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Artist of the Week: Meredith Gang Bergmann

Learning the history of culture has sustained sculptor Meredith Gang Bergmann’s understanding of constructing contemporary art in every capacity. The acclaimed artist, whose enduring narrative sculptures are recognized for documenting issues of social justice and human rights, recently won a commission to design the first sculpture of real women in Central Park that will debut in 2020. Bergmann began acquiring the rudiments of sculpting in 1978 at the Art Students League of New York under the advisement of artists Robert Beverly Hale and Sidney Simon. “It was a great place for me to study because I could come and study specifically what intrigued me or what I thought I needed help with,” Bergmann said about her time as a student at the League, which now has more than 2,500 students of all ages and skill levels. “I’m just really glad it’s still in existence, that there’s this repository of skill and excitement and ideas that people can come take advantage of here in the city. It’s a great, great institution.” Milk sat down with Bergmann in an empty sculpture studio at the League to discuss her forthcoming Central Park monument and the impact she feels public art has on society. 

How did you get your start at the League as a sculptor?

I kind of always knew about it because I went to college for two years and then I studied Communication Design here in the city at Parsons for a year. Then I realized I wanted to go to a fine art school and applied to transfer and got into Cooper Union and graduated with a BFA. I only discovered sculpture in my last year there at their little bronze foundry in the school, and casting bronze was absolutely thrilling, but that was in an era when conceptual art was in its heyday and figurative sculpture was frowned upon. There was no life model, there may have been a life drawing class in the school but there was no anatomy taught. None of the traditional skills for being a figurative sculptor were taught in my art school. When I graduated [in 1977] I set out to visit Europe with a backpack and a rail pass and I ended up with an introduction to a sculptor in Pietrasanta in Italy and took a month’s course in Italian in Florence and made little castings in a studio that Temple University had in Florence just for a month. Then I moved to Pietrasanta and began to study stone carving, which I had never had the patience for, but which is totally inspiring in that location because there’s so much stone from all over the world being worked in and it’s so beautiful. I began to try to do figurative sculpture again. After I’d been away for about a year and a quarter, I realized that I really needed to study anatomy, in English, despite my one month of Italian lessons. I came home, lived with my parents, enrolled in classes [at the League], took the bus in from New Jersey, eventually I found a loft space in Brooklyn in Greenpoint. And I took Robert Beverly Hale’s anatomy classes, which were marvelous, and signed up for sculpture courses. I began to learn how to really work with clay in three dimensions and work from the model. Then I studied with Sidney Simon at the League, also life modeling. I was interested in the abstraction of the human form — not totally abstract, but biomorphic abstraction. I was also working with both organic, biomorphic form and the human figure at the same time, but I couldn’t bring them together. My art education in art school had been conceptual and philosophical, and my little bronze sculptures were very witty. My figurative stuff seemed more humorless, and I wondered how I would ever bring them together. That was a question I was able to answer only much later.  

Your work portrays recurrent themes of social justice and historical redress. How do these themes contribute to your identity as an artist?

When I was in art school no one looked at monuments, and in the 70s the city was in terrible financial trouble, almost went into bankruptcy. And the monuments were not maintained, they were streaked and corroded. No one at Cooper Union was paying attention to monuments. I have seen this pendulum swing all the way back so now people are interested in monuments, they want more of them, they want to change what monuments are there, they’re looking at them. And the municipalities have the funds to take care of them, so they’re looking beautiful again. I felt, when I started getting interested in monuments, that there was an opportunity for wit there because the monuments seemed to have become so passé, so absurd, and so undervalued, and yet they had been extraordinarily precious to the people who made them or they wouldn’t have made them. As I became more aware of the history of injustice in this country, although I started with that in high school — I went to high school in 1968, the Black Student Union was protesting and shut down the high school  — it was a time when we were all aware of social hierarchy, social injustice, protests, activism. But as I became more aware of history, I became more aware and more fascinated with how attitudes change and fade. When is the right time to go back and turn a fresh eye on them? And who has been forgotten or who was never paid attention to? Using figurative sculpture, with the power that’s in a portrait, a bronze portrait of someone or stone portrait of someone, with the implication that that portrait will be there for hundreds of years to mean something to people in the future, it has a lot of authority. And that appealed to me very much — it has power. 

In 2003 your sculpture of the Boston Women’s Memorial was unveiled. What was it like creating such a profound piece?

My first big commission was for the Boston Women’s Memorial — that I won in 1998, when my son was three years old — and I made some big sculptures before but nothing like that. And that was really when I learned to love studying history, and I guess I was old enough to begin to realize how recent the 19th century is and how recent all the social upheaval since the Industrial Revolution really is, in terms of human history. People have been making symbolic objects and making art for a very long time. But individual freedom and human rights are slowly increasing, and women’s rights are very, very recent and very fragile worldwide. I really didn’t realize that growing up. So, studying the situation of women in 1850 when women had no independent legal rights…when we were doing fundraising for memorial, I went and I spoke to different groups and I went to the Lucy Stone [Middle School], and I said, ‘But for Lucy Stone, I wouldn’t have been able to sign the contract for this commission, it wouldn’t have meant anything, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the money that I’m being paid — I wouldn’t have a civic identity.’ With that memorial, my mandate was to make a contemporary artwork, and still in the 1990s and the early 2000s, there was huge opposition to increasing the number of statues in cities. To say I’m going to make three bronze statues and that’s going to be contemporary artwork is a bit audacious. So I thought, ‘Okay I’m going to show these women at work.’ There is this cliché that women were put on a pedestal in the 19th century, they’re supposed to stay there and be precious objects of desire and ownership. And the feminist cliché is that women have come down off their pedestals…so I brought them down off their pedestals. And the pedestals are knocked over and turned over; they’re using them as desks. So that could qualify as contemporary art, because there was such a strong conceptual element that you could describe. 

Your monument honoring Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony that will go up in Central Park in 2020 will be the first of its kind. Why do you think it’s taken until now to show representations of real women through monuments in Central Park?

Well, part of it was this aversion to monuments. New monuments in general had to be dedicated to very important martyrs, basically. And it’s hard to say, for instance, that Eleanor Roosevelt was a martyr– she wasn’t, she was a great woman and someone to be admired and someone to be studied, someone to be fascinated with. And now we have a statue of her. Harriet Tubman, too, lived to a great, old age and had a huge number of admirers and supporters taking care of her in upstate New York. She had been a freedom fighter and was in extraordinary danger and did great heroic acts and is a women to be admired. And now we have Harriet Tubman uptown. But, the number of statues was a trickle .. The Monumental Women Fund, which is Pam Elam, who worked in New York City government for many years and is very politically savvy, and Coline Jenkins, who is the great, great granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with other people, formed this group to advocate for statues of great women throughout the city, throughout this country, beginning with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park.  

How do these figures compare with women of today’s society?

I try to make that comparison by showing [the women] working together, they’re kind of bent over their work. Anthony has brought some more documents for Stanton to incorporate into a speech for Anthony to go give while Stanton is at home with her kids. I’m showing them fairly young, because they were photographed many times when they were elderly, and they’re beautiful old women, but I want to show them young and really in the heyday of their activism, before they were why they were widely recognized. Working in a domestic environment, at a writing table — even the shape of the writing table somehow reminds me of a laptop. So I kept thinking of two women at a kitchen table with a laptop trying to change the world, right now. The monument also physically urges you to vote, and there will be a scroll descending from the speech that the two women are working on that has quotations from 25 other women representing the whole spectrum of suffrage activity — the African American women, there’s a Chinese-American woman, a Latina woman — ending with the 19th Amendment in 1920 and the box that says “vote.” You’ll see the history coming towards you– and now it’s your turn. 

You’re multifaceted as a poet and writer as well. Do you ever find overlapping inspiration across these mediums? How do they play into each other?

There was so much baffling gobbledygook that I read at Cooper Union about art, and there still is so much nonsense in descriptions of what an artist is doing or thinks they’re doing or the gallerist thinks they ought to say they’re doing. And I just wanted to write about art in plain English, but really try to get at what I thought was going on psychologically and symbolically, because that’s what interests me. I’m not as interested in “strategies” and “the gaze.” I spent a number of years learning to do that and I got back into writing poetry later on. I worked as a freelance art critic and wrote gallery reviews and essays. When I got involved with the American Arts Quarterly I became their poetry editor for 11 years, and that was wonderful– we published a few poems in the back of every issue. I would also write articles for them about sculpture, so it was a chance to really study an exhibition and an artist’s work. Fascinating stuff! And I got a lot out of doing that because I could study. Even in poetry workshops where there was a critical study of a poet, I would try to find a poem about a monument or about sculpture and get into what the poet could draw from seeing or thinking about the sculpture or its history. That was also very helpful for me. So I’ve tried to kind of wrap it around sculpture all the time. 

What does “public art” mean to you?

There’s two kinds, there’s temporary public art, which I love seeing and is often very funny on purpose and very socio-critical and very political, and it’s great. And then it goes away. But as the cityscape gets more and more glass — inexpensive construction with steel and glass — and buildings are not decorated and you don’t see stone carving, it’s really public monuments that kind of hold up that end of the City Beautiful Movement that dates from the 19th century, and the idea that a city is more gracious if it has evidence of the human hand, of craft, and of the history of culture built into it. It’s not being built into contemporary buildings, not that often. I think it’s great that there are statues and allegory and all that stuff is being kept alive for people in the future– the public.  

Is there anything you’d like to add about how you create art? 

I wanted to say that it also made a huge difference to me to become a mother, and that I did at the age of 40, on purpose; I wanted to be grown up. I remember, when I won the competition for the Boston Women’s Memorial, thinking “my grandchildren can climb on this,” and it does give you a sense of a specific future through your child. I have a son who’s 22 and we lead an unusual life with him, he has severe autism but is very bright, and at the time of the Boston Women’s Memorial he was losing language, losing the ability to speak, and he could only communicate in very primitive ways. When he was 12, he was taught in about 20 minutes…to communicate by pointing to letters. He has blossomed since then– he’s now in college, taking classes at Harvard. He’s fascinated with art and culture and literature and history and wants to make a contribution to all of that. It’s wonderful for me to see him get an education. Artists need a sense of the history of culture: where fairytales come from, of where gods and goddesses come from, of where angels — the depiction, the whole idea of people with wings — where does that come from? It’s important, for sculpture, to know where dragons come from, or the skulls of oxen that you see on buildings. How was that initially used? What did it mean? And if I use it again is there anybody alive who will know what it meant? It’s been great for me to learn that.

Stay tuned to Milk for more artists we love.

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