Sanford Kogan: Sculptor of Light

Sanford Kogan: Sculptor of Light

Article by  Sanford Kogan and James Sellman 

James Sellman and Sanford Kogan

Introduction by Jim Sellman

I would like to introduce to the readers of the Folk Art Messenger, and eventually to a larger audience, the fascinating and original work of Sanford Kogan. Kogan is an assemblage artist, interested in how light and form are combined in aesthetic expression. There are four reasons to include his work in this magazine:

First: Sanford Kogan is self-taught. While he did take a couple of photography classes over the years, he never attended art school. This fact alone would satisfy the criteria for inclusion.
Second: Many of the pieces that he has created have an outsider feel. This is particularly true of his use of recycled, found, or wooden materials. While it is true that some of his more recent work might be judged not to fit easily in the folk art aesthetic, please suspend judgment and give this work ample consideration. Employing classification and categories in viewing art can act as a barrier if the classification prohibits one from seeing something new.
Third: Sanford’s work is significant. It can touch people in a visceral and meaningful sense regardless of criteria. I believe readers will appreciate and enjoy his innovative artwork.
Fourth: I had been aware of Sanford’s work for many months through photographs before I had the opportunity to see it in person. This was a powerful and transformative experience for me, something that photographs alone did not replicate. I believe, in the future, that greater recognition will come to Sanford Kogan and his work and that you will have the opportunity to see the actual expressions and not simply their capture in photographs.

An Interview of Sanford Kogan by James Sellman

Photographs by Ann Oppenhimer unless noted

1) Did living in France influence your aesthetic vision?
Yes, I was greatly influenced by this experience. Art plays such a strong role in the French culture. The French aesthetic is everywhere, even on the street. It shows up in the windows of the boulangerie or the patisserie, how the items for sale are displayed. And it seems like amateur artists are everywhere. You can find some quite good paintings in the French flea markets for not much money at all.

2) How long did you live there?
18 years. I moved there in 1997.

3) What prompted you to move to France?
This is a funny story. I was working for Hewlett-Packard at the time in Sunnyvale, Calif. One day I was searching around the internal HP network, and I saw a job requisition for a position in France. So I sent in my resume, thinking nothing would come of it. A few weeks later, I got a request from a French manager to have an interview over the phone. This was followed with a subsequent interview, after which they invited me to come to France for a face-to-face interview. My initial thought was, I’m getting a free trip to go to France, how cool is that! I had no expectation about actually getting the job. So when they offered it to me, there was no way I would turn it down. My life at the time was settled, maybe too settled, so this was a big adventure, an opportunity to move professionally, culturally, in a completely new direction. So this is what I did.

Three light sculptures made into one. Photo by Ted Degener.

Move the story ahead ten years, and HP was having a massive “workforce reduction,” which is a nice name for a layoff. But to be fair, they did give me a choice. And they “sweetened the pot” by offering a nice financial incentive to leave. So I basically retired 15 years early, which allowed me to focus on my art practice full time. So, since 2006 my “job” has been making art. It’s not a job in the sense that I have a boss and I receive monthly compensation, but I take it very seriously, and I bristle when anyone describes it as a “hobby.”

However, within our conceptual framework, what is sad is that one is often not taken seriously if the financial component is missing. So an artist who makes great art but is not selling is often not taken seriously. Or if there is not a financial component involved, then it is often labeled as a hobby. The success metric is mixed up. An artist is judged by how much he sells, not the quality of his work.

4) You have an interesting story.
I suppose, but I prefer to talk about my art instead of myself. The art is what is important here. My story is just my story, and I do understand how it might be interesting to people. I am fascinated by Thornton Dial, but mostly because it raises such philosophical questions about where ideas came from. The fact that he did not have formal training but created such a sophisticated body of work is a fascinating thing to contemplate. My story has interesting de-tails, but pales when one considers his story.

5) What particular pieces or process would you prefer to discuss?
There are some pieces that I created 10 or 15 years ago that I believe stand the test of time. So I always enjoy considering these. But usually, I prefer to consider my most recent pieces because these are closest to mind. They are recent; I have more to say about them. Older pieces I am more “separate” from.

6) How has your approach to making art differ today that when you were 17?
When I was 17, I took a photography class at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. I really enjoyed it, and I was pretty good at it. I even won a photography contest in the local paper, the Richmond News Leader, so this was some good encouragement. At one point, I even wanted to do it professionally instead of going to college. But my parents put an end to that, insisting that I go to college first. Looking back, this was a good decision because it allowed me to take a very early retirement so that I might focus on my art later in my life with my light sculptures. But one narra-tive I sometimes think about is that the arc of my artistic focus was put on hold while I pursued a corporate track and a more lucrative direction.

Light Sculpture by Sanford Kogan

As a teenager, I didn’t have a clear direction. I was kind of “unformed.” Like many kids at that age, I didn’t know who I really was. So the education and the professional experience with HP sort of “filled me out.” There are lessons that I learned in the corporate environment that are useful today as I set my own direction. These are still useful today. These are lessons I did not have when I started out at 17.

I didn’t really consider myself as an artist until much later. In fact, I didn’t start calling my-self an artist until other people started using the term in referring to me, so then I figured it was OK. But in the beginning, when I became more serious and decided this is what I wanted to do, the term, at least in the beginning, seemed a bit pretentious. So I felt a bit self-conscious referring to myself this way. But now I’m OK with it.

7) When did you start making sculptures?
In the 1980s, I started transforming musical instruments into lamps. But even though they both use light, I see lamps as much different from light sculptures. This is an important distinction.

8) Let’s talk about that for a minute. What is this distinction?
If you think of any lamp, their structure is fairly well defined. They typically have a base. Then there is a structure that elevates it. And then a top section emits and diffuses light. And they are in-tended to light up space, for reading, for moving from point A to point B. They are utilitarian. They serve a purpose in our everyday lives.

Collection of lighted musical instruments and other objects

Light sculptures on the other hand are not utilitarian. They don’t serve a purpose, and their light is not intended to light up space. And their structure is unconstrained. So the possibilities for a light sculpture are infinite, which makes them more difficult to conceive. Lamps by contrast are much easier.

9) Do you still have some of your original pieces in your collection?
I have a few similar lamps, but they were fabricated much later. The others I sold or deconstructed to use for other creations.

10) Do you regret not having the originals?
No, not really. They were not very important. As I mentioned (or at least alluded to), my lamp work was not nearly as interesting as my sculptural work.

11) What is your process for getting started on a piece?
The hardest thing for me is coming up with an original idea, to create something new that I haven’t created before. But there is a certain balance here because one is never “starting from scratch.” I will always use processes and techniques that leverage past knowledge. But a new sculpture, to be interesting, has to have something different that needs to be addressed or figured out, either on a technical level, or an aesthetic level, but preferably both. So it needs to be a new idea in some way, not simply a derivative of something I’ve done before. The goal is always to move the ball just a little bit forward.

12) This notion of merging light with recycled industrial objects, how did that get started?
I started by fabricating lamps from musical instruments. My original idea was that these broken-down musical instruments that were sitting in a closet somewhere, they had this exalted past, making music. And if you think of what a musician does with a saxophone, for example, mouthpiece in mouth, fingers up and down the keys – well, the sexual parallels are fairly obvious. And a musician will grow close to a particular instrument. It becomes an extension of them. Anyone who knows the music of B.B. King, for example, will know that he named his guitar “Lucille.” So musical instruments have a special status to start with. It was my intention to give them a second life, as a form that provided light and could be appreciated on an aesthetic level at the same time.

Sanford with two light sculptures. Photograph by Ted Degener.

Another point to consider, working with light and working with form requires a certain integration of the left and right brain. There are certain electrical and mechanical problems that need to be figured out. So this satisfies the engineer in me. Then there are aesthetic considerations that need to be worked on. The goal is to make these creations interesting to look at, captivating, even beautiful. This satisfies the artist in me. An important point here is that the engi-neering consideration always needs to be in service of the aesthetic. The aesthetic comes first. I’m not sure that all artists work this way, but this is an important consideration for me.

13) Tell me more about this – your idea that the aesthetic comes first?
There are a lot of artists today, particularly contemporary artists, that start from a conceptual framework. My understanding is that they will come up with an idea, something related to social commentary, the environment, race relations, equal justice, and that will be the focus. The primary goal is to make the point. And it seems to me that the aesthetic is often secondary. This is absolutely a valid approach, but this is not how I work.

Digital Color Print by Sanford Kogan

For me, the aesthetic is primary. I have many pieces where if you asked me “What is it about?” I couldn’t tell you. I could describe how I think it works on a visual or aesthetic level, but there is no deeper meaning that could be explicitly referenced.

However, what’s interesting is sometimes when I am following a purely aesthetic direction, I will find a narrative, a conceptual reference, that corresponds to the aesthetic. The French word “diviner” which means “to guess” or “to predict” captures this notion well. So I will find a narrative that is structured or embedded in the aesthetic. And when I do, I will make a conscious design decision to reinforce this narrative, and this will often influence and change the direction of the design. The aesthetic is never abandoned. But the aesthetic and the conceptual will live and grow in parallel.

Finally, sometimes after I’ve completely finished a sculpture, I will find a conceptual reference, a narrative which fits the design, but this was not my original intention. So a piece gains meaning after the fact. It was not something I consciously was aware of when I created the piece, but perhaps it was in my subconscious, who knows.

I’ll give you an example of this. Consider the sculpture “Lobster Trap with Feathers.” When one thinks of a lobster trap, words that might come to mind are confinement, captive, constrained, claustrophobic, and trapped. For feathers, words that one might think of are freedom, limitless, majestic, unfettered, and unrestrained. In juxtaposing these elements next to each other, this sculpture can be interpreted to represent a different take on the “birth lot-tery.” Usually this term is applied to humans, meaning the conditions of birth (location, race, sex, economic status of parents, etc.) determine one’s fate. In this case, this notion references fate in non-human living conditions.

The important point here is that during the creation of this piece, this was not an intended narrative. It only took on this meaning after the sculpture was finished. But this adopted narrative, this interpretation, is now critical to the piece itself. It becomes the intended narrative, after the fact.

14) Most of your sculptures involve light. Light seems to be a very important aspect within your creations. Can you talk about this element?
From my perspective, light as an aesthetic element can fall into one of two buckets. There is “direct light” and “indirect light.” And “indirect light” can be further classified as “reflected” and “refracted.” So lets focus on these three – “direct,” “reflected,” and “refracted” light. I am not sure my classification is completely accurate from a physics perspective, but this is how I think about it.

Direct light: This is pretty straightforward. Whenever you look at an incandescent light bulb, or LEDs, or neon, or a fluorescent bulb, you are experiencing light “directly.” From an aesthetic point of view, or I should say MY aesthetic point of view, direct light is most often not very interesting and can be harsh to look at. However, there are two notable exceptions, neon and fluorescent. While these were often used in the past for advertising purposes, they can be very beautiful as artistic light expressions. But I would suggest that these examples might be classified better as refracted. The color of the light depends on the gas in the tube. Neon lights were named for neon, a noble gas that gives off a popular orange light, but other gases and chemicals called phosphors are used to produce other colors, such as hydrogen (purple-red), helium (yellow or pink), carbon dioxide (white) and mercury (blue). So a better classification might be “refracted direct.”

The color of a fluorescent tube’s light is determined by the phosphor coating inside the tube. The type of phosphor used creates a different color temperature. As an example, the light artist Dan Flavin did some remarkable work with colored fluorescent bulbs. In his case, light was refracted through colored glass and reflected off a back wall. So these aesthetic methods of using light can be combined.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that nearly all art today uses reflected light to be viewed, including all paintings. Therefore every painting that was ever created could be correctly classified as “light art,” even though we don’t usually think of it this way.

Sanford Kogan with his Digital Color Prints.

In my own art, I work nearly exclusively with LEDs. Light from the LED is viewed indirectly, either reflected or refracted. Reflection is the light that is not absorbed by a material. Re-fracted light is light that passes through a material. Stained glass windows are good (and probably the first) examples of refracted light used in an aesthetic context.

Having worked with both these approaches to light in an artistic context, I find refracted light to be much richer, more vibrant, and more engaging than reflected light.

15) I notice that you sometimes use numbers and letters in your art. What is their significance?
Typically when we view numbers or letters, we consider them conceptually, as symbolic references that we try to read and interpret – numbers that represent quantities, and letters grouped into words that represent ideas. And while there is an aesthetic aspect to letters and numbers (font, size, color, for example), these aspects are nearly always secondary. Meaning and concept are primary.

By contrast, in my art, I will usually use numbers and letters as motifs devoid of meaning, similar to the way one might use shapes – a circle, triangle, or rectangle. In this context, the conceptual reference or underlying meaning of the letter or number is by design, not considered or important.

However, because we are trained at a very early age to try to interpret, to give meaning to these symbols, a conceptual tension will often comes into play between these symbols as motifs and the viewer. A viewer will want to interpret these symbols, even though no meaning was intended when the piece was created. One viewer recently told me it was like viewing a kind of Rosetta Stone, the meaning of which needed to be worked out.

It’s possible that the viewer might find some new meaning, to interpret these symbols in a new way that was not originally intended. But most often, this conceptual tension continues during the viewing of the piece. In this way, these symbols can enhance and deepen the viewing experience. One is drawn in, but understanding on a conceptual level is not possible, so one must surrender to the aesthetic.

SANFORD KOGAN lives in Richmond, Va., and worked and lived in France for 18 years. He is a sculptor of light.

JAMES SELLMAN is president of the Folk Art Society of America and is a practicing psychiatrist in Richmond, Va.

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