Edward Tufte


The author of the classic books on 2-D analytical and visual thinking Beautiful Evidence and Envisioning Information, Edward Tufte has also quietly developed a robust outdoor sculpture practice in his fields on 167 acres in Connecticut over the past 10 years. This summer, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum has turned over its backyard to Tufte, giving him free rein to re-landscape the grounds, install his giant metal sculptures, and organize live events (including dance performances and a small flock of sheep), all to illustrate different ways humans and animals define space. Tufte talked to Lyra Kilston about his process and love of working outside of the "flatlands" of two dimensions.

When did you start making art? 

About 40 years ago after completing my Ph.D. dissertation, I made paintings of balloons floating free in the wind — not exactly subtle symbolism. Then I started making sculptures out of slate or wood or concrete, and finally moved toward the current large-scale work with road plate, stainless steel, weathered and rusting steel, and scrap metal from a nuclear power plant. Whatever it takes.

This is your first major museum project, and you’ve been given carte blanche. How has the process been, and what are you aiming for?

For years I’ve made sculpture just for our extended family, dogs, and land. I never thought or cared about any public audiences. Then came some visitors from various museums. For the Aldrich, truly an artist’s museum, I’ve constructed new berms and plateaus, and planted groves of bamboo and trees, so that the land can move and roll and become quietly agile, and viewers can continually change their relation to the sculptures. I seek to make pieces look right from most distances and places, to reduce clutter and interference, and to give the works some sky to reach up to — as done at the amazing Storm King Art Center in upstate New York.

How does it differ for you to work in 3-D rather than in 2-D, on which you’ve focused so much attention and analysis in your books?

I’ve pretty well figured out how the "flatland" [2-D] works for showing data and information. One idea I have now is to bring the intensity of flatland seeing and thinking out into the real world. Three-dimensional space is so luscious, subtle, uncompressed, complex, alive, and real. And sculptures in fact reside in four dimensions as time passes and the natural light changes. The stainless steel pieces borrow a lot of wonderful light. Every new day in the sculpture fields differs from all the past days.

The curator told me, "I’ve never dealt with an artist who was more aware of sequencing through space." How do you hope visitors will interact with your project?

By means of a gentle multiplicity of paths. The pieces are meant to be viewed from anywhere. The style is informal and intense, farm elegant, sculpture residing with land, sometimes narrative, now and then jokey, always for walking and seeing and light, no preciousness, no trophy pieces.

And what’s going on with the sheep?

Henry Moore made many drawings of sheep, and created sculptures for them, such as Sheep Piece [1971-72]. Some sheep came to my land, and I liked watching them walk around and meander. I don’t have any interest in the military precision of a herded flock, but rather how sheep move loosely. It’s not just humans who navigate over the land and through sculptural space in interesting ways.


"Edward Tufte" originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' Summer 2009 Table of Contents.