Heavy Metal 

Local sculptor Bruce Beasley's audacious works are on display at the Oakland Museum.

It takes guts to be Bruce Beasley. Three years ago, the Oakland-based sculptor created Vitality, the monumental abstract sculpture that sits atop the fountain at Frank Ogawa Plaza downtown. Towering thirty feet over the fountain, the cast-bronze structure thrusts from its vertical base like the rising arm of a building crane, creating a manmade wedge that pierces the sky. It takes guts for an artist to plant an abstract sculpture in a public space and suggest it will have meaning for all time. The public sculptor has no control over how his work will be received or how long it will last. His creation may be swept away by a vote of the people or a developer's whim. He can't even guarantee that the fountain intended to frame it will ever work; it's now broken and without water.

While it may not be the artistic pinnacle of his career, to most Oaklanders, Vitality is an introduction to the artistry and temerity of Bruce Beasley. Now a retrospective at the Oakland Museum offers the curious a chance to see much more of Beasley's work and gain greater insight into the career of this gifted man who adopted the East Bay as his home.

Beasley was born in 1939 in Southern California and built racing cars as a teenager. At Dartmouth College in the 1950s, he became interested in sculpting and later transferred to UC Berkeley's art department, where he found a mentor in sculptor Peter Voulkos and embraced modernism. Just as painters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had rejected conventional subject matter and realism, sculptors like Beasley jettisoned the idea of figurative representation, choosing instead to create compelling work out of abstract forms and shapes.

While at the university, Beasley and other art students built a metal-casting foundry in West Berkeley. He began collecting scrap metal from nearby junkyards, and casting and welding together miscellaneous industrial shards into coherent artworks. In 1961, his work appeared in "The Art of Assemblage" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A year later, MOMA bought his welded cast-iron construction Chorus (1961), a photo of which is on display at the Oakland Museum. In 1963, Beasley and other students from Berkeley were featured at the Paris Biennale, where his cast-aluminum Icarus won the prestigious Purchase Prize and became part of France's permanent collection.

Over the last four-plus decades, Beasley has lived and worked as a sculptor in West Oakland. The handsome catalogue accompanying the exhibit emphasizes his experimentation in different media and his technical innovations. With the dedication of a scientist, Beasley has tended to concentrate on one medium at a time, whether scrap metal, wood, acrylic, or bronze, researching and exhausting its possibilities before moving on.

In the late 1960s, he began working in cast acrylic to explore the potential of transparency and in 1968 won a competition to build a monumental acrylic sculpture in the state capital. At the time, no method existed for casting thick acrylic shapes, so Beasley devised one, working with acrylic donated by the DuPont Corporation to create his thirteen-thousand-pound Apolymon (1970). He went on to collaborate with a group of Navy oceanographers to create an acrylic bathysphere for deep-sea exploration.

In the 1980s, Beasley started working in wood and steel, making structures based on simple geometric forms arranged in complex ways. Some of the results resemble giant metallic insects or wooden toys. To imagine these constructions, the artist used cardboard cutouts and created models, fashioning them into the forms his sculptures would eventually take. He later began using a computer to rough out his ideas, rotating images and seeing potential structures from all angles before going on to the next stage.

Beasley's work has a strong analytical component. He speaks of the creative process as a process of discovery, much the same way mathematicians speak of beautiful new geometric objects that they mentally unveil. Asked why he has never taken up traditional stone carving, Beasley answers that he would find it too limiting and frustrating; carving in stone is too much of a commitment. He wouldn't be able to change his mind; to wit, suppose Michelangelo, looking over the Pietà, had said, "Oh, I think I'd prefer her head to tilt the other way."

While Beasley's approach to sculpture may be more from the head than the heart, the goal is to create something that is emotionally compelling to encounter. More often than not, he reaches his goal. In the retrospective, his earliest works in cast and welded iron and aluminum communicate a rough-and-ready quality. A surprisingly delicate piece like Icarus, as its name implies, wants to lift off its pedestal and take flight. Beasley's best work manages to express dense, rough, or ungraceful materials in balletic or dramatic poses.

While he doesn't mimic particular objects in nature, Beasley addresses physical forces and employs elemental shapes -- from cantilevers to crystals -- that can be found in nature. He has had to take his materials into account and engineer how to make his forms appear to fly or suspend precariously in space. As early as Chorus, Beasley employed a cantilever to create a sense of gravitational tension. The chorus of heavy iron pipe rests lightly on its narrow perch, defying its own weight. Some of his more recent cast-bronze sculptures look like constructions made from giant building blocks. They convey a dynamic tension -- why, the viewer wonders, don't they topple over or fall apart?

Many of these sculptures are human-size or larger, and command attention by their sheer mass and audacious composition. The cast-bronze Caper III (2001), for example, is big enough to walk under. As with all of the bronze pieces in the show, its delicate golden and turquoise patina softens its otherwise hard edges, and its lightly textured surface begs to be touched.

With 66 pieces on display, most in the same gallery space, individual pieces sometimes feel repetitive. Less might have been better for showing off Beasley's work. Significantly, Tragamon (1972), a seven-foot-high cast-acrylic work he made for the museum, is striking on its own, where it is permanently located in the museum's pond.

At a talk Beasley gave the day of the opening, he urged the audience to go downtown to see Oakland's latest art acquisition. But at midafternoon on a weekday, Vitality looked a little lonely in the windswept plaza, and its patina appeared to have cracked in the weather. Perhaps this site in the relatively empty end of the plaza is not the best urban setting for a dramatic piece of abstract art.

Beasley's sculpture shows better in the modern architecture of the museum, especially in its gardens, where the bigger sculptures are visually arresting. For Beasley, as a modernist, the dialogue between abstract form and space continues to hold fascination. Encountered in this setting, it's a worthwhile conversation.


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