Daniel Brush on Making Some of the Most Extraordinary and Exquisite Objects on Earth
Daniel Brush’s acute eye for detail, as well as the rigor and vigor he brings to his craft, comes through loud and clear in all of his creations. A poet of materiality, he is at once a metalworker, a jewelry-maker, a philosopher, an engineer, a blacksmith, a painter, and a sculptor. The late Dr. Oliver Sacks, a friend of Brush’s, once said that Brush’s work is “the result of years of incubation, years of isolation and complete immersion, which have produced his unique and mysterious objects—they are made objects, and yet they seem found.” Sacks was not exaggerating when he said years. Brush’s oeuvre—on full display in the new Rizzoli book Daniel Brush: Jewels Sculpture—is the accumulation of four-plus decades of steadfast, heads-down, solitary work in his Manhattan studio, alongside his wife and accomplice, Olivia, allowing for only select visits from his closest friends and certain patrons, scholars, and students.
Brush’s imagination has always run wild—from his beginnings as a concert pianist in his youth, through his early years as a painter, to now, he has always demonstrated a rare intensity. For those who have laid eyes on his intricate cuffs, brooches, necklaces, and other pieces, it may be somewhat surprising to hear that it wasn’t until making a wedding ring for Olivia, in 1967, whom he had known for just three days before marrying, that he became interested in jewelry-making. Now, his work—colored by influences from a life of painting and drawing as well as his astute interests in Japanese Noh theater and Asian art—centers around jewels and objects made from a vast assortment of materials, including Afghan lapis lazuli, aluminum, amethyst, gold, Madagascar sapphire, malachite, steel, tektite, topaz, and tourmaline.
Brush, not surprisingly, also has a deep appreciation for history and collecting. His own made objects, as well as a large library of books and found objects, are stowed or situated around his home and studio, serving, for him, as a record of passing time. Given that his pieces are not traded on the market and rarely available to acquire, Brush’s work decidedly has, as he puts it, “no value.” Instead, he suggests that the value he derives from his work comes from the connections he has developed with patrons and peers who show respect for the complexity of it all. For Brush, it is the most minute connection—the tiniest detail—that so often reveals the largest truth.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Brush’s use of language and storytelling approaches the poetic. He and Spencer Bailey talk about memory (and interpretations of memory); his deep, monkish engagement with a wide variety of materials; and some of his most valuable tools—breathing, language, and light.
Bailey and Brush talk about crafting language, whether written, verbal, or—as in the case with the immaculate objects and jewelry pieces Brush makes—physical.
Brush recalls his student years and his early career as a lecturer at Georgetown University—effectively, for him, an incubation period for ideas that he would go on to explore and shape in the decades to come.
Brush elaborates on why he thinks his work has “no value” and discusses the immense beauty, or “ethereal delicacy,” of his creations, which can require thousands of hours of labor.
Brush discusses one of his most prized possessions, a Yamabushi Japanese theater mask his mother gave him as a young boy, and explains his path to becoming a painter and, later, a jewelry-maker.
Brush explains his fascination with Monet’s “Water Lilies” series and shares how his painting proclivities later evolved into his making impeccable, ethereal jewelry and objects that respond to light in a magical way.
SPENCER BAILEY: Today in the studio we have Daniel Brush. He is, I think, first and foremost, a poet. If we’re going to do labels, you could label him a goldsmith, a jeweler, a metalworker, an artist, a sculptor, a philosopher, a scholar, an engineer. One thing we would not call him is a jewelry designer.
SB: You’re known for your craftsmanship, which really goes beyond categorization.
I think that one of the things that’s so special about what you do, and where I wanted to start this interview, is the subject of language. A lot of what you’re doing—and you’ve described this before—is finding some way of speaking, finding the language of something. You’re doing it through the medium of gold, of steel, and these different materials that you work with. We’ll, of course, talk about those.
I found a very interesting connection in researching this—this is may be an unexpected one. Ten years ago, in 2009, I took a writing class at the Center for Fiction here in New York with a man named Gordon Lish. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Gordon. He’s a famous fiction editor who worked with Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Barry Hannah… The class was about how language can be manipulated to produce maximum effects. That was, sort of, in essence, what it was about. He sought to show students the way toward being in charge of language rather than the other way around.
During the workshop, if he didn’t like a sentence, he’d interrupt and say something like, “It doesn’t tell me anything about the human truth.” It could often feel like torture to sit through his classes, which could run five hours or more, starting at around 5 p.m. and sometimes going until midnight. What he was doing, I think, was really instructive. It was about the value of time, of sitting with your thoughts, pushing them this way and that, thinking things through. He wanted us, his students, to get clarity, even if it was a painful, grueling process.
I bring all this up because I’m thinking about having spent about eight hours, ten hours, researching you and realizing, here’s a man—you—who speaks in these really powerful ways through your media. How do you think about language? How do you find clarity? How do you search for these things that I just talked about?
DANIEL BRUSH: It kind of boiled over for me when I was like 8 or 10 years old, because I was obsessed with being the fastest typist in the world. I was really good at it. What was the sentence? “Bring all good men to the aid of your country?” I was up to like 125, 130 words a minute. Impeccable snap to the key and the impression on the paper. And what had dawned on me was, I had absolutely nothing to say, but I was very good at typing. From that minute until now, I type and write with one hand behind my back, because I want to make sure that I at least try to say something, instead of saying something with just—or not saying anything, but just displaying virtuosity and craft.
From that time forward, I struggled. Less so when I was a teenager because, like everybody else, I got wrapped up in high school and sports and all these kinds of things. But when I was in school, in college, in university, I didn’t want to be good at anything. I wanted to hopefully have a little bit to say. I tried to avoid all those things that were on the surface of things, learning how to paint with oil paint, and making sure my knives were sharp for the wood cuts.
I wanted to somehow have the brutality of struggle. Maybe that was fashionable then. I didn’t see anybody around me doing that. I was kind of lonely until I met Olivia.
SB: Your wife.
DB: Yeah. We’ve been married—we’ve been together—we’ve been thinking about all of this for fifty-two years and sharing a studio.
SB: I’ve seen her described as your “one-woman support system.”
DB: All the work I’ve done in all the years is her work. That’s what it is. Every breath is with her breath too. As time went on, like what you’re describing in your writing class, the words and the breathing, it was very important to me, the more I deleted everything in front of me and only found those things that were comforting. If I could stand in front of a Barnett Newman painting and be captured. If I could stand in front of just the simplest most beautiful mark in a Japanese garden. I was aware of the presence of the maker.
I was thinking about that on the way over here. In 1972, I saw clips from [Samuel] Beckett’s play—ultimately for Billie Whitelaw. She never performed it. It was Not I, generally called the “play for the mass darkened theater.” I dreamed about it for years, thinking that he was up in the audience or alone in the theater way up some place, listening to this extraordinary pouring-out of words. She missed one word. She missed the word, and he went “Ah.” Then, he went, “Oh-ho.”
When I was young—that was like forty-some years ago, forty-five years ago—it just hit me so hard that those words… How could I find the intensity that he was feeling? I felt, gee, being an artist? God, dream about being a writer and a poet, move to New York, find a voice, delete eccentricity, delete egocentrism. How do you find that truth appearing? It really hit me hard. For all these years, I keep hearing it. It gives me companionship.
My mother gave me a present, when I was still in university, David Smith by David Smith—this wonderful book he was writing in, and you could see his pictures. I could see his eyes in one of those photographs. I thought, How the heck did he get like that? Did he eat the right broccoli? What is that? I mean, was it, like, he liked driving his big flatbed truck with the steel, like being a tough guy? There’s something deeper than that. He wanted to say, “Here I am.”
I look for that. Maybe that’s what your professor was trying to get at in the class. How do you get the words so clear that the reader’s holding your hand when reading it—knows that you’re there? Wasn’t in any way decorated with adjectives and punctuation—it was just that one breath.
I’ve had the great fortune to know this woman for, it seems like now, it must be over sixty years, from Holland. She introduced us, embraced us into her family. Her father was the chief justice of the Court of Human Rights in The Hague. I remember, when I was really young, I [rolled out] some drawings to show him. He made this joke about it, it’s this kind of Dutch noise. [Gasps] You know that noise. I love that noise. It’s like this breathless, full, emotional noise. In Yiddish, there’s this word verklempt. It translates into: there’s so much emotion you’re choking because you can’t speak.
I felt that when I looked at certain things, I felt it. When I was growing up, it’s like all these things hit me. I think about it a lot now. As I’m older, I keep thinking about all these things that were so important. Every once in a while, people would come to my parents’ house for dinner. It wasn’t these lavish dinner parties. It was [simply] dinner. This one woman—I never knew her name. Her name was Rabbi Seligman’s wife, but I didn’t know what her name was. I never thought about it until recently. I must have been like, I don’t know, 6, 7, 8 years old. Modest, beautiful, fair complexion, didn’t speak much, really. I’ll never forget that on her left arm there were these blue numbers. My parents were gone. I didn’t have relatives to ask. She was gone, but of course, as you get older and you read and you study and you think, you find out what this is all about. Even to this day, I think that she had this ferocious intensity because of what she saw [in the Holocaust]. She was ethereal and translucent. I long for that purity. I really long for that. I must sound like I’m rambling. [Laughs]
SB: I think what’s beautiful about the way you speak is that it’s not just in sentences. You’re telling stories that amount to chapters.
DB: Olivia and I, we live very remotely. We’re working all the time. We’re in the studio. Olivia is more of a Nanook of the North than me—it’s like get up, look for food, build an igloo, go to sleep. I’m sort of sweeping the floor and wondering and worrying and wandering around. Time is very strange. I was very preoccupied with it for a while, and then I got rid of it. Now, I’m more preoccupied with it.
You look down and it’s like, you’re 20 years old and there’s a couple piles on the floor. Then, it’s like 30 years old and a few rolls of canvas on the floor. I never showed them to anybody, and then I was like 45 years old, and I was like, “Oh, my god. I’ve got to move the bed over there because there’s more stuff.” Then, at like 50 years old, it’s like, “Gee. I gotta take over our son’s room because I don’t have enough places to put some of this stuff. It was kind of a record of all the time, all the work, all the thinking about it, for no purpose.
Somebody came into the studio not long ago, a businessman. He wasn’t really invited for any purpose. He kind of showed up with his wife. He looked around and says, “What is all this? What is this stuff?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He says, “Is this your inventory?” I didn’t really know what he was talking about. [Laughs]
DB: Yeah. I know, it’s just so funny. I said, “What are you talking about?” He says, “You’ve got rolls of canvases, and paintings, and metal, and this, and that.” I said, “No, no, no. It’s a diary. It’s a journal. It’s a record of time. It’s the way I think.” He said, “We have to monetize this.” I said, “What are you talking about? I mean, it has nothing to do with anything. It has to do with confusion and spirals of confusion, and trying to get a grip so that I can maybe one day say, ‘Here I am.’” That would be an ultimate statement. “Here I am,” on a sculpture, on a drawing.
SB: I think it’s interesting: in 1997, there was one of the first major pieces of press you got. It was a cover story that Departures magazine did.
SB: You said, “I’m not concerned with money. I’m concerned with clarity.”
SB: I think the same is very true still today.
DB: I just can’t worry about it. I entertain young artists in every discipline to the studio, if their eyes say they need to come. Invariably, the people say, I can see it in their eyes, like, How did you do this? How did you get to this place? What’d you have to do?
The stories are really maybe a simple one or an odd one. When I graduated and had my master’s from university, like everybody else, I could work at Cart and Crate in Los Angeles or drive a taxi. I wrote to 120-some schools for a job. I actually got one—I couldn’t get over it.
SB: What was the job?
DB: I was hired as a lecturer in the department of fine arts at Georgetown University. So we moved across the country in a red VW van with purple curtains. [Laughs] Yeah, that’s how it was at the time. It was just really great. I miss the Volkswagen. I enjoyed it immensely because I was given the old library at Georgetown University. Three floors, the old building, spiral staircases. From the start, teaching drawing and painting and all that, I finally went to the academic dean and I said, “You think I could maybe do what I really wanted to do?” I wanted to teach a class of confusion. I wanted to teach a class of my own construct. It was entitled “The Relationship of Structure to Meaning.” He said, “Sure.” I loved it. I absolutely loved it.
My students were so hungry. I’ll give you an example of a couple things. I never gave tests. It was more of… Ask questions. I remember one of the first problems to think about. I still think about it even now. I wanted them to think about a two-dimensional shape that they could stand on for the rest of their lifetime and never leave. I gave them about a month to kind of grapple with this.
It was really extraordinary to watch 17-, 18-year-old people. At that time, I was like, I can’t remember, like, 25 years old teaching. To argue about it, wonder about it, place it in relationship to other ones for companionship and boundary… It was really an incredible sociological exercise. There was never, of course, complaint.
There was another class—I was very fortunate when I was in university at Carnegie Institute of Technology, which became Carnegie Mellon University. I had a wonderful teacher. He was one of the great thinkers.
SB: Arnold Bank?
DB: I had Arnold Bank, actually. He was this wild man, a font designer and a great calligrapher. If you are in his favor, Arnold and his wife, would invite you to their Friday evening soiree, to talk about everything. He was wonderful. I really loved Arnold.
I was thinking about Robert Lepper. Robert Lepper was the person that ultimately came up with: Well, you’ve got this frozen food. How do you get it from the freezer to the oven? You gotta to wait. You gotta to defrost. He came up with Pyrex Corning Ware. [Editor’s note: Lepper was indeed a professor at the Carnegie Institute at that time; the professor there who had previously worked on Corning Ware as the director of design at the Corning Glass Company, though, was Lee Goldman.]
I thought, Wow, that was so cool. Somehow morphing from all his thinking, I gave my students a class, like, why can’t you drink blue for breakfast? Everybody really couldn’t grapple with it. It wasn’t so basic as, like, well, your blueberries and all this. I’m thinking more in terms of ingesting blue in all that reference for blue around you and pigment and color and refracted light and all this kind of stuff. You rarely see blue food. The class was really quite great.
I was a tenured teacher in the university. I don’t know what the proper word is. I gave back tenure and left. [Laughs]
SB: That was in 1978?
DB: Yeah. Olivia and I went to this modern dance performance. There was this extraordinary dancer. I asked her if she would perhaps mind if I constructed a piece for her to do. I did this all over the phone. I never actually saw her so that she could actually see me. I did it all over the phone.
I said I would like her to come to my class, and I had it all laid out. I would like her to walk a hundred feet in a straight line in my classroom but take three hours to do the hundred feet. At the end of the hundred feet, I’d like her to turn very slowly, almost on attenuated way, and the turn would take an hour. I would like her to walk back out of the room, the hundred feet, for another three hours, so it was like a seven-hour performance.
SB: Sounds like Marina Abramović.
DB: Yeah, it does. It just took me out—I couldn’t breathe. Students dropped like flies. [Laughs] The dancer, she was just life-exhausted. What I was looking for was somehow, if all of that could come together and just, the moment. Or is it a folktale that loses because of degeneration of retelling, like, that day, that moment, those people, and that was it, forever.
I like the idea of that. I like it now. I like that someone sees something I’ve done and they try to retell it. They can’t retell it. It’s an interesting idea. In every way, of course, it’s a performance. I don’t even want to separate it all.
I was in Bangkok and I remember seeing a group of young girls—they were schoolgirls. They almost floated above the sidewalk. I’ve never seen it again, the rest of my life. They were [having] fun, giggling. They weren’t grounded onto to the problems of every day. They just floated. God, I loved it. Of course, I could analyze and say, “Maybe it’s my projection to this. I’m convinced I saw them floating, totally.” It’s odd, right?
SB: Yeah. It’s something that memory does, right?
SB: Interpretations of memory—how we remember.
DB: That’s right. Yeah. It rounds back to like what we were talking about, like, the clarity of language. I’m interested in having the language disappear.
SB: So you don’t see it?
SB: It’s so wrought that it should just be there.
DB: There are many levels of understanding. You come upon something and you see it in front of you and you try to digest it, like: It’s hard and it’s white and it’s black… Then, after a while, you get to something a little below that it’s like, Wow, my god, was that really the guitar that [Jimi] Hendrix played? Then, you go a little farther below that and you start dreaming about those years in the late sixties. You forgot the surface that you looked at to begin with. I love that.
I’ve done this work. It’s hard to describe it, but hopefully, I get to have some people interact with it. For years, I was privileged to have in my hand—or I would see in these exhibitions or auction companies—a piece of jewelry. It would say something like, “Ruby-and-emerald-and-diamond bracelet worn by Marlene Dietrich.” I couldn’t get, really, what that was about. It was irritating to me to know. I really didn’t care about the bracelet. It meant nothing to me. Why wasn’t the focus shifted around?
I spent years thinking about the actresses in the thirties and forties.
DB: I’ve done this piece now and momentum kind of stopped. I don’t know why it stopped at ’69. It could have maybe gone to hundreds but it just stopped. I probably got sidetracked into thinking about something else.
SB: The [Actresses collection of] steel cuff bangles.
DB: Yeah. What it is, is, there are sixty-nine steel-and-diamond cuffs. They’re all hand-engraved and inlaid, and all that kind of stuff. Each one is engraved and chiseled with a different actress’s name. They all look virtually the same. If you’re across the room, they all look exactly the same. You’d call them ID bracelets or whatever.
With “Lucille Ball,” and “Hedy Lamarr,” and all of that. I wanted them to all look alike, so that, if you were in the position to put one on, you would say, “Yeah, Myrna Loy,“ and you would start thinking about Myrna Loy, and you’d start thinking about the movies she was in. You become Myrna Loy for all that period that you had it on. Or, you would inform your friends and your children who this person was.
You’d investigate Hedy Lamarr’s genius in electronic radio waves and realize that she was key to guidance-missile systems and, even now, Bluetooth technology. The bracelet and the jewelry and the fashion accessory was just your way into the extraordinary lives of these women. It was interesting for me. I keep thinking about, can I shift the balance a little bit so it was a history of those people, not whether I can engrave a bracelet well, or set a diamond well, or whether you’re going to look good at another court dinner party?
It was really my wandering around, never having paid enough attention to the people who were in those movies.
SB: It seems to me, one thing that’s pretty consistent throughout your work and also just your approach—not just to craft, but how you interact with the world—is dialogue.
SB: It’s this notion of building trust and intimacy.
DB: It’s true.
SB: Encouraging people to… It’s almost like a romantic approach.
DB: It is.
SB: I like this idea that you produce fewer, better things. You make very little. You don’t accept commissions, you’ve never had a dealer, you’re fiercely protective about who purchases your work—how your work is presented. It’s not really about collectors, or clients, or buyers. It’s about having people who are like shepherds, or caretakers—or protectors even.
I guess what I’m trying to get to, or the point I’m trying to have come across, is this idea that you’ve described as “compassionate awareness.” I really like this idea because it is this notion of, like, Say only what needs to be said. Listen; pay attention; slow down. [Laughs] Be present. I guess, how do you think about this notion of engagement of… Is that the value you see? Like, you were just talking about these particular pieces—is it really engagement you seek?
DB: Our son [Silla Brush, a reporter on financial regulation for Bloomberg] has an incredible academic education. He’s spent time with me trying to explain Keynesian leakage to society and economics. He, of course, covers financial instruments and things like that.
I worried about being a leakage to society, and I couldn’t find a utilitarian purpose for what I did. I think what you’re talking about is right. If someone can share the space with me and the time with me, by looking, it’s warm hand to warm hand. We’re occupying the same time and space. When I had an exhibit a few years ago, at a museum in New York, Olivia said she saw people breathing in a way that was almost breathing in the way I do the drawings. I said, “Really?”
I just thought that was an extraordinary relationship, that if this abstract recording on paper could let somebody else experience it the way I made it—that was an extraordinary thing. It had nothing to do with what’s your value in… People have asked me, “What’s your value?”
I have absolutely no value. Value is a determination of market. My pieces are not traded in the marketplace; therefore, I have no value. [Laughs] So, I sort of got beyond that. In the drawings, I’ve been doing the same drawing for over fifty years. They just look different—maybe because I’ve gotten older. The breathing is different, or the touch is different, and, short of even calling it a drawing—it’s a recording of myself, thinking. If you see in front of you, on a vertical sixty-inch piece of Arches paper—top to bottom, left to right, line by line—you’re looking at me committing, breathing, standing on the paper. Extending my thinking and extending my reach, exhaling and, hopefully, the thought passes through me.
When I was seeing that one day, in the exhibit, people were trying to breathe. I like to engage with people. I go up to people—instead of these formal lectures. I would say, “What do you think of the drawing?”
And they say, “I don’t really like it.” “Really? Why don’t you like the drawing?” ”Well, this, that, this that…” I said, “I made it.” “No, you didn’t. Really? You made the drawing?” I would talk to people about the Hamsa breath. The Hamsa breath is not a Buddhist mantra, but it was something Buddha practiced for six years, in exile. I’m a product of Western education. Somehow, I keep reading, thinking, doing, wondering about Asian thinking. I’ve never been to Japan. It’s my romance and dream of it all. The Hamsa breath is lightly and generally described as the inhalation in that moment and then the exhalation. At times, it was described as the left wing of the swan and the right wing of the swan.
If one can close their eyes and breathe in fully, and breathe in all of life, and everyone’s life, there’s that moment in the interstices that it swirls around and you want it to leave. You want to be clear and clean—and the exhalation happens. When the left wing and the right wing come together, you have the divine swan.
I find that so beautiful. I can’t get a grip on it. Somewhere in all of that, I tuck it down deep inside. Yet, as I get older, it comes up to the top again. All my studies, all my thinking, whether it be from the society of manufacturing engineers, or worrying about whether Whitworth, Evans and Holtzapffel will really figure out the right screw-thread generation in 1836 or really, does it matter whether I use this kind of aluminum or that kind of steel.
What kind of creeps up in me all the time is the perfection and the essence of this kind of ethereal delicacy. I’ve never been to Japan. Much of my study has to do with the Noh theater. I don’t remember, two or three years ago, we read that there’s going to be a Noh theater performance, at Lincoln Center, I think it was. One of the people we know was a sponsor of it. He said, “Oh no. This is going to be great. You’ll be our guest.“ I was like, “Oh, my god.“ It was very traumatic because I didn’t want to see a Noh theater performance outside of the 14th century, and that was an issue.
So here it was, it was no longer the 14th century, okay, fine. We got dressed. We went there. I was so keen on it. I was ready. I was so ready. It was like thirty-five years of reading transliterations of the Noh theater. I was prepared for the musicians to walk from left to right down the long—if you will—entranceway to the stage. After about fifteen seconds, I couldn’t bear it, because the five musicians’ feet were not elevating at the exact moment. They were out of sequence. I couldn’t bear it.
It wasn’t the perfection of the dream I’ve had. Olivia and I were just like, enough, we’re leaving, went home, had pea soup. Done.
SB: You’d rather have the imagination.
DB: I needed the dream to stay. I needed it to be when I needed it to be.
Here, I’ll tell you this one. Recently, even this morning, I was thinking about it—maybe my age or whatever. The Noh theater, as I understand it, passed down father to son, father to son. Even though now, in contemporary times, there are women performers. In the more traditional sense, in the five schools, it was father to son, father to son. There are levels of understanding, nine levels of understanding. If you started out on level three, you’d never live long enough to make it to level nine.
The family and the elders would say, “Okay, fine, you can begin this course.” The nine levels were grouped together in the 14th century by Zeami [Motokiyo]. He collected folktales and songs and music and costumes. It pulled together into this counterpoint to Kabuki, which is more flamboyant and colorful and beautiful.
The Noh theater for the most part, as I understand it, was tragic and difficult and subtle in the domain for the shogunate. If you started on level three, you’re basically, as they say, a flying squirrel that had no talent. You had to progress in your studies. Level seven, maybe you were hopefully 35, 40 years old. It was described as the “art of the flower of stillness, snow piled high in the silver bowl.” When you were maybe 50 years old, one of the characters was Zō, a female character. She was so troubled at the loss of her feathered robe that she didn’t realized that her child went missing.
At that point, you might be able to play the role of an accompanying actor. You’d come out, stand next to the one column of the six on the stage and say nothing, but the audience—skilled, studied audience—would know that you were beginning to show signs of yūgen, supreme elegance. It’s really so beautiful, I can hardly breathe when I think about this stuff.
What I’ve been thinking about recently is, level nine—scares me to think about it. Level nine, they generally describe it as the older-woman character in an old mask, sits motionless on stage next to a banyan tree. It’s an older actor wearing female robes and mask. For the first hour and a half, there is no motion, no sound, nothing. You’re supposed to feel, without question, that the actor and the character he was playing would both grow into being full-blown peonies . You could play it one time in your life because it takes fifteen years off your life.
All the work I’ve done and all the things and all the areas, and all the stuff—it leads up to not one performance, just leads to more stuff. It’s a collection. It’s a collection. I kind of determine, you’re not going to go out there to make sure you breathe the one perfect breath. It’s just this ongoing cleanliness and clarity. The same as what your teacher [Gordon Lish] said.
DB: Get rid of all that extraneous stuff. Make sure that I know that what you say is what you mean.
DB: You can go bonkers in your studio sometimes.
SB: You famously work alone. You don’t have…
DB: Olivia and me in the studio, that’s it. No assistants. It would take all the struggle away. I’m not trying to make a line of anything or a group of anything or trying to get ready for an exhibit of anything. I’m just trying to get up, make it through the day and go to sleep and try to find something. [Laughs]
There’s not enough time. I’m working all the time. I get up earlier now and stay up later, fourteen, fifteen hours a day. I keep these things in my mind. One piece breeds ten pieces or a hundred pieces, and I’m only beginning. Hokusai said, “I’m only beginning to see the figure in this last breath.”
You look at David Smith’s eyes and you wonder about those tough guys at the Cedar Bar. I wasn’t old enough to know them, these tough guys. I loved the idea of it, that they were New York and they could battle through it, alone in the studio, grapple with it. Some people couldn’t grapple well enough, and they didn’t survive. Of course I think about it—all the time.
SB: I wanted to bring up one of your most prized possessions, which is this Noh theater mask—a Yamabushi mask—that was given to you by your mother at age 13. What impact do you think that had?
DB: Oh, she was unbelievable. My mother, she was probably the toughest person I ever met in my life.
SB: She was a writer and a photographer?
DB: I didn’t really know who my mother was. My mother, she didn’t want me to know anything. She said, “If anything happens to me, go underneath the blotter in the desk.” Okay. I never did it. I was like a goodie-goodie. I never went under the blotter and, like, the day came, and like, “Oh, God, I gotta go under the blotter.” It’s like, call this guy, call that guy, call this, this, this, this. I thought, Who are these people I never heard off? Then, Olivia and I went in the attic and threw the things, and it’s like, “Who was this?” I’m seeing pictures of my mother in, like, French clothing and standing in front of a Packard…
I figured it out, like, Copacabana in New York. I said, “God.” Then, pictures in Havana and I thought, Who was this? [Laughs]
SB: I think it’s worth noting you grew up in Cleveland, Ohio.
DB: Yeah. Cleveland! This is like, “Mom, Mom, who are you?” [Laughs] I know you were tough but gee.
SB: And cultured—I mean, she took you to Europe on this trip and she took you to the Cleveland Museum of Art…
DB: She did. She wanted me to learn and study and maybe not have some of the toughness that she had growing up. I realized that she was a really tough person from Cleveland who carried a Ladysmith pistol in her purse and was flamboyant. At some point, as the story goes, because we have the pictures, she was a photographer for National Geographic. She had traveled all over the world. She wanted to be a serviceperson, like a WAVE or a WAAC in World War II, but her mother wouldn’t let her do it. My grandmother wouldn’t let her do it. She had incredible courage. She did everything she could to take me on trips. My father would stay home working in the bankrupt children’s clothing business.
SB: He ran a children’s store?
DB: Yeah. A children’s clothing store. My mom and me, and sometimes my grandmother joined. We went all over Europe and looked at the museums.
SB: It was around the time that she gave you this Noh mask that you went to the V&A Museum and saw this Etruscan gold ball dating to 700, to 650 B.C.
DB: Yeah. It was like, “What do you want to do for your bar mitzvah?” I was like, “Okay, cool. We’ll go to Europe.” It was one of those trips. It was like thirteen countries in eleven days and four hours kind of thing. She was just unbelievable. Yeah. We stood in the vault of the Victoria and Albert Museum and saw this unbelievable little gold bowl with a bazillion gold balls around it. It was a magical thing. I knew that I had to make something like that in my lifetime.
My mother gave me a Yamabushi mask that she, on one of her trips, had collected. I didn’t know anything about it. Our house was filled with endless amounts of stuff—endless—like, National Geographics propping up the sofas, cabinets of curiosities from all over the world. Nothing that I would say would be a collector’s fabulous thing. It was all the stuff from everywhere. She gave me a Yamabushi. I didn’t think about it. I was like, Great, thank you. She didn’t talk to me too much about it, and it took until I was much older to think and finally get totally obsessed with it and taken over by the Noh theater. It’s a very early Yamabushi mask, neither male nor female.
A Yamabushi would roam around the mountaintops, skin becoming red and ablaze, eyes glistening because, in their quest for enlightenment, they became mad. This is what I got for 13 years old. [Laughs] As you know—you’ve been in the studio—you’re not supposed to hang-up Noh theater masks. You’re supposed to use them in performances. When they’re not, they’re in a box and wrapped in appropriate wrappings. But I look at it. I want to look at it. It hangs in the studio, and I never dust it, ever, because the dust makes it look older.
We’ve been in the studio now for close to forty-some years, and I walk by it every day. I try not to see it. I avoid it, and it looks at me. It keeps me balanced, for sure.
SB: [Laughs] I think this connection to the East is so interesting, especially given the fact you’ve not traveled to Japan.
DB: I want to, [it’s] just so scary. It’s like I want to make sure that it’s the 14th century, and every time I see pictures it doesn’t look like that.
SB: Yeah. There’s one in your imagination.
SB: I do think it’s interesting to note, too, that the Cleveland Museum of Art has these extraordinary collections of Indian and Asian art.
DB: Sherman Lee was the great, great curator I grew up [with]. I would spend after school, Saturday, Sundays, I would go and look—dreaming about these things.
SB: It’s interesting that art could you put you in that place.
DB: The journey I had got very much infused with the way I grew up and the things I saw, and the dreams I had. I was playing a concert piano when I was 13 and also painting. I couldn’t decide to devote to one or the other. I quit playing the piano overnight from one day to the next, and I’ve never touched the piano ever again in all the years. There were these very strong decisions—or knee-jerk decisions—that happened in my life. Olivia and I got married instantaneously.
SB: Yeah, the day you met, right?
DB: Yes. We’ve been together since the day we met and married three days later. That’s the way it was.
SB: I guess, your first sort of foray into making jewelry was her wedding ring?
DB: That’s right. I didn’t think about any of that stuff and I thought, Okay, fine, I’d better. I went out and bought an ounce of gold. I didn’t know anything.
SB: You were a painter?
DB: Yeah. I started hammering away at this and I thought, Cool. [Laughs] It was like thirty-five dollars an ounce, I didn’t have to think about it that much. I borrowed the money from my father.
SB: This is in 1967?
DB: Yeah. It was like a piece of charcoal, cut a little groove for it, and it had little pellets of gold, and I melted it into this blob that would be a wire then. I remember when it was melting, it gave off this just unbelievably, incredibly gorgeous purple kind of glow. It’s so beautiful. I [haven’t worked] with gold in the last year, but for all the years, I long to see that—melting it, hallowing my own metal.
I was friends for a short period of time, in terms of life, with Dr. Oliver Sacks. Oliver would come over on Sunday morning. He would bring his “Oliver biscuits,” because he didn’t want to take food from our pantry. [Laughs] We’d go in the back studio and I’d teach Oliver how to play with gold and make things in gold. He saw the purple light, too, and he thought it was super-cool. I was trying to teach him how to do granulation and all that stuff. He and I enjoyed it like little kids, like when we were both young, kind of like, Wow, look at that, that’s like … what a glow.
I miss that, those days when he would do that. As much as I knew about making things in gold, I didn’t know anything about it. You can’t know. It’s just so strange. When I was teaching, I would go over to Dumbarton Oaks to look at the collection in the afternoon at lunch hour or after school and stand in front of those things. It finally dawned on me that I was pretty good at making this stuff and that’s what got in my way. I didn’t want to be good at it.
Then, it finally dawned on me that I could never do granulation because I wasn’t thinking like a little girl in Etruria in the 5th century B.C. It was hard for me, and I worked on it, very conscientiously, to delete everything I had ever learned about gold, anybody I’d ever met doing gold work. Olivia and I had been all over the world. I’d seen people—artists, craftsmen—everybody working with gold. I wanted to delete everything.
SB: It’s like a vacuum.
DB: Yeah. I wanted to be a little [Etruscan 5th century] girl, playing with other little girls before lunch, laughing and joking, and putting these little gold granules on something that the community might use. It was way beyond insouciance. It was, Hey, that little girl is having fun. Not thinking about being the best granulator of gold stuff in the world. When that kind of epiphanic moment hit me, I finally realized that I was going about all this the wrong way. I was going about it and not trying to get better and better, and be a virtuoso, just delete everything.
SB: Emptying your thoughts.
DB: Totally. It’s very difficult. It’s really difficult to remove everything.
SB: It’s funny, I remember, years ago I did an interview with Yoko Ono [for The One-Page Magazine in The New York Times Magazine].
SB: It was about storytelling. She was talking about how she thinks about the craft of storytelling, and it’s the same way. It’s: Take everything you ever learned or know and try to eliminate it; try to take it out of your mind. [Editor’s note: Yoko’s exact words were “It’s all inspiration. One of the reasons that I get so many incredible inspirations is because I keep my head empty without crowding it with, I don’t know, quotations of Shakespeare. I like to forget everything, just have it empty, and a lot of incredible information comes in.”] It’s breathing, too.
DB: It is. It is. You had mentioned compassionate awareness, being aware of looking at—truly looking, being embracing [of] everything. I work on this. I was talking to an elevator mechanic in our building just the other day and I just felt that he, there he was, standing there. He wasn’t terribly conscious about his not healthy physique. His hands were blackened from the oil and the grease. He had in his hand a chicken, one of these fast-food chicken fillet or kind of sandwiches—didn’t worry about washing his hands. He really knew how to judge the tension in the cables that he was finalizing on the top of the elevator cab. I was impressed with his total confidence. I’d like to have that total confidence, that absolute, Yes, I understand the seventh level of the Noh theater. I can’t say it.
Yes. I’m now totally captivated, and I can see what Monet was talking about in Rouen. I’m closer. I’m not totally confident yet.
SB: I think that’s interesting thinking back to your early days as a painter. You were really fascinated with some of these postwar artists like [Mark] Rothko.
SB: Clyfford Still.
SB: These artists who are known not just for their masculine strength but just the willingness to make one stroke the strongest stroke.
DB: That’s right. That’s right. I’ve only read about Rothko and Newman and [Jasper] Johns. I was able to meet and be in the studio of Kenneth Noland. This must have been in 1970, ’71. I met Helen Frankenthaler in the early seventies. I was young, though, and I was trying to gauge, what did they do? Who are these people? How come they were celebrated? Was a painting like “Mountains and Sea” really the one I should be thinking about? I stayed away from the galleries. I didn’t go to the 57th Street galleries. I stopped going to all of them, because I wanted to make sure that I was seeing and understanding something the right way.
Somewhere around 1980-something, I mustered up the courage—it was really hard for me—I mustered up the courage and somehow we agreed, and André Emmerich came down to the studio. I unrolled the paintings on the floor like carpets. These 12-foot-by-7-foot paintings, that generally looked like… There were a bunch of lines on that piece of canvas. There was a piece of canvas covered—looked like a rug—with lines. I’ll never forget it. André Emmerich looked at it, and then he sat down and he said something like, he had waited his lifetime to see those paintings. I thought, Jesus, God, really? Or were you too old and you were gratuitous? I don’t really know. I never saw him again after that.
It was fierce. In fact, I kept those paintings rolled up for all the years, for over thirty years, like carpets in the studio. It was the romance. Ugo Mulas’s book New York: The New Art Scene—I got it when I was very young and I saw the pictures of these painters in their studios. It was like, what did it take to be that? What do you have to do to be strong enough to withstand it?
Time passes very rapidly, it’s like thirty years later, now, almost forty years later. I still think about it. I look out of my studio, and I see the thirteen water tanks. I’m like, “I’m in New York City, and I am working.” I’m working. They got up. I get up. I’m working. It means a lot to me, and it means a lot to me that even anybody thinks about any of the time I’ve spent working. It gives you companionship.
SB: I think time is such a fascinating element of your work. You can spend a thousand hours working on one piece. You can leave a piece in your studio sitting there and return to it a year later.
DB: I worked in this one piece, whatever it is—I don’t know what the words are—series of, group of, whatever. It’s 117 drawings. It took thirteen years to make it. It’s entitled “Red Breathing: Cantos for the Women Plays”—and I’ve never shown it to anybody. I never looked at it.
Olivia kind of squirrels away stuff—she hides it so I can’t find it. She puts it under other stuff. She wants to give it a little breathing room. In 2007 or ’08, I think that’s when it was, I had the opportunity to meet Gerhard Steidl. He’s unbelievable. Gerhard is like this Willy Wonka of printing.
SB: A legend.
DB: Yeah. He’s just incredible. He said, “What are you working on?” I showed him the thing, these 117 drawings. He said, “Very hard to get a space to show all 117, but I’ll print a book on that.” Really? He flew Olivia and me over to Göttingen. He’s so bad with his own diet. He has his own chef. He takes care of the photographers and the writers. You’re eating really well for a couple of weeks. He printed the book in limited edition.
He said, “At least it’s documented.” Unbelievable. Really. Nobody has ever seen it other than the book. It’s sitting in a stack of drawings. I need the space. It’s like those great days of when Philippa de Menil was thinking all over the place with Heiner Friedrich about Dia. I was too young. I long for that kind of thing now, where, “Gee. Wow. That’s odd. Let’s find a building in Southwestern Vermont and put it in there, and I won’t say anything and people will come and they’ll look and they’ll leave.” That’s just the coolest thing of all time. It’s like, no explanation—when people create the work in their own mind.
SB: Respond to it.
DB: Yeah. It’s there—protected somehow—with the cold wind blowing. I long for that kind of thing, apart from value. It doesn’t have any value—it’s a bunch of drawings.
SB: I think there’s this notion of talismanic power. The idea of, like, a sacred object, or some way of reaching something that’s divine. In your case, through a lot of your work—you’ve of course been doing this through the hours—but through the material, through how you use the material. I actually printed out a list of all the materials that you have used. It takes up an entire page here. [Laughs]
DB: There’s a lot of cool stuff out there. It’s like, everyday, I can’t wait. Silla, my son, gets these printouts, these pamphlets from manufacturing companies and societies. It rapidly changes. I find it terribly interesting to think about new technologies. I don’t have the ability—because I’m not a manufacturer; I’m not a government contractor—to be able to use some of these fabulous things.
I somehow long and wish I could be a student at the MIT [Media Lab]. I just think that’s the coolest place in the world, where you can start using these odd and curious kinds of things. I’m still begging and borrowing to get…
In one instance, I had this friend—he’s gone now—but he lived in California. I never met him, but I had an ongoing twenty-five-year phone conversation with him. He was an engineer early on in the beginnings of NASA. He knew I was making things. He couldn’t understand what an artist was. He said, “Okay, you’re making things and we’ll lay them. What’s the tolerance using laser-sighting beams,” and all this kind of stuff. I had a good relationship with him because he knew everything I wanted to know, in terms of what are go blocks, what’s a no-go block? How do you measure screw threads and all this kind of stuff?
Over the phone, I would learn a great deal from Roy. Roy sent me once in the mail—I still have it—a small piece of steel that he polished. It was breathtaking. I looked at it with a microscope. There’s no pores. It’s just absolutely this totally extraordinary surface, flat. On the phone, he joked and he said, “They left some of my polished pieces on the moon to reflect back early laser beams.” I said, “Really?” He could take me out with his ability to do things.
As time went on early on, maybe twenty-five, thirty years ago, I was working on steel. In the mail without any warning, he’d send me a little piece of steel—meaning like one-inch diameter, a foot long. He’d send me a piece of steel. He would say, okay—
SB: There’s something with this.
DB: He said, “Try this.” I said, “Yeah, okay, Roy, I’ll try that.” I’d go in the studio and try to hammer away at this kind of thing or machine it in some way. It was so beautiful, unbelievable stuff. I call him up, I said, “This is the greatest stuff, I’ve ever seen. It’s not like what I can get in the foundries and the mills.” He would joke, he had this funny laugh about himself. He said, “Of course, you can’t get it, it’s government contract. You can’t have this, this is a cutoff!” [Laughs]
I was like, “What are you talking about, Roy?” I was fortunate to have met some of these people. I like early machinery and I started collecting ornamental turning equipment.
SB: You have a large collection of lathes.
DB: Yeah. It was the kind of thing like, if you’re going to be the French king, you better to be able to have one of these things. I was fortunate to get guilloche machines and straight-line engines, because they’re so beautiful. Every once in a while, the engineer types that had some of these things or loved it or whatever, I had run across them.
SB: I wanted to wrap up our conversation about the subject of light, because light is something we haven’t really touched on yet, and it’s so central to your work. Obviously, it’s like, let’s call it, energy or life force. It’s a vehicle for making the work you do even larger than it is, in some ways.
DB: It’s on my mind now because there’s an upcoming exhibit, which I, kind of, roundabout talked to you about. I was making a lot of gold work and granulated and all this kind of stuff. It looked pretty good. It holds its weight pretty well at the V&A. Olivia and I were in Florence. She said, “My God, the whole city is just glowing.“ It was. It was about 5. It had this incredible religious glow to it. We kept looking and looking—where does it come from? Of course, the sun was setting, and it was reflecting off the Duomo, the gold dome.
Absolutely, at that moment, I knew that everything I had done so far, it was good, it was like okay, fine—I hadn’t [truly] made anything yet. It was like, I had to somehow understand the light, and how gold could be instrumental in that. Could I paint with light? Can I embrace it? From that day forward, all the gold that I had used, and all the steel and all the aluminum has to do with a very active participation of how light can change everything, visually.
What I’ve been working on—an upcoming exhibit—happened because, years ago, I joined a collector, he said, “Look, you have to come with me, we’re going to go to this fancy gallery uptown. Put on your fancy clothes. I’m going to go try to buy a Monet painting.” I go, “Oh, my God.” [Laughs] He got me a limousine. We went up there, and there’s the painting hanging on the wall. Really, I hated it. I never really like Monet paintings at all. It’s like, great, so there’s the Monet painting. It just didn’t do it for me. The dealer showed the collector the same painting on a transparency, a big 8-by-10 transparency. And it was gorgeous. The light came through it. After I saw it, Olivia and I went to Giverny, we went to Rouen. We went everywhere [Monet had gone].
We lived Monet everywhere. I wanted to see what the hell he was looking at. It was the light, how it transformed these incredible colors. Up until three years ago, I thought I was really seeing stuff. An eye exam said that, no, no, you have cataracts, you don’t see anything. It’s all clouded and brown. I said, “Really?” Within two weeks, I had both eyes done. It’s like new lenses and all of a sudden, it’s like, my god, look at that colors! Look at those colors. [Laughs]
DB: The upcoming exhibit, which I guess I’ve been thinking about it and working on it for over twenty years, is thinking about Monet capturing the light. It’s about work I’ve been doing with aluminum and steel and gold, where there is no applied color, whatsoever. It is through the engraving and placement on the wall—they act almost as diffraction line gradings, giving back to the viewer purples and blues and colors that are not pigment colors. They’re intense light colors.
I remember—before he passed—I showed one to Oliver. he said, “God, I’ve never seen a pink like that.” I said, “Really?” I said, “Let’s go get the science prism from physics class.” He said, “No, no, no, I never saw that pink before.” That creeped me out. I thought that was beautiful, really. It’s like, what’s going on here with the pink? Reflective pink or refracted pink. That’s what I’ve been working on almost every day now.
SB: It’s so interesting you mentioned Monet in relation to light, because for me, one of the most, let’s call it, religious or divine experiences I’ve ever had was in a museum in Japan, the Chichu Art Museum, in Naoshima. They have a room there [of] Monet’s “Water Lilies” [series of] paintings. The way that the light comes down on to them. The way that they’re presented—it’s like a room to die in or something. [Laughs]
DB: Yeah. I know what you’re talking about. It’s like what you were saying, the sacred moment. Olivia and I stood in the two artillery sheds in Marfa for Donald Judd. I always confuse museum Jeu De Paume, where the lilies are. Of course, in the Rothko Chapel, I always wanted to see it when he had the studio up in the eighties, as opposed to there. The sacred moment, where the light comes in and you see this abstraction that’s so clear, you balance your life by it.
SB: You feel calmer.
DB: You do. You find equanimity of spirit. You’re sharing it not just with yourself. You’re sharing it with a very long thread of humanity. That’s important to me. I like that. I like the idea that if someone can stand in front of artwork, they either pee in their pants or they smile from ear to ear or they shake uncontrollably. It’s a big emotion. If it really transfers, I’d love that.
I have felt it myself, standing in front of a Newman painting, “Stations of the Cross.” I have felt it. I’ve stood next to people who don’t feel it and wonder why. Do you have to have the right receptor? Do you have to be totally open, and delete everything you learned in university? What do you need to have?
Morihiro Ogawa placed in my hands the most important Japanese sword in North America. He said, “Could you see the clouds parting in the steel?” I was shaking. It wasn’t shaking because of the history of Masamune. It wasn’t shaking because of the beauty of the steel. It was shaking because of the threat of humanity that passed through it. Or, I was ready. I was ready with a play. I cherish that moment. It was a sacred moment to me.
I work every day just to make sure that I’m trying to find a voice. That’s all I have so, as my son says, I don’t leak out to society. That’s good, right? [Laughs]
SB: At the end of the day, I guess, is that your hope with the work you do—that you transfer some of this kind of energy to people?
DB: All I can ever hope for is that somebody would recognize or feel that I am on that work with all my heart, and nothing beyond it. That’s all I hope for. If they walk away, fine. I remember, I think it was my mother… I can’t remember who told me this. I’m trying to look through all my notes about it.
You could never tell, as the story goes, the romance of it. The man walks through the village, some people would throw stones at the man, some people would just jump up and down wildly laughing at the man. Other people would change their life because of the man. I love the story. Any of those kinds of things are so powerful.
If you say it—my God, you’re an artist. It’s hard to say. People say, “What do you do?” It’s like, “I’m an artist.” You don’t want to be totally snarky and awful and say, “Well, I’m an epistemologist.” That’s like, you want to throw up. If, somehow, for lack of any other file-cabinet designation, I say, “I’m an artist, I’m an artist,” it’s serious business in my mind.
It’s serious. I’m 72 now. It’s very serious. I get up and I treat it like, I’m going to work. I’m not going to waste time, and I’m going to try to do my best.
SB: Your heart’s on the line.
DB: It is. If I get the chance to show something or share something, let the viewer make it themselves, with their eyes and their heart. My signature on it doesn’t mean anything to me. If there’s some sort of great dialogue that happens, how cool is that? Gee, to just be able to speak to somebody else, to really get a little deeper than the surface. That’s a big deal. You have companionship then. If it lasts a little longer than yourself, wow, what a responsibility. [Laughs] Yeah.
SB: Daniel, this is great. Thank you so much for coming in today.
DB: Yeah. Hope I didn’t talk too much.
SB: [Laughs] That’s part of the chapters [I mentioned earlier].
DB: Yeah, it’s another chapter. that’s what it is. Here, I’ll tell you, I’m working on another thing now. I’ve been thinking about this for over twenty-five years. I have a collection of sixteen photographs of women done in Japan in the 1850s, very small photographs. I’ve been looking at them for all these years.
Of course, I’ve been doing these drawings. I wanted to have an exhibit with not too much explanation called “Intermediate Expression,” sixteen photos and sixteen drawings, and that’s it. Yeah. If somebody sees it and explains it a little bit, I’d be very open to that. [Laughs]
SB: [Laughs] Thanks, Daniel, this is great.
DB: There you have it.
SB: Enjoyed having you today.
DB: Cool. Thank you.
DB: Thanks for inviting me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Oct. 1, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.