The artist Charles Ray walks to Burger King every day
“Not to eat but to think.”
Charles Ray (b. 1953)
After two-plus years of barely leaving my neighborhood in LA, I’ve just had two weeks of really getting away, with a trip to New York City and the Spanish island of Mallorca. (I’m writing this on the plane home.) Leaving the house: Recommended! I saw so much, and I feel like my brain has been jolted out of a longstanding stupor that I hadn’t even realized had taken hold.
One unexpected highlight was the 2022 Whitney Biennial, in New York—unexpected because I usually find these kinds of mega surveys totally overwhelming and run out of concentration energy after seeing about one-tenth of the works on display. But this time, for whatever reason, the moment I stepped away from one thing I got sucked into the next, and thereby rolled along on a wave of enthusiasm.
It was raining outside, so I nearly skipped a trio of Charles Ray sculptures on the museum’s terrace. Trying to decide whether to venture out, I read the wall text by the door, and was delighted to find the following glimpse of the LA–based artist’s daily routine:
Ray, an inveterate walker, has described a daily routine that informs his thinking: “I go to Burger King every day, not to eat but to think. I went to one in Madrid at four in the morning; it’s just like the one in LA, identical. Who is there, and what are they being promised?”
Love it! (Though I had to wonder: Where does Ray live in LA that he can walk to a Burger King? I don’t often see them in pedestrian-friendly spots.) I headed out into the drizzle to see the sculptures, one of which, appropriately, depicted a man eating a burger.
Later, in the bookstore, I found more context on Ray’s fast food–going. This paragraph is from a 2019 lecture by Ray excerpted in the Biennial catalog:
I walk a lot—a shocking amount compared to most people—so I have to start very early. Walking leads me to different places, and sometimes I stop and think about what’s going on in them. And I think about this notion of the civic and its relationship to Pop. And I’m thinking a lot about what that means. Pop art changed things, and as I got older I saw so much Pop in [the English sculptor] Anthony Caro, who was thought of by critics and art historians as the epitome of high modernism. When I go to restaurants on my walks, I think, What do they promise? What are they promising us? And where are those promises coming from, culturally? Pizza Hut not only promises you a warm meal; they promise you a job and, by way of this job, a car, which I think is interesting. This can be seen clearly on Pizza Hut’s “We’re hiring drivers” advertisements. I go to Burger King every day, not to eat but to think. I went to one in Madrid at four in the morning; it’s just like the one in LA, identical. Who is there, and what are they being promised? Jean Gesner Henry (aka Coupé Cloué), the Haitian leader of the band Trio Select, said in an interview that money never falls into a poor man’s pocket. I find it infinite, the destitution—there’s such a depth to it. You really understand that at Burger King. At the same time, what is being promised? Something is. But is it a positive promise? I think it is.
What a terrific window into the kind of thinking that leads to this enigmatic and enigmatically loaded work (more of which I was lucky to see a couple days later at the Met exhibition Charles Ray: Figure Ground.) The through-line from Pop art to Pizza Hut to the promises implicit in a Burger King in Madrid at 4:00 in the morning… for me, a reminder that interesting work starts with interesting thinking (and that such thinking is most reliably spurred by walking).
One more sliver of insight into Ray’s work that I think is related: In a conversation with the critic Hal Foster printed in the Met’s exhibition catalog, Ray said that he does not think of his art practice as a practice at all, but rather as a behavior. I’m not sure if I totally understand the distinction, but I’m interested in it. Here’s the full context (Ray is talking about his famous Plank Piece I–II from 1973):
With the plank pieces my body was just there. I had a plank in the studio, and I saw my body literally enter it. Not as a conceptual gesture—it’s just about my body, a plank, a wall, and the relationship between the three. Questions like “How long could you stay there?” bothered me. I was looking at it very analytically, while other people were looking at it like a car accident. “Oh, that must have hurt!” Over the years, my body has come and gone literally, but it’s always there in some way. I don’t see sculpture as a “practice”—I’m almost allergic to that word. My dentist has a practice; I have a behavior. For me the activity of making sculpture is a mental and physical behavior. At a certain point, I allowed my body not to enter the work, but it’s still always there; looking, standing, moving, holding.
What do you think—is art-making more of a behavior than a practice? (And does that make any difference in how one should approach it?) Leave your thoughts below and I’ll be reading and replying this week.
L’ESSENTIEL COUPÉ CLOUÉ
I was not familiar with the Haitian singer Coupé Cloué whom Ray mentions above, but this is really good! Also available on Spotify.
It’s been a while since I’ve done an advice column, so please send me your creative dilemmas and I’ll choose the thorniest and most vexing one to tackle in an upcoming issue. You can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or just reply to this email.
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