Don’t read this
Or understanding form, content, time and space with Sacramento conceptual artist Stephen Kaltenbach
Sacramento, CA 95814
The 10,000-square-foot Verge Gallery is filled with time capsules. Their creator, Stephen Kaltenbach, is acting as de facto docent, giving me the customary once-over of his conceptual-art canon, noting each piece, engraved with lasting phrases, and awaiting my response.
He seems to be having an OK time. Fun, even. But then Kaltenbach notices that I’ve noticed what appears to be a giant hole in the gallery’s wall.
“You can look at that if you want to,” he prods, gesturing toward the black hole on the wall, or in the wall, or of the wall. Who knows? I approach the it and, whatever it is, its blackness is deep, precise, but deceptive. Not a pixilated approximation of the concept of black, à la modern digital technology; it’s true noir.
Kaltenbach stands to the left of the blackness. Sporting a mock turtleneck, faded blue jeans and short buzzed hair, he anticipates my reaction. So I give it a stab: Aesthetically, the black hole, as it were, is indeed a conundrum. Sphere, circle, ring—no one knows without hands-on investigation, which is discouraged implicitly. The blackness’s quizzical nature is only compounded by its inherent bleakness: Look at it for too long and it’s like staring into one’s own mind. Or at death.
Melodramatic? Perhaps. But such can be the impact of conceptual art, where ideas take precedence over aesthetics. And Kaltenbach, former Sacramento State professor of 35 years and player in the late-'60s New York City art scene, is the region’s pre-eminent conceptual artist, so no doubt his work has made an indelible impact on the international art community. And me.
Nuclear Projects and Other Works, opening this week as the official inaugural show at Midtown’s Verge Gallery, is his first local show in more than a decade. And while some of the pieces in the exhibit are more than 30 years old, Kaltenbach isn’t done experimenting, discovering, having fun. As he explains: “I feel like I’ve settled in, in a way. And there may be something risky about that, too.
“I’m more adjusted.”
Kaltenbach attended UC Davis as a graduate student in the ‘60s. He broke into, and subsequently abandoned, the N.Y. conceptual-art scene and returned to Sacramento in the early ‘70s to teach. “Success, if you want to measure it in terms of other people, is probably there for anybody who gives themselves completely to it, who gives their lifetime to work in the studio, and who does their best to understand what they’re doing,” says Kaltenbach, both looking back on his career and also using words he’s often shared with his students.
Of course, Kaltenbach’s very much still an active artist. In 1979, he began a series of drawings on black velvet adhering to a specific concept: government projects that “not only can’t be done and shouldn’t be done, but were never meant to be done,” he explains. Today, 30 years later, the drawings are his Nuclear Projects series, which, like President-elect Barack Obama demanding an audit of NASA, explores the logic of the Department of Defense, or lack thereof.
On the surface, the drawings are blueprints gone awry: an idea to cover the sun in steel plates to mitigate climate change; a plan to carve the moon into a multicolored, stellated polyhedron. “It probably comes down to just having an excuse to do it two-dimensionally,” Kaltenbach muses of his affection for the geometric shapes in each piece. But then he backtracks: “Actually, there’s no excuse for it, except for the fact that I think it’s a beautiful form and wanted to do it. But think about it: If they did this and the moon looked like that, it’d be the end of romance.”
And the life on Earth, as well.
Kaltenbach’s interested at making political statements, yes, but indirectly so, noting that no official at the DOD likely would approve of detonating the U.S. nuclear arsenal on the moon. “But there’s a strange irony about the fact that they remain to be exploded here, where we live,” he reminds.
“To me, it’s more bearable to come at it obliquely.”
In addition to the drawings, Kaltenbach’s Verge exhibit also features the aforementioned time capsules, a staple of the artist’s oeuvre. Some of the capsules are small, round cylinders. Some are long, rectangular. All of them have engravings—"bury with the artist,” “worthless,” “priceless.” And all of them are welded shut.
Kaltenbach grabs one of the taller capsules, tilts it, and an object—or whatever—inside produces a loud ring. Twice. Like a church bell. Kaltenbach’s dealer in Los Angeles says that nobody will ever open the capsules. “They’re not going to wreck the art.” Sure, but the artist notes that “Maybe things will change.”
Change and giving up control are key. “It becomes a partnership. And whatever happens to them not only has to do with me, but someone else, too,” Kaltenbach says of the capsules.
And while he won’t divulge any of the capsule’s contents, he’s no vault. “There is one person who has a lot of leverage with me, and we’ve been married for closing in on 30 years. I explained one of the pieces to her. She never asked me again, so maybe she thought, ‘Well that’s not very interesting,'” Kaltenbach says.
Either way, don’t try to bait him. “Well, that’s pretty sharp,” he jokes at one thinly veiled attempt, rejecting the lure. Later on, however, Kaltenbach slyly reveals the texture of “Object for Investigation,” a sculpture work, but before doing so asks that I turn off my digital recorder.
I oblige, unsure whether he’s altogether serious. Maybe Kaltenbach prefers that the only lasting notion of his work be interpretation—reaction—and not confession or explanation? Like vast nuclear arsenals hidden undetonated in remote locales across the globe, he seems to want his art simply to remain.
Or maybe he’s still just having fun?