Walk Like An Egyptian: Donald Baechler on his Controversial “Walking Figure”

Jul 17, 2014 5:36 pm

Donald Baechler has been searching since 1989 for ways to transport the elegantly awkward protagonists of his paintings and drawings into three dimensions. His sculptural endeavors have evolved quietly from the charming to the gawkily heroic. Initially, the artist labored to depict trees, vegetables and flowers, venturing occasionally into the realm of the human figure. Around 2003, he found his muse, so to speak, in one of his drawings of a charming young lady.

His “Walking Figure,” first constructed as a papier-mâché model, is a richly textured female form in mid-stride, whose spindly arms and legs jut out from her diamond-shaped body. Her expression betrays contented determination-like a young woman scurrying toward a rendezvous with a new boyfriend or darting off to a vacation spot. After casting 10-foot bronze versions that found homes on sidewalks and at shopping centers, Baechler was commissioned about five years ago by New York real estate developer Rechler Equity Partners, the developer of an industrial park at Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., to create a 30-foot, 5,000-pound aluminum version. It now adorns a traffic circle at the airport. Since Baechler’s work has almost always been shaped in some form by his travels to distant ports, one can’t help but feel the sculpture’s location to be poetically appropriate.

The “Walking Figure” was installed in early June and gave rise to some grousing from local residents. “I’m not a connoisseur of art, so what can I say?” Mayor Conrad Teller told Newsday. “I have a lot of people who have seen it and don’t think it belongs [at] an airport.” Local businessman Tony Intravaia told the New York Observer, “It is art. But does art look good? No.” The limelight’s glare faded soon enough, but the sun will continue to shine on Baechler’s colossal lady for decades to come.

The artist spoke recently with A.i.A. at his studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood while on a break from preparations for a September show at Galerie Forsblum in Helsinki.

DAVID GREENBERG A drawing you made in 1986 that was included in your 2001 book York House Suite seems to have served as the genesis for the “Walking Figure.” When you were making those small drawings, did you ever imagine one of them evolving into something so enormous?

DONALD BAECHLER I had no idea. “Walking Figure” comes directly from a drawing in that series. They were really twee little things. Yet, something about them resonated with me when I was looking for a way to connect the iconographic program of my sculptures with the one in my paintings and works on paper. So I started pulling images directly from the drawings, seeing how they would work three-dimensionally. And that one just really clicked. It was the first one I did working with the [New York-based] fabricator Aga Ousseinov. He’s a classically trained sculpture enlarger from Georgia.

GREENBERG A few years after making those drawings you took a trip to Egypt. Does “Walking Figure” have any Egyptian resonance for you?

BAECHLER That’s something I noticed after the fact. It could easily be linked to Egyptian temple paintings or incised walking figures, but more often people mention, a bit dismayingly, Olive Oyl. I love Popeye, but I just don’t see it. I was more interested in Giacometti. There’s a 10-foot-tall version of the same sculpture on a sidewalk on Olive Street in the business section of St. Louis, Mo. The locals call it “Olive on Olive.” They seem to love it. In that case, the coincidence of the street name reinforced the connection.  

GREENBERG What did you make of the mini-controversy around the work when it was installed?

BAECHLER Was anyone really outraged? It got a remarkable amount of attention right away. The Huffington Post had a story the day after I was out there overseeing the installation. But I think it will be liked when people get used to it-and when it’s in context with the landscaping around it. Right now, it’s this weird thing that appeared at a construction site. The developer, Mitchell Rechler, is a Long Island local-a major collector and a wonderful guy. He realized he didn’t need permission from anyone except the FAA. If anyone was mad, maybe it’s because the town wasn’t informed. But it’s not like somebody wakes up and has to look at this thing. You see it as you drive by.

GREENBERG Was it cast in aluminum instead of bronze for aesthetic, technical or cost reasons?

BAECHLER All of the above. Bronze is a kind of soft metal. It would’ve needed some extra support. There’s a lot of wind there. Inside there’s an aluminum substructure. So even in a hurricane it would stay standing. In an exposed environment like that, we thought aluminum would have fewer problems. Plus, the salt air will make the surface richer. It will darken over time.