Tom Leavitt Interviews Norman Daly

Following is an interview between Thomas W. Leavitt, director of the Andrew D. White Museum of Art and Norman Daly, professor of art, Cornell University, October 26, 1971. It was included in the catalog which accompanied the first exhibit of Llhuros at the Andrew D. White Museum in 1972.

Tom Leavitt: You are one artist visualizing a whole civilization. The undertaking of such a vast scheme in various media and on so many levels of meaning is intriguing, to say the least. I’d like to explore the origins of your conception of Llhuros and also to see whether this work is a natural extension of your earlier art or whether it represents a distinct shift in your thinking. First, what kind of work were you doing before conceiving this civilization?

Norman Daly, 1972

Norman Daly in 1972

Norman Daly: I’d worked mainly with found objects, but I also pursued the theme of the orant figure in several paintings, in stone, and in marble.

TWL: How did your work evolve toward its present pseudo-anthropological form?

ND: What got me from painting into sculpture, as it were, was that I felt that if I was going to pursue these rather technical goals that I had chosen for myself, which really had to do with trying to provoke a haptic experience in the observer, that I was being limited in painting. I was relying too much on a chromatic identification, whereas I was trying to create a muscularly felt reaction, and I felt that until I got into actual space and working with volume that I probably wouldn’t be successful in doing it. So I began working with found objects and also doing some things first in styro-foam and later in stone.

When these things were exhibited they provoked little or no interest. Then came an incident that really pushed me in a new direction. When I showed some of my work on campus, one of the constructions that I had exhibited was used by a visitor as a kind of hat rack, and later when I got to thinking about this, I realized that the fault was my own that the thing didn’t exist for the person who put his hat on it, and it didn’t exist because I had afforded no kind of communication with him I had presented the thing with very much the attitude: “Take it or leave it, or unless you’re of the initiate you won’t know why I’m working with found objects.” And I got to thinking this was a particularly stupid way–being literally closed-mouthed about the thing–you know, just going on that old tradition that if the object, the art object, doesn’t speak for itself, the artist can’t implement that.

Well, I felt that was something I should have examined many, many years before I did, and I thought that when I showed that construction, I might have included a placard saying that I had taken these man-made objects (which were never intended to be put into this particular relationship) and put them together in the hope that, by juxtaposing them in a particular way, the imagery that I produced would be sufficiently strong to overcome the individual identity of each of the objects.

TWL: The first step toward your concept, then, was an explanatory label. What next?

ND: Later, I had another experience which directly motivated me to move into this pseudo-anthropological thing, and that was at one of the concerts on campus. I realized when I attended this concert, at which all the music was being premiered, that most of the people, many of whom I had seen before in the White Art Museum, were reacting in a totally different way from the way they ever reacted in the Museum. They were applying themselves, and they were giving the artist, in this case the composer, every possible break, although in terms of musical experience, the one important element of anticipation was missing. They were hearing it for the first time and therefore they couldn’t conjure up in either their minds or their inner ears these patterns which were unfamiliar and known only to the moment and therefore known only in retrospect as well. They were denied the pleasure of recognition, but that didn’t prevent them from digging in and working very hard with the composer. By digging in I mean they were resisting the random interference of the concert hall, and making an active effort to resist it. And later when I put some of these things together, I thought it would be a great advantage to the visual artist, in order to provoke a deeper audience involvement, if he could use, not random, but perhaps planned interference.

Next, I had the benefit of another experience, that is, of showing to students one aspect of a painting that they had seen previously but providing for them a little arrangement which was like a shadow box in which were doll-like or effigy shapes, similar to the figures in the painting. This provided the students with an opportunity to make a mental reconstruction-that is, they had to try mentally to see whether this was the gendarme or whether this was the woman in the blue cape relating to this or that form in the painting. They viewed this same painting that they had decided a few days before was mediocre they viewed it at least with a new interest, and the only way I could explain this was that I had given them the opportunity to make a mental reconstruction.

TWL: So what you’re doing, in a sense, is inventing a context for a work of art so that it can be exhibited and appreciated on a new level that would otherwise be unavailable to people?

ND: I think so, and the only way that seemed possible to pool these things together–that is to say, to provide a deeper audience involvement by spurring people into paying attention by having planned interference, and also to provide them with an opportunity of making mental reconstructions, giving them some written material, some sense of direction as to what my aims were–the only way I could pool all these things together was to present it as though it were anthropology instead of art.

TWL: Well, this was the origin of the whole concept. Has it changed any as you’ve worked on the material or the exhibition?

ND: Yes. I had never, for instance, planned on including sound, and I couldn’t find the kind of sound or music that I had wanted to include, so I made it myself.

TWL: It seems also as though the civilization has taken on life of its own quite apart from its showing off the objects.

ND: It seems to get, you know, “bigger,” not in a physical sense, but it’s all becoming much clearer to me than before. This is not to say that I believe in it or imagine that it exists. It’s simply that, as with any kind of an undertaking, I’m a little more familiar with what it offers–the possibilities of its developing–than I was when I first started.

TWL: Getting back to planned interference, could you explain that concept a little further? Why should somebody pay more attention to something when the interference to his perception of it is increased?

ND: Well, I think that it necessarily involves a more active response on his part, because he has to resist something that he knows is other than what I am presenting. For instance, I do in some cases leave numbers on the artifacts or even dates.

TWL: You mean you don’t always try to disguise the object completely?

ND: I try in some cases to either disguise the object or put it into a new context so that the date or this evidence of the anachronism won’t become the most important thing. It wont be paramount in any way, but it will be there and have the nagging effect of interfering with the observer at least to the extent that he has to decide whether he’s sufficiently involved or interested in what I’m doing (in the project) so that he will suspend his disbelief. I have consciously worked toward a point of trying to get the observer interested enough so that, for his own selfish interests and holding his own reality at an arm’s length, he will engage in this on the level of a charade. Then I will make it tougher for him. That is, I will sort of make demands on him to pay more attention–by which I mean that he will give credence to this in a playful way–and he will go along with it as it is being presented, but he will have to disbelieve and continue to disbelieve. And the disbelief becomes greater, I think, in proportion, as he goes along because the whole thing does get outrageous in so many ways and in so many directions. I would like the observer when he is through with the exhibition to decide that it is not entirely fictitious after all that it is really another kind of presentation of what we already know, but presented in a slightly different aspect or at a little angle.

Thomas W. Leavitt examines an artifact from the exhibit

Thomas W. Leavitt examines a Llhurocian artifact at the museum in February 1971.

We take so much of the familiar for granted. I don’t think that I’ve really invented anything or discovered anything, but what I have tried to do is to point up that I’m talking about myself.  I’m talking about us, so to speak. I’m really not talking about a fictitious people at all. I think that if I had the equipment, I would like to put much more emphasis on sociological aspects than I’ve been able to do. There are parts that I feel are not articulated sufficiently so that anyone would know what I’m trying to do. The fault is mine, of course.

TWL: How far along in your development of the whole idea of this civilization of Llhuros did you begin to introduce sociological and other elements into the visual aspect? Or, was that right at the beginning?

ND: I think it may have been in the beginning, because one of the first things that I wrote was the ‘Old Man’s Prayer’, in which he is trying to bargain with his god to intercede with the other gods for him. And when I began to write the thing, I tried to imagine what would be important in terms of basic human needs. I realized that if I just thought about my own needs and my own values, I didn’t really have to make this fantastic at all–that it was absolutely human in a fundamental sense. Then it occurred to me that that should be the tack I should take, that I didn’t need to fantasize very much. Perhaps if I could touch upon some things that were human enough and broad enough in scope that would be recognizable, even though I would fantasize about them, they are familiar behavior patterns and reactions.

TWL: Did you find any problems in creating a complete cycle of civilization? How could you determine the archaic, classic, and decadent periods of a culture so that it would be convincing?

ND: Well, if it has any such validity I think it probably is because I wasn’t working self-consciously at any time. They were always abstract problems for me, and I don’t think it’s an oversimplification to say that when the imagery was simple it seemed to me to be appropriate for the earliest part, and when it took on certain technical problems it could become appropriate for the middle part, and then when it began to show pronounced dexterity as well as more complicated patterns or pictorial integration, then I just seemed to think that that belonged to the decadent period. So, I suppose it moved from an imagery that was fairly simple to a little more elaborate, but I hope at no time a complicated kind of imagery.

TWL: It could be considered a kind of parody of archaeological studies where civilizations are divided into these categories–here you invented the categories in order to satisfy the archaeologists, it seems.

ND: I think so too. In many cases, if not in almost every case–I don’t think offhand of any exceptions–I made an object and made it to satisfy myself and then decided what it was as well as where it would fit into the organization. I didn’t set about thinking that I would use it for one chronological section. As a matter of fact it now turns out that I have a preponderance of primitive stuff or archaic stuff and not very much in the later period at all.

TWL: There is about the whole display a feeling of jest, of lightness, of a sophisticated spoof. Is this close to the central meaning of your efforts, or is there something beyond that level?

ND: Well, I think of it as a kind of entertainment in a way I never thought of my work before, but underneath this I am perhaps as serious, if not more serious, than I have ever been, because I think I am more conscious of what I am trying to project than I was before.

TWL: As you developed your concepts of the civilization did you consult with experts in various fields, or did you work it out yourself?

ND: Well, the first experts that I consulted were anthropologists, and by that time I had much of it under way. And they were a great help to me because they had at least presented to me the notion that anthropology could be current or present and I always thought of anthropology as relating to the past in a historical sense.

TWL: But you really carried on the development of Llhuros by yourself, only consulting with anthropologists and others for reinforcement?

ND: After the deed had been committed, so to speak. Yes. I mean this when I say that I felt I had an enormous advantage in my ignorance–that I could afford to start out doing something I knew nothing about because I didn’t know even enough not to try it–you know, I wasn’t handicapped by knowledge. I had no musical background, so that when I decided to compose music I didn’t have any interference in the sense of carrying on an influence or anything like that. It was only, in my case, an attempt to create some kinds of patterns that I thought were compatible with the kinds of plastic and linear patterns that I was working with in my pictorial work.

TWL: Did you get any technical help in the music and production of the music?

ND: I got assistance from singers as well as technical help from Robert Moog.

TWL: How was the music actually created?

ND: In a very painstaking way, since I don’t know anything about music. I first wrote a theme and I wanted something rather schmaltzy. What I also wanted was something very poignant, but I wanted it not as a funereal dirge. I wanted it played fast but I still wanted it to have a sadness, that real schmaltzy nostalgia about it. So I wrote a theme–a very simple little tune–and then electronically it was altered with Moog’s synthesizer sufficiently so that it didn’t sound as it had been originally conceived just on the piano. Then I made variations of that theme and had some singers do some choral work on it as well as some children of the sixth grade sing part of it.

TWL: In conceiving of this civilization of Llhuros, were you influenced by any of the writers who have envisioned complete civilizations, such as Tolkien or Swift?

ND: I didn’t read anything of Tolkien’s. I did read Jorge Luis Borges and was very much influenced by his “civilizations.”

TWL: Borges certainly projects amazing visions of possible cultures. Could you tell us how you were influenced by them?

ND: Well, I read his Book of Imaginary Animals and the way the stories were written seemed to have almost a biblical character for me–not knowing anything about literature really–and I had hoped that I could have something of that sense of being of the past and being relatively simple.

TWL: Did you consciously avoid being influenced by other writers and composers of music in your research?

ND: Yes, I avoided writers who dealt with imaginary civilizations with the exception of Borges, and avoided listening to primitive music or music that might be in the direction that I wanted to work.

TWL: Why?

ND: Well, I knew that any impression that would be made on me, would be considerable or deep enough for me to have to spend valuable time trying to get rid of it, and also I felt that it would make me too self-conscious.

TWL: What a prodigious undertaking! How long have you been working on this project?

ND: This is going into the fifth year that I’ve been working on it.

TWL: When this exhibition is finally realized do you intend to stop working on Llhuros?

ND: No. I already have things lined up that I will get started on immediately. Some of them are things that I would like to have included in this exhibit, but I shall go on doing more work along this line.

©1972-2021 Cornell University, licensed under CC BY-NC.
Photo Credits: Norman Daly by Marilyn Rivchin; Tom Leavitt by the Cornell Chronicle

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