Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bob Cassilly

A few words about the great St. Louis sculptor/builder/doer/civic hero Bob Cassilly, who died this week in an accident while working on his long-anticipated Cementland project:

Bob Cassilly's work appeals to a huge range of people - it could never be called "elitist" - and works on many levels. It doesn't allow you to engage with it on a purely intellectual basis - it appeals to the physical, to memory, to things in the brainstem - but if you do choose to think about it, there are precedents to be found in the history of art and architecture - the monsters of Villa Orsini, obsessive "outsider"/folk art sculptors like Simon Rodia of the Watts Towers, and, above all in my mind, Antoni Gaudi. When I visited the Guell Park, I thought of Bob's work and was amazed that I'd never made the connection before. The mosaic work, the torquing cave-like arcades, the creatures - all have their echoes in Cassilly's work. But while Gaudi served wealthy patrons and the Church, Cassilly was truly a people's artist, making the best kind of public art, accessible but never condescending. He was like a DIY Gaudi, working with reclaimed materials (Gaudi's mosaics were made from discarded dinne plates and the like, but Cassilly took recycling and architectural salvage to a whole new level in the City Museum). And like Gaudi, his work was heavily craft-dependent - he needed a team of skilled craftsmen to realize his visions, but Cassilly was himself a great craftsmen, hands-on literally to the end.

In creating the City Museum, Cassilly and his collaborators (sometimes referred to as the "cowboys" or as their Twitter feed has it, Cassilly's "personal build monkeys") took an old shoe factory and turned it into, among other things, a repository of dreams...and nightmares. As the upper and outer parts of the museum allow you to climb into open space, high and free above the city, the lower regions of the museum, often aided by clever lighting, and especially after the addition of the Enchanted Caves, seemed to be an outlet for Cassilly's darker imaginings, or a portal into them. Primordial creatures lurk, concrete seems to melt, ooze, and mate with twisted metal. The logic of the museum's circulation is dream logic - slides and spiral staircases skip over several stories of the building, tunnels with the mouths of beasts spit you out in unexpected places. Perhaps only in Bob Cassilly's hands could the friendly burger-wielding Bob's Big Boy take on an eerie, portentous quality, as he does in the carnivalesque Beatnik Bob's section of the museum (of course, I may be the only person who took it that way!).

Terms like "interactive art" and "adventure play" become meaningless when applied to Cassilly's work because it goes so far beyond the type of work usually described by those terms. I'm pretty sure Bob never felt the need to study the "psychology of play" or the developmental needs of children in creating the City Museum or Turtle Park (which he famously vandalized in protest after his concrete sculptures were covered in an epoxy coating - a far greater vandalism, in his estimation). He didn't have to, because he'd somehow never lost the ability to see things from a kid's point of view. "Inner child" was a term that cropped up in almost any piece of writing about Cassilly, and to say he was "in touch" with it is probably a significant understatement. There were stories of him challenging members of his crew to race him up ladders (with a $100 bill as the prize). In an early story about the Cementland project (which, I noticed upon rereading, also includes a Gaudi comparison that wouldn't have meant much to me at the time it was written, before I'd seen Gaudi's work in person), he was quoted on the pent-up desire he was sure people had to throw rocks off of the site's tall smokestacks, a desire he fully intended to satisfy (he rejected his earliest idea for the site, which was to fill it with sand and bring in camels). It was the combination of a child-like imagination with business acumen and the ability to make stuff happen which really made Cassilly a rarity, and an absolutely irreplaceable figure. If his final project is completed with even half of his conception intact, it will surely be a helluva thing to experience.

I thought that grabbing links to the best photos I could find on Flickr would be a suitable tribute since Cassilly's work begs to be photographed and is difficult to photograph badly - intensely three-dimensional, his work looks interesting from any angle, and as the photos of the City Museum show, it can be experienced from any angle, often from inside and out. I went a little nuts once I started browsing Flickr - I've got 65 links so far and that's only the City Museum. I might do some organizing and add photos of more projects, but these should give you a taste if you've never made it to St. Louis to see Cassilly's work for yourself (and I of course recommend you do):

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Bonus Links
Two accounts (with a video) of Cassilly's 2003 boxing match at the City Museum, by notable St. Louis scribes Thomas Crone and Randall Roberts.

No comments: