Sculptor Jonathan Borofsky’s monumental works can be found around the globe, but he’s never exhibited in his home state — until now.
By Daniel Kany[B]efore gravity returned me home to Maine, my family lived for a while in Seattle, where Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Man was the favorite public artwork of my two young sons. I have many pictures of them in front of the sculpture at the Seattle Art Museum, posing and sometimes mimicking its pounding gesture.
Hammering Man is a 48-foot-tall, black-painted steel silhouette of a figure with a mechanical arm that comes down four times every minute except on Labor Day. Not an idealized Hercules type, the figure has a typical build that, according to the artist, suggests “the worker in all of us.” Borofsky’s giant white Walking Man strides over a sidewalk in Munich; his People Tower looms over Beijing’s Olympic Park. And his presence in America has not been minor: In 1999, the LA Times noted, “Jonathan Borofsky is responsible for some of the finer moments in Los Angeles public sculpture.” His vast, site-specific wall drawing, Running People at 2,616,216, occupies the coolest space in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new Renzo Piano–designed building — a giant sunset-side glass corridor overlooking the Hudson River.
Where you have not been able to see Borofsky’s work, however, is in Maine, even though the artist has lived in Ogunquit since 1992. But that’s about to change: On June 26, a solo show of his work will open the Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s new Toshiko Mori–designed building in Rockland. Borofsky’s work will be featured in the main gallery, and the latest sculpture in his Human Structures series will tower above the U-shaped building from its courtyard.
Ten minutes from his home, Borofsky’s large studio in Wells is filled with paintings, installations, drawings, and sculptures; it has the pulsing energy of a life-size mockup when I visit. Near the center of the studio is an 18-foot-high Human Structures sculpture composed of 30 interlinked, colorful galvanized-steel human figures. The piece offers an impressive sense of scale relative to the CMCA piece, which will reach 24 feet into the air. Though simply rendered, like pixelated video-game characters, the figures exude a sense of essential humanness. “The fundamental human condition is interconnectedness,” Borofsky says, flashing a smile.
I like to think that numbers are like god: they connect us all together.
Tall and robust at 74, Borofsky describes himself as a “loner” and chooses to work in self-imposed solitude. In person, though, he’s affable, and his art is all about human connectedness. “Deep down is where we truly connect,” he explains. “My work is about connecting the personal to the universal. Even when I get specific, like when I put numbers on my works, they become part of a framework. Being part of a series becomes a conceptual reference, but it also can have spiritual connotations. I like to think that numbers are like god: they connect us all together.” In 1969, Borfosky began writing a series of numbers on sheets of paper, often for hours each day, and he sometimes lends whatever number he has reached to the title of his completed works. So the Whitney mural, for example, was not his 2,616,216th piece — rather, the title marks where he was within this extraordinary conceptual undertaking. As of last count, Borofsky passed 10,897,037, but he says, “I don’t refer to, or add to, that exercise very often anymore.”
Borofsky goes to his studio each day. At night, while his wife reads, he draws in bed. In the morning, he turns many of the doodle-like drawings into paintings. “They are all self-portraits of some sort,” he muses. “I draw a cell and that becomes a form — an organic whole — with many facets of my world, like the goose and horse that I visit daily at the farm next door.”
A Boston-area native, Borofsky has lifelong ties to Maine. Every summer for 30 years, his mother, an architect and painter, came to Ogunquit, where she had a small gallery and showed her art, several examples of which hang in the studio kitchen. When he was young, she asked if he wanted to study painting under Harvard professor Albert Alcalay. He did, and he soon discovered he had both talent and drive. He went on to study at Carnegie Mellon and Yale.
Despite Borofsky’s best efforts to make work that’s not easily assimilated by the market — “I don’t like to be collected,” he says unapologetically — he found audiences and success in New York and then LA. But a longing for peace brought him back to Ogunquit. “Maine is my buffer zone from the art world, a creative personal space,” he says.
While he hesitates to assign specific meaning to his art, Borofsky is very comfortable discussing the ideas behind his content. He likes, for example, how the word “figure” means both “number” and “person.” He’s fascinated by how separate particles come together to create whole things: “My drawings start with a particle that has been formalized and then broken into parts. One becomes many. And many become one.” While the conversation may sound esoteric or even spiritual, Borofsky’s art is, at its simplest, always about people.
“The goal is humanism,” the artist explains. “Art is a tool for finding out who you are.”
Photographs by Michael Wilson