Tony May: An Artist’s Profile: by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Tony May, visits the Ardel Gallery in Bangkok, Thailand in 2007

A native of Wisconsin, Tony May received a BS and an MFA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, at the time that an energized wave of young postmodern artists were flexing their artistic muscles. If older faculty were distraught over the travesties of pop art and early postmodernism, May remembers that for an extended period of time Madison was an important incubator of artists and attitudes that influenced a larger art scene — nationally and beyond. “Bruce Nauman was an undergraduate classmate, and Harvey Littleton was on the faculty. Dale Chihuly took glass from him. Marvin Lipovsky was there. Clayton Bailey was making inflatable grubs in Madison. He was a friend of mine. I studied with Stephen French and Warrington Colescott. Guys like Donald Lipski came after I left. Tandem Press was founded later, and is still there.”

As an undergraduate, Tony May was drawn to ceramics and studied with Don Reitz. May made large sculptural forms that were, he recalls, “like giant albatrosses, like millstones around my neck every time I moved. I left them abandoned under stairwells and stuck them in my mother’s garden. I remember an uncle asking me if one of my cast concrete pieces would hold up as a headstone for his wife’s grave.”

As part of his Home Improvement Series, 11″x 13″ each, May documents and paints his own handy work around his San Jose home and studio.

Having pushed scale with his ceramics, May was ready to go a different direction in graduate school. From the failure to calculate the fate of his unwieldy early sculptures, May took a turn toward economy and modest forms that has lasted to this day (with the possible exception of his public art). For the most part, his art has focused on the challenge of integrating art into a home environment or elevating largely ignored domestic elements into art. Often, the subject of a small painting or sculpture is home improvement itself — little projects that reveal his own handy work and inventiveness, or provide an opportunity to incorporate art or Asian philosophy into his environment. An affinity for Japanese economy-of-means is a natural for Tony May. By focusing on the small in scale, the recycling of domestic materials, and overlapping meanings in the use of his forms and materials, May reveals his ingenuity, plays with puns and his self-effacing sense of humor.

In the T. House, one may sit on the T. Cushions

May’s T. House – his studio in San Jose and work of art in itself – is an example of his domestic endeavors. If you were to ask if the T. stands for Tony or Tea, the answer would probably be both. The T. cushions, salvaged from abandoned overstuffed chairs on the street, are the subject of one of May’s small paintings and complements the notion of sitting on the floor and experiencing art in the T. House.

Third Variable Construction, at rest and then sculpted by viewer play with the suspending cords.

When May left Madison, it was to follow his graduate school mentor, Stephen French, to San Jose to teach at San Jose State. May had begun working with collapsible canvas structures that he called Variable Constructions while still in graduate school. They began as simple flat rectangles of cloth or canvas, suspended in space. They became sculptural when pulled up or down, or stretched, from a series of contact points at cords running through pulleys, and affected shapes as the audience tugged at the cords. The chance arrangements of fabric created by audience intervention were some of May’s early homage to John Cage, an art counter-culture hero whose star shone brightly at the beginning of postmodernism.

Tony May’s Kinetic Bookcase (Making Cage Smile) was done in 2002

Eventually, May tired of undoing the Variable Constructions that viewers had handled too roughly. “They got them all tangled up,” May complains. “They looked more like John Chamberlain’s compacted cars than the discrete forms I had envisioned.” However, this experience turned May’s attention to the ropes and pulleys themselves as interesting instruments of chance.

May felt his Variable Constructions were abused by audience participation when they reached the point that they looked like a John Chamberlain sculpture (above).

He began simplifying his design and limiting the points of attachment in the variable constructions. For Variable Construction: Altered by the Chance Rearrangement of My Living Room Furniture, an installation at the San Francisco Museum of Art, in 1971, May created a replica of his living room in one of two adjacent areas of the museum. A series of pulleys and cords ran from one room to the other so that movement of a piece of furniture in the first room would move a variable construction on the other side of the wall. The viewer had to go back and forth from one room to the next to see how the system worked. The variable construction room was black as was the cloth that responded to movement of the cords. It was like a magician’s cloth being raised to reveal something transcendent. As art it probably seemed irrational and impenetrable to the public. Yet it was delightful to me as a graduate student. It was Duchampian. It was philosophical: Throw a penny in a pond and the ripples spread across the world, move the furniture of your life and effects transpire to change everything, just out of sight.

At SFMOMA, May installed Variable Construction: Altered by Chance Rearrangement of my living Room Furniture, and once again allowed audience participation.

In 1968, May built Drawing to a Close. The words “to a close”, made from cord and suspended by lighter cord from a drapery track, were drawn to a close by pulling on the cord mechanism. Another variable construction, with pun added! Thinking of my own mother’s Minnesota family, and how much fun they had with punning, I asked May if his affinity for the pun was, perhaps, a Midwestern trait. Could he and Bruce Nauman have brought punning from Wisconsin? Instead, he thought that both of them were probably influenced by the popular down-home humor of William Wiley whose work they admired when they came to California.

Drawing to a Close both open and drawn closed.

At the beginnings of Postmodernism, Duchamp was hot too. Duchamp stamped a French version of approval on the pun-as-art with his own pseudonym — Rrose Selavy (eros is life) — and many of the titles of his works — Objet-Dard (Literally object-dart, also Objet d’art/object of art) for his 1951 phallic shaped sculpture. May’s love of chance seems to be manifest in forms that Duchamp favored as well: the strings that fell randomly and became the Standard Stoppages and ultimately the shapes of the Malic Molds in Duchamp’s “Large Glass”, or Sixteen Miles of String, the maze of strings that Duchamp installed around the other art objects in a 1942 Andre Breton-curated exhibition. Also favored by both Duchamp and May are windows, doors, and deadpan black block-letter labels. Finally, it can be seen that May (as well as Nauman) seem to share with Duchamp a love of simple but inscrutable forms, and so much the better if they emerge from a small box or a suitcase.

Asked about the influence of Duchamp at the time of his graduate school experience, May responds, “I appreciated that Duchamp poked fun at the seriousness of art.” [Indeed, one of Duchamp’s odd self-portraits is entitled Tongue in Cheek.] “But, I think I was most influenced by Lucy Lippard’s The Dematerialization of the Art Object, a book I never read in its entirety.”

Again, May documents his sculpture with a painting.

In the seventies, May began to work with old books including the Readers’ Digest Condensed series that were found in all homes in the fifties, and discarded twenty years later. He constructed floors, ornamental architectural elements, furniture and eccentric installations using outdated and cast-off books. Of the floors made of books with varnished covers, May says “They were shiny like tiles but soft and resilient, like a tatami mat. You could sit down anyplace and flip open a cover and begin to read.” May constructed a series of small sculptures, all entitled Good Reading Light, out of a simple varnished block of wood carved in the shape of a book for the lamp stand base, and a book suspended from its spine as the lampshade. Later, May documented his sculpture with the painting, the Good Reading Light. Another architectural work was the Book Roof Test, employing the books as roof tiles. He painted its image as well.

May’s exterior window installation of book-louvers at 80 Langton Street in San Francisco

In 1980, at 80 Langton Street in San Francisco, Tony May produced an exterior installation for the large windows of the Knights of the Red Branch Hall. The complex of book-covers-as-louvers that opened and closed in vertical columns was called Red Branch Retrofit: A Variable Book Construction with Solar Implications. Later, the installation was presented to the Clark Library at San Jose State where it was mounted inside, over the circulation desk. May reports, with typical undervaluation of the impact of his art, that “There, the janitorial staff were the only people who showed interest in rearranging the movable columns of book covers. The work was largely forgotten and deteriorated badly. The pulp paper of Reader’s Digest books becomes brittle and crumbles easily with age.”

Tony May’s Red Branch Retrofit: A Variable Book Construction with Solar Implications had columns of books that could open and close with a semaphore-like signaling effect.

Finally, when the new San Jose State/City joint library was built and the Clark Library was reassigned to an administrative use, the Red Branch Retrofit somehow “fell through the cracks”. The director of the School of Art and Design called May to tell him the art had apparently been allowed to crash to the floor during remodeling. It was moved a couple of times from that site, until it came to rest at Tony May’s home. At the insistence of other faculty, May made a feeble protest over the lack of maintenance and undignified end of the piece, and was compensated ultimately with an invitation to lunch with the Director of the Library.

Tony May’s Book Mobile was commissioned for the San Jose Museum of Art

In 1991 the San Jose Museum of Art commissioned May to create an original work for the Museum. He conceived of a book mobile. This was not a library on wheels, but an enormous mobile that spanned the entry of the Museum. It was again a variable construction, intended to be a take-off on the many Alexander Calder mobiles that were then seen in museums across the country. After several Calder-like maquettes that failed to satisfy him, May settled on copper tubing and orange ropes as the functional elements that governed the movement of the books, and created a kind of geometry around the books that swung suspended from their spines. The orange ropes disappeared into the dark windows in the top of the old San Jose Library fa√ßade that is one side of the new Museum of Art’s entry space. Somehow, the ghost of the old library function of the old museum building lingered above entrants to the new combined Museum site. May demurs, “Because the controls were upstairs and out of reach, only myself and a few other privileged people were ever able to move the mobile. It was a rather immobile mobile”.

At San Jose State, Tony May had a large impact in the area of public art. Long before the City of San Jose even dreamed of a public art program, May began an experimental class that he called Art in Community. In part, the inspiration for Art in Community came from Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s utopian community experiment in Arizona, where May spent some time as a resident. He attracted some of the best students in the art program and fondly recalls working with students like Gary Qui√±onez, Sharon Chinen, Randy Shiroma, Bonnie Peterson and Tim Hawkinson. The creative projects that this class produced were conceived in-community and placed out in the community, with little thought to red tape, consensus in the larger community or permanence. Many of them bore the stamp of May’s humor, and others seemed to aim to simply beautify the homely elements of neglected property or architecture.

Folded D, a sculpture by Fletcher Benton sits on the San Jose State campus.

May chuckles over one class project that was a field of miniature foam rubber Fletcher Benton sculptures made out of a bale of blue foam rubber that May had found at the dump. The class cut the foam into small copies of Benton’s blue Folded D that sits in front of the Business Building, and placed them anonymously all over the lawn early in the morning. When the sprinklers came on they got soggy and collapsed. Soon, as the sun warmed up the landscape and they dried out, they stood up again. It made the news, but the class never took credit for the little flock of folded D’s that hatched overnight.

Often, in spite of the generally positive attention these projects drew to art, the audacious “act first and ask for permission later” approach the group took toward improvement of the cityscape got May and the class into trouble. May tells the story of a wayside shrine that the class intended to create out of an ugly staircase behind a downtown building. With the intent to “improve and beautify”, they began with a coat of black paint, but were ordered to “cease and desist” by the angry dentist in the building who traced the activity to the University’s Art Department. The class voted and decided they were on the side of a higher purpose by beautifying an eyesore in the community, and proceeded with some more colorful improvements to the back of the building. The results were a bit garish yet attractive, he still insists. Irate, the dentist threatened to call the police, but settled for a promise by May and his class to never, ever set foot on the property again.

May’s Remembering Agriculture, on Santa Clara Street in San Jose

With this history, and after several years of serving on City of San Jose committees whose purpose was to create a solid public arts program, Tony May submitted a proposal to a competition for public artworks dealing with one of four historical concerns. He received a commission to build a major work along Guadalupe Creek. At the intersection of the Route 87 freeway and the almost invisible creek, beside the San Jose Water District Offices, May created Remembering Agriculture. After life as an artist whose inspirations and even collaborations spontaneously grew into art, May discovered how art-by-committee works. The process took four and one half years, involved three and one half separate proposals, a change of site and a great deal of patience

After the numerous modifications to the original design, May’s monument to the agricultural history of the Santa Clara Valley became the steel framework of a farmhouse and windmill, dissected diagonally by the freeway right-of-way. The design includes an overgrowth of vines that suggest abandonment. Sculpting of the overgrowth, as well as adequate lighting, are part of the maintenance stipulated to the City of San Jose. May has discovered (as have many other artists) that securing maintenance of public art works is another long process. As of this writing he is still reminding the powers that be to “turn on the lights, please.”

A base for the flagpole high umbrella representing Father Mateo Sheedy is constructed.

El Paraguas de Mateo Sheedy, atop its pole is hoisted into place.

Undeterred by the experiences surrounding Remembering Agriculture, May has gone on to another public art project that brings his collaboration with SJSU University students back into play. (From all reports, the City of San Jose’s Public Art program, under the direction of Barbara Goldstein, has streamlined the process of working through the contract and execution of public art projects these days.) The project is in homage to Mateo Sheedy, the much loved, late pastor of Sacred Heart Church on Willow Street in San Jose. The sculpture is an umbrella form (representing an ongoing sheltering presence) elevated high above a support base with motifs referencing Father Sheedy in bright tiles. With the input of creative ideas, engineering skills, organization and physical labor from his students, Tony May has again survived a challenging process and presented another significant and charming contribution to the community. The inauguration date is now set for August 16th of this year.


The handle of Mateo Sheedy’s umbrella is covered with bright tiles and motifs by May’s students.

In Spring 2005, after deciding to take advantage of an early retirement plan, Tony May completed his final semester of teaching and became Professor May, Emeritus. He was invited by Margaret Stainer to present a retrospective of his work at the Louis Meager Gallery at Ohlone College in 2006. Against the advice of some friends, May seized on the gallery’s name as an opportunity to offer his Meager Retrospective. May brought out works from his “basement archives”, featuring works from the sixties as well as the nineties. There were Variable Constructions, small paintings of the T. House and from his Home Improvement Series along with eccentric constructions in boxes and cases, and a number of his original maquettes.

May’s The Meagre Retrospective at Ohlone College was anything but meagre.

In 2007, May went to Thailand as part of an artist/faculty exchange with San Jose State, Cal Poly San Louis Obispo and Silpakorn University in Bangkok. The Thai Inspired Portable At Display Unit was the art he took along for the Silpakorn Exhibition. It was pure Tony May: a small structure, part temple and part Thai house, folds out of a suitcase, and becomes an exhibition structure for four small paintings. In each of the paintings there is some subtle reference to Buddha.

Tony May’s Thai Inspired Portable Display Unit, sprang from a small suitcase for easy transportation to the exhibition at Silpakorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.

Tony May, as a Professor Emeritus of San Jose State’s School of Art and Design, is far from being retired. He works more than ever in in his downtown San Jose studio, is involved with students and community organizations, and continues to work on public art. May travels to distant outposts of art activity and can frequently, as before, be seen riding his bicycle around San Jose. Look for an upcoming solo exhibition of mostly new Tony May work, scheduled for the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art in 2010.

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