Thursday, January 22, 2009

5 QUESTIONS: Harris Diamant

THIS IS THE FIRST OF A SERIES, a series of artist interviews with only 5 questions. I first discovered the work of Harris Diamant, a NYC-based artist, sculptor, collector and sometimes art dealer two or three years ago. I admired it for it’s mystery, most of all. After all, shouldn’t art be about wonder? The consummate craftsman, these objects are exquisitely made by Mr. Diamant out of an amazing array of materials—stuff like brass, steel, aluminum, Bakelite, wood, gold leaf, silver leaf, aluminum leaf, brass leaf, acrylic paint, flopaque paint, aniline dyes and lacquer. The list of materials alone remind me of an alchemist’s laboratory. If I were to stumble upon it outside of a gallery it would remind me of some ancient technology that I am too dumb to understand—just marvel at. There’s something magical behind this work, so I decided to contact the artist.
1 ) Hello Harris, thanks for taking part in the first of an artist series called FIVE QUESTIONS. For those people who might not be familiar with your work, your signature pieces are these mechanized, almost futuristic robotic versions of a human head being enclosed in a glass dome. Immediately, what I want to do is connect dots to a number of references here, things like the dehumanization of man to futuristic technology. Have I touched on at least some things you deal with as an artist?

A) Not really John. It’s pretty simple to me. The main thing I deal with as an artist is making more art. The primary thing there is showing up and forcing myself to work. Even if the trout are rising. My studio has no distractions, very little comfort (I do have a radio or music), not even a real comfortable chair. I truly do not deal with content. No actual ideas. If I had to deal with content I wouldn't know what to do. Concretized. I just make the next one. I watch my finger tips, sometimes very closely (I often work with binocular magnifiers, they bring me into a world that only exists there—I like it there) and they bring me to new places, places where I live until a new place is revealed. There are certainly things that I like and I do have a pretty keen critical sense and a wicked super-ego. I suppose the things that I like have seeped in. I like American folk art and I especially like classical antiquities. Ancient Egypt is my favorite. If I need to describe an influence it would be ancient Egypt. Why not start at the top. I like the notion of eternity existing in beauty. I think those guys got it right. Their stuff hits close to the bone. Too beautiful (anyone can see that), too mysterious, too opulent and too desirable to trash. You never find Egypt at Brimfield (a recurring nightmare is my stuff turning up on those fields). The glass domes? Primarily a means for keeping the art the way I like it to look without a need for maintenance. The work is complicated and hard to clean. Of course I do like the “cabinet of wonders” aesthetic and the Victorian aesthetic. I put most of my work on turntables so that the viewer can fully scrutinize the object from a single point of view.

2) You know Harris, it really is so very refreshing to hear an artist say what you just said. My years in art have made me think that there has to be some lofty connection to something in order to make art. I love that you answered my question the way you did. It was honest. To say that you “truly do not deal with content” is one of the most direct and honest things I have heard an artist say in years. The simple fact is—you make these incredible objects and we can make what we want from them, right? So, do you fabricate these incredible things yourself? The craftsmanship is really remarkable.

A) I do make these things completely by myself. The idea of collaboration is anathema to me. I want the work to be me, me me. I have great respect for craftsmanship. I can endure endless repetition. I’m magically exempt from boredom. I have nothing worthwhile to do but make art. That’s the way I constructed it some 25 or 30 years ago when I started down this path. My notion was that if it wasn’t everything, it’s nothing.

3) Eyes and eye glasses appear to be very important to you. Tell me more about that.

A) I’m attracted to eyes (window to the soul and all), I think everyone is. They’re potent and revealing and expressive. I’ve worn specs since I failed my first eye test as a wee child. I like the notion that everything I make is a self-portrait but that isn’t what motivates me to use eyes and specs. Not to be cute, it’s just an inclination.
4) Tell me about your studio, your home. You like folk art, you are drawn to things from antiquity. And, the“cabinet of wonders” idea makes me feel your studio and home must be filled with wonderful curiosities.

A) I’ve been a dealer in American folk art for more than 40 years. I don’t deal at a lofty level. Everything I buy is a discovery. I love making the judgement concerning whether an object is worthy of being called art. I love the alchemy of turning mere base stuff into art. I love to photograph art. I love basing art, presenting art. Dealing for such a long time has given me the opportunity to have countless great pieces, even a few masterpieces, pass through my hands. I have the wonderful opportunity to own material that’s way beyond my pocket book for short periods of time. I don’t keep very much, I’m a dealer. In spite of this my home is filled with folk art. I hope it doesn’t make me too much of a Philistine, but I can put a price on anything that I buy. It’s really making the judgement rather than owning the object that rings my chimes. Photography gives me an opportunity to scrutinize an object, to have it the center of my focus in a manner and for a duration that’s simply not available to me in any other way. It also allows me to articulate what I see in an object without the need for words. Base making allows me to make the lame walk, the wilted to stand erect, give grace to the awkward. I find ideas and inspiration in old, unacknowledged objects. It’s exciting.

I know that I stated earlier that I shun collaboration. Using found objects is the one collaboration that I’m at ease with, although my rule is to never use objects that, in my estimation, stand with significance on their own. Folk Art gives me the wherewithal financially to make my art. Yes, even though I’m an old codger, I still pay to play. Folk art is my ally, my supporter, my mentor. It’s a endless font. Did I mention, it gives me great pleasure to be surrounded by it? In the past, my dealing has given me an opportunity to develop some expertise in antique technology, (scientific instruments and especially model steam engines were early areas of dealing for me), antique toys, bronzes, antique jewelry (Art Nouveau was a speciality in the 1960s), advertising—on and on. These early encounters, always hands-on, gave me an opportunity to teach myself the many technologies that allow me to accomplish my work as an artist.

I’ve, much to my regret, never been fortunate enough to own an actual piece of Classical Antiquity, never a piece of Egyptian Art. I’ve acquired antiquities by osmosis, by staring at this art at the Metropolitan Museum.
5) My final question Harris, is this: you have told me what inspires you, now, can you tell me who inspires you? Is there a person, living or dead, that you wish you had a chance to spend a day with?

A long time ago, I went to a show of the work of David Smith that was held at the Smithsonian in D.C. I believe it was at the Hirschorn. The show was a re-creation of the Coliseum at the Spoletto Festival where in 1962, Smith was invited to build and display sculptures. He was given a huge, ancient foundry as a studio (it was filled with the detritus of iron casting—huge cauldrons, great sheets of steel, iron wheels.....), with as much assistance as he needed, as much budget as he needed and thirty days to finish his work. In thirty days, Smith completed 27 sculptures. Everyone was surprised, amazed. He was aflame and I could feel his inspiration. I spent the entire day in that room, taking it all in by osmosis and sneaking (you were not allowed to take pictures) countless, blindly taken photographs. I was so deeply in the thrall of this work that it seemed to me I could do it. Not make work that looked like Smith’s, but that if I could get as deeply into it as Smith, into the making part, the work would come. I took that message home with me and I started down the path that allowed me to admit that I wanted to define myself as an artist and could do that by making art.

It worked for me. I’ve been making art for a long time (actually since that show in D.C.). I have a sizable body of work. I love doing what I do. I’d like to buy David Smith a drink, maybe two, or three….


More of Harris Diamant’s work can be seen at Obsolete or on his personal web site:


Joey said...

Hi John,

Harris sent me an email with the article and your blog. It is great!

Would it be ok to add a link to your site on my blog? If you're interested in reciprocating that would be great too!

My blog is here:



Linda Davick said...

What a FANTASTIC interview.

You and Harris are soul brothers for sure.

Dull Tool Dim Bulb said...

I've seen some of Mr. Diamant's work and and his art is as deliberate and precise as he is himself generous and a considerable gentleman. Thank you for posting, I miss running into him. Jim

Kim and David said...

Absolutely wonderful interview with such an amazing artist! Love, love, love the work. Kim

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