The Missing Archive of Yuri Schwebler

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Installing “Magnetic North,” c 1970-71. Image Courtesy Rory Connell

Now that it is winter, and the east coast of the U.S. is likely bracing for another portmanteau of snow, we’ll take a moment to recall the time the Washington Monument was turned into a sundial.

Featured briefly on the CBS Evening News on Monday, February 11, 1974, sculptor Yuri Schwebler, visibly cold, stands by and somewhat awkwardly discuses his motivation to ray lines away from the base of the Washington Monument to transform it into a sun dial. As his response ranges from articulate to school-boy giddy, it’s clear his motivation is sincere: sincere-enough that in 1971 he filed a permit with the National Park Service and waited three years before the snow was just the right depth to make the work.

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“The Washington Monument Sundial Project,” 1974

I lived in DC for a decade, and learned of Schwebler through a friend who had a work in her home: a ruler bisecting the boundary of an irregularly shaped box, with a plumb bob dangled taut in the middle. It was handsome for its craft, Cornell-like, and maintained the same sense of mysticism and lyricism in its juxtaposition of elements. Despite its stark minimalism it suggested larger ideas, as if the artwork itself might be capable of measuring the tilt of the earth’s axis over the span of a year.

He was an artist whose work I admired, though I knew little about him or the work.

So, since I’ve been kicking around the subject of archives lately, I thought I’d look at the Archives of American Art (AAA) to see what there was about him.

Nothing under Schwebler in the Index of Collections.

A broader search of AAA’s website revealed little more: one folder in the estate archives of Henri Gallery—a once popular gallery in D.C. from 1957–1996 where, according to a few people, he never exhibited. A general web-search revealed a little more. There were several archived New York Times articles about an exhibition, “The Studio,” at the Hudson River Museum in 1981. The catalog for that exhibition could be found, in its entirety, on Google Books.

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Installation view of “Six Sculptures Between the Number Three and Four,” ArtPark, 1976

And then, there was his obituary from the Washington Post. Schwebler committed suicide in 1990.  I wouldn’t hear about him for the first time for almost 20 years.

Reading the articles in the Times, it was clear writers respected and were challenged by his work. His CV in “The Studio” catalog made it clear that he had a significant career in DC, with numerous gallery exhibitions as well as exhibitions at the Phillips Collection and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He earned an NEA fellowship in 1975, had a sculpture included at ArtPark in 1976, and was included in the 10th Paris Biennale of Young Artists in 1977. Yet, his CV ends in 1981. And a quarter-century since his death, he has been nearly forgotten, with exception to some mentions in a few blog posts, and the answer to a question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

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Knowing some nearly forgotten, obscure artist was an answer to a question on a syndicated game show seems like scraping the bottom of a shallow barrel. And, were it not for his nephew, that factoid might remain equally forgotten. Rory Connell’s sister was watching daytime TV a couple years back when she heard the question and answer. She immediately let her brother know. Since then, he’s been hoping to find a screen shot of the question from the October 20, 2014; it’s not often his uncle, Yuri Schwebler, gets mention in popular culture.

Connell, a disaster planner who consults with mass transit agencies, was 13 when his uncle committed suicide. He’s one of the few living family members who could reveal any history about his early life.

Schwebler was born in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia in 1943. Throughout the first parts of his childhood his father had either been conscripted into the Wehrmacht— serving in Germany’s army—or a P.O.W. in a Russian labor camp, where he was tortured and had both legs broken. Once reunited with his family, Schwebler was a boy, and Connell suggested his uncle and grandfather had a strained relationship. Two sisters were born after the war, and the family emigrated in 1956, settling in Delaware.

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Installing “Magnetic North,” c 1970-71. Image Courtesy Rory Connell

“I wanted to be an artist as a kid,” Connell noted. ” [Yuri] was obviously a role model. He wasn’t the kind of artist I saw most places.” Although Connell had an interest in drawing, he was aware of the type of work his uncle made, having seen the edition of the Washington Star that featured Schwebler’s sun dial. “He was more interesting and conceptual. And that appealed to me a lot.” Over the years he has seen the Cornell-like constructions of plumb bobs and broken glass. He was familiar with a project where Schwebler went around DC with a can of spray paint and a hard hat, demarcating landmarks and objects that pointed to magnetic north. But, at the same time, he didn’t really know his uncle all that well, referring to him as somewhat estranged from the family

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Installing “Magnetic North,” c 1970-71. Image Courtesy Rory Connell

After Schwebler’s death, the family was invited to his home by his partner. “He had a really nice studio,” Connell recalled. On the tour, they passed Schwebler’s drawing table in his studio: there was a pencil. “And it said, “Yuri Schwebler, #2, This is Not a Drawing Tool.” And, I thought this was amazing!” Connell asked Schwebler’s partner if he could have the pencil. She said no. The tour progressed. Later in the day, after they returned to the car, Connell’s father handed him the pencil saying, “Here you go. I just grabbed it. Obviously there are a lot of these pencils around.” A couple of months later, the family attended a memorial service for his uncle in DC. Schwebler’s partner gave a long speech about Yuri, and his life, according to Connell. She recounted the time that she met him at a party and said that “he gave me a pencil as his calling card.” As Connell remembers, she then stared at him. Of course, she had no idea that Connell wasn’t the one who took it. And, up until then, Connell had no idea the larger significance of the pencil.

In later years, Connell picked up other things along the way: photocopies of articles, a brochure from an exhibition entitled “Not a Plumb Bob in Sight,” and the printer press for the Washington Star-News when the sun dial was featured on the front page. Some are artifacts handed down from his grandmother, others the fruit of sporadic searches. Finding the catalog for “The Studio” is as easy as looking on Amazon for a copy. But he’s never taken the time to do a deep dive.

At least, not like this search for an archive.

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Archives can be tedious things. There are the records of sales, and the contracts, and all the notes of provenance that bored students in history classes have to recall on exams. Then there are the more interesting elements: the letters and notes and various scribblings that dive into the relationships between people and the meaning behind works. It’s where the personality really lives: Nam June Paik mailing the desiccated remains of a goldfish; Salvatore Scarpitta writing overworked motorsport poetry to Leo Castelli; Rockne Krebs labeling every box “stuff.” Were it not for an archive of papers, David Foster Wallace’s final book, “The Pale King,” would not exist. The lack of a Schwebler archive nagged at me to the point that I wondered if such an archive could be found, or at least constructed.

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Installation from “Tool Alchemy” at Protech–Rivkin Gallery, 1972.

Therein lies at least one, minor technical issue. “It is a basic principle of archives to maintain the provenance of the papers,” Liza Kerwin emphasized. As deputy director of the Archives of American Art, she’s the one in charge of how the donation of papers is managed. For example, let’s say you had correspondence with Mark Rothko, and wanted to donate them to AAA, “those would be your papers, not Rothko’s,” Kerwin declared. “Those would be the papers you acquired, kept, and saved.” So, in the end, if anyone were looking through the alphabetical index, they’d find nothing under Rothko. But if they did a search on the AAA site, the spiders would find mention of Rothko’s name in the summary of your collection of letters. Meaning: any archive I could find, if it were donated to AAA, it likely wouldn’t become a Schwebler archive—it would be an archive of the donor.

For several months after speaking with Connell, I followed what breadcrumbs I could find: responses to videos; names in articles and catalogs. I communicated with over a dozen people, and received suggestions to find at least a dozen more. There were rabbit holes that lead to nothing, unanswered e-mails from possible leads, and the deflating truth that, over the span of forty-odd years, a lot (but, not all) has been lost to fires, floods, moves, dumpsters, and simple misplacement.

That’s not to say I’ve spent half a year chasing windmills. Those who shared memories of the artist reflected with some fondness on the man several described as mercurial, and of the alchemy within his work.

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Former critic for the Washington Star, Ben Forgey, recalled stories Schwebler told him of creating sculptures in California in the late 1960s. Made from stones found on the beach, they were placed in such a manner so they would be destroyed by the tide. The first article Forgey wrote about Schwebler was of a project akin to those beach sculptures. “Alley To Which The Sun Was Tied, 23 Aug. 1971 5:49 to 6:41” existed between the times listed in the title, remembered only by a spray-painted outline and label. According to Forgey’s description, the sun crept into the darkened alley and rested, filling the alley. Within an hour, the bird had flown.  “He actually went around looking for alleys where the configuration of buildings would frame the sunlight in a particular way,” Forgey recalled. In the same article, Forgey makes note of Schwebler’s Magnetic North piece (mentioned by Connell).

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Private commission for Frederick Kellogg, 1978.

As Forgey noted, these pieces were during the same six years Lucy Lippard was working on what became “Six Years: Dematerialization of the Art Object,” which tackled what eventually became known as the masterpieces of Conceptualism.   “Yuri was out in front of that movement,” reflected Forgey. However, he may have been the only artist to execute such ephemeral works in DC; without a connection to the art spheres of New York or LA, he may as well have been making the work on the moon. “He wasn’t mentioned in that book. She didn’t know about him.”

Not all of his projects were as ephemeral as a sliver of sun trapped in an alley, or a shadow moving across the snow. Art historian, and Editor of the Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Neil Printz, worked under Walter Hopps during a brief fellowship in the 1976. He recalls Schwebler as one of the first artists he met in DC. But Printz’s more indelible memory of Schwebler was when he was assistant to Nina Felshin, the American Commissioner for the 10th Paris Biennale of Young Artists. “There was no financial assistance from the national government,” Printz remembered, “and it seemed like every artist at the time had site-specific pieces or were engaged in performance artworks.”  Part of his job was raising funds for room and board for the artists. Schwebler had a piece entitled “Dix X,” or Ten Exes, a series of wires that criss-crossed in the court yard of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Each wire was to include a plumb bob that (for reasons unclear) had to be made Paris. “I don’t remember how we did it. My French was so poor, but I remember talking with several foundries trying to get plumb bobs made.”

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Installation of “Dix X,” 1977.

Notions of impermanence also extended into performative spaces. “I can’t fully recall who recommended me,” remembered Holly Fairbank by e-mail, “but we met at a coffee house off of Chambers Street and started our collaboration from there.” Fairbank, who is currently the Executive Director of the Maxine Greene Center, was a graduate student at the time when Schwebler asked her to collaborate on a dance piece for the exhibition. Boiled down, Schwebler’s exhibition, “The Studio,” interpreted how he envisioned the studios of influential artists like Giacometti, Brancussi, and David Smith, but intertwined with the realities of New York City. “At that point in time, space in SOHO for dancers and dance-making was in high demand and we often “shared space” with other artists,” Fairbank noted. The concept for the piece included a recording on an answering machine (new technology at the time), with dancers needing to move the materials in the studio for their rehearsal. “[Kinetic sculpture] did of course come up, but we were also thinking about it as performance art. And at that time dance companies (like Cunningham and others) were performing in art galleries and there was a lot of cross-over/cross-fertilization between disciplines.”

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Performance of “Shared Space,” 1981. Image Courtesy Holly Fairbanks

That’s not to say all of his collaborations went smoothly. “As I recall, Yuri wasn’t all that happy that I wrote the essay from an historical view point.” Schwebler had asked Lynda Roscoe Hartigan to write the catalog essay for the exhibition catalog at the Hudson River Museum. “And I’m like, Dude, you didn’t spend the time to make the work for me to write about it.” Hartigan, who is currently Deputy Director of the Peabody Essex Museum, had also worked for Walter Hopps at the National Collection of Fine Arts in the 1970s, and had gotten to know Schwebler through Hopps—who was a big supporter of Schwbler’s work. Hartigan gained Schwebler’s respect based on her research of Joseph Cornell. “I spent a fair amount of time listening to Yuri talk about what he was going to make, but at the time that I wrote the essay, I had no work to look at.” Footnotes to Hartigan’s essay indicate several conversations with the artist throughout 1980. Taking a more responsible position, Hartigan instead wrote about the historic importance of the artist’s studio. “You know… as can often happen, the artist puts the last piece in place and the first visitor walks in,” Hartigan reflected further. “And in this case it went down to the wire.”

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While a student at Western Maryland College, Schwebler had been encouraged to move to DC by painter Clyfford Still. The city would become his home throughout the 1970s. Occasionally he would drop into other artist studios—that’s how he met Enid Sanford, a talented painter who was prone to experiment with shaped canvases and plastics in her work (at the time), in addition to more traditional approaches. That’s how she recalls meeting Schwebler: it had nothing to do with a pencil. “The pencil [Connell] mentioned was a permanent part of a sculpture of Yuri’s glued to a drawing table titled, “Drawing Table-Table Drawing,”” Sanford pointed out via e-mail. “Obviously, it wasn’t meant to be removed.”

The two left DC around 1980, and put down stakes in New York. They split their time between a flat in the city, and a house that Schwebler found on the Hudson River, near Poughkeepsie. “I think he loved it there,” Sanford recalled, “roaming the grounds with his two Akitas, taking them down to the river through the woods.”

She has kept several of his pieces, including several large sculptures, sketches, and preparatory drawings, as well as some geometric constructions utilizing tools like right angles and shovels. “Yuri did not keep any papers in relation to collectors or reviews,” Sanford noted “trusting I suppose to the records of the gallerist.” Those records (I’ve learned) have since been lost. Of things Schwebler did keep: personal correspondence and photographs.

Example of small, “Cornell-like,” construction. Title unknown. 1979.

Example of small, “Cornell-like,” construction. Title unknown. 1979.

Sanford did note that Schwebler kept working after the Hudson River Museum exhibition came to a close, showing her work as he made it. He was also considering a project involving a railroad bridge that ran parallel to the Mid-Hudson Bridge. “I had the feeling that he needed to be part of a group of other artists, as he was in Washington, who more or less responded to what he was doing as he was doing it…….which would explain why he did so little during that time.”

The ellipses were Sanford’s, and they weighed heavy on me as I attempted to make sense of this quest to find an archive of a nearly forgotten artist. “You picked a difficult artist to illustrate this,” Ben Forgey remarked, noting the irony that, of all the artists I could choose to do this, I picked one whose work was often so ephemeral.

“It is not only an archive by which you get to know an artist, well known or otherwise,” Lynda Roscoe Hartigan suggested during our interview, recalling her research on Joseph Cornell: an artist she never met. Instead, she’s had to interview hundreds of people around the world. “You just kind of have to turn the earth over as much as possible and look at as much work as possible to see if you can connect the two.”

Still, having those materials would be helpful. Not all has been lost, though. Apart from the things found or kept by Rory Connell or Enid Sanford, it’s possible Ben Forgey’s archives at AAA have something relevant to Schwebler. An archive of secondary resource materials does exist at the Smithsonian Libraries: news clippings and exhibition announcements, mostly. The Hudson River Museum does have an archive of slides and other materials in dead storage. And there are still a dozen or more names of people recommended to me that I haven’t contacted.

However, in many respects, the stories of friends and colleagues serve as a more fitting archive, like a photograph blurred in the moment and faded by the light of 30 years. The result is an imperfect portrait that raises more questions, and could use more study. “The trail is as interesting as what you find on it,” Neil Printz concluded of the research process. Perhaps it is only more so to the one blazing the path.

By John Anderson

4 responses

  1. I lived with Yuri for several years. He used part of our apartment to show large glass sculptures. I worked on many of his projects. If you or anyone else wants more information about him comment on this thread.

      • Thanks for the note, Allen. I’ll ask the editor to forward your contact, or vice versa. It would be interesting to learn more, especially recollections about the installation at ArtPark, or lugging 500 lb slabs of slate for the Kellogg sculpture, etc.

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