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Remembering the Curious Worlds of Sculptor David Beck

Artist Oriane Stender reflects on the wild imagination and underrated career of the San Francisco-based sculptor, who died in October.

David Beck, “DODO MUSEUM” (1980), mixed media, wood, feathers, copper and electric lightbulb, 86 1/2 x 34 x 36 inches overall (all photos courtesy the estate of the artist unless otherwise noted)

David Beck — sculptor, draughtsman, musician, master of skills too numerous to mention — died at the age of 65 on Tuesday, October 23, in San Francisco. Beck’s friend Chris Sullivan, an artist and writer now living in New Orleans, once attempted to sum up David’s talents and accomplishments with “PHGLA” (Perhaps Humanity’s Greatest Living Artist), an acronym that sadly must now lose a letter.

I met David in the late 1980s in San Francisco, shortly after he had moved from New York, following a series of evictions from live/work spaces he had carved out in unheated storefronts in post-industrial semi-wastelands, before the real estate industry had given them names like Tribeca. His many housing troubles had included legal proceedings and broken friendships. David went through stories familiar to many artists: landlords turning off electricity, turning off water, and other hostile gestures designed to force out inconvenient tenants who were often the ones who had made the lofts habitable in the first place.

David Beck, “Anonymity” (1980), mixed media construction, 6 1/8 x 8 1/8 x 3 1/8 inches

Frustrated by the constant instability of housing in New York, David had driven across the country with his girlfriend Marge Lurie because his art dealer, Allan Stone (1932-2006), who lived in Purchase, New York, had just bought a large building — which had been a boys’ reformatory, then the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design — on lower Potrero Hill in San Francisco, and suggested that David live there while looking for a more permanent space. While the main building was being gutted and remodeled into a vacation home to house and show Stone’s vast collection of modern, contemporary, African, tribal, and folk art, David and Marge moved into the little house next door, which David, master carpenter that he was, rebuilt into a beautiful living space and studio.

Marge, a lifelong New Yorker who had never learned to drive, was not happy in San Francisco from the minute they arrived. You couldn’t get good bagels, you couldn’t smoke anywhere indoors, there wasn’t a decent newspaper, people moved too slowly. The last straw for her was the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, after which she packed up and went back to New York.

Allan Stone, David Beck, Oriane Stender, and Bob Kogod (c. 1993) (photo courtesy Oriane Stender)

When I met David, I lived in one of those situations that doesn’t exist anymore for non-rich people in San Francisco: a two-bedroom flat at the top of Telegraph Hill (if you leaned out the window, you could see the Golden Gate Bridge), for $500 a month. My Italian landlord lived in the top flat, and I never had a lease, but I had lived there for over 10 years with various roommates (the rent never went up; why would I move?) when I started seeing David. After I moved in with him on Potrero Hill, I held onto to my place, “subletting” it to my roommate for two years, until the rent finally went up, and I gave it up. I lived with David in the little house attached to Allan’s big house for 14 years.

David had an otherworldly quality, and seemed somehow akin to untrained and visionary artists — particularly those who had built systems, environments, whole worlds of their own, although, having gone to art school and with New York gallery representation, he couldn’t be considered an outsider. He was very private, even aloof at first. Once you got to know him, he was inquisitive, resourceful, generous, and had a sharp and very dry wit. He was smart and knowledgeable but he was not of the class of overeducated, sophisticated intellectuals that felt entitled to success. He had an unusual combination of worldliness and small-town humility. Ever since the time, at age 22, he had excitedly said to a guy on the next bar stool in New York, “Guess what? I’m about to have my first solo show!” and the other man said, “I’m 60 years old and I’ve never had a show,” he was modest about his career and never bragged. He always erred in the other direction.

David Beck, “Octopus Carving” (c. 1999) Carved boxwood (3.5″ x 2.5″) (photo by Chris Sullivan)

David was born in 1953 and grew up in Marion, Indiana. His mother, one of 10 siblings, many of them farmers, was a nurse; his father taught shop at the high school. He knew no artists growing up, and there were no obvious artistic influences in his environment, other than a couple of visits to the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum in Chicago. He was an anomaly as a child and teenager in his town, although a few close friends also got out and became artists. Visiting Marion and staying in his old bedroom was perhaps the most oppressive, claustrophobic environment I had ever experienced, and connected me to a deep melancholy, a sadness in David that never left him. He did have some entertaining stories about his teenage years. One friend’s mother was a pal of James Dean, who came from a town just up the road, and had once borrowed Dean’s sweater and stretched it out, due to her gigantic breasts, to the point that he could no longer wear it — a classic teenage boy story. She also apparently made a mean mayonnaise cake, an example of the Midwest vernacular gastronomy that made my coastal-elite stomach queasy. Mostly David had had a lonely childhood and couldn’t wait to get out.

David Beck, “Livre de Peche” (detail) (2003) Boxwood, silver, lacquer in cherry, brass

After high school, David spent a year at Indiana University at Bloomington, where a teacher saw his drawings and proclaimed that David must go to a real art school. David didn’t know from art schools, and had no money to attend any sort of private college. The teacher said, “I’ll take care of it,” and got David enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University (then Carnegie Tech) with a full scholarship and a work-study position. At Carnegie Mellon, he formed a group with other students called “It’ll Do Casual Construction” that built sets, put on performances, and generally got up to mischief and shenanigans.

David had liked magic as a young boy and had sent away for a magic kit that he saw advertised in a comic book. His early work — quirky drawings and cartoons, and box construction/dioramas — reflects this interest in magic and performance, as well as his interest in folk art and surrealism. During David’s senior year at Carnegie Mellon, he drove to New York with some friends to show their work to galleries. One dealer suggested that his box of drawings and small sculptures looked like something Allan Stone might go for. Allan did go for it. He put David in a group show while he was still in school and scheduled a solo show for the following year. The course of David’s career for the next several decades was set. (David was exclusively represented by Allan Stone Gallery until Allan’s death, when David started showing with Hackett Mill Gallery in San Francisco.)

Interior detail of “Untitled (Dodo with Interior Dodo Diorama)” (1977)

Allan had six daughters and no sons, and David became a sort of surrogate son. David learned a lot from Allan, who was a voracious collector as well as a dealer, about various artists who Allan showed, and whose worked he owned (including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, John Graham, Joseph Cornell, Arshile Gorky, Wayne Thiebaud and others) and about the workings of the art world. During the time David showed with Allan, his solo shows were reviewed by the New York Times, Washington Post, Art in America, and many other publications. His work was placed in many private and corporate collections. He has several major pieces in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (facilitated by Betsy Broun, the director of SAAM until 2016, who was a big fan of David’s), including MVSEVM, a building that commands the entryway and was commissioned for the reopening of SAAM/The National Portrait Gallery after an extensive expansion in 2006.

In addition to his deep knowledge of Modern art, an interest sparked initially by Allan Stone, his influences and affinities ranged from film noir to Petey Wheatstraw (“the devil’s son-in-law”) to Robert Johnson to medieval Catholic reliquaries to Horace Pippin to Florine Stettheimer to The Three Stooges to Athanasius Kircher. He was the first person to introduce me to the work of Eugene von Bruenchenhein, Louis Eilshemius, and many folk and outsider artists before they were in vogue.

David had a lot of twisting, compartmentalized branches in his life, something reflected in his work. He made many pieces with drawers, hidden sections, and inside scenes that are hard for the viewer to access; they contain secrets and mysteries, rebuses and encoded words, things that even those of us who knew him don’t always see or understand. His complex constructions always had a sensitivity to the distinction between the viewer’s experience of the interior and the exterior.

He had an endless curiosity about animals both extant and extinct, the ocean, the planets, humankind, mythology, and music, and made art about these subjects. He made many large pieces in the forms of animals with invented worlds inside them. The first one I saw was a life-sized wild boar, covered with real boar bristles with a roll-top desk-type opening revealing a scene inside . There was also a rhinoceros (shown at the Guggenheim Museum in the 1999 show Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, The Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections, and a turtle, both with interior scenes with moving parts.

David loved jazz and listened to Oliver Nelson, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis as he worked. He took up the saxophone during his years in San Francisco, and regularly played with the Melanchoholics, a combo led by his friend Bill Noertker. As David’s work was solitary and labor-intensive, playing music got him out of the studio and interacting with others. (He also enjoyed going to flea markets and tending his garden of succulents.) He often referenced music in his work. One of his earliest large pieces, “This Is Not A Pipe Organ,” 1984, is — despite its title — a playable pipe organ, which he built out of bellows, a keyboard, a bunch of carved animals and feathers and fur.

David had an incredible work ethic and it seemed he could do anything. He mastered many methods and techniques by reading old books at the library. He taught himself gilding, egg tempera, sharkskin/shagreen, eggshell mosaic and marquetry in the style of European designers such as Jean Michel Frank (1895-1941) and Jean Dunand (1877-1942); metalworking and other techniques from the studios of the Bugatti dynasty (Rembrandt, Carlo, Ettore, and Jean); carving of ivory and wood, and painting in the style of illuminated manuscripts and Indian miniatures that he studied closely at the Metropolitan Museum. As his work became increasingly complex, all these skills were evident in abundance. He was relentlessly inventive and made fabulous furniture for our house, tables inlaid with wooden matchsticks, oyster shell and ostrich-egg mosaic.

At one spot in L’Opera, one of David’s tour de force grand buildings, completed in 1998, he carved the words “travail d’un seul homme” (the work of just one man), quoting Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924), one of his role models, who built his environment, Le Palais Ideal, on his off hours, on weekends, and after retirement from his job as a postman in rural France. Before the internet, David knew about strange places built by people who were not trained artists in the traditional sense. Even while acknowledging his influences, somehow David’s work and life truly reflect and embody le travail d’un seul homme.

“Travail d’un Seul Homme,” detail of carving on “L’Opera” (1998)

Although his work is highly accomplished — and unlike anyone else’s, ever — and much collected, he has remained somewhat of an unknown, or at least a lesser known artist to the world at large. Partly this was his choice as an extremely private person. He didn’t believe in networking, schmoozing, jockeying for position. He felt an artist’s job was to make the work, and the dealer’s job was to get it out in the world. He never applied for grants: he had a working-class pride in his ability to earn his own living, which, in the early years, when he was still very poor, had included gigs as an art mover and art installer; why should he ask for money? He never applied for prizes or residencies. At one point, Wayne Thiebaud, who had a house around the corner from Allan’s property in San Francisco, nominated David for membership in the National Academy, but when his name came up for voting, Wayne, who lived in California, wasn’t present, and not enough members knew who he was to vote him in. Friends, admirers and future historians are all indebted to Olympia Stone for her wonderful documentary film, Curious Worlds: The Art and Imagination of David Beck, which was shown on PBS in 2016.

David Beck, “Untitled (Dodo with Interior Dodo Diorama)” (1977), mixed media, carved and painted wood, glass, and feathers, 21 x 14 x 27 inches (image courtesy the artist and Allan Stone Projects) (click to enlarge)

Through Allan, David met Bob and Arlene Kogod, of Washington, DC, who became lifelong patrons as well as great personal friends to David. The Kogods commissioned many works by David for their home, and they
remained close to David for the rest of his life.

David was a generous friend and extremely supportive of my own work as an artist. Once, when I had an idea for something and told him about it, saying, “But it will take forever to make,” he said, “start today.” It was one of the most important things he ever said to me.

He is predeceased by his parents, Bill and Violet, of Marion, IN; and survived by his siblings Tom, of Marion, IN; Andy, of Albany, IN; and Betty Wenger, of Goshen, IN, and many cousins; his loving companion Sidney Russell and her family, of San Francisco; the Kogod family; and many friends, colleagues, fans, fellow artists, musicians, and other bereft humans. While his passing leaves us inconsolable, we are lucky to have had him with us for a while. Life goes quickly; start today.

To honor David’s memory, Floating Stone Productions has made the documentary Curious Worlds: The Art and Imagination of David Beck available to watch at no charge at this link. Use the code FREEDAVID. 

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