In more ways than one, Columbia professor Sarah Sze is the artist of the moment.by Paul Hond Published Winter 2016
You go to Sarah Sze’s studio in Midtown Manhattan, not really knowing what to expect. Maybe you’ve seen her work — her installation Still Life with Landscape (Model for a Habitat), a bird-and-butterfly sanctuary of steel framework and wooden boxes, was perched on the High Line for a year starting in June 2011. Five years earlier, Corner Plot, in which a single corner of bricks and windows jutted from the pavement, suggesting a sunken apartment building, attracted passersby at Fifth Avenue and 60th Street. Or maybe you were at a party recently and saw, on a coffee table, Sze’s new monograph, with its cover image of 360 (Portable Planetarium). That sculpture, a skeletal sphere of fragile, possibly rickety construction, is crossed with radiating strings and spindly scaffolding, slung with random objects, and pierced with light — a cosmic meditation.
Or maybe you’ve never seen Sze’s work, and are more aware of her reputation. She received a 2003 MacArthur foundation “genius grant” and was the US representative to the 2013 Art Biennale in Venice. The sublimities of her art led the late Columbia philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto ’52GSAS, ’04HON to write that her concern as an artist is “to feel her way into the future, into art that had yet to be imagined.” And the sculptor Richard Serra told the New Yorker that Sze “is changing the potential of sculpture.”
Ascending the elevator to Sze’s workshop, you realize you’re still holding a cup of coffee. With a chill you ponder what Sze (pronounced Zee) will make of your bringing a spillable liquid to her studio door. Of course you will apologetically surrender it before entering. And, reflecting on Sze’s use of everyday items in her work — light bulbs, Q-Tips, cereal, lamps, aspirin, fans, plastic flowers, plastic spoons, electric lights, socks, notepads, candies, thimbles, milk cartons, disco balls, toilet paper, and yes, coffee cups — you muse that maybe she’ll end up incorporating it ... until you remember that Sze doesn’t use trash in her work. That’s because trash has a past: she uses the unused, the fresh-bought, things without history or nostalgia; the object as tabula rasa.
The elevator opens and you step into a large, sunny loft, where Sze, forty-seven, warmly welcomes you. Dressed in black, her dark hair coiled in a bun, she imparts the easy self-possession of someone in pure synchronicity with the ticktock of creative life. She assures you that your coffee cup is no problem, and lets you set it on one of the worktables, which is covered with color photos from magazines. On the floor, lunchbox-sized blocks of clay have been cut into thick slices, and the walls are plastered with pictures that feed Sze’s current interests: fourteenth-century step wells in Delhi; a rock formation in Northern Ireland of basalt columns, shaped over millions of years; a Japanese print in which the white of the paper is articulated into a snowy field by spare strokes of blue.
Sze is a seeker and processor of data, a metaphysical alchemist, mining magical effects from the inanimate, the mundane. Her canvas is time and space, her work a discourse with the physical world, an elaborate dance with instability and demise. “That we question permanence when we see a work is very important to me,” she says. Because her work is often site-specific and imbued with spontaneity, it is impossible to duplicate: the works are sculptural accounts of ephemerality itself, with objects rambling, colonizing, and dispersing at once, suggesting a volatile state of being made or unmade, of growth or decay. Within all this lies the question of how objects acquire value, and the ways in which arranging common items outside their usual contexts can change their meaning.
“How do we create value in an object?” Sze says. “Objects are less valuable than life, because life ends, so the idea was to make work that felt like it had a life to it, and had a life-support system that must be cared for; that gave a sense that if you left it and came back in an hour, it might be different; that it won’t ever exist elsewhere, and that this exact experience won’t exist again.”
Sze was born in Boston in 1969. Her father, whose family had come to the US from China when he was four, was an architect, and the house was like an extension of his office, with drawings everywhere. Her mother taught nursery school, and come vacations she’d bring home the class pets, so that Sze and her brother grew up with a turtle and a bird (“Our house was very animated,” Sze says). The family shared a love of art, music, and dance, and Sze discovered early on that creativity was a way to grasp the world and communicate with it. “I made art all the time, drawing and painting and making things,” she says. “It was definitely where I found joy.”
She studied painting and architecture at Yale and later switched to sculpture, making her first splash in 1996 at a show in New York. There, she covered the surfaces of a narrow storeroom space in SoHo with hundreds of figurines made from single squares of toilet paper. She came to Columbia’s School of the Arts to teach in 2002 and was made a full professor in 2009. She lives downtown with her husband, Siddhartha Mukherjee, a Columbia oncologist and assistant professor of medicine, and the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Emperor of All Maladies. They have two young daughters.