard Whittaker, Jul 15, 2007



Artist Tony May first came to my attention via San Jose State University professor of philosophy Tom Leddy and his wife, artist Karen Haas. I recall my first visit to May’s home more than six years ago. I was looking for a street address in a modest, old San Jose neighborhood when a tall hedge with a narrow opening caught my attention. It was Tony May’s place, and I was charmed immediately—so much so that I had to pause to photograph it. [See issue #3, “The Garden as Art.”] The high wall of leaves, and the arched opening, awakened a feeling of passage between worlds. It was a place of entry, and one felt it to be just such a place. I walked up the steps toward May’s front door with a heightened sense of anticipation.

The impressions from that first meeting haven’t changed so much as they’ve filled out. I found a man of subtle charm. Conversation was easy and there was a lot to look at. While I could hardly have put this in words at the time, in May’s home I sensed something elusive—the evidence of a certain quality of attention. While the order in one house might instill restraint, I felt no such discomfort in May’s home. No sheet of clear plastic over a couch, or its equivalent, signaled caution. Instead, one was drawn in and wanted to look more closely at things.

Since that first visit, I’ve gotten to know the artist better, and I've spent more time with his work. We've talked over meals. In June of 2004 we participated in a lecture series as part of the Domestic Odyssey Exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art. It has taken time for May’s work to sink in. It locates itself in territory that’s easy to miss. I’m guessing the Dixie Chicks won’t be stopping by at Tony’s place anytime soon, or any curators with an office in sight of a Frank Gehry building, either. It happens to the best of them.

Not long ago, I headed for San Jose to have lunch with May. Stuck in traffic, I phoned ahead to say I’d be late. “I’ve made some tuna salad and we can have sandwiches.” He said. “Is that okay?”

It reminded me of a lunch with Tony a year earlier. Artist Michael McMillen had been in Santa Clara working on an installation at the de Saisset Museum. It had occurred to me these two artists might hit it off, so I suggested we meet for lunch. And we did—at Tony's house. He'd prepared a mushroom omelet. As we sat down to eat, he explained he'd gathered the wild mushrooms himself. I have to admit that his words sent a spike of anxiety through my chest and, as the three of us sat chatting between forkfuls, I comforted myself with the thought of how May does things, that is, with exacting attention.

After lunch, Tony showed us around. He took us out back to see his handmade teahouse and, as he pointed out some of the finer details, I felt some satisfaction in having brought these two impeccable craftsmen together.

On the phone earlier, when Tony had asked if I liked tuna salad, I'd answered, “Sure.” Of course, my trip down to San Jose wasn’t about having lunch. Nevertheless, this tuna salad, it turned out, created its own little space in my attention. With the first bite I noticed something I'd never tasted before. But what was it? For some reason, I didn’t ask. Maybe because, even as I tried to place it, another voice was saying: it’s nothing, really. And now, having thought more about it, a hypothesis suddenly pops up: maybe it was chermoya. Who knows? The fact is, I got up and made myself a second sandwich, and only my vanity kept me from going for a third.

I'm dwelling on this is because, in some way, it reveals something of the territory this artist opens up. One could say it's about small things or—more precisely, things with voices that speak very quietly.

So we sat there eating our sandwiches and chatting. I noticed a ceramic piece on the table. It had the shape of a log cabin. Curious, I picked it up and began turning it this way and that.

“Look at what it says on the roof,” Tony said.

I read the letters: K-A-B-I-N…“

That’s Japanese for vase.” He grinned sheepishly. A pun. Tony May loves puns. They show up in a lot of his work. Kabin was a slip-cast vase. The chimney was where the flowers went.

“If you look at the other side of the roof, you’ll see it written in Japanese. I probably didn’t make the letters very well,” he said. The apology was typical of Tony, too—part of his charm.

“Did you make this recently?”

He had. It must have been a lot of work to make the mold. May grabbed a dried hydrangea bloom from another vase and fiddled with it to make it fit into the chimney of kabin. And there it was—a vase. Certainly a quirky one occupying some uncharted corner in the realm of kitsch. I got out my camera to take a photo.

“Wait a minute,” Tony said. “My son has a special light he uses. I’ll go get it.” A raking light would bring out the letters.

I hadn’t intended to spend much time on May’s embrace of the pun, but that would be overlooking a lot in his body of work. I’ve never had a lot of respect for puns. What are they, really? But here’s another of May’s pieces incorporating a pun: a lamp made from four wire coat hangers, the brown paper of a grocery bag and a minimal fixture holding a light bulb. Letters have been cut out on one side allowing direct light to come through: N O  G U C C I. The lamp probably cost something like five dollars to make. It’s no Gucci. On the other hand, these letters summon Isamu Noguchi, the revered Japanese sculptor. Stopping to ponder that for just a moment, one may appreciate the construction as a gesture of homage, as I did. It’s hard to think of a sculptor of more poetic power than Noguchi. His work is imbued with a kind of light, one might say.

Such thoughts come to mind rather quickly, but something more remains, resisting easy formulation. If funk were sublime, it might look like this. There’s humor in the piece, but it also stands, in its way, as a quiet rebuke to our culture of celebrity and high-class commodity.

At the same time, it could point toward another way of living, one that is elegantly simple and direct. These aspects may not come through so clearly because the cleverness, the pun, of it can be taken as the whole story.

“What do you think of puns?” I asked my wife the other day as we were out walking. I told her I was thinking about Tony's work. “Is there anything inherently worthwhile about them?”

She thought about it for a while. “They’re like accidents,” she said. “In a way, they’re like found objects. Tony uses a lot of found objects, too, doesn't he?”

Good points, I thought. But the thing that bothered me was how easy a pun can be. For some reason, I found it irritating. But there's something about meaning being shifted around in a sort of floating realm. And playing, maybe. But I couldn’t quite see my way into this any farther. 

“Tony notices things,” my wife said. “His puns are like noticing things.”

Well, yes. And what to do with this faculty of noticing things? Perhaps May himself, wonders. The title he choose for an exhibit last October at Ohlone College in Fremont took advantage of the chance for a pun. But this time I think it went pretty deep. He was given the space of the Louie-Meagher Art Gallery on campus. And with May’s careful oversight, the exhibit was a fine, museum quality display of his work: Tony May: The Meagher Retrospective.

I found it easy to understand why May might have taken the opportunity to engage in such rueful irony. May has been making work of subtle depth for decades. But how much recognition had come his way? By way of comparison, his college roommate had been Bruce Nauman.

On opening night May gave a slide talk in the art center’s little theater. It was nearly full, an intimate space; people were shoulder to shoulder as Tony stepped to the slide projector and made some opening comments.

“Looking around, I see that I know all of you. I think all of my friends have turned out for me tonight. I don’t see any strangers.”

What he meant was clear. No figure from the art world, important to an artist’s career, was anywhere to be seen. A familiar smile appeared on his face as he looked around the audience. “But I want to thank each of you for being here. I am sincerely grateful to each of you.”

As he stood there in that little room on the campus of a small local college, what else did he feel? Only months earlier May had retired from 38 years of teaching art at San Jose State. He’d had his moments, yes. In San Jose he is well known and much beloved by generations of grateful students. So what had he arrived at after all the years? As he stood there among this small group of friends seated in folding chairs, was this his summing-up then?—the Meagher Retrospective…

What is it that artists do? What counts?

A couple of years earlier I’d been in San Jose for another visit. Tony and I had been talking for some time. The fall semester hadn’t yet begun and the subject of his classes came up. “For the last few years now,” he said—the familiar smile crossing his face, and a little laugh—“each time I face the prospect of a new group of students I wonder if this will be the year that everything I do and think has finally become totally irrelevant.”

No! I had trouble taking his question seriously. How could students not appreciate Tony? That I really could not imagine, no matter how skewed the times might be. On the other hand, I knew what he was saying.

“You know, there are some things you can’t really speed up,” he said. “I don’t know how many people believe that today.”

I wish I could remember how the conversation went. I'm reminded though, that recently I met several young art students. Ceramic artist Annabeth Rosen had invited me to her graduate seminar at UC Davis. Sitting there gazing at the students, I wondered—as I was being introduced—how great the divide was between us. Given the speed of life and the evaporation of history, no doubt, I was already a relic from the forgotten past. But the more we talked with each other that evening, the less distance I felt until, finally, there seemed no divide at all. 

Still, I understood what Tony meant. The things he loves are humble. That’s another way to put it. For instance, on one of my visits I noticed a plain oak couch standing in his front room. It had an Arts and Crafts look, and I asked him about it. One day while browsing in an antique shop, he told me, he’d noticed a stack of oak boards. They were all that remained of what, a hundred years earlier, had been a new convertible, foldaway bed. For a small price, he told me, he had acquired a little woodworking project.  

Farmer's Son
May grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. He would never claim to be a woodworker, just as he wouldn’t —having built a teahouse—claim to be an architect. But growing up on a farm you learn how to fix things, build things, how to keep equipment working. The elegant solution in service of practical use is simply a basic requirement of farm life. You can’t run into town every time some prefabricated doodad shows up missing or broken. And you’d never think of paying professionals to build your chicken coop. Surely self-reliance and frugality remain both cherished and necessary values for the relatively small number of people still working a family farm or ranch. I’ve seen photos of the farm Tony grew up on. It’s like the Platonic form of the Family Farm.

Having alluded to May’s farm background, I might as well mention a particular work of his, a work of public art near downtown San Jose where a flood control project was done along the banks of the Guadalupe River. Let’s pass over the compromises and frustrations that went along with it—all standard fare with works of public art. But what finally did materialize retained the essence of what May had intended. Here was a family farm—the house, the windmill, the water tower, a shed—all sliced unceremoniously in half like a watermelon; half of everything was missing. The farm had to make way for progress, don’t you see? However the piece is now overgrown with vines and ivy; it’s hard to see what it is, or hear what it was trying to say. And so it goes.

But returning to the oak couch for a moment—May took his antique oak boards home and began figuring out what he had, and what he could do with it. He’d also run across some discarded oak drawers [The artist is a dedicated dumpster diver]. And serendipity! The slats from the bottoms of the drawers were milled to the exact thickness to fit his couch rails.

“I didn’t have many tools, so I couldn’t mortise the joints, and I didn’t really do a very good job,” he said, with a typical apology. “I think I doweled them all, which was a lot of work. But it holds together well.” [To my eye, the couch appears to be perfect.]

Tony has never presented the couch as a piece of art. It’s just his couch. I bring it up because it’s a good example of how this artist’s life and his work so clearly intertwine.

Perhaps that’s the most important thing his work does; it implies an attitude toward living. The real substance is located in some inner realm. If we were talking physics here, we might propose that the work of Tony May is composed of some kind of anti-particles; no quantity of which could ever amount to a spectacle. An illustration comes to mind.

One day, standing in May’s kitchen, I noticed a large aluminum lid to a pot. What had attracted my attention was its elegant little knob handle, and I remarked upon it. There was the little laugh. “The original knob broke and one day I found that little metal piece you see in the gutter. A friend told me it’s a collet from a router [the piece that tightens down the router bit]. One day I realized I could use it to replace the missing knob for this lid.”

I’d picked up the lid as he was talking, and had noticed something else: “Gee, the collet has six divisions that exactly match the design of the lid here.”

“That’s one of the things I liked about it,” Tony answered and paused. “Well, it does have one flaw, though. If you pick up the lid when it’s hot you’ll get burned! You have to remember to use a hot pad.” Then the little laugh as if to say, “kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?” Then he rallied. “But, if you think about it, maybe that makes it interesting in another way. You have to keep your wits about you.”

So there it is.

Both the lid with the collet and the antique couch share an aspect of serendipity as well as a certain spare elegance, but there’s another element which plays an important role in much of May’s work: conservation. Here was a lid others would have tossed. The couch was merely a pile of scraps. In both cases the element of chance, combined with a creative leap, led not only to a pleasingly aesthetic result, but also to the preservation of what others would have discarded. The beauty of all that, the unseen forces which came into play, the unbidden and overlooked generosity of this manifold universe—these do not announce themselves so obviously.

Contemplating May’s work and his childhood background—with all it implies—certain root sources insist on coming to mind. I’ll compress my thoughts here: Henry David Thoreau, John Dewey.

May’s family was German Catholic, and how you get the Puritan values of self-determination, a concern for doing good, and a strong work ethic from there isn’t quite clear, but they fit, anyway—and add a dollop of the virtue of humility.

With regard to aesthetics, the Shakers, Mennonites and Amish come inevitably to mind. And if I could find a way to throw in Ralph Waldo Emerson, I would. Consider May’s painting of his teahouse framed, but not yet closed in: “At Night The House Glows Lantern-Like.”

And there are his lamps to consider, too—and books—but we haven’t even alluded to any of those works: light, and sources of light. Transcendentalism. I don’t think May would object to my efforts to make a connection here, although the high-flown claim would be too much for a direct confirmation, I’m sure. 

Art School
It’s not so hard to see how many of these influences would be passed along through American farming culture, but May left the farm. He went to college, then graduate school, and even found himself a classmate with Bruce Nauman. The farm boy discovered the art world, and other influences came to bear: Minimalism, the idea of Conceptual Art, Pop, Funk—just for starts. New things got mixed in, and Tony May ended up out in San Jose as a professor of art competing, unavoidably, for space in the art venues on the West Coast.

So does the foregoing help explain why, for May, just fixing the lid with the found-collet wasn’t enough? Because he then painstakingly painted a photo-real image of the lid, and that became one of his Minor Home Improvement series of paintings in which several other “home repairs” were documented and presented as works of art.

Monumental Art
Invoking the art game does bring to mind another of May’s pieces, which I ran into at the San Jose Museum’s 2004 group exhibit Domestic Odyssey. It was shown along with several other of May’s pieces. Walking through the galleries looking at the many art works on display, one might have arrived, as I did, at a small niche on the far edges of one of the galleries. Tucked away there in an obscure corner, I noticed a sign, “This Area Closed for Installation of Monumental Sculpture.” The sign was attached to a large Shoji screen upon which one could see—if one looked carefully—a back-lit shadow-shape projected upon the screen itself.

And I did stand there. Was it an art piece? Or was it really off limits, something under construction? It stood directly across from other pieces of May’s work; still, I couldn’t decide.

Finally I lost patience with it. I found it irritating, almost an affront to my good will. Besides, I flattered myself that I could detect such fooling around. But in this case, either it was laxity on the part of the museum staff or a maneuver just too sly to forgive.

I don’t know if I told Tony how I felt about it, but if I had, I know exactly how he would have responded. I see the smile. Then he looks down. Then comes a little conspiratorial laugh, the nodding agreement. He would take my side immediately: “Yes. Of course. I wasn’t sure the piece really worked. I guess it didn’t.”

Revisiting the piece—I noticed a title that somehow I must have missed: A Shadow-Producing Arrangement of Culinary Apparatus with Nautical Allusion. I see that it’s one of May’s most ambitious pieces. Given the many layers of meaning invited to come into play, to shift and dance, the piece could support a long meditation in print, maybe even a book. What does it mean that it’s “closed,” for instance? Because the piece is finished, as it stands, and tthere is the provision for the viewer to peek in through the screen.

So there's an allusion to the monumental and these are also mundane objects. Are we in the realm of shadows? Then there's the “Nautical Allusion.” Where might one sail with that? I hesitate to bring up Duchamp here, but it’s hard not to—and I regret it immediately. Can’t we get along without Duchamp? As Nathan Oliveira said recently, “Poor Duchamp can’t die.” 

The piece calls out for more attention than it’s getting here. What constitutes the monumental? Are these just art world pretensions? Do we see myth unveiled? Plato updated? Is the piece a sly expression of the artist’s frustration? Well, yes, maybe all of that and considerably more. And so?

The Idiocratic Piece
Maybe this is a good place to introduce the piece I saw sitting on one of May's tables at home which—how to put it?—which worked on me and, after awhile, gave rise to a new question. It was simply this: is there a category of art objects I hadn’t realized existed?

What I'm imagining is an art work that makes visible, all at once, the distillation of the artist himself: the idiocratic piece.

The piece that caught my attention that day during my lunch visit with Tony was sitting on a little table. It was exactly such an object. It was made from an antique, gallon-sized metal paint can tipped on its side and fitted out at one end with so it could hold a closed book, its spine at a right angle to the cylinder. And it was holding a book.

Obviously, the thing was meant to rock back and forth—and I did reach out and give it a little push. Turning to Tony I asked, “Is this one of your pieces?” My question triggered the familiar smile and the laugh, by parts apologetic, charming and conspiratorial.

May nodded.

“What is it?” I urged. This elegant little contraption happened to be holding a book with a photo of John Cage on its cover. I couldn’t begin to guess the why of it. So I waited attentively for an explanation. 

May’s expression bespoke his understanding of my reaction. "Of course, you're puzzled. Who wouldn’t be?"

It was a little embarrassing to have to explain the piece, he said. Because, well, the whole thing was admittedly trivial, but worse, probably too revealing of how far he'd drifted from anything even remotely respectable for a serious artist.

I waited sympathetically, my anticipation growing with each new disclaimer.

"It goes back to one day when I was sitting in the bathtub," he explained. He’d set his John Cage book down on the floor and when he was getting out of the tub, he noticed that Cage’s expression changed; it changed from a smile to a frown as he moved in relation to the book on the floor.

He stopped to check that. Yes! As he moved, the expression did the same thing again. That struck him, and he began thinking about how to make that experience available to others.

Finishing his explanation, he gave me the look and the little laugh: “It's sort of pathetic, isn’t it?”

The piece is beautifully crafted. It includes a little table it sits on and there's a little raised platform the table stands on. There are footprints painted on the platform indicating where to stand in order to properly experience the piece.

When you give it a little push, its rocking motion is gently amplified by three ball-shaped, table leg foot-pieces May had sitting around and which he inserted into the antique paint bucket.

"The whole thing came together almost by itself," he said brightening up a little.   

I gave it another push and, sure enough, Cage’s smile turned to a frown and then back again into a smile. I pushed it again. Cage smiled, frowned, then smiled again. I lingered with it a little while, amused and slightly disoriented. Cage would have liked it a lot, I thought. It’s very Cagey.

The piece stuck in my mind afterwards. What’s it worth? I wondered. The question bothered me. Is there a bigger meaning for one’s little moments of noticing? What might a real attentiveness to living bring in some larger sense? And, if there really is such a thing as an idiocratic work of art, in what would its value consist, exactly?

The puns, the found objects, the attention to detail, the importance of conserving things, the trust in serendipity, the simple elegance, the subtle humor, the Zen-like qualities of so much of May’s work and the quiet implications which open toward larger questions—how to think about all this? 
A Visit With My Brother
Three months ago, I got to spend a few days with my brother, a professor of religious studies at LSU. I decided to ask him about the question that had been nagging at me. I described May’s John Cage piece. Was there any real value in it? What did he think?

He was quiet for a while. Finally he said, “You know Wittgenstein thought philosophy couldn’t say anything about the really deep questions of life.”

“So do you think that means he didn’t feel them?”

“Not at all. He was simply silenced in front of them. To persist in constructing answers, which could be shown to be nonsense, was something he considered an actual moral failing.”

“Well, do you think some objects, say an art work, could bring one closer to standing in front of these deep questions?”

“Certainly. Do you know that word quiddity? I think St. Thomas Aquinas uses it. There’s really no explaining that. You can only stand in front of it and take it in.” My brother’s words cheered me up. They would go along well with Cage’s smile turning into a frown and, of course, vice versa.

One last thing comes to mind from another one of May’s public art works. In the space where the work was to be installed, he explained, he noticed a small gap where a sloping walkway intersected with a horizontal curb. This transition had not been identified by anyone else as needing modification, but once pointed out, it might seem awkward or careless. 

May filled the gap and finished the surface as mosaic, making the intervention part of the larger installation. His “repair” became part of the piece.

Does it seem strange to conclude my thoughts by citing such a seemingly trivial thing? What could this repair’s meaning be as a work of art? Or in some larger sense?

Perhaps this question is best left for others to ponder. My preference would be to leave it unaffiliated, so to speak.

At this, I can imagine May’s John Cage piece rocking back and forth, smiling and then frowning, smiling and frowning, then smiling again…       


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine 


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