It has been close to a decade since Santa Fe-based artist Ted Larsen moved from painting landscapes, barns, and houses, in series, to making minimalist sculpture. But, in the transition, he has not abandoned some of the formal concerns he explored on canvas: how color affects the subject, for instance, and how the subject may affect color. “When I was painting, I might find a place in the landscape, an element that could be primarily described, that sort of transcended the particular and became more universal,” Larsen told Pasatiempo at his studio on Lena Street. “The way that I approached the subject matter, serially, I would keep the composition the same, often, but I would change the color. When I painted barns and things like that, I would change the palette of each painting — an all-red painting, an all-yellow painting, an all-blue painting — and the barn would always be the same compositional form on the picture plane. Changing the palette allowed me to look at the relationships between color and form. I wasn’t particularly interested in landscapes or barns or anything like that. I was interested in them being a vehicle to paint on. I did that for like 15 years.” Larsen is represented in New Mexico by Nüart Gallery.
When tragedy struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Larsen, dissatisfied with his painting practice, reevaluated the direction of his work. That morning, he headed to Downtown Subscription on the way to his studio. Other than staff, no one was there. “Then a friend, Brian Knox, ran in, and he said to me — a totally non sequitur thing — he said, ‘Well, my kids are OK.’ I thought, ‘Well, good. Why wouldn’t they be?’ because I had no idea what was going on. He knew, and he told me. I jumped in my car and drove to my wife’s business, and that’s when the first building fell. We were thinking there may be 10,000 people per building, or something like that. I thought, ‘I just watched 10,000 people die.’ I viewed it through a TV, which is a certain simulacrum. For me, the combination of being restless with painting and watching this simulated thing happen, which was real at the same time, and this sort of conflict within it all, I realized I could no longer keep doing what I was doing. To be truthful to myself, I needed to abandon what I was doing.”
His sculpture practice involves cutting and arranging — in the manner of bricolage — prepainted, salvaged steel. Working primarily in a small scale, Larsen takes laminated sheets of Baltic birch and uses them as the substructure for the painted metal, which covers the overall form like a skin. Although the prepainted surface retains scratches and weathering, hints of its previous life, before employment in the service of art, are subtle. “I certainly hope that, materially, you don’t look at this and see it as something other than a prepainted surface. I don’t want you to recognize the origins of it.”
Larsen made his earliest explorations into salvage metal when he was a child in South Haven, Michigan. He was attracted to the heap of discarded tools, tractor parts, and other equipment stacked between his father’s orchid greenhouse and the family house. “Not far away was a small airport, and I used to run over there and look at the crop dusters and play inside the old abandoned airplanes. I’ve always had an interest in that kind of material, but I’m not making work that’s didactic. I’m not saying ‘recycle.’ I don’t think of it as salvage. I think of it as something that has a history — in the same way philosophy from the turn of the century might be a little outdated but still relevant.”
Larsen’s recent series Painting Now From Then seems to directly reference his interest in the materials of the universal past as well as his personal past as a painter. These mixed-media, abstract pieces, meant to hang on a wall, are flush or parallel with the surface of the wall, much like a painting, but their earthy hues — which are arranged sometimes in grids, sometimes as horizontal bars, and sometimes in more haphazard-looking patterns — are composed, one could decide, as explorations of color theory in three dimensions rather than in the usual two.
Much of his more recent work references a sort of modernist aesthetic, recalling the truncated shapes of Constructivism and the interplay of rounded and angular forms and fragmentation seen in Futurist works. Larsen names Cézanne among his creative antecedents as well as the Russian Suprematists of the early 20th century, who were interested in compositions made using fundamental geometric shapes. “Moving forward, midcentury modernism was huge. I have a relationship to that midcentury-modernist aesthetic. I’m trying to be involved with that and, at the same time, move past it — to understand some of the inherent qualities of that period and add something to it, deny something from it, or subvert something.”
Larsen’s most recent body of work involves a juxtaposition of two disparate forms, one black and one white, brought together into a single composition. While some older pieces appear more cobbled and mechanical, riveted together into jointed sculpture, the new ones are more pristine, more precisely built. “These pieces are more about shape relationships — these two formal elements combined that create tension.”
Like those in Larsen’s series Painting Now From Then, his newest works also hang on the wall. But these later pieces were created in two basic arrangements, either hanging flush or jutting out at angles from the surface of a flat plane. One describes a space that is pictorial, while the other is more overtly sculptural. “It’s a perceptual issue. What I’m really interested in is the mechanics of seeing and pattern recognition. When we get old enough, we see shapes and letters, but we don’t actually read them — we recognize them. The symbols have meaning to us, but they’re just shapes in themselves that we give meaning to. I also think of my work in terms of pure formalism: this shape plus that shape. Compositionally, it generally goes in a more reductive direction, but it doesn’t always seem apparent that way visually.” ◀