Jed Morse, curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center, believes that viewers can approach Tobolowsky’s work on a number of levels. “There’s just the sheer physicality of the sculptures,” he says. “The weight. The mass. The steel. The simple act of walking around them.” Then, Morse says, there’s the history of the pieces, the found objects’ life and utility. “It’s another point of entry for appreciation.” And thirdly, “Although the works are assemblages, they are very intentional in shape, line, and form.” Morse considers Tobolowsky an extension in the tradition of welded steel sculptors that includes Julio González, Picasso, and David Smith.
Thirty minutes out of Tyler, Tobolowsky shifts and groans like a man flying coach to Singapore. “I’m going to pull off at this McDonald’s,” he says. “Walking’s not too bad. Sitting’s what hurts.” When we get back on the highway, he hands over his BlackBerry. “Read this,” he says. An email calls for artist qualifications for the Love Field renovation. The city of Dallas will spend $2.6 million on newly commissioned artwork, 25 percent of which will be reserved for Dallas artists. (Tobolowsky was eventually named a finalist for the project. He’s also a finalist for an art project for the Omni Dallas Convention Center Hotel.)
Tobolowsky currently produces 30 sculptural steel pieces a year. He often names his pieces using business terminology: Reverse Triangular Merger, Hidden Dealbreaker, and My Traveling Entrepreneur, a 4,000-pound sculpture that is now owned by the Art Museum of Southeast Texas. Tobolowsky’s naming scheme is a nudge to observers to take a second look. “I got push-back, when I first started naming pieces,” he said. “Mostly from my family. But my artist friends saw the appropriateness of the names. They seemed to work.” The naming honors Tobolowsky’s business roots and the nature of the found objects themselves.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to paint?” is a question Tobolowsky sometimes gets from visitors. It doesn’t bother him. “I like found objects,” he says. “I like the shape and texture of pieces. I always try to figure out how an object was used. It helps me associate what goes with it.” Tobolowsky says that museum patrons and collectors want to know the stories of the component parts. “It’s better to know,” he says. “Besides, you’ve got to know what kind of metal it is.” Tobolowsky purchases his found objects at several Dallas-area scrap yards and fabrication plants. Gold Metal Recyclers is one of those scrap yards. It is located in southeast Dallas, separated from its neighbors by a tall, concrete wall. The security guards know Tobolowsky’s Chevy. They know the mustache. They smile when he pulls through the gate.
The back lot at Gold Metal Recyclers is a scene of civil war-quality devastation: cranes stack worn-out buses near a pile of highway signs; grapplers load shredded aluminum into a compactor; another set of cranes stacks Coke machines. There is a pyramid of blue trusses from Texas Stadium. A hard hat seems ridiculous at Gold Metal Recyclers, an umbrella for a hurricane. In the dust and roar, it’s a struggle to remember that something good is happening. Materials are being recycled, and art is being imagined.
Tyler is an important stop on Tobolowsky’s pilgrimage. It is the site of James Surls’ first public show. When museum curator Ken Tomio introduces Tobolowsky, the two men are semicircled by a crowd of perhaps 70 young couples and oil-money folks, one of whom purchased a sculpture earlier in the evening. “Usually when people take up art at an advanced age, they take up watercolors,” Tomio says, smiling. All around him and Tobolowsky are 1,000-pound sculptures. “I guess the seed was planted young in George,” he says.
All evening, men and women ignore typical gallery restraint and rub their fingers across Tobolowsky’s pieces. When asked why, they say they wanted to feel the texture. Some talk about the monochromatic quality of stainless steel, others, the anthropomorphic nature of the pieces. The museum staff has already had to warn visiting schoolteachers to keep their students off Tobolowsky’s sculptures on display outside. The pieces look friendly enough to climb. On this night, the piece that seems to garner the most attention, Wall Street, is a study of pressure and heat, and a belief that something beautiful might arise from all the commotion. Made from stainless steel, Wall Street weighs 1,200 pounds, about the same as a teenage buffalo. Wall Street is outfitted with wheels and tanks. Tulips seem to shoot from the top. It begs a viewer to locate a switch and turn it on.
As the evening winds down, a middle-aged woman is overheard commenting to her companion that Tobolowsky seems to know when his sculptures are finished. The question the woman inadvertently raises—when is a work complete?—has tortured artists ever since they painted in caves. Is a work complete when the inspiration has been translated onto canvas or steel or, perhaps, into sound? Something in our physical world? Or does completion require a third party, an observer, to take it all in? Tobolowsky has a more precise definition. “It’s done when it sells,” he says.
The accountant in Tobolowsky might always believe in markets serving as co-creators and assaying engines. Perhaps they are. Regardless, his personal transformation is beginning to look like its own kind of completion—the completion of a life, a movement from “I should do this” to “I must do this.” Surls says that if Tobolowsky didn’t sell another piece for five years, it wouldn’t matter.
“He wouldn’t stop making art,” Surls says. “He’s in.”
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