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Sparking Interest Within the Sphere of Art
'Physics' May Be Most Substantive D.C. Piece in Half-Century

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When Jim Sanborn shows you his latest art, the jaw drops and elegant words fail.

Dr. Frankenstein's lab has nothing on Sanborn's studio in Maryland.

A polished aluminum sphere perches by the ceiling, coupled to a cylinder that could be a meat smoker from Mars. A glass tube the size of your thigh runs down almost to the floor, ringed with gleaming copper halos like a Buck Rogers ray gun. It's all totally Ed Wood -- except that Sanborn's scientific madness works.

What we have here is a real, honest-to-God, no-holds-barred, fully operational electrostatic particle accelerator.

Throw the switch and 1 million volts of juice start flying down the tube. X-rays zip off in every direction. Deafening zaps fill the air, and bolts of lightning spark around the metal sphere. Hunkered down in his lead-lined control booth, Sanborn can turn on his Geiger counters, turn up the power -- and split the atom.

More impressive yet: "Terrestrial Physics," as the new installation is called, is possibly the most substantial work of art to come out of Washington since the 1950s, when Morris Louis stained his first canvases. Except Louis's fans had seen big, colorful abstractions before. No one has come across a thing quite like the new art Sanborn has made, working almost alone in his studio over the past three years.

At 63, Sanborn has been one of Washington's most important artists for decades. With "Terrestrial Physics," made public for the first time here, he has a shot at mattering worldwide.

* * *

Sanborn's studio is almost two hours south of the District, on a 15-acre island beyond Piney Point, Md., at the mouth of the Potomac River.

"I needed 15 acres, minimum, to insulate myself," Sanborn says -- from the nosy, the government, anyone who might want to pry into his latest project. "I have video cameras, threatening signs, whatever it takes."

Sanborn is an imposing man, 6-foot-8 with a sea captain's beard. He has an intensity that is almost alarming.

He can even come off as a tiny touch paranoid. "I couldn't do what I'm doing now anywhere but here. . . . There's not much better protection than a moat," he says, referring to the thread of water that separates his home from the mainland. But then you think: Some people really do have reason to look over their shoulders. People who build homemade particle accelerators, for instance.

"I've always considered myself a nonfiction artist," says Sanborn. The machine didn't spring from his imagination. It is a close working copy of a piece of lab equipment that matters in this country's history.

On the night of Saturday, Jan. 28, 1939, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi and other world-famous physicists traipsed to the Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, in a leafy neighborhood in far Northwest Washington, to watch with their own eyes as its particle accelerator smashed an atom, confirming that nuclear fission was possible.

"This was the advent of what we now call 'big science,' " Sanborn explains.

To the layman's eye, the results would not have looked that impressive: just a few extra vapor trails across a cloud chamber. But that "extra" energy gave the first sign that fission could someday run the world's factories or blow up its cities. This is the crucial nuclear moment that Sanborn's art asks us to revisit.

He came to it more or less by accident. Sanborn's first "re-creationist" project, a 2003 installation at the Corcoran Gallery of Art he called "Atomic Time," had duplicated experimental setups from the Manhattan Project -- without, of course, making them work. That reminded Sanborn of the crucial Washington link in the history of nuclear science.

Sanborn paid a visit to the mothballed Carnegie equipment, and amid a clutter of old lawnmowers, he discovered the accelerator. The Carnegie agreed to help him copy it, and even let him have some of its fittings.

"I set about rebuilding it," Sanborn says.

"Terrestrial Physics" was the most challenging project Sanborn had ever taken on. Each component had to be handmade, and something went wrong at almost every step.

"I got my ion gun finished, and I put it up there, and it wouldn't work. . . . It was the most hair-tearing I ever did," Sanborn says.

One component was so huge, he had to build it outside: A Van de Graaff generator, 28 feet tall and bulbous like a metal mushroom, fills a clearing on his island. "I want big science -- I don't want little science," says Sanborn. "Having a giant machine studying a minuscule object" -- a subatomic-size object -- "was very important to me."

Sanborn had help from Steve Brown, an engineer at NASA. The two would think through each problem until it went away. Then the time came, on Jan. 9, nearly 70 years after that night at the Carnegie, when there were no more obstacles. "I achieved nuclear fission," Sanborn says.

His neighbors needn't run out for lead aprons. "It's just an extremely low-level test, like the one they did back then," Brown says.

Brown didn't know why Sanborn wanted to achieve even that: "My initial reaction was, 'Sounds like a lot of work, and what are you going to get out of it in the end?' " Then Brown started thinking in fine-art terms, and changed his mind. "It sort of compares with an old Dutch master's painting of a kitchen table. . . . It's a still life of something someone put a lot of energy into."

That scientist's take comes surprisingly close to the opinion of Barbara London, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: "We talk about nuclear this and nuclear that -- the arms race -- but Jim is taking us into the lab . . . to the 'eurekas' that someone like Einstein achieved. To that moment, and the beauty of that moment."

* * *

Sanborn's interest in simply "taking us there" puts him at the center of contemporary art. Some of the best recent work, often in photography, has abandoned obvious aesthetics -- anything that looks at all "arty" -- and has tried instead to bear straightforward witness to the most important aspects of the world around us.

"There are moments in history that people should be reminded of," Sanborn says.

That connects him to one of the oldest traditions in Western art. For centuries, "history painting" was the most prestigious form. Nothing mattered more than recapturing a crucial moment, from the day Florence beat Pisa at the battle of Cascina (Michelangelo, a Florentine, made a picture of it), to an early scientific demonstration of a vacuum (shown in the most famous painting by England's Joseph Wright of Darby).

The difference is that "Terrestrial Physics" doesn't simply show its moment. It delivers it up in working 3-D, complete with X-rays and lightning strikes. "The real object stimulates real thinking. Like picking up a real arrowhead -- you can feel the Indian is there," Sanborn says.

But MoMA's London notes that we're more comfortable with "abstractions, with depictions of reality," than with the real thing served up on a plate -- a bunch of lab equipment, in Sanborn's case. For many people, "science is seen as something other than art," she says. That's part of what makes Sanborn's work exceptional: "We're stretched in our understanding of what art is, and what the world is."

It is the ultimate in realistic art, meant to "stimulate a dialogue by confronting people with the real [expletive]," as Sanborn puts it.

Of course, "Terrestrial Physics" isn't the real thing, quite, which makes it all the more compelling and strange. It's a kind of "found-object art," but where the artist makes the object before finding it, says Adam Lerner, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. "It's as though Andy Warhol were to have built a Campbell's Soup factory and had started making tomato soup."

Lerner will premiere Sanborn's new installation in his show "Energy Effects," scheduled for next June in Denver's first Biennial of the Americas.

He sees a connection between Sanborn and some of today's artistic activists, who incorporate real science into their art to drive home a political point -- about the failings of biotech, maybe, or the way we use our land. Yet there's a difference: Sanborn's work never preaches, it just shows.

"What is the comment? You don't know," Lerner says. "That is what makes it so good."

* * *

Sanborn's art has always been about "making the invisible visible," the artist says. Over the years his sculptures have worked to reveal the processes of condensation, the geological forces of erosion, the hidden energies of magnetism, the concealments of cryptography, the secrets of Los Alamos and now, the unseen world inside the atom.

His father, an artist, was head of exhibitions at the Library of Congress. His mother was a concert pianist, and their house in Arlington was filled with cultural aristocrats. Sanborn succumbed to the art bug while a student at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. That led to a graduate degree in sculpture, and by 1985 he'd shown at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Corcoran, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Hirshhorn.

He started to make large-scale public sculpture, too, and that brought him his big break.

In 1990, Sanborn made a piece called "Kryptos" for the CIA campus in Langley, and it won him attention. The sculpture had a coded message cut into its massive copper plates, and to this day the agency's cryptographers, as well as obsessive amateurs all over, are working to decipher parts of its oracular texts. Dan Brown mentioned it in "The Da Vinci Code."

The fame of the CIA commission "funded me for all the years since," Sanborn says. It put him on the public-sculpture gravy train. He stopped living in his scruffy studio building in Northeast Washington (it's where he met his wife, Jae Ko, a well-known local sculptor), bought a house in Georgetown, designed a home in the Shenandoahs and continued to fund his more "serious" art, such as "Atomic Time."

But lately, the commissions have dried up. Today's selection panels, he complains, go for "decorative embellishments."

Sanborn says he's had to apply for Social Security, sell his D.C. studio and mountain home, get a reverse mortgage on his island and may have to rent out the Georgetown house.

Then there's the $50,000 he spent on "Terrestrial Physics," not Sanborn's most salable work, unless a major museum shows an interest in it.

That could yet happen. Says Lerner, "He's simply a great artist who should be able to show in any modern or contemporary art museum, anywhere."

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