Updated: 5 days ago
On looms, lamps, and Lukács.
By Sam Needleman
Ohad Meromi is as whimsically disheveled as you’d expect a Brooklyn sculptor to be. Hunched over coffee on a recent morning in a Clinton Hill courtyard, he looked like a mixed-media assemblage: button-down, sweater, beard, half-fried baritone. And like any great sculpture, he soon revealed his whole to be greater than the sum of his parts. That’s a feat when the path for left-tilting Gen X artists is, at this point, as well-trodden as Flatbush Avenue. Most everything Meromi has to say is thoughtful and complex, off the cuff without an ounce of reactionary self-righteousness.
He came to the United States from Israel well into adulthood. After receiving his MFA from Columbia in 2003, Meromi launched what remains, two decades later, one of New York’s most inspired careers in sculpture. He makes large, colorful installations that often consume galleries or public debates, offering exuberant alternatives, inside and outside, to the still-dominant dogma of the white cube. In its playfulness and freneticism, his work alerts you to the vapidity of the discourse surrounding whether art is, or should be, political. The answer is always yes, no, and maybe so.
Meromi’s sculptures buzz with the distinct intellectual vigor of childhood, so it was fitting that I met him across the street from his daughter’s school, where he’d just dropped her off. The air was cool for the first time in recent memory. On the eve of his journey to visit family in Israel, he squeezed in a conversation with me before heading to his studio to tie up loose ends, and to untie tight ones.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The Blue and White: Are you going to the studio today? What are you working on?
OM: Just, like, 16 different projects simultaneously.
B&W: Do you decide what you’re interested in doing before you go? Or do you go in and follow your impulses?
OM: I’ve been kind of failing in doing everything. It’s been a very complicated year, and I’ve done a lot of smaller things. Historically, I was never really interested in small figures. I was interested in big figures because—this dialogue with monumentality, and this automatic thing that happens to you with your body. When you encounter a big sculpture, it automatically makes you into this imaginary space of being a kid next to a much bigger figure, which is a space I’m interested in. Small sculptures and figurines are kind of like action figures. They need a story, they’re held by your hand. I find myself doing a lot of those recently. All of these stories collide in the studio.
I don’t have a healthy routine. Part of being a sculptor—or the type of sculptor that I am—the studio is six different workstations. The work is all over the place. I get more excited about a new technique. I’m building a loom to make a rug, and then not knowing what to do with the rug, because it’s like, What is this thing? When I was in Columbia, the first thing I did is build a loom. Then I made a video about me weaving one rug on that loom. And now, I’m starting to maybe build another one, maybe a slightly less reckless one. Because I’m older and slower and wiser.
B&W: Not to get sidetracked by looms, but I’m really interested in them. I grew up in New England, and looms were part of field trips! Weaving on looms! What is interesting to you about the loom?
OM: I mean, I love anything craft. I don’t know how to answer that. What’s not interesting about a loom?
B&W: [Sigh.] Yeah.
OM: It’s this fascinating, beautiful thing that has been so important in the development of computers and aesthetics and the Industrial Revolution. It really excites me, just to figure out how this thing is made. And then, how could I do it? Then, how could I change the color?
B&W: In your work, there’s a certain strain of left-wing, Jewish, funky aesthetics that I associate with Maira Kalman—an aesthetic that an Israeli person in the U.S. might take up. Do you feel that where you’re from has a mark on your work?
OM: Definitely. I mean, I left Israel at 35.
B&W: What was the decision to come to the U.S. about? Was it a specific program or a specific artistic scene?
OM: My wife was going to do a Ph.D. in English at Johns Hopkins, and I was like, I might as well find something to do, and I was lucky to get into the Columbia thing, which was a fun program.
B&W: What kind of an institution has it been for you?
OM: Coming from Tel Aviv, and falling into the U.S., Columbia is a great club to fall into. You make nice friends. It’s a privilege. And art grad school? What could be more fun! You get in a room, a lot of smart people will pass through New York, they’ll go in and give you feedback. It’s fantastically useful and a really creative time for me. I used it as an opportunity to experiment. I spent most of my time doing formative, communal, improvisational stuff for video.
As I got away from it, my thoughts about grad school and the price that it costs, and the system in general—I think there’s many problems with it. I still, you know—I like art schools. They’re important to me. There’s a type of conversation that is possible in art school—and school—that doesn’t happen anywhere else—not in the art magazines. Some idealism can only exist there. “Here, as a group together, we believe that things should be different.” This is a tough moment, but I like art schools. I hate them, but I like them. It’s like home.
B&W: Are you interested in direct political life in your work, or is it more abstract, the way that Israel and Palestine influence you?
OM: You know, I switch back and forth. When I go to the studio, when I make stuff, I want it to be political. But then, why would I make something political if this is going to be exhibited in a gallery in Chelsea? I have a lot of questions about what, exactly, is good politics. I’m looking into … these dialogues between Benjamin and Brecht and Lukács. And they’re arguing about, should it be social realism or expressionism? And what’s more effective to serve a revolution? And then, the different cominterns are coming up with the decision of, like, what’s the official state type of art? And they’re going against it. That would be amazing, if theoretical debates about the presentation would be—we’re talking about painting and theater—would be so linked to politics.
I do believe art has the potential of working within language, like opening the horizon of the possible, of what has a word and what doesn’t have a word. But it couldn’t be direct, in most cases. And what you do see is direct responses, like political slogans or political posterwork. That is better off in a rally. There’s a lot of finger-pointing in the art world, like, “We’re good and we’re not going to touch all this bad stuff,” which I—first, I don’t feel that I can participate in, being privileged, white, male, 54, served in the Israeli army, and all of that shit, and now lives in Brooklyn. But also, I don’t appreciate it that much, because there’s a lot of finger-pointing by people who kind of are conveniently assuming that they are not part of the problem. And hey, fuck it, we’re all part of this problem.
B&W: In the art world, one of the things that’s so enraging is obviously the extreme financialization of all of these conversations. It’s hard to feel like there’s an authentic political discourse happening when it’s incentivized by, or, at least, in some way imbricated in, this horrible structure.
OM: When one talks about politics, it’s as if they’re putting aside the whole money thing and pretending that this is a pure space that isn’t tainted.
B&W: You’ve done many public installations—Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn. What kind of a city is New York to do public art in? There’s the Public Art Fund. There’s definitely an institutional tradition here. There’s also an insurgent tradition of public art.
OM: I grew up looking at public art, or looking at the public sphere and being interested in the public sphere, and seeing the square and architecture.
B&W: When you say public sphere, do you mean something political, something specifically architectural, both?
OM: I don’t know—the street, the place we share. The park, the city square. The place that the society is expressing itself and negotiating itself. Going to art school, I was first very cautious about doing anything in this space. I was usually cherishing the white boxes as a space for—you know, it’s not oppressive, it’s there for a month, only people who are interested would come in and look and think about my speculations there. I wasn’t thinking about it as a place for commerce at the time. I thought about it as a fantastic place where one could speculate about what art could be, what public art could be. I’m so skeptical about this particular milieu that goes in that place—my milieu. I grew more and more fond of, like, can you just do something in the street and talk to people and do the dirty work of taking responsibility for the street? And just participate, and do our mistakes.
So in a way, the outdoors is more exciting for me now. Doing the public artwork in the city was involved with so much bureaucracy and going through, like, 15 different agencies, and the level of transparency needed for the whole process. And on top of it, a rather ugly public response. People are saying, Don’t you prefer to just have a private client? And I’m like, No, this is actually—that’s the best place. This is where, in a way, public space comes to be. It’s part of the thing, and that’s the beautiful part of the thing. In all of these opinions about public art, people get to express their idea of their ownership of public space, and they become citizens. They’re saying, I hate this ugly pink bubblegum thing. I would do more of those. I don’t think I’m going to be doing another public artwork for the city, ’cause there’s a long line and I was lucky to do one, but it’s a super fun thing. And hard, and complicated. I still think awful public art is better than no art.
B&W: Obviously, the Public Art Fund does many good things, but there’s a lot of spillover of tokenistic, self-satisfied curation.
OM: Or just plain ugly. Or something that gets in the way. Or these sad attempts to beautify something—it would be cheapest to just put a mural there. But I still think that with public art is better than without. I prefer seeing artworks in the city rather than in Storm King. Storm King is beautiful and everything, but it’s beautiful without the art. And most street corners would benefit from one of those Calders.
B&W: You have a daughter who’s relatively young. If you could influence her art education in some way, who would you want to expose her to?
OM: When I was teaching at Columbia or at Bard or at Rutgers, there’s always this thing—and I remember as a student, the most valuable thing they had were the slideshows, where my teacher would just show me: This is interesting, and this is interesting. I always failed at that. I was always afraid that I will show the people that are important to me, and then the students will yawn, because students yawn, and that would ruin it for me. Why would it be interesting for them?
The stuff that I was impressed with at one point that I still have a warm point in my heart—Robert Smithson. I don’t know how important Robert Smithson is today. I take my daughter to the Met, which is one of her favorite places. She reads Percy Jackson and is very good at Greek mythology, and she can tell me what the stories are. There’s something about this place, which has its problems. But still, it’s this place that is full of treasures and full of images and full of history. In a way, that’s our favorite place to go to. She would go anytime, which is great, because I would go anytime. Usually without a particular plan. It’s like getting lost in the park and discovering something. There’s always a good treasure there.
B&W: Do you stray away from wall text when you’re at the Met or in any museum?
OM: I’m dyslexic anyhow, so I can’t stand and read. I just look. She’s a reader; her mother is a writer, she’s a writer, she reads the wall text, and I leave it to the problematic thing of just looking at the things. All of these beautiful clothes, or naked bodies, all of these different stones. It’s fantastic.
B&W: New York has SculptureCenter. Do you think of it as a good city to sculpt in?
OM: It’s a horrible city to sculpt in! I have a second-story studio. Logistics here is impossible. If you’re a sculptor, or the type of sculptor that I am, that does have to do stuff with his hands, you need a junkyard, and a place to put stuff, and a place to park. I used to laugh with my painter friends that painting is a little bit like stacking money in a wallet. It’s very practical. Sculpture’s like—you’re kind of stuck with weight and the space that it takes. It’s not particularly convenient to just put it in a storage house somewhere for a long time. It’s possible, but it’s expensive. And that’s part of the charm of it for me, the excitement of it. It’s a real thing that you can bump into and climb on afterwards. The level of commitment it requires is tough.
B&W: You debuted in New York in 2005 in a gallery show. Roberta Smith praised your do-it-yourself recklessness. Do you think you were reckless then? And are you still reckless now?
OM: I don’t remember her use of that word. I mean, I don’t think I’m reckless.
B&W: Or the do-it-yourself aspect?
OM: Yeah, the do-it-yourself, and the whole producing an object that is not necessarily a commodity, but it’s another thing—it’s a prop, it’s like I’m using the gallery as a space of some sort of dialogue or fluid mode of social interaction, somewhere between architecture and theater. When you make stuff for the city, you cannot do it DIY. It needs to stand there, it needs to take the weather and take the use of people. If I had my way, that’s what I would have done in the gallery every day. It’s not that good for commerce, but there are in-between places. There is still room for art that is a negotiation of ideas and materials. I’m older, I don’t know how reckless I am, and it’s not as if I have that many gallery shows at the moment. But the DIY thing is definitely still there. It’s like Lou Reed. By his third album, he learned how to play guitar, but is it still a DIY thing?
B&W: You make lamps. Two beautiful lamps.
OM: I do a lot of stuff from my home or thinking about the domestic space. A lot of the two-dimensional work that I do is directly considered for this idea. You know, there’s the street, there’s the market. Somehow, domestic space gets an important place there, and it is important for my life, especially now.
B&W: Were you influenced by Memphis at all? The lamps seem to bear a trace of Sottsass. The postmodern set.
OM: Yes, I guess so. They started from being made from leftovers, from sculptures and geometric shapes. Yeah, I’m definitely looking at these things. But they came from the practical. They do stuff, which I like, and they came organically from the process of playing with shapes and materials. I like decorative things—decorative things are important, too—but this field of functional art is. ... I pour the concrete bases and I paint the edges. Sometimes, you’re so bored from the didacticism that you see on museum walls. So you have to go to the design to get—uch! Yellow! Or something sensual.