25 Questions for Photographic Assemblage Interpreter Sara VanDerBeek

Sara VanDerBeek
(Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures)

Name: Sara VanDerBeek

Age: 36


Occupation: Artist

City/Neighborhood: New York

While sculpture has always been a part of your photographic process, you have not always shown sculpture in conjunction with photography. What sort of dialogue do you hope to create between these two different media? How does working on stand-alone sculptures differ from creating sculptures that will be shown alongside your photographs? 

I really enjoy thinking about space and scale with sculpture. I like how confusing scale can be in photography, and now making things to be seen in the round it’s a new understanding and exploration of form and scale. My hope is that the photographs and the sculptures inform each other but that there is also space for interpretation and an openness to their relationship that allows for a more abstract or dream-like experience in the show. The images are in some ways a view into my process but are also, in their color, or their use of mirrored glass, meant to rest somewhere between something actual and something imaginary. 

For your current show at Metro Pictures you traveled to Paris, Rome, and Naples, exploring classical female figures. Which differences between neoclassical depictions of women and contemporary depictions of women from different regions stand out as the most striking, or interesting, to you?

I have often used found imagery of classical figures in the past but was very excited to be photographing them myself and exploring the incredible collections in these cities. My time in the National Archeological Museum in Naples was particularly inspiring. I focused on ancient and neo-Classical female figures and was intrigued by the seemingly opposing qualities of beauty and ubiquity inherent in their creation. I noticed the repetitions of goddesses and poses amongst the different collections and experienced these sculptures as both image and form. I saw in their multiplicity a photographic quality that also felt like it spoke to contemporary practices — they were a meeting of image and object, of symbolism, idealized form and were in a way a means of communication. Neo-classical is interesting to me because it developed during a tumultuous time, and is an interesting combination of classical shapes and modernist ideals. 

Much of your work explores the way things like objects or memories become images. Can you talk a little about this process? Conversely, how do you think images shape our memories? 

The way I structure or organize the forms I make or photograph comes out of an attempt to translate an experience into an image or an object, and/or to conflate the two processes. In earlier works I would arrange the compositions of the assemblages and the final image in a structure that I thought was similar to how the mind organized memories. Layering and shifting scales were important. I think images play a very important part in the shaping of our memory. Probably because I am a visual person, I think that the mind organizes via imagery, and that what is remarkable about memory is that it all sits together; a shared universal event, tragic, or wonderful can be very present in the foreground of your mind, then it shifts and a small intimate moment becomes just as large. Now I feel my process is less about the simultaneity of memory or recollection, and more about the singular experience expanded. I strive to physically realize something that is ephemeral or fleeting. 

What project are you working on now?

I am just near completing the work for my show at Metro Pictures. Additionally, I will have a solo presentation with Altman Siegel at Frieze NY, and then shortly following, I am organizing and participating in a three-person show alongside my brother Johannes VanDerBeek and my studio mate Ryan Johnson at White Flag projects in St. Louis in June. 

What’s the last show that you saw?

Amanda Ross-Ho, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. 

What’s the last show that surprised you? Why?

I saw a great show at SFMoMA about three photographers working in South Africa during apartheid [“South Africa in Apartheid and After: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, Billy Monk”]. It was a surprise because I had not heard of two of them before the exhibition and I found the images, in their detail and intensity, really fascinating.

Describe a typical day in your life as an artist.

I try to look at a book while having coffee in the morning, I usually feel the most open to new ideas or figuring things out in the morning and in the later evening. After breakfast, I go to my studio and am there most of the day, unless I have a meeting at my print lab or a fabricator. I return later in the night, have dinner and watch something or attempt to read for an hour. 

Do you make a living off your art?

I am very grateful that I am able to live and work off of the sale of my artworks, and from my experience of owning and operating a gallery I understand the great efforts that go into making that possible. I think it is a very generous act on behalf of an individual or an institution to want to purchase and care for a work of art over time. It’s a great responsibility, and I am very appreciative. I put most of the money I make back into producing new work, and again am grateful that I am able to pursue new ideas due to the sale of my work.

What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?

It’s not an item, it’s an individual and that’s my assistant Max Palmer. Which leads me to mention he came recommended by Julie Pochron, an equally indispensable person. She is an amazing artist and printer — she works with me on all of my prints, and she and all those who work at her studio are crucial to my process. Matthew Dipple, my boyfriend, is also incredibly important for feedback and support, he is very helpful at all stages but especially at the end.

Where are you finding ideas for your work these days?

My trip this past fall was very inspiring for my current work, and in general I find traveling and photographing [to be] the start of much of my process, but I also get ideas from books, and publications, current events, and my studio.

Do you collect anything?

New York Times newspapers.

What is your karaoke song?

I learned my lesson and will never attempt a Beyoncé song again. So, I would say Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide.” Recently I heard Sonic Youth’s version of the Carpenters “Superstar” and I thought that would be a good karaoke song.

What’s the last artwork you purchased?

I bought these beautiful jewelry pieces by my sister-in-law Anya Kielar recently. Otherwise, sadly, I haven’t bought artwork in a while, but when we had [Soho gallery, run by VanDerbeek, Johannes VanDerBeek, and Kielar] Guild & Greyshkul, occasionally I would buy a work by an artist we worked with. We currently have a print by Mariah Robertson that I bought a few years ago hanging in our living room that I love to stare at.

What’s the first artwork you ever sold?

My good friend in high school’s father kindly bought a sculpture I made.

What’s the weirdest thing you ever saw happen in a museum or gallery?

I don’t have an interesting story, but I interned at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, and I found that experience so amazing because I got to be behind the scenes of this great museum. It was more fun then weird, but I loved working in the basement cataloging clothes and going to the staff cafeteria.

What’s your art-world pet peeve?

I don’t have any.

What’s your favorite post-gallery watering hole or restaurant?

I like going to the Carlyle after an opening uptown but that happens about once every two years.

Do you have a gallery/museum-going routine?

I feel like I don’t get to see enough shows to have a routine, but I like to go uptown on a Sunday to the Metropolitan and then Café Sabarsky.

What’s the last great book you read?

Last book I read all the way through was a while ago, I’m slowly making my way through “Villette” by Charlotte Bronte.

What work of art do you wish you owned?

I can’t answer [with] just one: a painting by Matisse, a sculpture by Brancusi, a photograph by Lee Miller, and in contemporary art I would like to own a sculpture by Rachel Harrison, a photograph by Sarah Charlesworth, and a painting by Glenn Ligon.

What would you do to get it?

These are all dreams, so I have no plan.

What international art destination do you most want to visit?

I’d like to visit South America and Mexico sometime soon. I’d also like to visit Japan to see the textiles in Kyoto. 

What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about?

I think Native American artwork and artifacts and dance are remarkable. Both ancient and contemporary works have an incredible use of pattern, symbol, and color. Continuing from an earlier question, I would really love to own a Navajo chief-style blanket from the late 1800s.

Who’s your favorite living artist?

That is too difficult to answer, because I never have just one favorite. 

What are your hobbies?

My hope is this summer it will be roller-skating.

To see works by the artist, click on the slideshow.