Interviewsand Articles


Interview: Richard Berger: A Conversation with an Elusive Genius

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 6, 2000



At the time of this interview in1997, Richard Berger was a senior faculty member at the San Francisco Art Institute where he had chaired the sculpture department for over twenty years. Although he was the recipient of the Adeline Kent Award in 2004, he was one of those remarkable artists who should have been far more widely known. When I asked other Bay Area artists if they knew Richard Berger, the response was usually some variation on a theme: "Oh, yes. He's a genius!"  
     I began our interview by asking Berger how he was currently working. —Richard Whittaker

Richard Berger:  Now, when I'm making something, the idea of when it's going to be finished is far more remote to me than it was ten years ago. Those things made with the wire--when I was making those every decision was diagrammed. There's a map for that face, and measurements. I scaled it up off a cast of a face. Everything that could be known about what it took to make that piece was known. All that was left was the making, and it was still a real eye-opener when it was finished. With this thing, I'm starting out to make a puppet. This may end up in a puppet theater or it may end up--this may be Ezra Pound, or it may be a woman. With the other piece over there (pointing to "Artist at Work") I made the corner of the room first. I didn't know where I was going. See these drawings down here? They're hundreds of overlays that were each cross sections of an image keyed to one another. I thought, "I'll try to recycle this work," and it didn't really cohere. I don't know what will become of these. I just did them because I was desperate, and I had to do something.

works:  I'm tempted to ask what you mean when you say you were desperate.

RB:  Well, inertia is a state of desperation, as far as I'm concerned. Being frozen in the headlights of life is a desperate circumstance—the sense of impending peril if you don't move. That's the way I'm talking about it. If you don't know what to do, and you don't do anything, then nothing has changed. It's always better to do something when you don't know what to do.

works:  I know you have a real interest in architectural space. With "Artist at Work" you said you started off with "a corner." Was there a metaphor in that, of some kind of psychic space?

RB:  I'm literally talking about a corner, and maybe, "being cornered" or other states we feel sitting or standing in a corner. And if that encroaches on somebody's mental architecture in the same way--does it cast a shadow in your corner?--then that's great. I feel that if I do that first part of the job to the best of my understanding, this other part will be a possibility.
     On another level I think of any art object as the signpost denoting a crossroads which articulates a psychic location. But this is so literal—and I made this piece to go into a corner. There is something about a corner—a sense of a kind of funnel. You get drawn into it. I think that to the extent you categorically orchestrate a physical architecture you've established a psychic space. That's why being in a cathedral is the way it is. That's psychic space—no doubt about it!

works:  Tell me more about this particular piece, "The Erratic Mechanism of Human Desire." Could you say something about why you put those two figures on each side?

RB:  This comes from an image in a story, from several different aspects of a short story I wrote, and it has to do somewhat with Duchamp's "The Large Glass." There's an interior space, and you see there are people outside of that space: a male figure and a female figure. Each one is looking through a silhouette--kind of like the things you stick your head through at the boardwalk at Santa Cruz and get photographed. Each one is looking through their opposite. So the male figure is looking through a female figure and vice versa. They look across at each other, but they are really seeing themselves.
     When you look at others you are projecting yourself, you know. And the way they are automated, they way they move, is that when one extends its head through the opening toward the other, the other one withdraws. They go back and forth that way. And what they can see in this room, if they look, is they see this little motor. They see this mechanism that moves them, and it's very simple. There's a gender duality and a pattern of habitual behavior in terms of identity projection.
     Another visual source for this was from a cave on an island in Bombay harbor, a very famous temple to Shiva carved into a mountain top. There, the central iconic representation of Shiva is a three-headed figure. The head facing forward is Shiva the androgyne, and of the two side heads, one is a male and one a female looking in opposite directions. And the implication is that there is a fourth one looking back, the ineffable one that you'll never know.

works:  It's very interesting because it's like a precise picture of how something works in ourselves. Our situation.

RB:  Yes. It's meant to be an equation. That's what Duchamp's Large Glass is, though it's vertical and the female is on top and the male is on the bottom. Those disks (in "The Erratic Mechanism of Human Desire") have the words to the tune called "The Book of Love." Do you know that one?

works:  From the fifties.

RB:  Yes. And so that's sort of like a cloud that's above those figures. So another thing that is going on there is the idea of mythology, which is what? It's one of the things that special objects sustain for us.
     What a myth does is mediate between how things really are and the way they ought to be. And so the words to that song are like this idealized thing, this cloud above them, but what the real facts of it are is this cyclical approach and withdrawal, this consistent self-projection and the misunderstandings that come from it.
     Many people have seen this as a futile sort of thing, but I don't. I think it is more just the way things are. And actually, they keep trying, so that's good.

works:  This piece seems to speak to the hopelessness of the situation but, on the other hand, the possibility of awareness is a hopeful thing.

RB:  A service you might be able to provide is to objectify a human predicament in such a way that someone might gain some kind of understanding they didn't have before. It might even be that it makes something that seems so grinding and inexorable seem kind of funny, you know, "It's just a little play that's going on." And a certain kind of light that casts these shadows on the wall gives it a dimension that is kind of Platonic.

works:  Yes. I'd forgotten that this piece also uses light and throws shadows on the walls. That's an important part of it, very powerful really--Plato's Allegory of the Cave.

RB:  Yes, in moments of caprice I've described this as "Howdy Doody meets Plato."

works:  Say a little more about that.

RB:  I think the Platonic idea is such a penetrating insight when you think of what a shadow is and what it reveals. In primitive celestial sorts of things, the most fundamental intersection with the heavens is the aligning of a camp or village or cathedral with a cardinal direction. That's determined by a stick and a shadow. You see where the shadow is when the sun comes up, and where it is when the sun goes down, and you draw a line between those two. Then draw a line at a right angle where they intersect. There's the center of the universe. That's what Eliade talks about in The Sacred and the Profane.
     Something that relates to what made light central to what I am doing is something Dan Flavin said. I think he's a real genius by the way. He said, "The art is off or the art is on." That's a way of talking about a thing being ongoing. The reason I use the lights--and a shadow is a fact, a shadow is an event--is that light is passing from one place to another and producing this thing.
     Cinema is a bunch of shadows. And that relates to the notion of mental projection, which is fundamental to perception--data gets projected on a screen in your mind, the visual cortex of your brain, and you learn to make sense of those patterns. Seeing is not a passive thing. It's an ongoing active thing. So, to project a shadow and to use light in all these different ways--you know that tune by Bobby Bland, "Turn on your love-light, let it shine on me"? The idea of light is everywhere.

"midway this way of life
we are bound upon"
mixed media, motors, lights
works:  I think there is a hunger for anything that can return us to such elemental truths. Some art has been able to do that, but now the situation is in question. There is also the meaning that comes from the making of it, if there can be a place for it.

RB:  Fundamentally, there is something relevant to the statement, "Some people need to do this" It's like this group of people down in Georgia—they call them "clay eaters". They actually eat red clay because there is no other source around them for a certain mineral they need. None of them are dieticians, but something tells them.
     There's a rational articulation of what the drive is, but the drive itself is something more fundamental. I think that's what artists are sensing. Something down there tells you there is a lack of nourishment, or balance. It's biological. There is something about mind over matter, and transformation, which is deeply sustaining to some people. I think most of the time people are separated not only from nature, but from their own natures, which is to find some avenue where you can transform something. Maybe it's just a little microcosm where you have control, and you usher this passage of material into form, and have the artifact of that passage to help you do it again.
works:  To exert some control, to have evidence of some kind of mastery, articulates something; but I have a feeling that's only part of it.
RB:  Well, yes, but I think that's where I find my reward. What can I think up? And can I make it come true? But there is something also in that activity, as I am describing it, that connects to deeper activities, into a collective notion of shared ritual, in which a whole bunch of people are doing this, not for the end of satisfying themselves but in order to make the objects which function to cohere the society and insure their survival.
     In this book Homo Aestheticus, which I use as a text in some of my classes, Ellen Dissanayake makes the point that artmaking, or her phrase is "making special," is a biologically driven survival mechanism. To put it simply, "the group that makes special together stays together."
     And by ritual behavior, I mean replicating nature with colored paste that you move with animal hair tied to a stick—or turning a rock into a person. And whether it exactly replicates nature or not, there is the fundamental human need to project your image into space in order to understand yourself and your relationship with others. I just think it's definitive of human consciousness. It goes with the territory.
works:  Mircea Eliade, to whom you referred earlier, says the creative act is the quintessentially sacred act. That idea would be based on the fundamental creative act: God created the world.
RB:  Christianity, or Judaism, is even a sculptor's religion. God made man out of clay and breathed life into him. You think of all of the different myths, even up to, and including, Pinocchio, where an effigy is granted the life impulse.
     So another thing is, how do you isolate and know the life impulse in yourself? Through these objects, through these symbols, through these poems. It's all part of that, and it coheres locally in different forms and practices, but I think it's all the same impulse—whoever is doing it anywhere. The thing I make comes from me; it's so much less than me, even as I am so much less than the forces that made me.
works:  How would you place such an understanding in our contemporary situation?
RB:  It's a good counter to our contemporary situation. Things that don't have an immediate quantifiability tend to disappear. You have to learn language and grammar and a lot of things that can be evaluated and quantified, but ultimately, in order to be able to confront what's priceless, you have to become a poet.
works:  How would you describe that?
RB:  Knowledge is priceless. You can't buy it. You can buy the book. And the market system has this computer model—learning is just a disk which you slip inside someone's head, and then they know something. That's least true in art.
     I knew a girl in college who just went through her text book and wrote down over and over, like Bart Simpson, "the gross national product is" That's all she did all day long, and she got all A's. But what kind of understanding does that constitute?
works:  It's not just a matter of "information."
RB:  No. And don't get them mixed up. That's what this thing is (points to computer). Suddenly you have endless information. The notion of "what is priceless" in a market-driven society is what I think I'm dealing with in my work—and the question of the difference between "priceless" and "worthless." Because there's a lot of stuff that people regard as priceless and others think is interchangeable with "worthless."
works:  How do you see the sculptural object in relation to this?
RB:  Something Herbert Read says about the modern sculptural object— "Modern" with a big M, he's talking about someone like Henry Moore—is the confluence of two older forms: one is an amulet and one is a monument. So the monument is the temple, this huge kind of thing, and the amulet is something that is very charmed and compressed and intimate. Gaston Bachelard uses the phrase, "intimate immensity." Duchamp talks about "the simultaneous need for intimacy and distance" in art.
     These are ways in which people have described a kind of chemistry. When you talk about "the spiritual" I think it's the aching tension between "amulet" and "monument"—intimacy and distance.
     From one psychological domain you elicit, almost electrically, an analogy with another domain. It's not done through conventional circuitry, not through intellectual processing. The definition of intuition is "knowledge that is not arrived at through rational processes." But it's knowledge by induction, nonetheless. That's part of what makes it art. Do you know the objects called astrolabes?
works:  A sort of navigational device?
RB:  Yes. And the compass. And a little sundial. And a sextant. Those are amulets. And what those are—in the broadest sense, in a wonderful sense—are keys to where you are.
     If you're at sea, an eleventh century Arabian sailor, your life depends on this thing. It's just this little thing, but you triangulate off the stars. And you have these sliding disks which are the accumulation, sometimes, of centuries of observation boiled down into these little things. And this thing tells you where you are.
works:  Wonderful. A work of art could perform that function perhaps.
RB:  Oh, absolutely.
works:  That's an area in which I think there is an instinctive impulse on the part of artists, if I can generalize, a sense of the need of locating yourself, having your own experience.
RB:  What I encounter is the kind of capitulation that has occurred broadly about certainty of any sort—"you don't know anything for sure, you can't know anything for sure." There's a view that authority of any sort is a manipulative strategy with a sinister agenda hidden somewhere. So then critical analysis of any possibility of "pure" experience becomes a substitute for primary experience.
     Everywhere you see a specialist erecting a toll booth between you and your goal, and telling you that you can't get there unless you pay. It's not even always monetary. There are other kinds of strategies. I think that is what a cult is. You have to check with this guy.
     People's confidence in their ability to make decisions for themselves, through just the complications and multiplicity of being alive in these times, is easily undermined. They become dependent on this external presence which is constantly nattering at them. And I don't think anybody is sitting in a room and dreaming this up. I think it's just the inexorability of a very complex mechanism. Nobody planned it that way.
works:  I have to agree with you. Does anyone have the capacity to engineer this sort of thing? It gives people too much credit.
RB: They couldn't have thought up a hose-job like this!
works: Yes. You've mentioned a phrase in the past—the alienated object
RB:  "The poetry of the alienated object."
works:  and also the phrase, an object "having authority." What is an "alienated object" and when does an object "have authority"?
RB:  All of it has to do with context. I think it's a uniquely American idea. It's something that is produced by a culture of things, where things have reached a certain prevalence. There have to be enough things around so that objects can wander from their normal patterns of activities and not precipitate a crisis.
     In a culture where you kept the same tools and objects for your entire life, you couldn't use them in a piece of sculpture like Lucas Samaras did, for instance. It was your knife. There has to be this middle ground where the use of objects can be a little freer. The alienated object, in other words, means than an object is being used in ways beyond its purely utilitarian use. It's taken out of that role to stand for something else. Then, the use of poetic juxtaposition, irony and, most of all, the mechanism of humor becomes possible.
     How is it that a tiny change of inflection, or a tiny change of context, which would pass unnoticed in any other kind of discourse, would suddenly elicit an emotional outburst from someone in the form of a belly laugh? That's a pleasure response that has been triggered by the contextual manipulation of the ordinary into an unexpected circumstance.
     It might be interesting to wonder, did they have jokes when language was just beginning? I don't think so. There were not enough words to go around to have gags. So, okay, in this society you have these objects—you have a kind of stage where objects participate in a definitive way. They become statements. The aggregation of objects becomes a signature of a person, like the kind of clothes you wear, what you choose to put in your house. They become a circumstance of identity. So you can take these objects out of their context, put them in new places—like Louise Nevelson did—and then, almost by their commonness, they can become special in the same way the words in a joke do. There are no brand new words in a joke. In fact the more ordinary the words, the better the set-up usually is, and the more unexpected this moment of ambivalence and transcendence can be.
     This is a mechanism that can be savored by people who may not understand the dynamics of what is going on. If you told someone in a bar who was laughing at a joke, that what was going on was some kind of linguistic inversion of alienation and context etcetera, they would just tell you to blow it out your ass. But that's a fact. That's one you can kind of hang on to—this pleasurable discovery that things are not what they seem.
     And so what are the ways you can objectify those discoveries with things? That phrase, "things are not what they seem" is this fulcrum from which things like humor and art balance. My favorite example of how that works is Joseph Cornell. To me Cornell is brilliant because he incorporated a number of different realities in what he did. In each Cornell piece there are always radically different encodings of space in the form of maps of the cosmos, or topographical maps, or sheet music—something graphic signifying either time or space in some very foreshortened and encoded way, and that is the background.
     It usually works the same way as in a theater set: the wash of blue light means "the sky"—shorthand for infinity. Then you will have the little cut-outs of "the city," or another more physical but equally encoded kind of reality, laid out in a sequence, coming toward the viewer—a sequence of encoded spaces which converge in reality—from the background to the foreground. There is real furniture, and then, actual people. So it's a convergence into reality. And things can be orchestrated to converge into a new reality.
     The object is alienated from its prosaic function and becomes the turning point of a much bigger equation. Its function is the key to the whole thing working. So you don't have icons—for instance, a glowing-light woman with a lily in her hair to show you it's Mary—you have these other things that move the same way words do to make a statement, or to make a poem, or to make a joke. Poetry and humor are very close together in working that way.
works:  There is something about some art that could almost be called magic. What do you think that's about?
RB:  I think it happens. But my threshold of skepticism is pretty high about that. Many of the times, when it exists, it's not grandiose at all. You could think of the attribute of magic as the indelibility of the experience, something you don't forget.
     What I remember most vividly from three weeks of being in Rome recently, being in this astounding place, is a tiny Giacomo Manzu piece in the Museum of Modern Art. It's a weird kind of cylindrical, modeled room with a woman looking out the window, and the little curtain kind of blowing aside. It's just an episode that is very crystalline, very clear.
     That's there, but I think it's so contextual, so elusive, so much a projection of the person viewing, that you might find it anywhere, in a bonsai tree or a pile of debris in a shipyard. I think we have the capacity and the need for some kind of deliverance, but I don't know that it's much of a legislated experience. Our intentionality has no bearing on it, really.
     For example, one of the things that got me interested in being an artist was—one of my friend's mother taught sculpture at UC Davis—and I got a job there in their bronze foundry in 1962 when I was in high school. Bruce Nauman was a graduate student there. William Wiley was teaching there, and Wayne Thiebaud, and Arneson. I was at parties when I was fourteen, fifteen years old with Steve Kaltenbach and those people. Of this group, all of the people who were there at that time are still making art, all those graduate students. Nobody decided to have a killer art department. It just happened. I mean there were just a serious bunch of heavy hitters who had a great deal of influence in the whole of contemporary art in this little house in Davis—all playing guitars and drinking.
     People try like hell to do it, you know, in the same way you try to put together a great football team. "Hey, let's get the best receivers, the best this and that" They run into each other. They drop the ball. They start squabbling. The magic part, I think, is where you can't control it. Or it works, in spite of you.
works:  So it's even safe from advertising.
RB:  Sometimes I wonder what would happen if there was no institutional support in the arts. Would people just lay down and become philistines? I don't think so. I think it might spread in ways that it can't now because there are all these institutionally anointed practitioners around stultifying people's confidence in themselves. That's a thing of great interest to me.
     There's a place down in San Lorenzo, a craft store I've run across in trying to find puppet parts. People go there because they need to make things, need this kind of anchorage. This place is unique. It's set up like an old Wool-worths, and on the tops of the shelves all the way around the place are these things. I mean some of them are really weird. All sorts of crocheted or knitted things. Giant panda bears and funny vests and dozens of things to put over your roll of toilet paper. Some of them are hysterical. There's a poodle that fits over your bottle of liquor. The head of the poodle fits over the top, all knitted. The place is full of these things.
     And underneath each one of these things is a sheet of paper with code: "knit one, pearl two." It's the key to this thing. Here it is on a piece of paper, the formula, an incantation. Get your yarn. Go to work,--click, click,click. And people are doing it. There's the assurance that we have this scheme which will result, even in a Panda bear! And we can act on that scheme, and by God, we'll get a Panda bear, where we just had a big long noodle of fiber before!
     Those people are, whatever you think of their taste--I think they're participating in something really healthy, and really vital. They're acting on a scheme of transformation.
works:  I'm touched by that. It leads me to something I've heard you say about the emphasis on individuality in art school, about which you said, "It's more significant to consider what one has in common with others"
RB:  I think the forces are very pervasive as regards this battle between commonality and individuality. In my sculpture class, I always play music. I let people bring tapes. But there will always be four or five people with their own headphones on. They are not going to join this group. They're going to be in this other space. So the music is no longer the common experience of the group. It's the isolating experience. And I think there are still evolving transitional strategies to further conceptualize space and retain identity.
     Maybe human history, in the broad sense, can be seen as this trajectory from total commonality to total individuality. And ironically, as there is greater proliferation, there is the need to have more psychic territory which is only your own. Biologically, animal groups have their territory—and their territory has to do with how much that group needs to maintain its size, but it also functions, and I think this is true of humans too, as a buffer against too many social contacts. If you're going to have coherence, if we're going to hang together and work together as one, in order to survive, we can't get hung up with these other guys. This stuff of tribal warfare, clan warfare, competition and territory, and all that, runs very, very deep in human consciousness.
     At a point when human consciousness dawned, it was a physical space in the real world which coincided with a group identity, but when there got to be enough people, you couldn't afford all that territory. There had to be this conceptual space which is inner, a space encoded by art, by things "made special." And I think, as there are more and more people and more input, the drive is toward that, really a drive to cling to identity, which, for 99% of human history was determined in terms of a group.
works:  An interesting idea, equating psychological space with territorial space, and making that correlation. It occurs to me though, that something is missing. A professor I know asked his class, "What's the biggest problem today?" and the overwhelming response was "Loneliness." So, people may be getting psychological space, but something else is needed too.
RB:  Yes. I'm not saying this is an effective strategy if the psychic space isn't common. It is just the by-product of all this other stuff. So someone might be driven toward something the same way someone might have a chemical imbalance and try to self-medicate themselves in a way that goes wrong. The emphasis on the internal space, to be driven to that space, to seek that more and more, is not to say that that's really addressing the problem. And, yes, loneliness is part of that.
works:  Earlier, when you spoke about the importance of finding something in common, I felt there was something right about that. There is loneliness. And people are feeling progressively disenfranchised from having faith in their own experience and their own instincts, and so it would seem a movement toward bridging that separation would be the right thing. Well, we see it, we see that impulse. It's happening in ways that may not be so good. Mass movements where pseudo-connections are insisted upon.
RB:  I've become kind of interested in the Deadheads because a friend of mine is a Deadhead. I always thought they were idiots. But she describes it in a way that has these aspects of communality, which I think are genuine. They're not mine. But there is a certain kind of courage going on with the Deadheads, which is, they actually got together. They didn't sit in a room with a terminal, whereas many who aspire to a greater seriousness don't have that conviction. What she says is that it never was the band, it was just the people. Like anything that is based mostly on faith, it was totally vulnerable to chicanery and foolishness. So that was part of it, too. But I've come to regard that with a great deal more generosity after talking to somebody who's intelligent, and who's into it. I think a lot of the techno-rave things are a little lamer and just about saturation and obliteration of faculties.
    So the idea of community, as much as I talk about it, I participate very little. So I don't know the answers.
works:  Isolation is a fact for a great many artists. Perhaps even for someone with the relative success you have had. Do you wrestle with this?
RB:  I find myself questioning what seems to be a pretty arcane cul-de-sac within which to be working. In a moment of transient bitterness yesterday I described it as "squandering my imagination"— working in this corner making these things that virtually nobody sees.
     I think the best shows I ever had in terms of public exposure—the show at the Berkeley Museum was good—were down in the financial district, right in the window of some bank, and at Peggy's place in Alameda, where just regular guys saw this stuff, and people could be genuinely surprised.
     I want this work to be at a crossroads of human traffic, where there is some element of discovery, and a reason to pause. I think the gallery experience and the museum experience is constrained and stultifying for a lot of people. They go into this white room and think that all their critical faculties, all of their intuition that guides them throughout most of their lives, has to be put on hold.
I was talking to a colleague who says, and I think I agree, that market strategy and the dynamics of administration have completely infiltrated fine arts in this culture in this time.
     The prospect of making art, which was for millennia the instrument of the cultural DNA that kept all this societal thing focused, has now become a bunch of different things and everybody is trying to decide which one of those things is most compelling, and Are any of them worthwhile? That's the question of art in this time.

Visit Richard Berger's website 
Richard died Mar. 3, 2015 


About the Author

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


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