Charles Ray (75BFA) was walking through the UI physics and astronomy department one day when he came across an inspiring scene. Ray, an art student whose curiosity extended far beyond the studio, hoped to hitch a ride out to the observatory for some evening stargazing. Instead, he found a group of students constructing a satellite bound for a space mission. "It just blew my mind," recalls Ray.
Just as mind-blowing were the sculptures Ray was creating across the river, years before he would establish himself as one of the world's most important artists. For one physics-defying piece, he fashioned a 2,000-pound slab of concrete atop a slender tree trunk. For another, he dropped a massive wrecking ball onto a crumpled steel plate, as if Sputnik had just crashed outside the old Art Building.
"It was such a formative experience for me," the Los Angeles-based sculptor says of his time in Iowa City. "It did something to my soul and my brain. Even though I was young, the university and my mentors gave me a great deal of independence. My curiosity was endless."
A professor emeritus at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, Ray returns to campus this month to speak and receive the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Alumni Fellow award. Rather than just waxing nostalgic about his time at Iowa, Ray has organized a three-day lecture series April 16-18 with two fellow art scholars. Iowa native Graham Harman, a philosophy professor at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, will open the series by discussing his theory of aesthetics known as object-oriented ontology. On the second day, Ray will speak about the nature of sculptural objects. And Richard Neer, an art historian at the University of Chicago, will bookend the series by lecturing on the question of provenance, or art's origin. Ray will also give a separate public lecture April 17 in Art Building West titled "My Soul is an Object."
Recognized as one of the leading artists of his generation, Ray is known for his strange and enigmatic sculptures so loaded with nods to the past that they've been called "catnip for art historians." His 2014 Horse and Rider, for example, is a 10-ton solid stainless steel work in the tradition of a war memorial, but depicts the artist slouch-shouldered atop a weary nag. Ray is also famous for his wry re-imaginings of familiar objects, like the 47-foot-long replica of a red toy fire truck that he parked in front of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art for a 1993 biennial exhibition.
Ray and his studio team often spend years working on a given piece, which can fetch as much as seven figures at auction. His sculptures can be found at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other major U.S. museums. Ray is currently preparing for a retrospective show in Paris next year—one of several upcoming international exhibitions.
Isabel Barbuzza, UI associate professor of sculpture, describes Ray's work as beautiful and witty, while using scale in unexpected ways. Ray's 8-foot-tall Boy with Frog—commissioned for a prominent spot in Venice, Italy, then removed after some controversy (a version now stands outside the Getty Museum in Los Angeles)—is among Barbuzza's favorites. "His sculptures have a presence you can only see when you're in front of the work," she says. "They're very moving, and to me it's interesting what happens with scale—the viewer relates to the piece in a very profound way."
Steve McGuire (83MA, 90PhD), director of the School of Art and Art History, says few others have contributed more to contemporary art than Ray. "This is a big deal for us to be able to celebrate his career," McGuire says of presenting Ray with the alumni fellow award. "I think it's pretty meaningful to him, and of course it's really meaningful for our school."
A Chicago native, Ray arrived at Iowa as a gifted artist but hardly a model student. Ray's dyslexia made schoolwork a chore, and his parents had sent him to military school with the hopes of straightening out his academics. It was at the UI, however, where he finally found his language in the studio and, in turn, his footing in the classroom. "Through the syntax of sculpture, I could express myself intellectually for the first time," Ray says. "That gave me a kind of confidence."
Ray studied under UI art school pillars like Wallace Tomasini, Julius Schmidt, and Hans Breder. But it was his bond with Roland Brenner—a South African professor and former pupil of sculptor Anthony Caro—that proved to be the most influential. Ray still remembers his first sculpture in Brenner's class, a steel configuration with long stems and discs at the end. Its bouquet-like resemblance didn't sit well with Brenner. "That showed me you made something, but didn't want to discover something," Ray recalls Brenner telling him. "Don't ever do that in my class again." The two would become lifelong friends.
Iowa City is a different place today than the 1970s, particularly the transformation of the arts campus after the flood of 2008, Ray says. Still, his visits back to campus over the years always remind him of those crisp and clear Iowa nights at the observatory and gazing out the studio window while exploring the frontiers of sculpture. "It feels like you can see right through the galaxy when you look up," Ray says.