The best part of making sculptures is just before you finish. It’s the final few days when all the pieces come together and you’re about to see what you’ve made. One day last fall, after five months of drawing, calculating, welding, grinding, machining, assembling tens of thousands of parts, weaving over a thousand strings through thousands of pulleys, tying endless knots, we were one afternoon away from finishing. It was in October, and it happened to coincide with the first big rainstorm of the season. We had the rollup door open and could see the rain on the pavement. It was a little dark from the storm and we were working silently when the power went out. Since we didn’t need power for what we were doing, we kept on working, leveling the wave just so, tying the last knot, until the very last piece was in place and there was nothing left to do but turn on the sculpture. But the power was still out. So I got on a ladder and took off the chains connecting the mechanism to the motors and turned the drive sprockets by hand. Smoothly the sculpture came to life. Turned by hand, to the sound of the rain, under darkened light, among friends who had worked alongside me for months, I can’t imagine a better way to bring a sculpture into the world.
But that’s jumping ahead! Where did it begin? In the Spring of 2016 I was working away in the shop when the phone rang. Someone named Jeff Keswin introduced himself, and before I knew it we were in the middle of a conversation about intellect and emotion, poetry and existence. Out of the blue he mentioned that he liked the number 33. This made me laugh because the sculpture I was currently working on had 132 strings, or 33 times 4, and so I was deep into the number 33 myself. A seed had been planted. It turned out that Jeff was building out new offices for his company Lyrical Partners in midtown New York and there might be a place for a kinetic sculpture. The one I was currently working on didn’t physically fit, but he invited me to New York to look at the raw space.
The new offices are on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. Having spent limited time in skyscrapers I was stunned by the view. One of the first things I realized was that if the lower part of the sculpture could swim up and down in front of a window, from waist level to overhead, that would provide the most drama, as well as the most flexibility to the reception area. Since the offices hadn’t been built out yet, there was the opportunity to create a custom cove in the drop ceiling to house the sculpture mechanics. I liked this because when you first walked into the space you’d only see the lower part of the wave, and the mechanics would only become visible as you approached.
In the midst of all the excitement it occurred to me that if I built a version of the square wave but with a matrix of 33×33 it would have 1089 strings, making it my most fluid sculpture to date. It wasn’t till Jeff said that sounded good and I dove deeper into the design, that I discovered it would take over 70,000 individual parts to make this one fluid movement!
Contours contains three electric motors. Two of them turn the pair of aluminum helices that drive the wave movement, while the third controls the overall height of the wave. Being analogue rather then digital, the sculpture adds movement by means of 6534 pulleys. I also learned quite a bit about washers – after all the sculpture contains 28,946 of them! The wave itself is made from machined stainless steel ball-end links and custom Delrin sockets. The string is Spectra, a polyethylene braid.
Needless to say I got lots of help and have lots of people to thank! First thanks to Jeff Keswin whose energy made me want to make the best sculpture I could. Everyone I worked with at Lyrical, specifically Craig Lifschutz, Jill Brown and Jen Blitshtein, made this entire project go remarkably smoothly and I can’t imagine better partners in this sort of adventure.
A friend since college, Dan Torop helped immensely by making a beautiful proposal animation early on, as well as helping with the installation. I also feel extremely lucky to have friends like Ian Urban, Scott Cole, and Richard Vertz who spent months working with me in my shop in California. They fearlessly, and with humor, tackled any challenge, even when it involved an absurdly large number of parts. Ian singlehandedly did all the welding and also came to New York to help with the install.
I had the pleasure of working with Rob Otani, Dan Reynolds and Justin Nardone from Thornton Tomasetti on the structural engineering of the steel sculpture frame. And with Michael Prados on the mechanical engineering of the helices. And thanks to Greg Stevens for electrical consultation. You guys are awesome!
While machining lots of parts myself, I also relied on some fantastic local machine shops and other professional services. In particular huge thanks to Production Robotics, Edward Koehn Precision, Applied Fusion, Advanced Laser and Water Jet, Metalco, and Melrose Metal Finishing. You all really do beautiful work.
And lastly, thanks to Phil Ward the architect from A+I and William Murphy and Max Brocato from the general contractors Structure Tone, for sorting out the cove, electrical, structural mounting points, and generally ensuring a seamless integration of building and sculpture.
Let’s do it again!