Aimee Noelle Gabbard has been with Gagosian since 2012. In her role at the gallery, she worked closely with Robert Therrien, organizing exhibitions of his work in London, Austin, Denver, New York, and San Francisco.
I’m sitting at the table in the kitchen of Robert Therrien’s downtown Los Angeles studio. The table was made by the manufacturer Gunlocke, as were the chairs. He purchased this furniture from a flea market in the early ’90s. Around the same time, Therrien, intrigued by the intimacy and immediacy afforded by instant photography, purchased a Polaroid camera. Was it the impeccable yet understated design of the table and chairs that inspired him to reestablish an involvement with photography? Or was it the photographs that he started taking from beneath the table and chairs that catalyzed the impulse to create what, unbeknownst to him, would turn into his most iconic series? What came first, the photograph or the idea?
Although most celebrated as a sculptor, Therrien actually studied photography as an undergraduate. Finding the technical approaches taught in academia too restrictive, he abandoned the medium, but once his interest in photography was reinvigorated it catalyzed a fresh approach to his working method. Not surprisingly, that moment coincided with a noticeable shift in his art, which became less abstract and more representational. “For about ten years, the process was photograph the object and then do it,” he told me last spring.1
The first Polaroid camera that Therrien owned was the Swinger, which he bought from a drugstore. “It was considered cool to have the low grade,” he said.2 The Swinger, named for the way it moved when hanging from the owner’s wrist, was sold in drugstores rather than traditional camera stores, and was commercially successful as a result. Therrien said that Swingers ran parallel in his mind to the cheap PXL camera for video; “it was the first camera a kid could afford.” We searched for the PXL camera online and mixed in with the results was Google’s Pixel phone. This seems appropriate considering our discussion of the Polaroid, a company that digital photography eventually bankrupted. To paraphrase Karl Marx, capitalism makes all that is solid melt into air.
In their heyday, Edwin Land’s “one-step” Polaroid cameras were something of a revolution. Liberating in their ease of use and their high-quality yet affordable film, the cameras allowed a unique image to appear in the same time and space where the user pointed and shot. “The film format was square and everything was pretty automatic on it,” Therrien said. “They were fun. Someone might say, What was the attraction to it? It was sort of experimental at first. Polaroid company used some of the most expensive chemistry . . . and their cheap little camera had a really fine, good glass lens. It just looked right. The tonality was better than other black-and-white film. There was a quality to it.”
Therrien spent months shooting hundreds of Polaroids from the floor underneath the table and chairs, an area normally hidden from the visual experience of everyday life. “I was using those images to see what something would look like from down there. Most people aren’t interested in down there,” he explained. In place of a tripod, he screwed the Swinger to a thin piece of plywood; this held the camera upright and allowed him to shift perspective easily. He treated the camera as his third eye and the alchemical, instant feedback allowed him to see sections of the table decontextualized from any material or spatial signifiers. “The reason the table became big was because I asked, ‘What if people could walk into an environment like that? It would be perfect just to have that as a sculpture.’”3
And have that as a sculpture is exactly what he did. The first work he created using what would become a serial motif was No title (yellow table leg) (1993). Next was Under the Table (1994), a table and six chairs enlarged to almost four times their original size. The title, while suggestive in itself, contained a double meaning for the artist, who had received a fee to cover the costs of a site-specific installation for an exhibition called insite. “I used all my money to build a sculpture, that table. I think you were supposed to use it for shipping, the materials, crating, and the whole thing. I didn’t really use the funds appropriately. . . . I always felt like I had gotten money under the table,” he recalled to me with a sly smile.4 The artist made two more table-and-chairs sets in this style, both apparently wooden but actually metal painted to look like wood grain. He had been experimenting with this trompe l’oeil effect since his college days.
Since the 1970s, Therrien had been in the habit of buying objects with the intention of one day turning them into sculptures. Over the years he developed an iconic lexicon of forms that he would create and recreate in both two and three dimensions. Sometimes his drawings became sculptures, or vice versa; sometimes forms morphed and became new ones. A snowman form, for instance, rotated ninety degrees, prompted a cloud form; a chapel eventually progressed into an oilcan. These evolutions were not necessarily linear but more like a desire line; Therrien would seamlessly modify and simplify each form to a point of visual purity, reducing their specificity in favor of a general idea, turning each into a symbol. Within each of his motifs is an inherent history: some became so laden with meaning that the artist himself could not remember their exact origin.
There is an indefinable warmth, an inherent intimacy, in our collective mental image of Polaroid photographs. Separated and categorized by either form or content, Therrien’s Polaroids—shot with several different models of the Land camera besides the Swinger—were securely tucked away in his studio kitchen, almost within arm’s reach of the table and chairs. But it wasn’t only Polaroids that he liked to keep near; small boxes holding thousands of photographs were constantly out on the tables and countertops in the kitchen—photographs of his artworks and installations and works in process, taken by the artist and countless friends over the years. Whether using the camera as a way to explore an object and document its transformation into a subject, as a way to track a formal progression, or to document a temporary, studio-only installation of whose existence his Polaroids would eventually be the only vestige, Therrien always recognized the value that all types of photography played in his process.
Therrien’s studio, which like his work straddled the line between fantasy and reality, was as much a part of his oeuvre as a place for it. The studio was a living environment—a constantly evolving installation, enthralling and specific, home to at least one example of each of his essential forms. Perhaps from an innate desire to show rather than tell, he constantly referenced images of works not currently at the studio. “It’s sort of like a game, where the studio could be a world or a village, and this is sort of a collection of images. Some of them get eliminated, and, for particular ones it seems like the space around me is incomplete if they are missing,” he explained.5
Installation was crucial to Therrien’s methodology; he believed that it enhanced and completed each of his individual works. He also believed that no installation was perfect until it had been photographed. When he installed an exhibition, he would come prepared with photographs of the works that he had shot from all angles, visual aids that helped him to determine what he called the “perfect perspective.” The sculptor Constantin Brancusi, one of Therrien’s heroes, also photographed his own work. While Brancusi originally got interested in photography as a marketing tool, he eventually became further involved, and, with the help of his friend the artist Man Ray, set up a darkroom in his studio. Using photography to recontextualize his sculptures and their interactions in the studio and to rematerialize their existence in pictorial space, he came to realize that he alone knew best how to portray his work photographically.
“I think Brancusi had an ideal view for his works. I realize that my pieces too have an ideal view.”6 Interestingly enough, it was Brancusi’s beard that first inspired Therrien to explore the beard as a motif, in both photography and sculpture, over a seven-year period. Made with synthetic materials such as plaster, wire, and plastic, complete with ear hooks and sometimes massive in size, the beard works were deliberately theatrical. The subject was unmistakably captivating for the artist; over three hundred photographs of the beard works were taken in the studio, showing their creation and eventual group installations.
Some of the Polaroids act as the only surviving traces of rooms Therrien constructed in the studio. He would meticulously create scenes, arranging them over and over, adding objects, lighting, clutter, and on and on until he knew they were finished. These temporary environments made for the camera generated perhaps his most prolific groups of Polaroids and were, in retrospect, premonitions of his late “room” works.
In one series of images, the Polaroids document a scene in which a saw is caught in the middle of what appears to be a freshly sawn log, hovering above the double bed in the artist’s studio bedroom. While creating the scene, and photographing it each step of the way, Therrien realized that a readymade saw, split log, and bed would not translate in a photograph. Seen from the perspective of the camera, the saw dissolved into a straight line. Therrien accordingly created an exaggerated saw, an object that in life looked ridiculous but that translated perfectly in his photographs. He also rebuilt the bed frame over and over, in wild proportions, until it looked like a regular bed to the camera.
“Sawing logs,” Therrien told me, is an old vernacular phrase referring to snoring, and so to being asleep in bed.7 Unaware of this reference when I first saw the photographs, I saw instead two paradoxical concepts combining into a slightly romantic film noir scene. The bed—the space of dreams, the most comfortable space in the house—appears with its floral sheets tousled, as if someone had just left it. A threatening saw, caught in the middle of a split log, hangs over where one’s sleeping head would be. The act of sawing logs is physical, hazardous, laborious. Danger and comfort, two seemingly antithetical concepts, appear as if they were always meant to be together. Knowing that this artistic manifestation only exists in these images only adds to their auratic quality.
In another set of Polaroids, a large black cloud floats over the bed, as if projected from a sleeping mind. In one shot the mattress is on the floor; in the next, it’s back on the bed frame; in another, a stool has replaced the bed, and in another, the empty room is suddenly filled with cleaning supplies, old windows, and a garden hose on the floor.
Another black cloud sculpture hangs above Therrien in one of his only self-portraits—perhaps the only self-portrait. This black cloud—more bulbous, more defined, more three dimensional than the one in the bed photographs—hangs above a doorway in the studio kitchen. The artist can be seen in a mirror framed by this doorway. A camera tripod sits in front of him, but he is holding the Polaroid camera. At first glance the point of the photograph appears to be to show him shooting the new black cloud sculpture, but upon inspection, more black clouds, these ones in drawings hung on the wall behind the artist, appear in the mirror’s reflection. The kitchen table and chairs are doubled, one side caught by the camera and the other in the mirror, and the table is covered in Polaroids, probably shot just before this one. In a single image, then, the black cloud appears above, in front of, and behind Therrien, in all the different mediums he prefers and in photographs covering the table that started this entire approach. The white border of the Polaroid frames the doorway, which frames the mirror—a frame within a frame within a frame.
This photograph allows us a glimpse into Therrien’s multiverse, where each form is its own world. We might imagine him with two of his favored subjects on his shoulders: on one the endearing angel (“a head with halo,” he called it), on the other the mischievous devil. And Therrien is the still point around which everything revolves.
1Robert Therrien, in conversation with the author, April 11, 2018.
2Therrien, in conversation with the author, October 4, 2018. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Therrien come from this conversation.
3Therrien, quoted in Blake Gopnik, “If Gulliver Were a Conceptualist . . . ,” New York Times, July 14, 2013. Available online at www.nytimes.com/2013/07/14/arts/design/robert-therrien-gets-a-solo-show-at-the-albright-knox.html (accessed July 25, 2019).
4Therrien, in conversation with the author, June 21, 2018.
5Therrien, quoted in Heather Pesanti, Robert Therrien, exh. cat. (New York: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2013), p. 21.
6Therrien, quoted in Margit Rowell, “Private Fables/Collective Histories: The Art of Robert Therrien,” in Robert Therrien, exh. cat. (New York: Gagosian, 2008), p. 33.
7Therrien, in conversation with the author, November 7, 2018.
Artwork © Robert Therrien/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York