Beverly Buchanan: Sculpture as Archive

Radical Archives Conference at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University
April 11-12, 2014
Co-written public presentation with Park McArthur

Beverly Buchanan: Sculpture as Archive


In her 1973 book Overlay, Lucy Lippard presents prehistory as fundamentally unknowable: subject to speculation, mystery, and myth. All that remains from this era are the “primal forms” of stones left in circles, in mounds, in spirals, and spanning axes—their ragged structures relaying a “social message from the past to the present about the meaning and function of art.” Lippard believes that such archaeological sculptures evidence a moment when art wasn’t separated from its social contexts. Meeting such objects, she describes her internal thought process as follows: “One stops and asks oneself: Who made this? When? Why? What does it have to do with me? One of art’s functions is to recall that which is absent—whether it is history, or the unconscious, or form, or social justice.”

This presentation is a temporal chronicling of our encounter with Beverly Buchanan’s sculptures, “prehistoric” minimalist forms made during the late 70s and early 80s, over the course of this past year. It is a moment of public visibility in an ongoing process: a place to share the arc and nature of our research by presenting questions we have asked ourselves as well as those that remain unresolved. Accompanying our discussion is a slideshow of images drawn from both personal and institutional archives. This visual chronicling of the contours of photographs, sculptures, notebooks, drawings, and life decisions that compose Buchanan's actions and oeuvre frames our research.

A manila folder inside the Whitney Museum's relocated library on Manhattan’s 26th street marked our first experience with Buchanan’s work. Photographs, taken in her studio and sent to her then-gallerist Jock Truman, reveal a sculptural language of cast “fragments” (or “frustula”) meant to evoke the remains of urban structures after their destruction. Exploring these enigmatic photographs further, we found descriptions of large-scale installations constructed via similar methodologies and located throughout the American Southeast: sculptures that evoke the “prehistoric” (i.e. non-written, non-specialist, unknowable) narratives of African experience in America. These histories survive as unmarked gravestones and crumbling homesteads scattered amidst rural terrains, just as current histories of marginalization and disenfranchisement survive in post-industrial urban landscapes. Our ongoing project explores such sculptures (both studio-specific and environmental) as geographical archive: an art historical framing that takes up Lippard’s early politicization of Land Art as a generative platform from which to consider the social and aesthetic propositions of Buchanan’s work from these years.

Read more about the conference here.